Nico (born Christa Päffgen) (most say October 16, 1938, some say March 15, 1943 – July 18, 1988) was a fashion model, actress, and composer. She is best known as the female lead vocalist (along with male lead Lou Reed) on the debut album by the American rock and roll band, The Velvet Underground.
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Early modeling career
The date and location of her birth are disputed. Most sources state October 16,1938, Cologne, Germany. However, at least two other sources have put her birth date at March 15, 1943, in Budapest, Hungary. Nico made her early fame as a fashion model for various publications across the globe. As a young girl she moved to Paris and met the famed photographer Tobias, who christened her "Nico" after his ex-boyfriend, filmmaker Nico Papatakis. Nico worked for Vogue, Tempo, Vie Nuove, Mascotte Spettacolo, Camera, ELLE, and various other fashion magazines in the late 1950s. She was also hired by Coco Chanel.
La Dolce Vita
After appearing in several commercials, Nico landed a tiny role in Alberto Lattuada's La Tempesta (1958). She then appeared in Rudolph Maté's For the First Time with Mario Lanza. In 1959, she was invited to the set of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita and attracted the attention of the acclaimed director, who promptly gave her a sizable role in his film. By this time, Nico had moved to New York to take acting classes with Lee Strasberg. After splitting her time between New York and Paris, she landed the lead role in Jacques Poitrenaud's Strip-Tease (1963). For that film, Nico recorded the title track, which was produced by Serge Gainsbourg but was not released.
Early films with Warhol
In 1964, Nico met The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones and recorded her first single, "I'm Not Sayin'" for Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate label. Jones introduced her to Bob Dylan through whom she met Andy Warhol. She began working with Warhol and Paul Morrissey on their experimental films, including Chelsea Girls. The Closet, Sunset, and Imitation of Christ.
The Velvet Underground and Nico
While appearing in the Factory films of Warhol, Nico was introduced to The Velvet Underground who were the backing group for the Exploding Plastic Inevitable--a multimedia performance featuring film, music, lights and dancers in a sort of total experience theatre. After Nico was introduced into the Factory fold, she gradually began to work with the Velvets; she sang three songs on their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, released in 1967. The LP is also widely known as The Banana Album, for the sticker of a ripe yellow banana that could be removed from the album's jacket on initial pressings. . Nico also had a short-lived romantic relationship with The Velvet's singer and songwriter, Lou Reed at this time. It was one of several romances with prominent musicians including Jim Morrison, Jackson Browne, Brian Jones and Tim Buckley. Eventually, Nico and the Velvet Underground parted ways as a professional working group. The exact reasons for her departure have not been made clear. However, it is clear that both John Cale and Lou Reed played an instrumental part in various aspects of Nico's solo career. Over the course of the next 20 years, Nico, recorded a series of critically acclaimed albums, working with the likes of Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, and John Cale. Cale, specifically, produced four of Nico's albums as well as arranging and playing various instruments on the recordings. Lou Reed wrote several of the songs on her debut album.
For her debut album, 1968's Chelsea Girl, Nico recorded songs with, among others, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, and John Cale. For her seminal collection, The Marble Index, released in 1969, Nico wrote all the words and music. John Cale produced the album, and he considered it to be the first rock album to completely abandon conventional structures and instrumentation. For this album, Nico played and recorded upon a harmonium, which became her signature instrument for much of the rest of her career. The album combines classical elements with a European folk sound.
Cale also produced both 1970's Desertshore and 1973's The End. Nico continued to employ the harmonium on these albums, as well as spare, avant-garde arrangments, and philosophical lyrics that conveyed images of isolation, power, masculine heroism, and grief affixed to desire. This is perhaps best exemplified in her song, "Valley of the Kings" from The End . In 1974, she recorded the live album June, 1974 with Brian Eno, Kevin Ayers, and John Cale. She also sang on Ayers' album, The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories. For most of the remainder of the decade, Nico split her time between performing, making movies, and occasionally visiting with her son, Ari (now an actor and photographer known as Christian Aaron Boulogne) by actor Alain Delon in 1962. A progressively more demanding heroin habit became a pressing focus as the 1970s drew to a close. Nico's junkie aesthetic has been well documented by her biographers.
Nico recorded her next studio album, Drama of Exile, in 1981. It was a departure from her earlier work with John Cale and featured a mixture of rock and Middle Eastern arrangements. She recorded her final solo album,Camera Obscura in 1985. This album was a highly experimental collection that implemented a Jazz instrumentation. It also featured Nico's version of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart song, My Funny Valentine. A substantial number of Nico's performances towards the end of her life were recorded and have been released. Most noteworthy of these are 1982's Heroine, 1986's Behind the Iron Curtain, and her final concert, Fata Morgana, recorded on June 6, 1988.
Between 1972 and 1979, Nico made 7 films with French director, Philippe Garrel. She met Garrell in 1969 and contributed the song "The Falconer" to his film, Le Lit de la Vierge. Soon after, she was living with Garrel and became a central figure in his cinematic and personal circles. Nico's first acting appearance with Garrel occurred in his 1972 film, La Cicatrice Intérieure. Nico also supplied the music for this film and collaborated closely with the director. Her participation diminished with later films, which included the silent Jean Seberg biopic, Les Hautes Solitudes, released in 1974.
Nico formed a 'domestic partnership' with John Cooper Clarke.
On July 18, 1988, Nico was injured while riding her bicycle near her home in Ibiza. She hit her head and was administered to a local hospital. X-rays revealed severe bleeding in her brain. She died several hours later.
|1967||The Velvet Underground and Nico|
|1969||The Marble Index|
|1974||June 1, 1974|
|1981||Drama of Exile|
|1982||Do or Die: Nico in Europe (tour diary)|
|1985||Nico Live in Pécs|
|1986||Behind the Iron Curtain|
|1987||Nico in Tokyo|
|1988||Fata Morgana (Nico's Last Concert)|
|2002||Innocent & Vain|
- Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon. by Richard Witts, (Virgin Books: London, 1992).
- Up-tight: the Velvet Underground Story by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga (Omnibus Press: London, 1995 reprint).
- Songs They Never Play On the Radio. by James Young, (Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd: London, 1992).