What does it say about a human being when her son tries to sell her leftover methadone at her funeral in order to finance a habit to which she introduced him? The encounter with Nico always has a quality of grimness and astonishment. It was her second solo album, The Marble Index, which announced her true intentions. When it arrived on the scene in 1967 audiences were nonplussed, and despite its slow progress to critical darlinghood, for the most part they have remained so.
Until that point, Nico had been best known for her role in Andy Warhol’s Factory – in particular, as the handpicked frontwoman for The Velvet Underground. Her first LP, Chelsea Girl (1967), was a mostly straightforward chamber-folk piece featuring tracks written by Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. There were a few omens of what was to come, though, in the dissonant, eight-minute experimental centrepiece “It Was A Pleasure Then” – and in Nico’s deep, Germanic, offkey intonation, an acquired taste for most. But the cold austerity, mythological and surrealist lyrics, and harmonium drones of The Marble Index were something alien indeed, particularly as the scungy realism of the Underground waned and hippy utopianism waxed. If Lou Reed’s Berlin was panned as too depressing, what kind of reception was a work like this to find?
Nico was always a little too strange for the strange crew, too much an enemy of her own beauty, too fucked up for fame. Unlike Marianne Faithfull (who wrote her a tribute song), she would never transmute her self-destructive lead into gold, never re-emerge to popular acclaim, never star in slightly off-color film vehicles. But her unjustly neglected later work, in which she experimented with synthesizers and Middle Eastern traditions, continues and extends the veins so deeply mined on the album in question here, Desertshore (1970). Her spectre lingers around the edges of critical sensibility and Id-dregging performance (most recently in Throbbing Gristle’s project to reinterpret the LP in its entirety).
There are artists whose oeuvre, though not devoid of influence, seems somehow to emerge from nowhere – as if they appeared, fully formed, from another civilization. Freud explored the idea of the Unheimliche, the un-home-ly or uncanny, as something closely resembling what we know, but alien enough to give rise to a sense of the deeply uncomfortable, even to fear. Nico’s music embodies this quality, but at the same time she engaged deeply with history, recent and mythological. She was notorious for performing the outlawed anthem of Germany under the Nazis, “Deutschlandlied” (which she dedicated to the notorious German left-revolutionary Andreas Baader), and she also drew upon Wagnerian mythology. But unlike the drug mania and obsession with evil that propelled similar explorations for figures like David Bowie, Nico was neither interested in shock for its own sake, nor concerned with evil as excitement. Her vision explored atrocity as a vital exercise – Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, flung backwards unseeing into the future – without any personal grandiosity. Her own father, Hermann, had sustained head injuries as a soldier, and died as an experimental medical subject in a Nazi concentration camp – and in that contrast we see another of the taut paradoxes which characterize the study of Nico.
An inveterate liar, she had early on stepped away from her identity as Christa Päffgen of Cologne. Desertshore exemplifies the way in which her music speaks of and to trauma; but not in the expected musical fashion, not in clichéd tales of angst or cryptic confessional moments. Rather, Desertshore is both deeply personal and eerily disconnected, closer in spirit to the brutal, beautiful horrors of pre-sanitised European folk tales than to Sylvia Plath or The Smiths. The Marble Index circumscribed its travails within a cold landscape reminiscent of the steppe of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – a landscape dominated by the figure of cruel and icy mother, and by one’s own lack. But Desertshore traverses this terrain in order to imply some of the warmth of the sea as well as its impersonal qualities. “Le Petit Chevalier” is sung by her son Ari, Alain Delon’s unacknowledged child, who must have been all of three or four at the time, and “Afraid” reveals a fragile transcendence and melodic sensibility.
These elements perform a contrapunto to the complex dissonance and stony dissociation of “Janitor of Lunacy” or “Abschied.” Nico’s troubled identity as mother and child, her familial experience of her own loss and the loss that she imparted to others, are refracted through its intricacies.
As a title, Desertshore speaks to the liminality of Nico’s life, and of her work. Her father was Yugoslavian while she was born in Budapest, and from Cologne to Paris and on to New York and London, she was an early global citizen – yet always also a forlorn wanderer, a nomad. This is apparent in her music. Continuing from the pattern she laid down on The Marble Index, Desertshore featured harmonium drones prominently, bringing an Indian sensibility to her Nordic roots. Marble Index had been named for Wordsworth; Desertshore was named, perhaps, for William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion:
At entrance Theotormon sits, wearing the threshold hard
With secret tears; beneath him sound like waves on a desert shore
The voice of slaves beneath the sun, and children bought with money,
That shiver in religious caves beneath the burning fires
Of lust, that belch incessant from the summits of the earth.
The album was produced in a traumatic milieu. Nico’s long-estranged mother Grete had recently died, Ari had been sent away, and, alongside then-partner Philippe Garrel (whom many blamed for her decline), she had begun mainlining heroin. With John Cale at the helm, Nico chose to construct the album in allied keys, moving toward the relative minor as in a traditional German song cycle, while Cale’s instrumentation echoed Mahler and German romanticism. Rolling Stone described it as ‘Gothick’ and referenced H. P. Lovecraft, while the NME’s reviewer called it “one of the most miserable records I’ve ever heard.”
But they had missed the centre of the music; neither purple-prosaic nor schlocky, Desertshore hinted at bottomless depths of angst beneath cool surfaces which gave nothing away. Nico’s evocation of the past was not for the sake of Sturm und Drang pastiche, but in itself created the distance, the quality of being a mask, which her music paradoxically needed in order to operate at a visceral level. As Jean Baudrillard put it, “Nico seemed so beautiful only because her femininity appeared so completely put on… that perfection that belongs to artifice alone. Seduction is always more singular and sublime than sex, and it commands the higher price.” The price paid by Nico, and by others around her, would be all too high.