When The Marble Index
appeared in 1969 it seemed unplaceable, flying out
of some timeless place, as if we were hearing from a possessed
medieval abbess intoning her hermetic hymns to a harmonium.
Songs so dense and hypnotic they haunted you for days.
Who was this? And what
did it mean? We knew who Nico wasor thought we knew.
She was the exotic creature in La Dolce Vita, the
enigmatic beauty of Chelsea Girls, the Teutonic
ice goddess who sang with the Velvet Underground, an international
femme fatale who only a year earlier had made a pleasant
pop-folk album with the help of her famous friendsDylan,
Tim Hardin, Tom Buckley, Jackson Brown, et aliaall
smitten by her immaculate, untouchable beauty. And when
that album, Chelsea Girls, came out, one was inclined
to mutter, "Oh, thats who she is." Very nice. A
haute couture model warbling lyrical ballads in a chilling
voice. The bride of Dracula singing at a hootenanny.
Nico was astonishingly
beautiful, radiating an ethereal, icy image that made
her seem like some kind of exquisite replica created by
the doyennes of high fashion, a quality her unearthly
voice seemed to underline. All this seemed astonishing
enough, if a bit ephemeral.
Then came The Marble
Index. At that point we realized, not only did we
not know Nico, this was someone quite other, someone whom
we would never know.
Here were ghostly tunings
of sound and image against a background of spectral tones,
at once hieratic and intimate. Sonic hieroglyphs where
words do strange things, sometimes folding back into themselves
in an envelope of pure sound that seals out interpretation,
the way nursery rhymes or mad peoples songs do.
Under the gothic pressure of her Transylvanian voice,
words mutate into tonal shapes where meaning is overridden
by archaic rhythms. But nothing here is done for effect,
or rather, the effect is reflexive of something interior,
intense and abstruse.
Saturated in ancient folk
tunes and reverberations of Gregorian chant as it is,
The Marble Index never comes off as a self-consciously
archaizing work in the manner of, say, the Incredible
String Band or Steeleye Span. Nico and her sonic doppelganger,
John Cale (who arranged the albums eerie soundbed),
weave a seamless fusion of modes. While they transmute
folk themes and medieval modal forms, their approach is
unflinchingly modernistthe avant-garde at its most
sublime and porous.
But there is nothing decadent
or arbitrary about The Marble Index: its force
comes from its vatic delivery, fragments from an elusive
ancient liturgy. The lyrics are delivered like utterances
of the Pythonness, even when the mood is one of loss and
self-doubt (a common thread in these songs). They have
the spare, urgent, prophetic, and ambivalent tone of a
Cassandra foreseeing her own interior Troy in flames.
Visions delivered from the fastness of a stony island
monastery, yet utterly devoid of portentous late sixties
apocalypticism. Her solitary droning brings to mind the
German ambassador in Alexander Nevsky playing the
Dies Irae on his portable organ before the battle on the
The Marble Index
is, more than anything, insolite, uncanny, in the Surrealists
sense of the word, and, admittedly, an acquired taste,
but for you, o my brothers and sisters, in quest of the
arcane and incandescent, it is an essential album. In
Richard Williamss bemused liner notes you will find
all the biographical information you need: her real name,
her wandering narcotic life, her fate. The more venturesome
will want to catch the documentary Nico: Icon or
dip into James Youngs hair-raising and hilarious
account of playing in her band in The End. Better
still, listen to her albums: Desertshore, The
End, Drama of Exile, Behind the Iron Curtain,
and the sublime single, "Saeta."
Recently one of Nicos
songs appeared in a K-Mart commercial, an unlikely place
to find her even in the afterlife. Some say she is the
originator of Goth, but this is just silly, a misunderstanding,
a pastiche. Nico has no heirs. She is a discrete entity.
Here in a chat with Danny
Fieldswriter, philosopher of Pop, music-biz boulevardier,
and manager of the Ramones, among many other illustrious
accomplishmentsare some glimpses of the Moon Goddess.
Gadfly: When did
you first meet Nico?
Fields: The day one will
never forget. It was 1963, my assassination party, which
was one week after November 22. The gloom and shock was
so paralytic. It was Thanksgiving weekend. People were
coming down from Cambridge and I decided to give a party
for everybody to meet each other and get drunk. The drink
was a large bowl of grapefruit juice, half grapefruit
juice and half vodka which was very potent and Andy and
that crowd was there and other New York people were there
and Nico came in. I had never seen her. No one had ever
seen her. I suppose we had seen her in the movie [Chelsea
Girls] but few had ever seen her in the flesh and
she was breathtaking. She was with some Chilean count
who was later killed in a motorcycle accident. She went
directly to the punch bowl and instead of taking the ladle
and filling the glass, she tossed her head back and ladled
the punch into her mouth, which was magnificent. And then
she fell in love with, had a big crush on this boy named
Seymour Avidor who later on, much later on, appeared in
Female Trouble as Divines lawyer. He was
a brilliant and beautiful little guy who set himself on
fire accidentally and died. She wanted Seymour and he
was totally gay. I had picked him off the street and told
him to get rid of all his rings and necklaces and hed
be beautiful. She seduced him. He actually had sex with
a woman for the first time in his life so I was impressed
with that. We just became friends. I chased the Velvet
Underground around then. A year or so later, Paul put
her in the band, I should say with some reluctance
What? You mean
they were reluctant to have her in the band?
Yeah and eager to be rid
of her once she was in the band.
Oh. Was that why
No, no. It was a combination
of things. You know, she wasnt wanted and she wanted
to do her own songs. And she wanted to be a soloist. She
had a little affair with Jackson Browne and then in fact
had a chance to do the Chelsea Girls record. Paul
[Morrissey] was always sort of protecting her and that
record is mostly songs by Jackson and, who else
Bob Dylan and,
lets see, Tim Hardin
Okay, so she had good taste.
It was sort of a Judy Collinsish approach to who were
the hot new songwriters or not so new. But the next phase
of Nico was the real Nico. She was doing her own songs
and she performed them for me on her little harmonium
and I thought they were magnificent. They were so startling.
And these were
the songs that would be on The Marble Index
And so forth. Yeah. These
were all her own songs and at that time I think I had
established some credibility with Jac Holzman [founder
of Elektra Records] because he thought I had an ear for
the future as it were. Silly man. And the songs just spoke
for themselves. You didnt have to know that they
came from this heavenly creature. She would perform them
at The Scene. Steve Paul gave her a few late nights with
nobody left but us musicians and hangers-on, and she did
them there occasionally. I think the audience response
was something like, "Wow, weird." Or "Hey, Jimi Hendrix
seems to be digging it, so Im not gonna throw beer
cans or anything." I dont know what would have happened
if shed done them in public though.
She came up to Elektra
with her harmonium, and performed some of them for Jac
in his office. And he said, "Fine, as long as it doesnt
cost a lot of money. Lets do a record." Because
he had wonderful taste, has wonderful taste, and I kinda
knew that he would see through the legend, the myth, the
beauty, the goddess. I dont think he wanted to fuck
her. But he decided they needed a legitimate producer.
John Cale had wanted to work with her on these songs and
she wanted to work with him but Jac was nervous about
putting a whole production into John Cale's hands. I suppose
this was before the first Stooges album, which he did.
Im not sure but maybe he thought something this
delicate, not a rock n roll band, needed an
unadventurous production approach, so he assigned Frasier
Mohawkwhose real name was Barry Slotkin. He was
later thrown out of the company for molesting all the
young boys at the Elektra Mountain Lodge. They would spend
the night trembling in their closets because he was prowling
the halls. The Marble Index was done in the Elektra
Studios in La Cienega and in very few takes. Frasier Mohawk
had nothing to do
he just sat there.
thought that John Cale had produced it.
Yeah, Johns the de
facto producer. Frasier Mohawk is the producer of the
record simply because Jac wanted somebody connected with
the record company there. He didnt want it to be
completely up to the artistic eccentricity of this duo.
But in fact thats what happened. I dont think
there was literally one creative inputting from Frasier
Mohawk. Not to denigrate him as a producer, Im sure
he did good work elsewhere, but he couldnt move
into that partnership speaking any language that they
understood. John just invented those arrangements on the
And the title?
She found it in Wordsworth.
I dont know how much Wordsworth she had read but
she ran it by me and I found it sufficiently Gothic, pure,
and lovely and meaningless. Its "a marble index
of a mind gone mad" or something like that. And then Guy
Webster did that beautiful cover picture and that was
a great choice. And there it was. Then came the affairs
with Iggy and Morrison and all that, but this was a masterpiece.
Of course, it must have sold all of three-and-a-half copies.
It left very little mark on the recording industry then
or since. It was an adventure and Howard Thompson was
hip enough to re-release it to put it on a CD to go into
the vaults with John and put other stuff on it.
"Roses in the
Snow" and "Nibelungen" were added on the re-release of
The Marble Index, but they dont sound like
outtakes at alltheyre of a piece with the
rest of the album.
I think it was a matter
of timing. Because "Nibelungen" was a wonderful
And a capella. That was
kind of amazing. That she sang her songs just the same
way a capella.
I dont remember which
came first, the arrangements or the vocals. I think she
stood there with the headphones doing it while John swirled
the orchestrations around her. I suppose a combination
of both. But she could do it because when she was performing
on the harmonium it was essentially a capella. It was
just every 10 seconds there would be a hmmmmmm,
you know, coming out of that thing. It was not like she
was tickling it or fingering it, she was hmmmmm.
It was just sort of a sound, a chord, and she would be
off from there so I dont know if it will be discovered
in her lifetime except by the likes of Marianne Faithfull
and people like yourself. It is so punitively difficult
but it is not difficult at all, the heaviness, the Teutonicness
and John Cales avant-gardeness and all that. It
adds to a fully acceptable sound. I recently saw Paul
[Morrissey] and he was telling me little stories about
the Underground and how they hated her and got rowdy when
she made her album, her solo album, and I said, "Paul,
she made several solo albums." "Naw, there was only one
good album, Chelsea Girls." "No, what about The
Marble Index? Youve never really listened to
it, right?" "Well
." So I scolded him, but he hates
music anyhow. So I said, "Its a great masterpiece
and there were several good albums after that. You must
find them and get them." I think one of them was the music
for a film she did for another boyfriend. Theres
a picture of her on the cover and shes riding through
the desert on a pony or a camel or something and thats
the whole movie. It was one of Antonionis walks
where she does nothing through the movie but ride through
the desert on a camel. Thats on the album Desertshore.
lyrics. But I have no idea what theyre about.
No one does.
And yet they dont
seem to be arbitrary.
No, they make sense. She
is an extraordinary poet in a language that was not her
own. They make sense the way Wallace Stevens makes sense
even though you dont know what he is talking about
when you first encounter him. She had a wonderful gift
for discovering the English language on the spot. Thats
what she did, you know. If its a word or if its
not, I dont care. That was the way she expressed
herself. She knew what she was saying, you knew
what she was saying, but it certainly wasnt conventional
emotive English expression at all. And yet it worked.
Sometimes it seems
as if shes using the sound tones of English as in
"Lawns of Dawns," as if English were a musical scale and
it was through the sound of the word itself that she wants
to convey something.
The very title of the album
is a conceit, a paradox, and thats the sense you
get. Theyre not contradictory; someone just connected
them and they speak.
Was she an intellectual
of sorts? I mean theres not many singers or pop
stars that read Wordsworth and find phrases like that.
I know. I guess she probably
dabbled and opened something and found something and fell
in love with it. I dont think she was doing an at-home
course in late 18th century poetry and came
across that. I think it just happened. So I dont
know where she found these things. She had her own little
treasury of books that she loved. They were probably iconic
to her. Funny to pick Wordsworth. Hes so out of
What was she like
to be with? Was she inscrutable as a person when you talked
Oh she was tinkly, very
pleasant, she laughed unless she was being truly sorry
for herself. She was astute. You sort of had to do your
own translation of what she was getting at. When I flew
to Ann Arbor to be a Velvet Underground groupie when they
were playing at the University of Michigan and they were
on a bus, she was driving the bus. It was amazing. She
would go across lawns. She was wild but she was seriously
a good driver. An illegal daredevil, but boy she knew
what she was doing. She wasnt like a drunk driver.
She was ferocious, like a movie car chase where they do
things that you cant do but you do them. And if
youre the hero you dont get killed. She was
broody. She knew what she wanted. She was flirtatious,
certainly, with guys. We would sit around and talk and
she would ask you about herself or sometimes about you.
There was the occasional hair-raising incident, early
warnings of the total destruction that was to come.
Did you read James Youngs
book, The End? Its hilarious. Thats
what she was like. She was a hoot. That got her better
than anybody. I dont know him. I didnt really
know her at that extreme junkie phase of her life but
I absolutely dont think he made up a thing. I think
it exactly sounds like her. There is the best verbal description
analysis capturing of Nico that I ever saw. And even though
it was a stage of her life that was completely going to
pieces because of drugs, its still her. The brilliance,
the charm, the demanding, the royal aspect of it. Thats
her. And as shes remembered in the movie is her
too. She could not be simplified or classified but she
was like a sister. She was warm and cuddly and, "Oh, do
you think he really likes me?" "Oh, if I have a ticket
from Los Angeles to New York, can I use the ticket to
go from New York to Los Angeles?" "No, Nico, you have
to get a new ticket." "Oh, but its
She appeared to be guileless;
she wasnt guileless. She knew the power she had
over men. You know, boys. They, without exception,
fell in love with her and felt terrified. Especially cute
boys because she would give a little look at them, cast
her spell, and then turn away so they would be trembling,
"I love her so much but shes so scary. I dont
know." And we would have to say, "There, there", whatever-the-boys-name-was.
"Shes very nice. She wont bite you." "Oh,
but shes so beautiful." "No. No. Shes a human
being. Shes a woman. She likes sex. She likes boys.
Go to it. Get into that orbit. Shell take care of
the rest. Youll get to fuck her." "Oh, no, shes
untouchable." "No, kid. Ask her a question and shell
pick you up by the back of the neck and take you to bed.
Dont worry." I think it was Donald Lyons that named
her the Moon Goddess, "Nico the Moon Goddess will be performing
In her photographs she
looks glacially beautiful but unapproachable.
She was not icy except
by choice and if you thought that of her that was (a)
what she wanted you to think and (b) if it was a problem,
it was your problem. She wasnt icy. It was a persona.
As with every star. There was Nico, and then there was
Christa Paffgen but nobody calls her Christa Paffgen.
You know she was a mother. She was a caring mother. She
wanted her career. She was easily hurt, easily wounded,
very sensitive. [in Nicos sepulchral German accent]
"Oh, he does not like my song." "Oh, Lou is so mean to
me." A lot of that. Of course, they had an affair. And
that situation became untenable. They didnt want
her in the band. It was just an impossible situation,
and anyway, she had enough celebrity of her own.
To an outsider
it was such a perfect combination. There was this strange
mutant rock and roll and Nicos otherworldly voice.
And then came The Marble Index where you have what
sounds like Hildegard of Bingen singing mystic hymns from
an interior Middle Ages in the middle of the 20th
I think its the things
she worethe black robes and the high boots and the
brown carpet thing. She was like no one else. I dont
think she had many girlfriends. She was like so many of
them are: a mans woman. I dont think, well,
the girls around then were so nuts, anyhow. She stayed
in Los Angeles with Edie Sedgwick at the Castle. I mean,
my God, the two of them chasing after whatever drugs were
around. I cant imagine they sat and had a girlie
talk, though. Well, maybe they did. You know, its
one of those things. Like Jane Austen cant picture
a conversation between men, so she never does it. I cant
picture a conversation between women like Nico and Edie
Sedgwick. And I wont even try.
What an interesting
I still can remember the
bottom line. Songwriter, all this other stuff that blinds
you easily. Physically a blinding effect and she was so
afraid and she knew that she had this great beauty and
this great mystery but she was so worried ("but I want
them to know my songs") and people would say, "Yeah, yeah.
Now she writes songs. What a day. What else does she do?"
But look at those songs; theyre amazing. The great
art songs of the sixties. I mean Paul Bowles and Ned Warrenæ
theyre pieces of shit. Those are the great art songs.
Modernist lieder. I
didnt realize until last summer that Andrew Oldham
had produced one of Nicos songs.
Its in the movie,
Perhaps he thought,
"How do we do an early sixties English pop song for this
displaced person?" Let me ask you about the time Nico
sang "Deutschland Uber Alles" to an audience in Berlin
and they went berserk.
No sense of humor. She
was deliberately provoking themthey just didnt
You mean like
Brian Joness "I wear the Nazi uniform to show I
am not a Nazi."
She was so far from being
a Naziexcept maybe all Germans are Nazis.
I think its
interesting that she was born in Budapest and her father
was Yugoslavian, because in a way that sort of cultural
background is similar to Marianne Faithfulls. Its
a strange kind of place to come from. They are still in
the Middle Ages. Its quite different from being
German. I mean, if you go to Prague, its kinda of
like you are in the 12th century. But let me
ask you, she did seem to have a healthy dose of self-destruction,
She didnt seem to
help herself in many instances, but she felt she could
indulge those impulses because there were always men around.
There was always a cushion of guardians. There was a Paul
Morrissey or there was someone in place there
Warhol. We all took care of her. And she knew that was
there. She knew that she could do frail and helpless.
Getting a phone call in the middle of the night. "Oh,
Danny, I must have some heroin. Can you give me $10?"
And Id have to tell her, "Nico, not for that. Leave
me alone. Its the middle of the night." People would
say to me, "You talk to her like that? You know, shes
Nico." But you could talk to her like that.
"Fuck off, Nico. Youre being a pain in the ass.
Leave me alone, Nico. Goodbye." Click. But she knew who
loved her. And she knew she could do that one. At the
end of the day we would be there for her as much as you
could, but you cant be there for a junkie. Im
sorry. You cant. We revert to our distress many,
many times. You cant be there for a junkie. And
that book, Nico, The End, with this valiant
bunch of guys trying to be there for this junkie who was
deteriorating. What could you do? I love that story; they
get to some town in Eastern Europe and they call the promoter
and they say to him, "We need some, er, fuel for
Nico." And the promoter says, "Fine, Ill be there."
Can you picture the outskirts of some godforsaken place
by the electric plant and when the promoter arrives, hes
carrying gasoline? And Nico goes crazy. If she
hadnt been jonesing she would have laughed at that
herself. Thats the way she was. She loved the absurdities
When The Marble
Index came out in the late sixties we were in a period
of experimentation in rock, all sorts of modes being fused
onto itjazz, ragas, Stockhausen, Yokoand people
were more receptive to such curiosities, but I wonder,
outside of the Halloween world of Goth, whether today
her hermetic lyrics may not seem more inaccessible than
ever, and if her imagethat perfect aloof sixties
faceisnt the one indelible thing that people
know about her in an era where the image is triumphant.
In Nico: Icon, at
the very beginning of the documentary, before anything
is identified, there is a voice-over from me which says
something to the effect that she has to be recognizedas
the songwritereverything else about her, especially
her beauty, is obscuring her genius as a songwriter. Then
I thought, God, her songwriting has a lot of competition
when it comes to the legend of Nico: her romances and
her beauty and her tragedy. And her demise and her addictions
and all that. But its still gonna be here, and all
the rest of it is gonna be apocryphal stories and memories
in the minds of dead people. The songs are there forever.