Greetings. I, like Michael, am new around these parts. Phil kindly asked me to contribute to Dial M on occasion and it’s a pleasure to be a more active part of a blog I’ve come to love. So as my inaugural post, I’d like to address an under-sung figure of our musical life: Christa Paffgen, better known as the incomparable Nico.
If there was a time that Nico entered my consciousness it was really this moment in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums:
It was punctum, a moment of nearly painful beauty that burned her voice into my consciousness. Sure, I had known and loved her contributions to the Velvet Underground, but I hadn’t heard her like that. That voice. Its affective tug, or better yet, dull punch to the gut still gets me. I then eagerly snatched up her first solo record, Chelsea Girl, and, like many good post-millennial hipsters, came to love the Jackson Browne songs “These Days” and “Fairest of the Seasons,” as well as the Dylan cover “I’ll Keep it With Mine,” and even the subpar tunes Lou Reed wrote for her.
Flash forward a few years. I was in Paris researching Messiaen and planning a dissertation when a chance meeting turned me on to the other Nico and her own songwriting with production by John Cale. Among her own songs were some choice covers. I point you to a nearly ten-minute version of the Doors’ “The End” on her album of the same name.*
After hearing The Marble Index (1968), I was floored by the record’s utterly bizarre textures and forms. Tone clusters, bass lines built from tritones, songs to Julius Caesar. This was not the Nico whose voice charmed Gwyneth Paltrow’s descent from a bus. This was someone whose teeth were cut on Schubert’s “Der Leiermann” and hadn’t really heard anything she liked better. Granted, much of the zaniness of the record came from Cale’s arrangements, but the voice/harmonium foundations Nico laid down gave him solid rock on which to build. I soon fired off emails to my friends stateside, “WE MUST START A NICO COVER BAND AS SOON AS I’M BACK.” I only needed a harmonium to get things rolling. My pals weren’t up for it and my dream remains, sadly, just that.
Here’s a track from the expanded re-release of The Marble Index, “Roses in the Snow.” It foregrounds her voice and harmonium, with minimal adornment from Cale. This YouTube video features film from Nico’s star turn in Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls.
The musical hallmarks of her songwriting are all there. Minor mode? Check. Mid-range ostinato? Check. Bass moving in parallel sixths or fifths to the voice? Not as much as in other songs, but it shows up in the song here and there so, check.
One of the interesting things about Nico’s reception was the frequently Teutonic adjectives applied to her music and persona.** Critics charted her transformation from Warhol Superstar to Brünhilde and it was certainly encouraged by Nico herself. Songs like “Niebelungen” indicate an awareness of both Wagner and his source material. Recently I’ve been struck by how much she shares with other things German, particularly the poetry of Heinrich Heine and Friedrich Rückert. Her lyrics were often in neomedieval in imagery and recall the self-conscious folk style both poets occasionally affected. A good example of this is her song “König,” written for Philippe Garrel’s film La Cicatrice Intérieure (“The Interior Scar” from 1972). Here it is in its soundtrack version [NSFW – A smudged crotch and an exposed bottom! That is Nico with orange hair.]
Here’s the text.
O König, lass dich leiten
Lass dich mich begleiten
König, lass dich leiten
Lass mich dich begleiten
Auf diesen weiter Strand
Ergreife meine Hand
Ich will dir alles geben
Das dich am Leben hält
Ein Hoffen und ein Streben
Dein Blick bis in mein Zelt
[O King, let yourself be led
Let me accompany you
O King, let yourself be led
Let me accompany you
On this wide beach
Take my hand
I want to give you everything
That will keep you alive
Hope and striving
Your glance falls into my tent.]
It’s the word “Zelt” that clued me in to the shared poetics. The final two lines of the first song of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder are what I’m reminded of: “Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt,/Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt.” Zelt, meaning “tent” is in the Mahler and it strikes me a curious and intimate word choice for Nico. It probably doesn’t really amount to much, but it seems to suggest, as her bandmate James Young*** notes, that she was quite fond of Mahler.
Nico’s music is, at least at the moment, far from my current research. But I was surprised to find a connection through some prominent patrons of the avant-gardes in music and the visual arts: the de Menil family (variously of Paris, New York, and Houston). The matriarch of the family, Dominique, was a long-time supporter of Morton Feldman (the primary focus of my dissertation) and provided him with academic residencies and commissions, including the commission for Rothko Chapel. As part of the promotion for the Chapel, Dominique asked her son François to make a movie that would use Feldman’s music as the soundtrack. A few years prior, François had developed, according to James Young, a fondness for Nico and wanted to make a film with her. To do so, he followed her to Ann Arbor, where she was living with Iggy Pop. This was the result, a “video” for “Evening of Light,” another standout track from The Marble Index: Iggy appears along with Nico in the film.
One can only imagine what the Rothko Chapel film turned out like. Sheesh.
*Here’s a fun trick: when teaching music, nationalism, and
politics, try putting Nico’s version of “Das Lied der Deutschen” up
against Jimmy Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.”
**Sean Nye, a graduate student (still, I think?) at the University of Minnesota, is doing very exciting work on the Teutonic as a cultural trope and its often malevolent connotations.
***Young wrote the excellent Songs They Never Play on the Radio, a memoir of Nico’s final tours in the 1980s. It was published in the USA as The End. I’ve also slightly modified his translation of König.