Back to article index


But I maybe haven't yet finished with Blake's Land of dreams. In it, the boy says to his father:

O father, I saw my mother there
Among the lilies by waters fair

Perhaps it is farfetched to see a connection with the opening lines of Nico's song Julius Caesar, also on The Marble index:

Amidst water lily fields, white and green
Grows a tree.

Again we are in a dream land. The song continues:

And from the tree hang apples
Not for you to eat
In a way it matters more
Than it did before
To see the East voyaging through
True hearts of dunes
Mirth, birth, reverie.

The last verse repeats the lily fields and apples 'not for you to eat' and continues

Beneath the heaving sea
Where statues and pillars and stone altars
Rest for all these aching bones
To guide us far from energy
Mirth, birth, reverie.

I said earlier that some of Richard Witts's quotations from Nico seemed almost too good to be true but there is a wonderful quote from Jennifer Bickerdike's book that Witts seems to have missed. She says (p.175) 'When asked where the lyrical content came from, Nico said: "It has to do with my going to Berlin in 1946 when I was a little girl and seeing the entire city destroyed. I like the fallen empire, the image of the fallen empire."' The quote comes when Bickerdike is talking about Danny Fields. Fields as an impresario was responsible for getting The Doors and Nico signed up to Elektra Records (who issued The Marble index). He also, among much else, discovered Iggy Stooge and The Ramones, and was an important figure in the development of Punk Rock in the USA. He was one of Nico's most faithful supporters. He may be the source. At any rate Julius Caesar is an example - perhaps the archetypical example - of Nico's interest in fallen empires. Depending on how one rates Nico the poem is a very subtle or a very chaotic mixture of images of serenity and destruction. The central figure, presumably Caesar, appears both as an imperial ruler and as a singer on a stage (Morrison? or Jimi Hendrix, who also greatly impressed Nico?). The words 'harmony', 'calm', 'gentle', recur:

Calm and vast, his voice cascades
From his gentle stage
Calm and vast the city lies
On a horizontal ground
Kind and calm Julius lies
For Octavian to prevail
Mirth, birth, reverie

'Octavian' is Augustus, who finally consolidated the Roman Empire. In all this serenity and harmony, the East is 'voyaging through/True hearts of dunes.' Is there an anticipation here of the later song The Secret side, with its virgins waiting 'tied up on the sand' for ships coming into land? Does this not evoke the allied invasion of Germany with its accompanying tide of rapes? They weren't all committed by Soviet troops - Nico claimed that she was raped by an American serviceman at the age of thirteen - but the invasion as experienced in Lübbenau came from the East. 

When The Secret side continues:

Are you not loyal to your pride
Are you not on the secret side

is that not an appeal to German pride, to feel indignation at what happened, an indignation that has to be kept 'secret', that can't be expressed in modern Germany?

The Secret side is on Nico's third album (if we don't count Chelsea Girl), The End, the album said to have been inspired by the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the 'Red Army Faction,' the album on which she sings all three verses of Deutschland über alles. It is named for the song The End, sung by Jim Morrison. It isn't a song I greatly admire. It has the silly 'oedipal' passage ('Father, I want to kill you. Mother, I want to ...') but it's easy to see why Nico might have liked it given that it concerns something coming to an end with a hint ('Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain') that it might be something to do with an ancient empire.

As befits an album reflecting on the activities of the Red Army Faction, the imagery is more violent than the serenity that characterises Julius Caesar'

It has not taken long
to feast our naked eye upon
The open blade
The hungry beasts have found her calling
Calling help me help me please.

(It has not taken long)

He is a dangerous creator
A master in his mortal cave
I am a savage violator
A valet innocent and vain

(Innocent and vain)

Yet the ancient Empire is still present. After the lines

Is there a charge against my fate
Can't I betray my hate
Will I regain my father's gait
Must the killer die?

We have the astonishing lines:

A chariot will take me to
The Valley of the Kings

(The transcriptions read 'carriage' rather than 'chariot' but it is clearly pronounced with three syllables. It has the 'feel' of chariot!)

I'm assuming that the killer who 'must not die' is a member of the Red Army Faction and in We've Got the gold the reference is to someone in prison:

Very proud and very poor
You're walking on your prison floor

Someone with whom she identifies herself, at least in her pride and poverty:

Very proud and very poor
I'm waiting at your prison door

The End was released in 1974 and Ulrike Meinhof had been arrested in 1972 and was being kept in solitary confinement.

                                    Nico                                       Ulrike

But why should Nico have had feelings of sympathy with the Red Army Faction? She wasn't obviously left wing. 'Socialism' is not a word that comes to mind when we think of Nico. But she was in Paris in the fateful year of 1968 (subject of her former lover Philippe Garrel's film Les Amants reguliers). Witts says rather wittily if cruelly ('cattily' might be the right word) that she loved Situationism the way tourists love Paris. The Red Army Faction is known now for various kidnappings and murders but these took place mainly in 1977. Meinhof died (apparently suicide but in suspicious circumstances) in 1976. In its earlier phase the RAF had been responsible for the deaths of US service personnel in protest against German support (or US use of Germany) for the Vietnam war but there was also a more general detestation of the unheroic Germany that had emerged after the Nazi period. The wider movement of which the RAF was a part had targeted symbols of consumer culture, notably department stores, including the Ka De We, the Berlin equivalent of Harrods, where Nico had started her career as a model. (6)

(6) See Alexander Sedlmaier: Consumption and violence - Radical Protest in Cold-War West Germany, University of Michigan Press, 2014. 

Nico expresses her resentment against the conditions imposed by that earlier period of her life in the song (on Desertshore), Afraid:

Cease to know or to tell
Or to see or to be
Your own
Have someone else's will as your own
you are beautiful and you are alone

(7) Féray gives a completely different interpretation, seeing it as a love song (Cible mouvant, p.67). He develops this theme in Femme Fatale, pp.120-121, drawing a parallel with the Lou Reed song I'll be your mirror that Nico sang with the Velvet Underground. He says: 'This is redemption through love: renounce the self, accept the person loved as the unique possessor (in a magic as well as a legal meaning of the term) of oneself. As with I'll be your mirror it is possible to go beyond the simple interpretation as a song about love to see in the text of Afraid a sort of poetic treatise on renunciation, of abandonment to God, or to some superior power, as in the great Christian mystics (Nico had read The Imitation of Christ) like Meister Eckhart, who wrote in the thirteenth century: "When, released from my own will (Cease to know or to tell/Or to see or to be your own) I have placed it in the hands of my superior and I want nothing more for myself, God must will for me (Have someone else's will as your own)."' One of Andy Warhol's films featuring Nico is called The Imitation of Christ but, much as I'd like to accept this interpretation, I have to admit that it seems to me to be wildly out of character for Nico and doesn't do much to explain the title.

The theme is taken up again in the song Win a few (on the 1985 album Camera obscura)

They will give you what you need
They will run your life
They will get you where they want to

With a clear indication that the situation hasn't much changed since she became a singer:

They want your face for a magazine
They want my voice for their fears

And there may be a hint of continued identification with Ulrike Meinhof:

The law has made it very clear
Save your breath for the next try
They will try you with fanatic threats
To make you sigh
What a game a fair frame
Consumed into a single flame