“What would you think if I sang out of key?” Well, in Nico’s case, it’s kind of charming, but then that depends on what kind of ears you have. I love the way she sings, but I know some people who are driven mad by her voice, but like Bob Dylan she uses it to invest the song in emotion and meaning.
On the liner notes of her Chelsea Girl album, she talks about the way she sings:
“I don’t even see that it makes a difference,” she replied finally, “because everyday I feel that the day before doesn’t count … so much happens … I don’t sing for the audience. I try to remain as much alone as I can … not to make contact at all. (Except for the people who come every night).”
“I like sad songs, tragic ones… I like to improvise with the notes, with the feeling I have at the time about the song.”
“They think I’m not polite … but whatever I have to say to these people seems so unnecessary … I just can’t be around … be around anything that is forced … I’d rather just remain how I feel … what happened before happened … now it’s only sentiment that you can’t scratch out.”
Nico sounds like she comes from a different planet. She thinks about the world in a different way to most. And her singing reflects that, strangely existential, half warm and engaging, half cold and distant. Songs have been written about her, given to her. She was tough as nails, sharp as a tack and effortlessly cool. One of the few people who could outdo Lou Reed in the biting put-down stakes. She chose to break off her relationship to the then besotted Reed in a crowded room with the words: “I cannot make love to Jews anymore.”
She was born in Cologne, Germany in 1938, five years after the Nazis had come to power. When she was two she moved with her mother and grandfather to the Spreewald Forest outside Berlin. Her father was enlisted as a soldier during the war and sustained head injuries that caused serious brain damage. He died in a concentration camp. In 1946 Nico and her mother moved to downtown Berlin, where Nico worked as a seamstress. She went to school until age 13, and then started selling lingerie in the exclusive department store KaDe, as a result she got modelling jobs in Berlin. With her unique chiseled looks she became a famous fashion model as a teenager.
At the age of 15, Nico was said to have been raped by a G.I. of the U.S. Air Force who was tried and sentenced to death by shooting as a consequence. Her tour manager said late on in her career that…
“Not only does she have to carry the horror of the rape but the secret guilt of somehow being complicit, by her testimony, in his execution. Sex, for Nico is irrevocably associated with punishment.”
At age 16 she was discovered by photographer Herbert Tobias at a fashion show in Berlin and it was he who gave her the adopted name ‘Nico’ after his ex boyfriend film-maker Nikos Papatakis. With her new name, she moved to Paris and began working for Vogue and other fashion magazines. By 17 she was contracted by Coco Chanel to promote their products, but she fled to New York and abandoned the job. She learned to speak English, Spanish and French along the way.
She was given a minor role in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita 1959, after catching the eye of the director. She appeared as the cover model of jazz pianist Bill Evan’s 1962 album Moon Beams and then won the lead role in Jacques Poitrenaud’s Strip-Tease in 1963. She recorded the title-track, sung in French and written by Serge Gainsbourg, but this was not released until 2001.
She made friends in New York with Brian Jones and later Bob Dylan and got involved in the music scene, releasing the single I’m Not Saying before ending up at Warhol’s Factory. Andy was so taken by her that he wanted her to front the in-house band The Velvet Underground. Lou Reed was particularly put out, as he was the lead singer and songwriter of the group. Andy felt they needed a charismatic stage presence.
Reed was eventually persuaded by Warhol to include her in the group and wrote the songs I’ll Be Your Mirror and Femme Fatale for her to sing. She was also the inspiration for both songs. Check out Song of the Week 7 to read about Reed’s solo epic Street Hassle.
Her distinctive style and stage presence seized the attention of the audience, and though she sang less songs that Reed, her charisma was a big part of the early attention they received. Victor Bockris, Velvets and Reed biographer wrote about this in 1995:
“Onstage in her white pantsuit, she was the centre of attention. She was an inch taller than Cale, and despite the fact that Reed sang most of the songs, everything was geared so that she just had to stand there to command attention. Every drug-induced movement she made became significant. It was a talent she had developed in her years as a model with which Lou Reed could not compete.”
And here’s a quote from John Cale’s 1999 autobiography What’s Welsh For Zen? (which is a great read by the way)…
I’ll return to talk about John Cale’s Paris 1919 in Song of the week 58.
“Nico intended to sing all the songs and, at first, looked upon us as a hired back-up band. We had a different idea. However, remarkably quickly, and as a sign of Warhol’s amazing ability to overcome objections and get things done his way, we agreed to let Nico sing a few songs and otherwise stand on the stage looking unenthusiastic and play the tambourine. She was tone deaf and had an abrasive voice, but it turned out to be a great casting.”
Indeed it was, and although Cale didn’t think much of her singing talents, he could see how well she suited the band. She was a perfect fit for the abrasive, anti-pop, feedback driven Velvets. Andy Warhol’s favourite song was All Tomorrow´s Parties, one of the three songs Nico sings on the Velvet Underground & Nico, the only album she would record with them.
Sterling Morrison said of her time in the band:
“There were problems from the very beginning because there were only so many songs that were appropriate for Nico and she wanted to sing them all… And she would try and do little sexual politics things in the band. Whoever seemed to be having undue influence on the course of events, you’d find Nico close by. So she went from Lou to Cale, but neither of those affairs lasted very long.”
Her time in the group was also short-lived. Her insistence on singing all the songs didn’t go down well, and the love-affairs with Reed and Cale didn’t help either. Reed would verbally attack his Femme Fatale at every opportunity, criticising her singing ability and time-keeping, and by the second album she was out.
So what chance did a 18 year old boy from out west have when he was seduced by her charms. Jackson Browne arrived in New York at age 16 with a song in his pocket that belied his age. The world weary These Days sounds like it was written by someone much older.
It wasn’t the only song contributed by Browne on the Chelsea Girl album. He also co-wrote the opening track The Fairest of the Seasons and Somewhere There’s a Feather.
In spite of the conflict she had caused in the group, Velvet Underground members Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and John Cale all came together and helped out with the solo album, Reed contributing the ‘title track’ Chelsea Girls, co-written by Morrison, and with Cale helping write other tracks along with Reed. Flute and string arrangements were overdubbed without Nico’s permission, by producer Tom Wilson, and although Nico wasn’t happy with them, they mostly don’t overwhelm the sound, and for me, they add to the ambience. Other contributors were Bob Dylan, who gave Nico I’ll Keep It With Mine, and Tim Hardin’s Eulogy to Lenny Bruce, who according to the liner notes was one of Nico’s favourite people.
Here’s what Nico had to say about it:
“I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! […] They added strings, and— I didn’t like them, but I could live with them. But the flute! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute.”
Sounds like Nico isn’t a fan of flutes. The album didn’t sell very well. Little that the Velvet Underground members touched back then did, but it´s one of those lost cult classics that stands the test of time. Anyway, they weren’t all that interested in being popular, infamous maybe, but popularity not so much. 🙂 Nico had already tasted fame in her life, with her modelling work in Germany and her acting work in the intervening years. She was more interested in things that were real, authentic. She would plough distinctive and uncompromising furrow in her later solo work, but you can hear the seeds of what would come on the only song she co-wrote here It Was a Pleasure Then (Nico, Reed, Cale).
John Cale would go on to produce her next album The Marble Index, on which he played all the instruments apart from Nico’s harmonium. Nico wrote all the songs bar one. One of the songs Lawns of Dawns was about her experience of taking peyote with Jim Morrison in the California Desert in the late 60’s. Many consider the album her masterpiece.
These Days was recorded many times before Jackson eventually got around to recording it properly himself on his second album, For Everyman in 1973. He probably felt like he needed to record a new version of it, rather than walk over the same ground already covered by Nico.
It’s a little country, and brings a different perspective to the lyric, but it doesn’t come close to the Chelsea Girl version for me. I think this is a song where we have to acknowledge what the singer brings to it. That’s not to downplay Browne’s contribution, he was clearly a gifted songwriter and as you can hear by his demo from 1966/67 he was responsible for the structure of the version she sang too, and it sounds like she mimicked his singing too. “I thought that was her German accent! She was just doing me! That’s funny” It was originally entitled “I’ve Been Out Walking”
Andy Warhol wanted the song to sound more modern, so Browne agreed to play electric guitar on the Nico version. Browne joked that they then put a string quartet on the song, which was “very modern!” Here’s Jackson Browne listening back to his own demo of the song, which he hadn’t heard in a long time, and talking about the inspiration behind it.
“It was just telling my truth, the truth of my life.”
Jackson was born in Heidelberg, Germany, where his father, an American serviceman was stationed for a job with the Stars & Stripes newspaper. He moved to Los Angeles at the age of 3 and began singing folk music in the famous Troubador Club and Ash Grove as a teenager. He moved to Greenwich Village, New York in early ’66 at age 17. Early on he was involved with the burgeoning Laurel Canyon/Topango scene, which would blossom so fruitfully in years to come. He would become one of the major players on that scene, one of David Geffen’s handful of favourite artists who he treated like royalty.
Lastly, there’s one other version of the song, which deserves an honourable mention. Greg Allman’s 1973 version from his solo album Laid Back.
But here’s the first recording of the song in all its splendour. Nico – These Days. Enjoy!
I’ve been out walking
I don’t do too much talking
These days, these days.
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do
And all the times I had the chance to.
I’ve stopped my rambling,
I don’t do too much gambling
These days, these days.
These days I seem to think about
How all the changes came about my ways
And I wonder if I’ll see another highway.
I had a lover,
I don’t think I’ll risk another
These days, these days.
And if I seem to be afraid
To live the life that I have made in song
It’s just that I’ve been losing so long.
La la la la la, la la.
I’ve stopped my dreaming,
I won’t do too much scheming
These days, these days.
These days I sit on corner stones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten.
Please don’t confront me with my failures,
I had not forgotten them.