Next Sunday, March 12, marks the 50th anniversary of the debut album by the Velvet Underground: a band so generally groundbreaking, it can be easy to forget that they were also one of the few 1960s rock groups to include women in their lineup. Indeed, for the first two years of their existence, the VU had two women in the group: drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker, and German-born model-turned-Factory-girl-turned-“chanteuse” Christa Päffgen, better known as Nico.
These days, Nico tends to be viewed as a footnote in the VU’s history: being forced into a band with two legendary egos (Lou Reed and John Cale) at the behest of another legendary ego (Andy Warhol) will do that to you. But she inarguably contributed to the early group’s avant-garde cool, her Teutonic detachment and impeccable coiffure lending her the air of a Weimar-chic Twiggy. And, contrary to popular belief, her contributions weren’t all visual; it’s difficult to imagine their aforementioned debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, without Nico’s indelible voice on tracks like “Femme Fatale,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and of course, “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
Written, like most of the album, by Lou Reed, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is one of his typically detached character studies; its vignette, of a depressed socialite who turns from “Thursday’s child” to “Sunday’s clown” and “cries behind the door” when the party is over, could have been based on any number of lost souls hanging around Warhol’s Factory in the mid-’60s. There’s actually a demo version with Reed’s vocals floating around, rendered in a Dylanesque sneer that doesn’t leave much room for sentiment. Odd as it is to say, Nico’s performance of “Parties” lends it some much-needed empathy. On one level, of course, her monotone voice is a kind of Brechtian distancing technique, stripping the song of any outward displays of emotion. But it also perfectly embodies the character she’s playing: a woman who wears a mask of impassivity to hide the pain underneath. One senses that Nico understood this character in a way that Reed never could.
It thus comes as little surprise that Nico’s own story wasn’t a happy one. Her father, while enlisted as a soldier in the Second World War, had suffered severe head injuries and later died in a psychiatric institution. At 15 years old, while living in Berlin and working as a temp for the U.S. Air Force, she was raped by an American soldier. After her brief stint with the Velvet Underground and a solo career on the fringes of popular music, she became addicted to heroin, a drug she continued to struggle with for over 15 years; she had just begun methadone replacement therapy when she died in 1988, from a cerebral hemorrhage after falling from her bicycle in Ibiza. Nico, in other words, could have been a character from one of Lou Reed’s songs; maybe that’s why she remains one of their most haunting interpreters. But she was also flesh and blood: an unfortunate casualty of a male-dominated underground music scene and a cruel world in general, who still doesn’t get the respect she deserves today.
So, okay, kind of a bummer to end the week on–sorry about that. We’ll be back next week with something (hopefully) a little more uplifting. In the meantime, here are the playlists: