Monday 21 April 2008

Nico – My Part In Her Fame

In 1974 I worked as a press officer at Island Records. It says something of the artistic license an A&R man could take in those times that he signed both John Cale and Nico almost purely on their reputation as Velvet Undergrounders. Cale was musically and philosophically close to another Island signing, Brian Eno, and it wasn’t long before they were partners in mischief. Completing the label’s artistic coven was Kevin Ayers, founding member of Soft Machine and enjoying a certain muso credibility for having discovered Mike Oldfield, then riding high with the all-conquering ‘Tubular Bells’.

But how to sell this arcane quartet to the huddled masses…. How about an old-fashioned revue, art-style?

So it came to pass on June 1, 1974 that the four played The Rainbow. With one exception it was a guitar jamboree: Kevin had Oldfield with him, the shyest guy in show business. Eno played the epic “Baby’s On Fire”. Cale seared the unsuspecting audience with his volcanic interpretation of “Heartbreak Hotel”. The exception was Nico. Alone at her harmonium she pumped out a trio of mournful odes, none more doleful than her bus drive through “The End”.

The event was recorded, packaged and released exactly three weeks later, a monumental effort in logistics. My role was to kindle and feed the excitement of the press.

Seven years on from The Velvet Underground, Nico still looked beautiful but her face had hardened. She wore gowns and a cloak, hiding who knew what state of body. Singing, conversations, publicity…each was approached the same way. Her interviews had journalists reaching for the thesaurus: funereal, sombre, gloomy, melancholy, monotone. Because she didn’t care about “career moves” and being your friend, she seemed arctic. I liked her.

I never had a natural conversation with her. I’m not sure anyone did. It was more like a series of pronouncements that you explored for hooks with which to construct replies. Even Cale, who was in the middle of making his third album with her, seemed to have the same conversational dynamic. Her voice was just like on record but maybe even slower. Every sentence sounded like a definitive statement, an effect that worked really well when we spent half a bus ride talking about how masks were used on the ancient Greek stage. (Yes, “I took a face from the ancient gallery” ran through my mind more than once.)

Underneath the surface lurked a considerable humour, expressed through sardonic jokes and an almost secret smile that would surface in the silences. Maybe she was just laughing at our attempts to reply.

She usually had a bottle of red wine in her hand, from which she regularly sipped. “It tastes much better from the bottle. In a glass it doesn’t taste as good. She confided with such certainty that I started thinking I should change the way I drank. Supplementing it was a small hash pipe. Often the two went in circular sequence.

Nico’s solo oeuvre was a very arcane taste. She was possibly alone in “rock music” to create the sounds she did – music was linear in those days. ACNE, as the quartet was called, did several gigs around the country and while her music was alien to almost everyone’s taste, her focus, concentration and otherworldliness always made me pay attention. My mind didn’t wander when she was on stage.

The last time I saw her was in the Island press office. She was sitting on a sofa by the door, half-empty wine bottle on the floor by her feet, hash pipe between her lips while we talked about upcoming interviews. The label president stepped through the door, not noticing her as he asked someone a question. Then he smelled the sweet fumes and looked down for a long ten seconds. When he looked back up you could see a shutter come down to his right and she ceased to exist in his presence.

Her album (‘The End’) came out soon after, but it was never going to sell to anyone who wasn’t already interested. The label didn’t renew her contract.

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