She’ll Be Your Mirror

You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico BY Jennifer Otter Bickerdike. New York: Hachette Books. 512 pages. $31.

The cover of You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico

NICO, BORN CHRISTA PÄFFGEN in Cologne, Germany, in October 1938, is one of the most underappreciated musical innovators of the past century. She’s undeniably famous: as the title of a 1995 film reminds us, Nico is an anagram for “icon.” Yet few other artists’ radical and influential body of work is so eclipsed in the public mind by their romantic and professional relationships (Yoko Ono comes to mind). Few of the people who recognize Nico’s name and face know she spent most of her life creating intense, remarkable, inimitable music under her own name. Everyone knows she fucked Lou Reed, though.

When Nico joined the Velvet Underground she was the famous one, having parlayed a successful European modeling career into an unforgettable turn in Fellini’s La dolce vita. Andy Warhol, ever mindful of buzz and ticket sales, wanted a bigger, prettier star to put next to his surly new house band. As Jennifer Otter Bickerdike reports in her new biography of the singer, You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone (Hachette Books, $31), Reed was annoyed when on several occasions Nico got bigger billing than the VU. Nico sang with the band for less than two years, appearing on only one of its albums, but “that blond girl from La dolce vita” would forever become “that blond girl from the Velvet Underground.” Nico’s solo music had little to do with the Velvets’ gritty, bluesy rock, but the band’s name kept gigs booked and the audiences coming in the door for the rest of her life, while the reality of her uncompromising musical explorations left booking agents furious and unprepared listeners perplexed and scared. The legend always had just enough fuel to keep the shows coming; the radical music and performance style, combined with the singer’s substance-dependent temperament, kept her from ever making it big.

After the ’60s, it took a variety of drugs for her to function; she finally got off heroin two short years before her tragic and still-mysterious death on Ibiza in 1988 at the age of forty-nine, when she collapsed on the side of a road while biking to town to buy hashish. But even heroin didn’t really interfere with her ability to perform: multiple interviewees tell Bickerdike that the artist never missed a gig, no matter how smacked-out she was. What fucked with her was alcohol, which she was usually fond of in measure but turned to in dramatic quantities when she couldn’t find her drug of choice. Those were the gigs Nico’s manager and band dreaded, which is why the book’s second half is full of horrifyingly hilarious anecdotes about band members running around strange European and American towns after sound check trying to score in time for that night’s show.

The Warhol years are well documented, and a lot of Bickerdike’s material there is sourced from previous accounts. You Are Beautiful is stronger in the singer’s later years. After leaving the scene around Warhol at the end of the ’60s, Nico bounced around between Paris, New York, and Ibiza before settling in Manchester in the ’80s. Her final decade was spent relentlessly touring, which brought in just barely enough to keep Nico and her revolving band of accomplices housed and high. Bickerdike cites the astounding number of 1,200 shows between 1982 and 1988 alone. The collaborators of her later career are less famous, more willing to chat, and more likely to be alive. Bickerdike offers extensive and crucial testimonies from people who knew Nico well, including James Young (both a bandmate and himself a Nico biographer) and, fascinatingly, two of Nico’s few female friends.

Publicity photo for Nico's album Camera Obscura, 1985. P.L. Noble/Beggars Banquet
Publicity photo for Nico’s album Camera Obscura, 1985. P.L. Noble/Beggars Banquet

As the book stresses repeatedly, Nico was fond of the company of men and generally hostile to other women. There are intimations of bisexuality and same-sex attraction, particularly at the beginning of the artist’s career and near the end of her life. One of the two female friends quoted, Jane Goldstraw, says bluntly: “She didn’t like women; she liked me. Apparently she fell in love with me. . . . I had to fight her off!” But Bickerdike seems for some reason determined to see these as isolated incidents rather than clues; she describes the relationship with Goldstraw as a rare example of Nico being “vulnerable” and dismisses a rumored youthful fling with Coco Chanel with the ageist declaration that “Chanel was already seventy-three years old when Nico arrived in Paris to start modeling, making it unlikely that the two did have any sort of affair.” Perhaps the idea of happy but sporadic homophilic attachments conflicts with Bickerdike’s desired image of a lonely, tormented artist imprisoned by her looks and buffeted by brutal misogyny. And there’s no doubt that collaborators, colleagues, critics, fans, and lovers said and did things to Nico that they simply wouldn’t have had she not been a famously beautiful woman—Lou Reed especially comes off as a serious asshole. Even female music critics largely ignored the music to focus on Nico’s looks. I admit, it’s hard to imagine a version of Nico’s story that isn’t fundamentally about the male gaze.

Drug anecdotes and gender dynamics are a big part of the story, but what ultimately matters is the music, and here the book is lacking, with too little technical or critical discussion of the art itself. Though she mentions Nico’s idiosyncratic method of playing harmonies in the treble clef and melodic motifs in the bass, Bickerdike fails to provide even a basic explanation of the concept of musical drone, or of the working of a harmonium organ. The albums are marked as milestones, but the entire recording process is often reduced to a paragraph or two. I badly wanted interviews with the albums’ engineers; even a hint of the technique that went into capturing that incredible sound would have been welcome. The chapter discussing the creation of Nico’s seminal, inarguable masterpiece The Marble Index is barely two pages long. But Nico’s music is a music of affects and effects: it does things, and it makes you feel things, whether it’s the blissful, uncanny longing reported by fans or the creepy, nauseating aversion reported by those who fail to acquire the taste. It’s an enveloping and undeniable sound that demands a response.

Beginning with The Marble Index—which Nico herself considered her first proper album—the music is astounding, visceral, haunting, terrifying, and heartbreaking. The albums haven’t aged a day, perhaps because they’re so disjoined from time to begin with, an almost incomprehensible blend of classical, electronic, and medieval components. Nico’s music is avant-garde—it was new and uncompromising and uncategorizable, which prevented true professional success, but later generations of musicians incorporated her innovations into recognizable genres like punk and goth to mainstream acclaim. But her music is also untimely in Nietzsche’s sense—not merely ahead of its time, but of no time, out of time, unbound by periodicity or genre.

There’s no doubt that John Cale’s hand shaped the albums’ inimitable sound, but there’s also no doubt that Nico herself, by herself, was able to tap into a primal and untutored musical force: Bickerdike quotes many people, not only admirers but prominent musicians, who attest to the singer’s ability to hold a room all by herself, just her voice and the harmonium, in the grimmest and grimiest of circumstances. Ornette Coleman was apparently a fan. Iggy Pop is especially fervent: he speaks about hearing Nico play “Janitor of Lunacy” in her Chelsea Hotel room “for an audience of one. . . . That was one of the very few times in my life I’ve been witness to what I would call ‘complete’ music. Here was someone making the music and the melody and the ambience and the literature all at once for me without benefit of a stage, proscenium or lighting or ticket or any of that shit.”

One of the book’s more touching revelations, asserted repeatedly by those who knew her, is that Nico was honest and truthful in conversation, rarely telling wild stories and frequently getting upset at the calumnious anecdotes that her myth accrued over the years. The stuff she had actually experienced was more than enough to brag about. There are times where Bickerdike seems intent on finding a hidden depth, some unanswerable mystery. She asks interviewees whether the singer ever used her birth name, and elsewhere suggests that “Nico” might have been a persona, perhaps even a shield crafted in response to trauma. But isn’t every name a persona, and a shield crafted in response to trauma? You Are Beautiful rightly emphasizes the lingering effects of Nico’s childhood in wartime and postwar Germany, the singer’s struggle with her legendary beauty, and the professional and very personal consequences of relentless misogyny. But it seems to me that these things aren’t really buried traumas so much as vivid realities, very much on Nico’s mind and in her diaries as well as her music. A new biography of Nico is welcome, and adds useful details and interviews to the record, but I’m not sure there are new depths to find. What I love is the icy, scarred, immortal tundra of the surface.

FT isn’t a real person, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from having a lot of opinions.