She rests amidst the solace of Grunewald Forest outside Berlin, surrounded by woodland quietude. Even here, off the beaten path, there are floral tributes carefully placed around her grave; a bottle of unopened wine, candles (some still lit), ribbons, memorial notes. I have come to pay her respect, to leave yellow flowers beneath the marker listing her birth and death dates, a half-century apart. I can hear her voice, inflected with the accent of Prussia, world-weary even as she lived all over the world, imbued with fatalism and mordant reflection.
“I’ll Be Your Mirror,” she sang on the first Velvet Underground album, which was Lou Reed’s look in his own mirror — or was it a mirror looking into Lou? You never know — which is exactly what Andy Warhol thought when he paired Nico with a reluctant V.U. to construct his own hall of mirrors. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable needed a chanteuse, and Nico’s moda beauty, her model’s distancing and her nightmarish upbringing in WWII Germany, her blondness as contrasted with the chiaroscuro of the Velvets, fomented a state of creative frisson that Warhol, and even the band, found useful in creating their demimonde.
She would hardly be with the Velvets long — only three songs on their first album are led by her, all of them classics, including “Femme Fatale” and the funereal march of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” But Nico was too distinctive a voice, and too compelling a presence not to make her way beyond Max’s back room. Her first solo album, Chelsea Girl, cloaked her in strings and flutes, much to her dismay, though the pastoral feel only enhanced the skewed superstars that lived in the title cut; covers like Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and three Jackson Browne songs, including “These Days,” brought out the melancholia she wore as a cloak.
That the settings of Chelsea Girl were not the way she envisioned her music was made clear by her second album, The Marble Index. Produced by John Cale, the album created swirls of storm-tossed sound around her Circe-like figure — the “Frozen Borderlines” where ships run aground and men go mad. She continued to move deeper and darker with Desertshore, another avant meisterwork that flirted with the precipice of impending desolation, particularly in “Janitor of Lunacy.” With her harmonium in the forefront, the effect was as much haunted house as haunted soul. In 1974, she recorded a mournful cover of The End, and an accompanying album. By then, the imagery of the music was beginning to overtake the muse; she became addicted to drugs, and though she continued to tour (I recall a particularly harrowing 1981 concert at the Squat Theater in Manhattan), and even record, she was exorcising demons as much as playing them. Ironically, her death came inadvertently, the result of a bicycle fall inIbiza, on July 18, 1988.
Despite the fact that she remains an ultimate cult artist, her influence has been far-reaching. A godmother of Goth, as well as influencing the musical paths of such as Kate Bush, Bjork and Siouxsie, her many astral projections can be heard in other madchens more contemporary, if not in actuality, at least in spirituality.
Chelsea Wolfe plumbs the inner reaches of those afterhours between night’s end and dawn’s promise in Apokalypsis, with an approach as much dark metal as performance art. With her pale features and long black hair reminiscent of The Ring‘s prophetic doomsayers, her dirgelike songs are both ethereal and spooky. The band surrounding her are sensitive to her mood swings, and the feel of this, her second album, is assured and confident, especially in “Tracks (Tall Bodies)” and “Mer.”
School of Seven Bells‘ Ghostory is more like Chelsea Girl, its portents of alienation and glacial loss swathed in synth textures that momentum with the poppy dance tempos and ethereal choral pads of ’80s new wave. “What do you expect?” wonders Alejandra Deheza in “Love Play” to Benjamin Curtis’s manipulation of the electronica. The combination is arctic chill, an ice cap Nico roamed like the great polar explorers.
EMA who, when she was Erika Anderson, was a member of the LA group Gowns, has the same crystalline neo-realism as Nico, the conviction that she lives and breathes where she creates. Past Life Martyred Saints is unabashedly frontal, sparing nothing in the way of harbingers. In “California,” she transplants herself from her childhood hometown ofSioux Falls to the Golden State. “Coda” has the feel of old-time shape-note singing; the calming “Breakfast” gives way to the raucous howl of “Butterfly Knife.”
The imaginative arrangements on Julia Holter‘s Ekstasis — harpsichords and vocoded harmonies — create an off-balancing act. “In The Same Room” and “Fur Felix” have a quasi-psychotropic air that leaves a waft of dream in their wake, and Holter’s voice maintains its wonderlandish quality throughout.
All of this imagining a la Nico has been occasioned by the appearance of her final concert on the eMusic site. Fata Morgana was recorded in then-West Berlin on June 6, 1988. The event took place in a planetarium, which accounts for the long stretches of meditative harmonium and interjections by Nico’s backing band, the Faction (whose pianist James Young would later write a candid account of their touring), of material composed especially for the occasion. It’s especially fitting that on this date, six weeks before she passed into the eye of the universe, Nico looked up at the planetarium dome and saw the moon, her doppelganger, eclipse itself in the wonder of the heavens, and become one with the stars.