Nico - Biography

By Scott Feemster

Nico was a German born singer, musician, model and actress who has become a legend not only for her haunting beauty and dispassionate and aloof vocal style, but also for her mostly uncommercial albums and for her astounding associations with artists who were the movers and shakers of culture in the 1960's and 70's. She is an icon that has continued to fascinate the public even years after her death.


            Nico was born Christa Paffgen on October 16th, 1938 in Cologne, Germany during the Nazi era, and was taken at the age of two by her mother to live with her grandfather in the town of Spreewald, a suburb of Berlin. Christa and her mother had to rely on Christa's grandfather to help them since Christa's father ended up perishing in the Nazi concentration camps. Mother and daughter lived with the grandfather through the end of World War II. When the Russian army invaded Berlin towards the end of the war, Christa and her mother ended up fleeing to the American Sector of Berlin, where both of them worked part-time as seamstresses as Christa went to school. When Christa turned 13, she got a job selling lingerie. Because of the young girl's precocious good looks and amazing bone structure, she soon found work as a model with a Berlin fashion house. Soon her face was appearing in catalogs and on the cover of magazines and she was being sent to glamorous locales to shoot fashion layouts. When Christa was 15, she was sent to the Spanish island of Ibiza on assignment where she met the photographer Herbert Tobias. Tobias nicknamed the girl “Nico”, after his ex-boyfriend, the filmmaker Nico Papatakis. The nickname stuck and she soon adopted it as her professional name. Soon after, Nico moved to Paris where she became a sensation and appeared on the covers of such magazines as Elle, Vogue, Tempo, Camera and other magazines through the late 1950's. Nico also appeared in television commercials and eventually landed a small role in director Alberto Lattuada's 1958 film La Tempesta, which led to another small role in the film For The First Time, which starred singing star Mario Lanza. In 1959, Nico was invited to visit the set of Federico Fellini's film La Dolce Vita, and scored a minor role in the film. At around the same time, in 1960, Nico decided that she wanted to get more serious about her acting, and so moved to New York part of the time to study acting under acclaimed Method acting teacher Lee Strasberg. One of the fellow actresses in her class was Marilyn Monroe. While she continued to model in both New York and Paris, she eventually landed the lead role in French director Jacques Poitrenaud's 1963 film Strip-Tease. She made her debut recording of the title song of the movie with Serge Gainsbourg producing, but the producers decided to use another singers version instead, and the song remained unreleased until 2001. During this period of time, Nico also had an affair with the French actor Alain Delon, and the union produced a son, named Ari, who was born in 1962. Even though Delon never publicly admitted he was the father of the child, Ari ended up being raised mostly by Delon's parents.


            By the early 60's, Nico was among the jetset that included models, actors, musicians and artists that traveled between Paris, New York and London. While in London in 1965, Nico met, (and reportedly, had an affair with,) Rolling Stones founding guitarist Brian Jones, who introduced her to Rolling Stones manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham. Oldham signed the young Nico to his Immediate label and produced a debut single by her entitled “I'm Not Sayin'”, a song written by Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. The single also featured the 12-string guitar playing of a young studio musician named Jimmy Page. Though the single didn't end up being a hit, it did whet Nico's appetite for having a musical career. She soon returned to New York in 1964 and resumed modeling while also singing on the side, most notably at the Blue Angel Lounge on 55th street in Manhattan. On one of her modeling assignments in Paris, Nico met Bob Dylan and the pair reportedly had a brief affair. Dylan encouraged Nico's unique style and urged her to carry on with her musical career, even giving her a song, “I'll Keep It With Mine”, that she would later record on her debut album. Reportedly Dylan's song “Visions of Johanna” on his Blonde on Blonde album was inspired by Nico. When the pair got back to New York, Dylan introduced Nico to some of his influential friends, including the celebrated pop artist Andy Warhol. Warhol was immediately taken with the striking German girl, and soon Nico was hanging out at Warhol's Factory studio and contributing to some of the happenings and art projects that swirled around the Factory's highly creative scene. Most notably, she was featured as one of Warhol's “Superstars” in the experimental films he and director Paul Morrissey directed during this period of time, including Imitation Of Christ, Chelsea Girls, Sunset, and The Closet.


            While hanging out at the Factory, Nico was introduced to the members of The Velvet Underground, the house band of the Factory and the backup group for Warhol's newest concept, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, an extra-sensory multimedia traveling performance that included music, a light show, film and dancers. Though she sang lead on several songs and sang backup and played tambourine, she was always billed separately from the band, and was seen more as a guest vocalist than as a full member of the group. (Nico had a brief affair with Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed, and tensions within the band arising out of that could have had something to do with Nico never being an official member).  The concept for the Exploding Plastic Inevitable started at a dinner for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry in 1966, and included the entire entourage of the Factory presenting a sensory overload event that included The Velvet Underground and Nico and dancers Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick. The show ended up traveling to various venues in cities across the country and set the stage for The Velvet Underground and Nico to release their debut album in 1967, The Velvet Underground and Nico (Verve). The album was produced and featured artwork from Andy Warhol, and though it failed to sell well initially, it became arguably one of the most influential rock albums to ever be released. The album also forever linked Nico's image to how she appeared on the album- the aloof, ultra-cool blond German ice-queen with the strange, almost-monotone delivery. Soon after the album was released and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows were wrapped up, Nico parted ways with the band, though she would later work with both Reed and VU bassist/violist/vocalist John Cale significantly in her solo career. It was during this period of time that Nico became romantically linked with numerous prominent male musicians, including Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Tim Buckley, and Jackson Browne.


            Soon after she parted ways with the Velvet Underground, Nico took up residence in a New York City coffeehouse as a solo folk artist, backed by various guitarists she knew, including Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, and Tim Hardin, and even her former bandmates Lou Reed and John Cale. Most of her collaborators ended up writing songs for her to sing, and these laid the foundation for what was to be her debut solo album, Chelsea Girl (Verve)(1967). The album was far different than the debut Velvet Underground album, and can best be described as chamber folk. The instrumentation consisted of acoustic guitar, keyboards, a string section and flute, and gave the album a light feeling that contrasted with Nico's signature deadpan vocal style. The string section and flute were reportedly added after the main sessions were completed by the album's producer without Nico's knowledge, and so the album was never particularly liked by Nico herself. After releasing the album, Nico seemed to have gone through a period of reevaluation, and emerged again in 1969 with the album The Marble Index (Elektra). On this album, Nico wrote the lyrics and basic structures of her songs on the harmonium, a type of Indian pump organ, and then producer John Cale fleshed the songs out with minimal instrumentation. Whereas Chelsea Girls was light, The Marble Index was somber and slow-moving, emphasizing long-form song structures that seemed to unravel as they went along. Though the album didn't fare as well commercially as her first album, it went on to be a highly influential album, influencing the later sounds of such groups as Dead Can Dance, Coil and Elliott Smith, to name just a few. During this period of time, Nico met up with director Philippe Garrel in Italy, and the two collaborated on ten impressionistic art films over the next five years together, shot in such exotic locations as Egypt, Death Valley and Iceland.


            Nico continued on with her musical exploration and released another solo album in 1970, Desertshore (Reprise). Produced again by John Cale, the sound of the album carried forward many of the ideas explored on The Marble Index and expanded on them. The album was a gem of dark beauty, and like many of her other efforts, became more influential with time. Her next album, 1974's The End (Island), was another dark collaboration with Cale, but this time included other musicians associated with British art-rock, including Roxy Music members Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera. Their influence gave the album a dark science-fiction feel that dove-tailed nicely with Nico's deadpan vocals and harmonium and Cale's electric piano, guitar, xylophone and synthesizer. Nico appeared in concert with Cale, Brian Eno, and former Soft Machine member Kevin Ayers in 1974 at the Rainbow Theatre in London, and the show was recorded and quickly released as June 1, 1974 (Island). Nico continued to play live, including one infamous gig in 1974 opening for Tangerine Dream at Reims Cathedral in France, but eventually withdrew from the spotlight during much of the 70's. Much of this probably has to do with her heroin addiction during this period of time.


            Towards the end of the 70's, Nico returned to the scene and played a well-received comeback concert at CBGB's in New York in 1980, and then played regularly around New York for a time with collaborator Jim Tisdall. The two also embarked on a tour of the Midwest and East Coast that took in 12 cities and was sold-out. Nico released her next album in 1981, Drama Of Exile (Aura/Cleopatra), a more rock album that used a Middle Eastern rhythm section and was produced by a reggae bassist from Corsica named Phillipe Quilichini. Though the album received mostly positive reviews, it's release was plagued by drama as different plots involving Nico's manager, Quilichini, and the engineer of the sessions all stole masters of the album threatening to release the album outside of its release on Aura Records, and for a few years there were slightly different versions of the album floating around. Invisible Records finally released the intended version of the album in 1983, after protracted legal wranglings. After the confusion of Drama Of Exile, Nico returned to working with John Cale as her producer for her next album, Camera Obscura (Beggars Banquet)(1985), an album she made in collaboration with the experimental electronic duo The Faction, consisting of James Young on keyboards and Graham Dids on percussion. Though the sound of the album was in some ways more polished and electronic than some of her earlier efforts, it still retained her signature dark tone. Nico also released several live albums during the early and mid 80's including Do Or Die (ROIR)(1982), Behind The Iron Curtain (Dojo)(1985) and Fata Morgana (Steamhammer/SPV), later released in 2000.


            Towards the end of the 80's, Nico was able to kick her nasty addiction to heroin that seemed to have robbed much of her creative muse during the 70's and 80's, and also became a vegetarian. She also reconciled with her son Ari, and seemed to be making a healthy return to a full life. While on vacation with her son in Ibiza in July of 1988, Nico suffered a mild heart attack while riding a bicycle, and fell off the bike and hit her head. A passing driver found her unconscious by the side of the road, and because she was a foreigner and didn't have identification on her, had difficulty in getting her admitted to a hospital. She was incorrectly diagnosed as suffering from exposure, and died the next day, July 19th, 1988, of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Nico's ashes were laid to rest near her mother in Berlin's Grunewald Forest Cemetery.

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