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Berlin in 1945


My title is taken from an essay by Heidegger - Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry. I do not want to suggest that Nico is in the same league as Hölderlin but nor have I chosen this title in a spirit of mockery. Far from it. My problem is to explain why Nico deserves to be taken seriously. She has many admirers and much has been written about her. But among those who do take her seriously I'm not sure that there are many who can explain why. There are three book length biographies and two accounts written by musicians who worked with her. There is an impressive documentary film and there is a biopic. These all show a woman who, from her teenage years, was a successful model who fell in with the glitzy crowd of the 1960s - Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Iggy Stooge, Leonard Cohen, Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground; who played a small but memorable part in Frederico Fellini's film La Dolce vita, then in films by Warhol and his aide-de-camp Paul Morrissey, and by the French director Philippe Garrel - films that feature long - very long - close-ups of her face as though that is in itself sufficient to hold the viewers' attention. But who subsequently fell prey to a heroin addiction and was reduced to destitution, while producing a handful of mysterious and atmospheric songs which she accompanied on a harmonium. It is certainly an engaging story but it doesn't explain why she, as an artist in her own right, rather than as a phenomenon illustrative of certain characteristics of the age, deserves to be taken seriously.

A first clue lies in the date and place of her birth. She was born (as Christa Päffgen - 'Nico' was the professional name she adopted when she became a model) in Cologne in 1938. Cologne being in the West of Germany, it was an early target of allied bombing and her mother, with her (and with her aunt and cousin) moved to Berlin. When Berlin came under attack they moved to Lübbenau, a town on the railway tracks east of Berlin that was later to be in the line of the Soviet advance. When the war ended they moved back to Berlin, a Berlin in ruins. Her father was killed in the war. According to her aunt Helma, he was killed by his own officers after having been brain damaged in battle. None of that would appear to have much relevance to her career as a model nor to her beginnings as a singer singing songs written by other people (Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Jackson Browne). It becomes immensely relevant once she starts singing songs she wrote herself.

It needs to be borne in mind that though, living in a town on the railway line East of Berlin, she claims childhood memories of the transport of Jews, the major horror she experienced was not atrocities committed by the Nazis but the destruction wrought on Berlin by the allies. She underwent the trauma experienced by so many Germans, expected as they were to feel that the suffering they endured at the hands of their enemy was their own fault. A view she may have accepted intellectually but I don't think she accepted it emotionally.

At the heart of her life experience is a terrible vision, the vision of the destruction of a great city, but she can't make sense of it. She could make sense of it if she could condemn the perpetrators, but she has to condemn the people who, so far as she personally is concerned, were the victims. The horror, then, is detached from any easily assignable meaning.

Only very rarely are Nico's songs situated in a clearly recognisable realistic context. We are told that Janitor of Lunacy is about her former lover Brian Jones after his death and that The Falconer is about Andy Warhol after the attempt on his life, but no-one would guess it just on reading the words. Similarly with her own songs on the album The End, said to be written in honour of the Baader-Meinhoff Gang. The last track on The End is a straightforward rendition of Deutschland über alles, all three verses of it (the first two verses are banned in Germany, though the third is still the German national anthem). There is no hint of irony in her version. In live performances she dedicated it to Ulrike Meinhoff. It prompted small riots when she performed it in Berlin and in Rome. It would seem that a political point was being made, but it would be difficult to say what it was.

Nico's feelings about Germany are most obviously expressed in her song Nibelungen, written for The Marble Index, the first album that was made up of her own material. This song wasn't included when the album was first released on vinyl but it's on the CD marked as 'previously unissued.' It is my own favourite track on The Marble Index as presently constituted, largely because she sings it a capella - her voice isn't smothered by John Cale's arrangement. The words are full of nostalgia for something that she feels maybe never existed but which in any case doesn't exist any more:

Since the first of you and me, asleep
In a Nibelungen land where we cannot be
Almond trees grow along the mountain trail
From their tongues the words are spelling
The telling numb
I cannot hear it any more


Shrieking city sun shiver in my veins
In flames I run
In flames I run
Waiting for the sign to come

Will you spell the words for me
Will you spell the words for me to hear
Nibelungen Nibelungen Nibelungen land

'In flames I run' evokes a memory of Nico's Aunt Helma, quoted in both the biographies by Richard Witts and Jennifer Bickerdike (1): 'One night I had to flee through an inferno of flames with my son in my arms. The strength of the flames lifted us up in the air. I had the sensation we were already burning.'

(1)  Richard Witts: Nico: The Life and lies of an icon, Virgin Books 1993. I am using the digital version, Virgin digital ,2017, which doesn't give page references. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike: You are beautiful and you are alone, Faber and Faber, 2021, p.17.

Another song on The Marble Index that might suggest Germany is Frozen Warnings:

Frozen warnings close to mine
Close to the frozen borderline

Could that be the East/West border imposed on Germany in general and Berlin in particular after the war? Could she be seeing the warning signs round the border on a very cold day? Though Cible mouvante, a French publication organised by Nico's son, Ari, that gives texts of her songs together with unpublished writings found after her death, translates 'frozen' as 'figée' (fixed, unmoving) rather than gelée (frozen cold). (2)

(2) Nico: Cible Mouvante, Songs, poems, journal translated from the English and German by Daniel Bismuth, Introduction and presentation by Serge Féray, Pauvert, 2001, p.47

Frozen warnings continues:

Over railroad station tracks
Faintly flickers a modest cry.

Nico's grandfather was a signalman in Lübbenau. Witts tells us 'his southern box housed the levers of a pivotal junction. One line led trains from Berlin to Görlitz and Poland, the other to Dresden and Czechoslovakia' - meaning that these were the lines that transported troops and, later, exiled Jews, Eastwards.

The song evokes a friend, or at least an acquaintance, who is with her close to the frozen borderline:

Into numberless reflections
Rises a smile from your eyes into mine

Am I getting carried away if I see here a parallel with Lou Reed's song, Berlin:

In Berlin by the wall,
You were five foot, ten inches tall,
It was very nice,
Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice

Nico's height has variously been given as five foot, ten inches and five foot, eleven inches. She and Lou Reed did spend some time together in Berlin and we might imagine that the sort of cafe that serves Dubonnet by candlelight would have mirrors (Nico's 'numberless reflections'). Reed of course was Jewish and had a love/hate relationship with Nico. He resented the fact that Warhol and Morrissey had imposed her on The Velvet Underground  to add what they thought was a much needed touch of glamour. But after getting rid of her he helped her with three songs on her first solo album, Chelsea Girl, including the nearly eponymous song, Chelsea Girls, a much harder, more vicious anticipation of his own best known song Walk on the wild side.

Perhaps I should explain in parenthesis that the 'Chelsea' in question is the Chelsea Hotel in New York, favoured haunt of down-at-heel writers and Bohemians, and 'Chelsea Girls' is the title of a film by Warhol and Morrissey showing various sordid goings on in different rooms. The film lasts over seven hours but this has been halved by the simple device of dividing it in two parts and showing them simultaneously on a split screen. Nico appears in close-ups of her face, cutting her hair or crying. Her version of the song on the album is ruined, as she complained, by the producer's addition of a flute accompaniment. For a sense of the real power of it I would recommend the version by the French singers Philippe Pascal and Etienne Daho, or Nico's own later version, recorded in the Chelsea Hotel, accompanied on electric guitar by her lover of the time, Lutz Graf-Ulbrich, shortly before she threw him out, calling him a deutsches schwein. (3) Both can be seen and heard on Youtube.

(3) Lutz Graf-Ulbrich: Nico - in the shadow of the Moon Goddess, self published ebook, 2015.  

Like many of Nico's songs, Frozen Warnings goes into a transcendental mode. After the 'modest cry' rising above the railway tracks we have

From without a thousand cycles
A thousand cycles to come
A thousand times to win
A thousand ways to run the world
In a similar reply.

Which suggests that immense historical events will always be accompanied by the 'modest cry' of the victims.

The documentary film Nico Icon ends with a lovely rendition of Frozen Warnings by John Cale, accompanying himself solo on the piano.

Nico's Nibelungenland is a Germany that, she feels, doesn't exist. And yet of course it does exist in her mind, and there is nothing unusual in that. The way in which we all imagine the world or the individual countries of the world is in itself a hard reality. Germany in Nico's very young childhood was the defining power of the European mainland, challenged only by Bolshevik Russia (the British challenge had, it seemed, been successfully marginalised). Then, by the time she was seven years old, it collapsed into nothing - a 'frozen borderline'. In her estimation it - at least the Western side of it - was probably worse than nothing. Ludwig Erhard's Germany was irredeemably 'bourgeois' - its success measured in luxury hotels, fur coats, expensive cars. Nico - at least at the time she wrote the songs that interest us - saw herself as a 'Bohemian', an aristocrat of the spirit, who despised all that and yet of course, for a good part of her life, as a model featured in numerous advertising campaigns, appearing on the covers of high quality fashion magazines - sometimes pretending to be Swedish to hide the embarrassment of being German - she was up to her neck in it. Richard Witts makes the interesting observation that, while West Berlin was selling itself with glamour and an abundance of consumer goods, East Berlin was selling itself with culture, and the young Christa Päffgen often crossed into East Berlin - at a time when that was possible - to see, especially, operas that were made available very cheaply. Opera of course is itself a fantasy world in which everything is 'larger than life'.