The Marble Index
David Dalton talks to Danny Fields about Nico's Classic Album

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 was—or 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 friends—Dylan, Tim Hardin, Tom Buckley, Jackson Brown, et alia—all smitten by her immaculate, untouchable beauty. And when that album, Chelsea Girls, came out, one was inclined to mutter, "Oh, that’s 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 people’s 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 album’s eerie soundbed), weave a seamless fusion of modes. While they transmute folk themes and medieval modal forms, their approach is unflinchingly modernist—the 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 ice.

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 Williams’s 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 Young’s 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 Nico’s 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 Fields—writer, philosopher of Pop, music-biz boulevardier, and manager of the Ramones, among many other illustrious accomplishments—are 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 Divine’s 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 he’d 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 she left?

No, no. It was a combination of things. You know, she wasn’t 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, let’s 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 didn’t 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 I’m not gonna throw beer cans or anything." I don’t know what would have happened if she’d 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 doesn’t cost a lot of money. Let’s 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 don’t 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. I’m not sure but maybe he thought something this delicate, not a rock ’n’ roll band, needed an unadventurous production approach, so he assigned Frasier Mohawk—whose 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.

I’d always thought that John Cale had produced it.

Yeah, John’s the de facto producer. Frasier Mohawk is the producer of the record simply because Jac wanted somebody connected with the record company there. He didn’t want it to be completely up to the artistic eccentricity of this duo. But in fact that’s what happened. I don’t think there was literally one creative inputting from Frasier Mohawk. Not to denigrate him as a producer, I’m sure he did good work elsewhere, but he couldn’t move into that partnership speaking any language that they understood. John just invented those arrangements on the spot.

And the title?

She found it in Wordsworth. I don’t know how much Wordsworth she had read but she ran it by me and I found it sufficiently Gothic, pure, and lovely and meaningless. It’s "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 don’t sound like outtakes at all—they’re of a piece with the rest of the album.

I think it was a matter of timing. Because "Nibelungen" was a wonderful song…

And a capella. That was kind of amazing. That she sang her songs just the same way a capella.

I don’t 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 don’t 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 Cale’s 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? You’ve never really listened to it, right?" "Well…." So I scolded him, but he hates music anyhow. So I said, "It’s 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. There’s a picture of her on the cover and she’s riding through the desert on a pony or a camel or something and that’s the whole movie. It was one of Antonioni’s walks where she does nothing through the movie but ride through the desert on a camel. That’s on the album Desertshore.

They’re amazing lyrics. But I have no idea what they’re about.

No one does.

And yet they don’t 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 don’t know what he is talking about when you first encounter him. She had a wonderful gift for discovering the English language on the spot. That’s what she did, you know. If it’s a word or if it’s not, I don’t care. That was the way she expressed herself. She knew what she was saying, you knew what she was saying, but it certainly wasn’t conventional emotive English expression at all. And yet it worked.

Sometimes it seems as if she’s 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 that’s the sense you get. They’re not contradictory; someone just connected them and they speak.

Was she an intellectual of sorts? I mean there’s 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 don’t think she was doing an at-home course in late 18th century poetry and came across that. I think it just happened. So I don’t 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. He’s so out of fashion.

What was she like to be with? Was she inscrutable as a person when you talked to her?

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 wasn’t like a drunk driver. She was ferocious, like a movie car chase where they do things that you can’t do but you do them. And if you’re the hero you don’t 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 Young’s book, The End? It’s hilarious. That’s what she was like. She was a hoot. That got her better than anybody. I don’t know him. I didn’t really know her at that extreme junkie phase of her life but I absolutely don’t 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, it’s still her. The brilliance, the charm, the demanding, the royal aspect of it. That’s her. And as she’s 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 it’s…."

She appeared to be guileless; she wasn’t 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 she’s so scary. I don’t know." And we would have to say, "There, there", whatever-the-boy’s-name-was. "She’s very nice. She won’t bite you." "Oh, but she’s so beautiful." "No. No. She’s a human being. She’s a woman. She likes sex. She likes boys. Go to it. Get into that orbit. She’ll take care of the rest. You’ll get to fuck her." "Oh, no, she’s untouchable." "No, kid. Ask her a question and she’ll pick you up by the back of the neck and take you to bed. Don’t worry." I think it was Donald Lyons that named her the Moon Goddess, "Nico the Moon Goddess will be performing tonight but…."

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 wasn’t 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 Nico’s 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 didn’t 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 Nico’s 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 century.

I think it’s the things she wore—the black robes and the high boots and the brown carpet thing. She was like no one else. I don’t think she had many girlfriends. She was like so many of them are: a man’s woman. I don’t 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 can’t imagine they sat and had a girlie talk, though. Well, maybe they did. You know, it’s one of those things. Like Jane Austen can’t picture a conversation between men, so she never does it. I can’t picture a conversation between women like Nico and Edie Sedgwick. And I won’t even try.

What an interesting image, though.

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; they’re amazing. The great art songs of the sixties. I mean Paul Bowles and Ned Warrenæ they’re pieces of shit. Those are the great art songs.

Modernist lieder. I didn’t realize until last summer that Andrew Oldham had produced one of Nico’s songs.

It’s in the movie, Nico: Icon.

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 them—they just didn’t get it.

You mean like Brian Jones’s "I wear the Nazi uniform to show I am not a Nazi."

She was so far from being a Nazi—except maybe all Germans are Nazis.

I think it’s 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 Faithfull’s. It’s a strange kind of place to come from. They are still in the Middle Ages. It’s quite different from being German. I mean, if you go to Prague, it’s 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, didn’t she?

She didn’t 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 … Andy 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 I’d have to tell her, "Nico, not for that. Leave me alone. It’s the middle of the night." People would say to me, "You talk to her like that? You know, she’s Nico." But you could talk to her like that. "Fuck off, Nico. You’re 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 can’t be there for a junkie. I’m sorry. You can’t. We revert to our distress many, many times. You can’t 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, I’ll be there." Can you picture the outskirts of some godforsaken place by the electric plant and when the promoter arrives, he’s carrying gasoline? And Nico goes crazy. If she hadn’t been jonesing she would have laughed at that herself. That’s the way she was. She loved the absurdities of life.

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 it—jazz, ragas, Stockhausen, Yoko—and 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 image—that perfect aloof sixties face—isn’t 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 recognized—as the songwriter—everything 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 it’s 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.