HER SWINGIN' '60s CREDENTIALS: The marvelously macabre Nico rode a modeling career and small film roles to legendary cult status in the late '60s as a key scene maker at Andy Warhol's Factory and as the headlining chanteuse for the seminal avant-garde rock band Velvet Underground.
CATEGORIES OF SWINGIN¡¯ CHICK: Songbird, Movie Star, and Model
BIRTH: Nico was born in '38, so she didn't turn thirty until the end of the '60s, which is just about as swingin' as you can get (interestingly, some sources say she was born in 1939, others in 1944). Her exotic birthplace: Cologne, Germany. Her moniker at birth: Christa Päffgen, and she was sometimes billed as the Moon Goddess. In her movies she was sometimes credited as Krista Nico or Nico Otzak. Her name is a traditional Greek male name, given to her by one of her first photographers, she took it because she hated "Christa," saying "it's so GERMAN!"
IMPACT ON THE '60s: "Here she comes, you better watch your step, she's going to break your heart in two, it's true." As the hypnotic singer of the Velvets, Nico commanded industry respect, if not widespread popularity because the band was so far ahead of its time -- the highest the group's albums ever reached on the charts in the '60s was #179, and Rolling Stone didn't even review their first two albums. As a solo artist, her career never took off, despite two impressive '60s albums -- Chelsea Girl in '68 and the remarkable, experimental The Marble Index in '69. As a movie "star" the best she could do was a brief appearance in La Dolce Vita and a supporting role in Chelsea Girls (made by her mentor, Andy Warhol). Yet Nico was still one of the most influential personalities of the '60s. As proof, here¡¯s a partial list of artists and the songs they wrote for or about her: Gordon Lightfoot ("I'm Not Sayin'," her first first European single); Jimmy Page ("The Last Mile"); Lou Reed (I¡¯ll Be Your Mirror"); Jackson Browne ("These Days"); Bob Dylan ("I'll Keep It With Mine"); Iggy Pop ("We Will Fall"); Leonard Cohen ("Take This Longing"); and Marianne Faithfull ("Song for Nico").
CAREER IN THE '60s: At sixteen Nico moved to Paris, where her striking beauty and magnificent height (she stood about six feet tall) landed her modeling gigs for Vogue. Nico also landed commercials for Terry liqueur and made a brief appearance as a nutty, deep-voiced girl in Fellini¡¯s '60 classic La Dolce Vita (she wore a knight's metal helmet in most of her scenes). Unhappy with modeling, and hoping to reunite with Bob Dylan (whom she¡¯d met in London in '64) Nico moved to New York. There she took acting classes from Lee Strasberg, who had taught Marilyn Monroe. She soon fell in with pop artist Andy Warhol. At the time, Andy was managing a band, the dark, poetic Velvet Underground. Far ahead of their time, the Velvets would have profound influences on groups as disparate as R.E.M., the Sex Pistols, the Talking Heads, and U2. Recognizing her as a compelling image of exquisite indifference, Warhol immediately grabbed Nico to be the headlining singer for the Velvets. He captured Nico on film, first in an experimental documentary called The Velvet Underground and Nico in '66, and then in one of his bizarre underground movies, Chelsea Girls in '67. That same year, Nico and the Velvet Underground released the record album that is now considered a rock landmark. Warhol himself designed the cover, a bright yellow banana peel. It would be the foundation upon which the Velvets' lofty rep was built, a rep that got them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in '96. Nico sang only three songs on the album and so, feeling under-utilized, she left the group in '68 and attempted a solo career, which became less and less significant as drugs overtook her.
CAREER OUTSIDE THE '60s: Her father was killed during World War II, and Nico was evacuated from Berlin when it was bombarded. She was raised by an aunt who described her as quiet, shy, and "always smartly dressed like a princess." After the '60s she made a half-dozen obscure foreign films in the '70s while she lived in Paris. She played periodic concert and club dates into the early '80s but had only two albums after '72 (June 1, 1974 in '74 and Drama of Exile in '81) though she was trying to write more songs. Unfortunately, she sank into heroin addiction and was undergoing methadone treatments in the '80s. Keyboardist, James Young said that when they first met in the '80s, she immediately asked to use his bathroom and locked herself inside for thirty minutes, presumably to use drugs. As she got older, she lost interest in life, in fact her manager in the '80s, Alan Wise, said "life was a bore to her ... she used to say she was only two minutes from death." Her final concert was June 6, 1988, by then she was traveling to concerts with bags of heroin and syringes. Her tragic death came in '88 when, at the age of 49, she was killed in a bicycling accident in Spain. At the time she was working on an autobiography, to be called Moving Target.
TALENT: As a singer, she could barely carry a tune, and her monotonous, flat voice sounded like a sonorous foghorn echoing under cold, black water. Her deadpan delivery sharply divided listeners¡ªwhat was eerily gothic to some was painfully off-key to others. Image was all to Warhol, however, and he made her a star. Later she proved her talent as a songwriter by singing and recording her own compositions.
HER '60s LOOK: Tall, stark, almost regal, with dazzling blue-green eyes and the highest, best-defined cheekbones until Bo Derek came along ten years later. Right at the end of the decade she cut her blonde hair and dyed it dark red, so you gotta dig her style. She said she'd heard rocker Jim Morrison preferred redheads: "I was so in love with him that I made my hair red after a while. I wanted to please his taste. It was silly, wasn't it, like a teenager." Actually, she said that she thought her eyes were her best feature. An imposing presence at almost six feet tall, she was often in black or white pantsuits. She was described by Warhol as someone who looked like she could have come to America "right at the front of a Viking ship."LIFESTYLE: From '59-'61 she lived with a filmmaker/nightclub owner, then she met actor Alain Delon and had his son, Ari, who was raised by Delon's mother. Then it's likely she had affairs with Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones (who discovered her) and Bob Dylan. Mid-decade she was a Warhol Factory regular, hanging with Edie Sedgwick and New York's "in" crowd. Actually, she didn't just attend Andy's fab parties, she starred in them, because for awhile the Velvet Underground was Warhol's house band, and Nico was having affairs with Iggy Pop, John Cale, and Lou Reed. About Lou Reed, Nico herself said he "was very soft and lovely. Not aggressive at all. You could just cuddle him like a sweet person when I first met him, and he always stayed that way. I used to make pancakes for him ... he wrote me letters saying Berlin was me." In '67 she met Jim Morrison at the Castle Hotel in L.A., a meeting described by witness Paul Rothchild: "He took Nico up in a tower, both naked, and Jim, stoned out of his mind, walked along the edge of the parapet. Hundreds of feet down. Here's this rock star at the peak of his career risking his life to prove to this girl that life is nothing." They got into a fight, described by witness Danny Fields as "him pulling her hair all over the place -- it was just this weird love-making, between the two most adorable monsters, each one trying to be more poetic than the other." Obessed with Jim, she called him her "soul brother." Late in the decade she had another affair with starstruck eighteen-year-old Jackson Browne, who was playing in her band. All of this was happening, remember, while Nico was a mother. For one period during the '60s she went three years without seeing her young son once. When she finally reunited him she brought him a gift ¡ª a single orange. Her own heroin use spiraled out of control in the '70s and '80s, so that she was traveling to her concerts with bags of heroin and syringes. In the '80s heroin even snared her son, who lapsed into a drug-induced coma and was put on a life-support machine. Nico showed up at the hospital to tape the beeping sounds of the machine for an album.
EXTRAS: She credited Jim Morrison as the one who told her to write songs ... she is the subject of a remarkable documentary movie called Nico Icon in '95, and in it Nico says "I don't have any limits, I don't need to be outside to feel like I'm outside," and finally "My only regret -- I was born a woman instead of a man."
Nico's got a long bio and photos in the new book Swingin' Chicks of the'60s, published by Cedco Publishing: http://www.cedco.com.