Like Lou Reed, her reluctant co-leader in the Velvet Underground, German-born model-cum-singer Nico had a pronounced mean streak. Or, as Simon Reynolds writes in The Guardian, “talk of her dark side is accurate.” Journalist Danny Fields once described her as “Nazi-esque,” referring not “to her regal, demanding personality, but to her racism.” Fields once witnessed a vicious stabbing incident at the Chelsea Hotel in the early 70s, and his account paints an unsettling picture of an unstable, violent person.
At a 1974 concert, Nico caused an audience riot by performing the German national anthem “complete with verses that had been banned after 1945 on account of their Nazi associations.” A 15-year-long addiction to heroin—“overwhelming,” as keyboardist James Young described it—did not help matters. “Being around Nico was kinda depressing,” recalls producer Joe Boyd, “She was a very tortured character.” When it comes to rock stars and artists, we typically gloss over social failings that would doom other professionals. That isn’t easy to do in Nico’s case.
But it also isn’t easy to gloss over Nico’s musical legacy. Her flat, droning vocals on the Velvet’s debut album remain central to that band’s lasting influence. Songs like “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “I’ll be Your Mirror” defined the emerging underground sound of the late sixties that grew into punk and new wave in the seventies. Nico’s Chelsea Girl stands alone as an artistic achievement. Her and producer John Cale’s interpretations of songs like Jackson Browne’s “These Days” (memorably used in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums) served as neo-folk templates for decades to come.
When she began writing her own songs, inspired by onetime boyfriend Jim Morrison, Nico “eclipsed the Doors’ darkness” with her album The Marble Index, replacing “the summer of love with the winter of despair,” and delivering an album of profoundly beautiful bleakness—the songs, writes Reynolds, “glittering in their immaculate, lifeless majesty of someone cut off from the thawing warmth of human contact and fellowship.” A favorite of goths everywhere, The Marble Index frequently appears on lists of the most depressing albums of all time. Asked about the record’s dismal sales, Cale remarked, “you can’t sell suicide.”
Nico’s songs and Cale’s production gave us a completely European sound, “severed from rhythm-and-blues… harking back to something pre-Christian and atavistic.” That first album of original songs led to five more, culminating in 1985’s Camera Obscura. At what would fatefully be her final concert in 1988, Nico performed songs from that album, including the hypnotic, swirling “I Will Be Seven,” below. She died just a few months later while vacationing in Ibiza. Now, her final album forms the centerpiece of a tribute from another pioneering woman in pathbreakingly original underground music, Patti Smith.
Smith’s album, Killer Road—A Tribute to Nico, made with her daughter Jesse Paris Smith and the ambient trio Soundwalk Collective, includes the song “Fearfully in Danger,” which you can see live in Germany in the video at the top of the post. Below it, hear the title track, a chilling, atmospheric song meant to “approximate what the former Velvet Underground collaborator might have heard when she collapsed while bicycling in Ibiza in 1988,” writes Rolling Stone. Over the sounds of chirping insects and oscillating synths, Smith intones lyrics from Nico’s last album: “The Killer Road is waiting for you… I have come to die with you.”
As in her tributes to other artistic heroes like Virginia Woolf, Smith makes collage art from Nico’s words, weaving in strains of her own verse. In this case, she ties her fragmented phrases and Nico’s haunted lyricism to the specific moment of the singer’s death, giving lyrics like “I will be seven when I meet you in heaven” a resonance both mordant and vivid, made all the more so when we know that the birds, insects, breaking waves, and breezes that weave through Smith’s songs come from field recordings taken in sunny Ibiza at the site of Nico’s death. Hear Smith’s “cover” of “I Will Be Seven” below.
It’s a macabre concept album, to be sure, but Smith’s connection with Nico goes beyond morbid fascination. The two were mutual admirers—Nico called Smith “a female Leonard Cohen” for her successful integration of poetry and music, and Smith “later played an important role in Nico’s life,” buying back the singer’s prized harmonium at “‘an obscure shop’ in Paris, as Nico put it, after it had gone missing.” Nico remembered that Smith refused payment for the recovered instrument and “insisted the organ was a present.” The icy, depressive German singer was moved to tears. She would play the harmonium on her final album, and at her final concert—the perfect accompaniment to her strange, haunting voice and disturbing, dark lyricism.