Album Review: Nico’s Chelsea Girl at 50

If a more appropriate piece of cover art exists, I’ve yet to see it. From the cover of her solo debut Chelsea Girl, now a half-century old, German chanteuse Nico stares with heavy, smack-filled eyes, as if into the Great Abyss like a porcelain statue of some mesmerising, terrifying queen: the perfect image to represent one of the most melancholic, deceptively beautiful albums of the ’60s.

Nico’s pre-Velvet Underground story is familiar to music connoisseurs. A fashion model and actress who had a bit role in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, 79 years ago today, on 16 October 1938, she was born Christa Päffgen in Cologne, her surname being the German version of Pafford, and with my ancestors originating in her homeland I get to call her a distant cousin.

In 1965, she met Velvets “manager” Andy Warhol, who thought the 27-year-old would be a good fit for the band.

The group took her in, albeit reluctantly: Lou Reed considered her a nuisance and John Cale opined that she was tone deaf. It should come as little wonder that the Velvets didn’t receive their new chanteuse with outspread arms. The VU’s brilliance, after all, was surpassed only by the band’s collective insecurity. In the mind of many critics, musicians, and Christ, even friends, Reed or Cale was frontrunner for Prat of the Decade, with the other coming in a close second.

Despite this lack of cohesiveness, they coexisted long enough to create 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, the ultimate “grower” album that would inspire musicians for decades. Nico’s contributions to the album are memorable if not sublime. Her haunting, throaty lead vocals on Femme Fatale, I’ll Be Your Mirror and All Tomorrow’s Parties (all written by Reed specifically for Nico, and the latter covered by everyone from Japan, Bryan Ferry and David Bowie’s Tin Machine) help make these tunes three of the most endearing in the Velvet’s catalogue.

Live performances were a different story. Reed later griped that the biggest problem with Nico was that the band didn’t have a role for her onstage. When she was not singing, she just awkwardly stood in place, while her band mates were busy going berserk, treating their instruments like piñatas and trying to blast each other into the age of punk.

Any onlooker who expected Nico to fill the role of sexy, gyrating eye candy, a la Edie Sedgwick, was sorely disappointed. Like the other Velvets, she dressed completely in black, covered her eyes under dark sunglasses, showed little skin and never cracked a smile. To call Nico icy and distant is a vast understatement, like calling the Pacific Ocean salty and wet.

Her post-Velvets years established her as a truly tragic figure. She would release five solo albums over the next 17 years, but drugs, depression and squalour, not music, characterised her later life. In 1988, while riding a bicycle in Spain, she suffered a minor heart attack and fell, smacking her head on the pavement. She died in the hospital the next day, a nameless, friendless Jane Doe, just another junkie whose body tapped out before she could score the final fix. If a shred of silver lining existed, perhaps it was that this spiral into oblivion was a fitting end for a talent who never had control over her own musical output.

It’s no surprise that Nico’s musical visions were nullified in the VU, where she dwelled in the shadow of the domineering Reed and the ambitious Cale, but even her solo efforts primarily reflected the visions of others. Although she pleaded for drums and bass on Chelsea Girl, producer Tom Wilson and arranger Larry Fallon ignored her requests and without consulting the singer included strings and a flute.

Her next three albums – The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End – were pure John Cale exercises, as he produced each album and played on nearly every track. While Reed was establishing himself as a freakish yet plausible glam rock star, Cale seemed hell-bent on going further underground and taking Nico with him, as evidenced by the prevalence of folk and classical instruments on these albums.

By 1981’s Drama Of Exile – the one with a questionable cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and her first and only Velvets-free album – Nico was past her prime: broke, hooked on heroin and playing sparse gigs to handfuls of largely apathetic bar patrons. Her lacklustre live albums from this period (like the posthumously-released Heroine) feature a hearty dose of Nico on harmonium, but are inconsistent and reflect a junkie’s lackadaisical standards.

The Velvet Underground & Nico has rightfully become one of music’s sacred cows, a rock upon which alternative music was built. By contrast, Chelsea Girl has disappeared into anonymity, which is unfortunate as quite a few triumphs appear on this unheralded jewel. Rightfully seen as a companion piece to that Velvet’s masterpiece – both were produced largely by Wilson in 1967 and include contributions from Reed, Cale and Sterling Morrison – Chelsea Girl is a unique and bizarre piece of chamber folk.

Each song features no more than two guitars, an unassuming keyboard, strings and a flute, lending an air of etherealness to Nico’s sensuous yet spooky-as-shit voice. Though she loathed the string arrangements and reportedly wept hysterically upon hearing the flute, these instruments serve their purpose: they maintain the album’s impetus and prevent Nico’s husky, somber vocals from having a slumbering effect.

Of the record’s 10 tracks, Jackson Browne composed three, Bob Dylan and Tim Hardin one each, while the rest of the songs are attributed to a combination of Reed, Cale and Morrison. Nico receives partial credit for one song only, the dismal It Was A Pleasure Then. Yet to label Chelsea Girl a cover album is a trifle misleading. Reed, Cale and Dylan all wrote these songs especially for Nico, while her variations on Browne’s material reveal a life of their own.

Album opener The Fairest Of The Seasons sets the album’s introspective mood and features the guitar/strings/flute combination that continues throughout, These Days is far more chilling than Browne’s innocuous version and the singer’s nearly upbeat take on Somewhere There’s A Feather is a standout moment. The superior Chelsea Girls captures the subterranean climate in which the Velvets dwelled every bit as effectively as Venus in Furs and is far more poignant.

Nico’s rendering of Dylan’s I’ll Keep It With Mine is likewise a welcome change of pace, its simplicity providing a measure of much-needed whimsical optimism. At the least, it demonstrates that Nico isn’t all doldrums and dead leaves, even if the words are not her own: “Everybody will help you/ Some people are very kind/ But if I can save you any time/ Come on, give it to me/ I’ll keep it with mine.” In an album rife with loss (Little Sister), failure (Winter Song) and depravity (Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams), it’s a moment of beauty, devotion and promise.

Chelsea Girl is not without its blemishes. The eight-minute-plus It Was A Pleasure Then is a lifeless crawler, testing one’s patience and leaving the listener wanting less, not more. Those inclined to download a few tracks from the album on iTunes are well advised to save their pennies and refrain from buying closer Eulogy To Lenny Bruce, which needs a serious shot of life (drums and bass, anyone?).

The placement of the stellar Chelsea Girls is likewise unfortunate: an ideal finisher, it instead appears midway through the album and impedes the record’s momentum. Nico’s voice, meanwhile, is like single malt scotch: an acquired taste that may cause first-time dabblers to retch. Only after frequent samplings does it become palatable.

Nico fans – few and far between we remain – will never know how this unheralded gem would have sounded if Ms. Päffgen got her way. Still, listeners must respect and admire Chelsea Girl for what it is: a woeful yet beatific crowning achievement of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enigmatic figures.

Steve Pafford

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