The Germanic beauty known to the world only as Nico was born Christa Päffgen in Cologne in Germany, on the 16th of October, 1938. At the age of two, her mother brought her to live with her grandfather, a railway man, in the town of Spreewald outside of Berlin. Her father died in a concentration camp.

When the Russian invasion occured in 1946, Nico and her mother were lucky enough to make it to the American side of the Berlin Wall, where Nico worked part-time as a seamstress, until she finished school and started work selling lingerie. During this time, she was raped by an American sergeant, who was later executed for his crime. At the age of fifteen, her mother found her work as a model, for a Berlin fashion house; they sent her on an assignment to Ibiza, which was to start her long association with the island. The photographer she worked with gave her the name Nico, after his last boyfriend. The name seemed to stick.

In 1958, Nico landed her first movie role, a bit-part in Rudolph Maté's For The First Time, which also starred Mario Lanza. While on a holiday in Rome, she was invited to the set of La Dolce Vita, where she was noticed by the director Federico Fellini, who gave her a role in the film on the spot. Buoyed by her film roles, Nico's modelling career took off, and she began work for Coco Chanel in Paris.

In 1960, Nico left Europe for New York, with the intention of modelling and becoming a serious actress, and she promptly enrolled in Lee Strassberg's method school, joining the same class as Marilyn Monroe. In 1962, she landed a major role in the French film Strip-tease, and recorded the title track with Serge Gainsbourg; an alternate version of the song with Juliette Greco was released instead, however. In 1964, she met Brian Jones, and, through him, Andrew Loog Oldham; Oldhamn immediately signed her to record a single for his Immediate record label, a cover of Gordon Lightfoot's I'm Not Sayin, with Jones on guitar, and produced by Jimmy Page. Unfortunately, this flopped, and Nico returned to New York.

When she returned to New York, Nico started an affair with French actor Alain Delon, whom she had previously met on the set of La Dolce Vita. They eventually had a son together, Ari. The next star to enter Nico's orbit was Bob Dylan, whom she met in Paris. He encouraged her to persevere with her singing career, and gave her a song, I'll Keep It With Mine, and later wrote Visions Of Johanna, from the album Blonde On Blonde, for her. Dylan also introduced her to Andy Warhol, who immediately adored her, and made her part of his multi-media Exploding Plastic Inevitable troupe. Andy introduced her in turn to his then "house band", The Velvet Underground.

Nico became a focal point for Andy's shows from then on; it seemed that he was vicariously singing through her. Although the Velvets accepted Andy's advice to put Nico up front, and Lou even had an affair with her, her tenure didn't last too long. After she broke up with Lou (with the words "I cannot make love to Jews anymore"), and demanded that she be allowed to sing all the songs, things started coming to a head. She hung on long enough to sing three classics on the Velvets Warhol-produced debut, The Velvet Underground And Nico (the songs being Femme Fatale, All Tomorrow's Parties and I'll Be Your Mirror), but was soon ousted from the line-up by the jealous Reed.

By this stage, though, Nico had started to perform as a solo artist; Andy had gotten her a regular gig at The Dom Club, where she sang accompanied by one of Tim Buckley, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, or, most frequently, the then 16-year-old Jackson Browne on guitar. Her next move was to record her solo debut, Chelsea Girl, which was produced by Tom Wilson and featured unrecorded Velvet Undergound material, as well as songs by Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Lou Reed and John Cale. The title track was written by Reed and Morrison for the Warhol film of the same name, and the album went on to be a critical success. It is considered to be Nico's most accessible album; John Cale notes that it is also the album in which he was least involved.

During 1967's Summer Of Love, Nico developed an interest in Psychedelics, and her new lover, Jim Morrison; so she moved to Los Angeles, to record her second album, The Marble Index, which was produced and arranged by John Cale. It was snubbed by the critics, however, and without a manager to arrange tours for her, Nico made little inroads as a singer, and she spent most of the 70's in thrall to heroin, releasing only two albums (Desertshore, again produced by John Cale, in 1971, and The End in 1974) and taking the odd film role. In 1974, Lou Reed offered to help her out, and write some songs for her; but all he was really interested in was tormenting the poor girl; getting high on amphetamines, smoking endless Marlboros and eating pints of ice cream, while not letting Nico have a drop.

Nico's fortunes met with a slight upturn towards the end of the decade, being cited as a major influence by Patti Smith; but the pandemonium of punk was simply too undignified for her, and it wasn't until 1981 that Nico managed to pick herself up and start touring properly. She recorded Drama Of Exile in London, and subsequently played about 1000 shows, with the assistance of Alan White, and recorded a more successful studio album, 1985's Camera Obscura (with John Cale), in the last seven years of her life.

On the 18th July, 1988, on a visit to Ibiza, Nico tragically suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage in a cycling accident. This was all the more tragic because she had practically quit all drugs, and finally had her life in order. Her ashes were placed in her mother's grave at the Grunewald Forest cemetery outside Berlin. Ten years later, Nico's life was to be celebrated in ballet, when John Cale teamed up with the Scapino Company in her honour.


References:

  • http://www.allmusic.com
    Always a great help for trivia about musicians, both famous and obscure.
  • http://smironne.free.fr/NICO/bio.html
    My primary online source of information - a well-written, although scatty, piece about Nico's life.
  • What's Welsh For Zen by John Cale and Victor Bockris; also Lou Reed by Victor Bockris.
    Biographies of the two Velevet Underground main-men. Both very good books.
  • The Rough Guide To Rock (2nd Edition)
    A very comprehensive Rock encyclopedia; without it, I wouldn't have known about the ballet.

Further Reading: I should get Songs They Never Play On The Radio, James Young's acclaimed biography of Nico.


Dedicated to TheDeadGuy - next time, go buy a book! :P

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