Patti Smith’s New Haunting Tribute to Nico: Hear Three Tracks

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.” 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 always 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Pat­ti Smith Read from Vir­ginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Sur­viv­ing Record­ing of Woolf’s Voice

Pat­ti Smith on Vir­ginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dick­ens’ Pen & Oth­er Cher­ished Lit­er­ary Tal­is­mans

The Crazy, Icon­ic Life of Nico; Andy Warhol Muse, Vel­vet Under­ground Vocal­ist, Enig­ma in Amber

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • hans altena says:

    Although I would nev­er call Nico a Nazi (her ren­der­ing the nation­al anthem of Ger­many a chal­lenge, not a trib­ute), this arti­cle right­ful­ly stress­es her great artis­tic impor­tance. The way Pat­ti Smith now inte­grates her influ­ence in her own work is beau­ti­ful, can’t wait to hear the whole record and hope she will write more in this vein.

  • XRaySpex says:

    Total­ly agree — I am real­ly look­ing for­ward to hear­ing this. Pat­ti, along with Nico, is one of my favorite artists.

  • Danny Fields says:

    Your arti­cle about Pat­ti Smith’s excel­lent and much deserved trib­ute to Nico has
    mis-quot­ed me, and describes me as hav­ing “wit­nessed” some­thing that I nev­er wit­nessed.

    Nico was among the most sub­lime­ly gift­ed peo­ple I have ever known, and one of the dear­est friends I’ve ever had; and the cre­ation of the “Mar­ble Index” lp by Nico and John Cale, which fol­lowed my intro­duc­tion of Nico to Elek­tra’s Jac Holz­man, is per­haps the one work of art asso­ci­at­ed with me, how­ev­er indi­rect­ly, of which I’m most proud.

    That Nico’s life was trou­bled is suf­fi­cient­ly doc­u­ment­ed, and the telling of it does not require me “wit­ness­ing” some­thing I had not seen hap­pen, and for that, and in the inter­est of accu­ra­cy, I would like to be excused from your account.

    It is Nico’s great­ness as a per­former, muse, star, poet and songwriter–so admirably and intel­li­gent­ly attest­ed to by Pat­ti Smith’s “Killer Road,” as well as by oth­er artists who per­form Nico’s amaz­ing songs–that mat­ter now, and will mat­ter to the wider world more and more with time’s pass­ing.
    In addi­tion, Nico’s mag­ic, for me specif­i­cal­ly, was as a beau­ti­ful friend whom I loved and miss, a lot.

  • Josh Jones says:

    I’m just see­ing this com­ment, and I have indeed excused you from the account. It’s a sto­ry that has been repeat­ed sev­er­al times in rep­utable sources, and I took it on faith as accu­rate. That was my mis­take. Thanks for shar­ing your mem­o­ries of Nico. She was indeed a bril­liant artist. I don’t believe her trou­bled life cir­cum­stances take away from that.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.