No one yet knows what was hidden behind Nico’s hypnotic gaze. She was the muse of Warhol, of punk and the New Wave and a fashion and cinema icon. Her skepticism led her to self-destruction wrapped in existential emptiness, sex and drugs. She summarized her life in one sentence: I have been in the highest and the lowest and both places are empty. The spell of the German diva keeps its irresistible charm intact. We discover the lights and shadows of a mystery woman.
There is not a definitive birth date but it seems that she was born on October 16, 1938 in Cologne. Her family came from a beer lineage that still exists: the Paffgen. However, her father was a railwayman. Nazis forced him to enlist in the army at the beginning of World War II.
The girl moved with her mother and aunt, Helma Wolff, to a suburb of Berlin to escape the Allied bombing. Before finalizing the fight, Nazis interned her father in a psychiatric hospital after receiving a bullet straight to the head. He later died at that hospital. The allied offensive besieged Berlin and the hardships of this event marked the life of little Nico, who was still known as Christa Paffgen.
At the American sector of Berlin survived a hard postwar. Christa’s mind folded inside her. She did not have friends. She went everywhere by herself. She was walking through the center of Berlin looking at the shop windows without being able to enter, recalled in an interview given by her aunt Helma, whom Christa considered a second mother. At that time, she was a seamstress after leaving school at the age of 13.
She didn´t take long to change her job to work at KaDeWe, the German Harrods. After the counter at the lingerie section, she drew attention with her beauty of glass and milk, as defined by Helma. She became an icon of Berlin fashion thanks to Herbert Tobias. He worked as a photographer for Heinz Oestergaard, a couturier of the German capital.
In that moment, she lived one of her worst experiences. During a temporary job at an American military base, a sergeant raped her when she was 15 years old. Christa went as witness to the court martial created to judge the rape. This event left its mark. Something that will reflect on her songs.
When she was 16 years old, Herbert took her to Paris. There, she met Coco Chanel. who offered her a job as a model. By then, she was already known as Nico, renamed by Herbert Tobias, in honor of Nikos Papatakis, Nico’s lover and husband of the Nouvelle Vague muse, Anouk Aimée.
She posed for magazines such as Vogue, Elle and Tempo. Also, she became the face of Terry promoting the benefits of Spanish brandy. Despite her success, Nico got tired of the superficiality of fashion and sought new artistic horizons. She left Chanel and Herbert. She travelled to NYC to study acting at the Lee Strasberg school, where she met Marylin Monroe.
At the end of the 50s, she participated in films like La Tempestá and For The First Time with Mario Lanza. In 1959, she is in Rome when some friends invited her to the set of La Dolce Vita. Fellini was fascinated by her and offered her a secondary role in the movie, just a cross of words with the great Marcello Mastroiani, playing herself, as that Nico who began to be a woman in search of her talent.
She lived halfway between Paris and New York, when she signed with the Ford Modeling Agency. In Paris, Nico found the bohemia. In NYC, she enjoyed with the artistic inspiration and the most avant-garde tendencies. She was a part of the golden era of European and Italian cinema, performing in A Man named Rocca, starring Jean Paul Belmondo. She was still modelling but she chose cultural projects, such as the cover of jazzman Bill Evans disc in 1962.
1963 was a key year in her life become a vaudeville of parties and famous faces. Turned into the It-girl, the emptiness she experienced lead her towards music. She debuted as a soloist at the Blue Angel Club in New York, where she sang My Funny Valentine before an audience, who loved alternative music.
Back in Paris Nico seduced Gainsbourg and both composed the main theme of the film Strip-Tease by Jacques Poitrenaud which is created and which she herself starred in. The version didn´t get release until 2001. Serge Gainsbourg chose the interpretation of Juliette Greco, also his lover.
In a passionate night with Alain Delon, she became pregnant. The pregnancy and birth of Ari Paffgen coincided with a huge fight between Nico and Alain Delon, who strongly denied his paternity. To further ignite the dispute appeared a servant named Jean Marie Betancourt, who confessed to have tricked Nico, due to his reasonable resemblance to the actor, claiming to be the father of the child.
Delon’s mother, Edith Boulogne, decided to adopt the newborn. Nico continued with an incompatible with motherhood lifestyle. Although, she accused Edith of kidnapping children. Alain Delon didn´t talk to his mother for the next 17 years.
While Ari discovered life with his grandmother, Nico walked through London with Brian Jones, the creator of the Rolling Stones. With the musician she enjoyed sex, acid trips and good music. A round-trip relationship began in 1965. The liberal mind of both agreed with an era of free love and the most radical Carpe Diem.
Brian introduced her to Andrew Long Oldham, producer and creator of Inmediate Records. He saw great potential in the diva and invited her to New York. That summer she met Bob Dylan through actor Ben Carruthers. They both flirted and he gave her It Keeps It with Mine, a song he had already composed for another of his conquests, Judy Collins.
In Inmediate, Jimmy Page worked as producer and studio musician who had already arranged songs by the Kinks, the Who, Them or Marianne Fatihfull. In the first EP by Nico – with I’m Not Saying as a single and The Last Mile as side B – Jimmy played a six strings accompanying Brian Jones who played a twelve strings forming a demolishing tandem.
Back in London, a party changed her life. It was one of those brief moments that justify an existence, make it turn and twist until it gives it an unexpected shape. Andy Warhol was preparing a visit to London with Gerard Malanga, Edie Sedgwick and Chuck Wein to assist in the opening of his exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery.
Malanga got lost in the London night and met Brian Jones and Nico by chance. The German captivated him at poet Allen Ginsberg´s party. There, he gave her the keys to the cultural paradise of the New York of the 60s: the phone number of the Factory. In her next visit to the city of skyscrapers, she pressed the magic number.
As Warhol used to say, the meeting was electrifying. Nico called him from a Mexican restaurant while she played with the fruits of a pitcher of sangria. Her first sentence captivated him: I only like the food that floats in the wine. They talked for hours. Warhol was fascinated by princesses dethroned by their own capacity for self-destruction.
He invited her to enter the universe of the Factory by unseating Edie Sedgwick as his favorite. Her European bearing and her cold disdain for the world made her queen of the place. The filmmaker Paul Morrissey convinced Andy to have Nico become one of the stars of his new films. Warhol was excited about Nico’s experience at La Dolce Vita and introduced her to the Chelsea Girl cast. She starred in three films of the Factory. When Chelsea Girl arrived at Cannes. on the screen, she was seen with her son and her interpretation didn´t go unnoticed.
Nico found a home in the middle of that creative mess. She started the consumption of hallucinogens and other official substances of the place. Andy usually got lost at Café Bizarre in search of the city’s cutting edge sound. He was fascinated by a dark band, against the current, but with a unique poetry and a hypnotic sound.
Warhol didn´t like Lou Reed as a singer but he was addicted to his sounds. Despite Lou’s reluctance, Andy became his manager and promised to publicize them around the city. In return, they were required to introduce Nico’s voice into their themes. Lou Reed detested the German’s metallic voice and tried to give her the silent treatment, but it didn´t matter.
In January of 1966, Warhol recorded an essay of the band from the film The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound. Then, Warhol created a different way of understanding the scenery with the show The Exploding Plastic Heritage.
Meanwhile, Nico dropped by the New York Chelsea Hotel. Sometimes, with Brian Jones, or sometimes to sleep with Dylan or Hendrix and always to break Leonard Cohen’s heart. The Canadian poet fell in love with an impossible love to which he recognized a certain influence in his music.
Warhol and Nico were inseparable. The artist publicize Velvet Underground, in all kinds of events. However, the tensions between Lou and Nico intensified in and out of bed. Lou Reed didn´t bear her pre-concert ritual: She burned an aromatic candle and she relaxed with some unhealthy substance. Yes, Nico looks great in high contrast black and white photos, but I’m tired of so much drama. He told Warhol after a concert at Ballon Farm.
Reed tried to ridicule her by imitating her voice and forcing Nico to record her voice on a demo of the band. From that discussion, Sunday Morning was born. This exasperation reached its climax when Nico said to Lou Reed after a sensual night: It’s over. I don´t want to fuck with Jews again.
After recording the iconic Velvet album in 1967 the situation was tense. During a concert, Nico and Warhol arrived late. Lou prevented her from going on stage. Once finished, Lou Reed and Andy Warhol argued. The poet, who was angry, took him by the shirt´s collar and asked for his resignation as manager. Warhol reluctantly accepted in exchange for 25% of the future royalties on the disc. He would never receive a penny of those royalties.
The record changed the underground scene. In its first five years of life, it only sold 30,000 copies, but as Brian Eno would say: Each one of those 30,000 guys start a band. Maybe, he was right, because the disc inspired artists like Patti Smith, Brian Eno himself, Morrissey, Siouxie and the Banshees and Ian Curtis, the legendary Joy Division singer. David Bowie was a grouppie in different concerts of the band and there he could see the sound and the staging that he wanted to create.
However, for Nico, life began after the Velvet. She moved away from the factory environment and approached the Chelsea Hotel, under the protection of the Bob Dylan clan. At that time he was facing the Factory and picked up all of Warhol’s renegades with open arms. Dylan, Tim Buckley, Jackson Brown and even Lou Reed helped her on her first solo album, Chelsea Girl, in 1967. Although, John Cale was who got more involved, she wasn´t very happy with the flute arrangements that saturated her dark songs.
Nico began to play at the Sala Dom in New York before tiny audiences while her album didn´t reach a majority audience. Even though John Cale and Nico had a sexual relationship and shared music, Nico still had Brian Jones in mind, with whom she shined at the legendary Monterrey festival. Both needed special support, especially for Brian after his traumatic break with Anita Pallemberg, who had broken up with him for his partner Keith Richards.
It was the last time she saw him. A few months later, Brian expanded the tragic club of the 27 by drowning in his pool. Nico intended to participate at the concert tribute of the Stones held the day after his death in Hyde Park, but her plane didn´t arrive on time.
She returned to the United States where her friend Danny Fields, the publicist who helped her sign with Elektra and from which Netflix has released a very interesting documentary, took her to California. Both had met at the Factory and he adored her: She was a definitive Nordic diva that led him to be physically, spiritually and intellectually superior.
In Los Angeles, he introduced her to the leader of the key band of the moment. When Jim Morrison met Nico, both looked at the floor for hours.They didn´t say anything. Danny broke the ice with huge amounts of marijuana and acid. He went to sleep and when he woke up, he found Jim jumping naked on the roof and Nico in the garden, also naked, crying disconsolately.
After not allowing him to drive, Jim accused him of kidnapping and warned Elektra that he didn´t want to see him again. Nico stayed. She was captivated by the aura of Morrison’s cursed poet. They spent two months together. They travelled to the desert to consume peyote and to discuss about poetry, philosophy and drugs. Both cut their hand palms to mix their blood. Back in Los Angeles, she dyed her hair red to fit in the canon of Irish beauty that fascinated the singer of The Doors.
She asked him for marriage but Jim fell from the chair in the middle of one of his anthological drunkeness. Discussions and drugs made up a destructive routine. She introduced him to Andy Warhol at the Factory in the middle of an acid journey very well portrayed in Oliver Stone’s film about the Californian band. Warhol offered him a golden telephone to talk to God.
Back in California, in another of her peyote sessions in the desert, Jim convinced her to write poetry and create her songs. In that moment she became a singer-songwriter. Soon after, Morrison decided to return with Pam Courson, his more or less official girlfriend whose arms he always ended up returning to from his love affairs.
Nico was devastated and promised not to give up her red hair until Jim dies. She returned to John Cale and her next album that was released in 1969. In Marble Index, the harmonium appeared for the first time. It´s a piano very present in the Central European folk, that was Nico’s hallmark. She returned briefly to London.
At a party, John Cale introduced David Bowie and another 21-year-old guy that everyone talked about. This was Iggy Pop. His band, The Stooges, had recorded his first album in New York with John Cale as a producer. Nico and Iggy began a torrid relationship. The German taught him the secrets of oral sex, as Iggy confessed decades later.
Together they starred in the strange experimental film Evening of light, directed by Françoise De Meril, where the tension between Cale and Iggy Pop increased every day.
She started the decade of the 70´s with one of her more remembered discs, Dessertshore. Nico moved to Paris on another scale of that nomadic passage that was her life. In the City of Lights, she received devastating news. Her beloved Jim Morrison was found dead in the bathroom of his Parisian suite. She bought all the newspapers she found and locked herself up at home. She decided to dye her hair black as a sign of mourning, a color that will accompany her almost until her death.
In Paris, Nico entered in the bohemian atmosphere of the city and fell in love with the filmmaker Philippe Garrel, with whom she recorded seven films. He introduced her into the heroin. The French director created the genre Heroin Chic.
Films such as The Cradel of Crystal, in which another diva of the underground like Anita Pallenberg injected herself a real heroin dose before the camera.. The filmmaker and Nico recorded imaginary scenes for hours on the rooftop of the Paris Opera under a blanket of stars and the scent of heroin.
She didn´t abandon music. Accompanied by her inseparable Harmonium performed in Amsterdam and London as a support for Pink Floyd. In the famous Bataclán Hall from Paris, she participated in a reunion with all her bandmates from the Velvet Undreground, led by Lou Reed.
In 1974, she released her best album, The End, where she explored the best of her sound and fascinating personal universe with Brian Eno, John Cale and Kevin Ayers. By 1975, her addictions took her away from creativity, she became more irascible and lonely in a descent into the hells of the drug. Island Records took all her records out of its catalog.
At the end of the 70s, she perfrormed in a concert with Tangerine Dream at Reims Cathedral. That show went down in the history of French music. The organizers sold more tickets than the capacity allowed. The crowded church didn´t have enough space for a dangerous crowd. There was fights, moshes and part of the public urinated inside the enclosure.
Despite this controversy, Nico continued in the forefront of music for many members of the New Wave. With some of them she coincided in the Canet Rock Festival, celebrated in 1978, in the beautiful Canet de Mar, Catalonia in Spain. Blondie, Kevin Ayers and Ultravox were the headliners of that edition. The Barcelonan experimental rock band Neuronium also participated in the festival, with whom she traveled to Barcelona to support the recording of their disco Vuelo Químico that same year.
Nico began the 80s trying to recover her musical career. She had already achieved her purpose of abandoning her beauty, as James Young narrates in his book. He became her keyboardist and accompanied her on her tours with his band Fraction. She was proud that her teeth were rotting, her skin was consumed and her hair was gray. It was her way of being unattractive
The photographer Antoine Giaconomi took pity on her after posing for him in a photo shoot. Antoine introduced her to bassist Philippe Quilichini who became the producer of Drama of Exile, an album with oriental influences, mystery and exoticism.
After recording Luul with the German musician, Lutz Ulbrich, who was a part of her artistic team, she toured Europe, Japan and Australia. Young recalls in her book: She was the queen of bad girls. You do not know the smell in the van when she burned the heroin in a spoon. In Calais, France, she threatened her manager with a knife. Her musicians defined her as a middle-aged junkie.
However, her magnetism was still valid for those around her. Patti Smith bought her a Harmonium after a theft of material prior to a joint performance in Paris. Their friendship mutually influenced their music. Shortly after, Nico returned to New York with John Cole and Ulbrich to perform in a tribute to her carrer in the legendary CBGB.
John Lydon from Sex Pistols, Siouxie, Dave Vanian, from The Dammed, or Bauhaus confessed their admiration for her. Then, she toured the United States with sold out shows in twelve cities. Performances like her live show at the Futurama Fest ´82 emphasized her influence. This new scene made her a pioneer of goth sound.
But Nico’s life always had two sides. Her addiction led her to altered states of consciousness. She introduced her own son into heroin with dire consequences for both. After an overdose of Ari, she arrived at the ICU to visit him. Some people said she recorded the sound of the machines that kept him alive to use it in her new songs.
At times, Ari arrived home with a special gift for his mother. While she slept, he heated the spoon and prepared the syringe with the precise dose. He whispered: Mom, mom. Follow me, I have a gift for you. She smiled happily while she inserted the syringe into her misshapen ankle. There was no veins left anywhere else.
In 1986, Behind The Iron Curtain was recorded live in Eastern Europe. That same year, Nico began a methadone treatment and gradually left heroin. In the mid-80s she lived between Paris and Manchester, where an important musical scene evolved. She resided in the outskirts of the industrious city, in the district of Prestford. She also spent a few months with the punk poet John Cooper Clarke, in Brixton, but returned to Paris.
Nico had a tense relationship with Germany, her birth country. Her childhood memories of the fall of Berlin remorsed too much. Precisely in that city, she participated in a massive concert tribute to Andreas Baader, leader of the leftist movement Red Army Faction. In her performance, Nico intoned the German anthem emphasizing a verse omitted since 1945 for its nationalist implications. A scandal was formed and linked her with certain rightist currents. She never denied it firmly.
In France, Serge Gaingsbourg managed to unite Ari with Alain Delon for the first time. The actor was friendly with the boy, already very addicted to heroin. Delon told him: We are friends. Friends, not family. We are nothing alike.
Nico arrived in Madrid on April 8, 1987. Her appearance grieved but gave an intimate concert with a melancholy version of The End as the highlight. She confessed to El País newspaper that she wasn´t afraid of death. She claimed that she was the Mongol leader Kubla Kan in another life .That year, her old mentor, Andy Warhol died. Nico didn´t express any condolence messages nor words.
In 1988, she recorded Your Kisses Burn with Marc Almond without knowing that it would be her last studio recording. Her last live appearance was in the Berlin´s Pandemonium on June 6. Shortly after, Nico traveled to the place where she felt most comfortable: Ibiza. That vacation she traveled without heroin and with her son Ari.
In one of her last interviews that appeared in the press, she summarized her life and the true meaning of fame: I have been in the highest and the lowest. The two sites are empty.
One bright July morning, she decided to take a bicycle ride to get marijuana. On the way she fainted, or maybe had a heart attack. A kind taxi driver picked her up without recognizing Warhol’s old muse. When she arrived at the Cannes Nisto hospital, she had problems being attended. Spain in the 80s looked at the junkies in a negative way..
After several hours of waiting, she was diagnosed with a simple sunstroke and came back home with Ari. During the night, Nico suffered a stroke that ended her life. An existence lived on the edge, with no fear of her lifestyle’s consequences. Her death was her last reverence to self-destruction.
The news was confirmed by her agent in Paris, Alan Wise. The musical and cultural world was shocked. She was cremated and taken to be buried with her mother, Margaret Paffgen, to the Grunewald cemetery, in Berlin. There, her closest friends gathered. They played a cassette with her contralto voice on songs like Mutterwald, from her Dessertshore album. It wasn’t the last goodbye to the diva. Throughout the years, different tributes have taken place to remember her legacy.
Ari continued with his life as a photographer but turned into a junkie. In 2001 he published a book about his life and his mother named L ‘Amour N’ Oublie Jamais, written between his stays at psychiatric hospitals and rehabilitation clinics. He lives in Paris and is trying to rebuild a life destroyed by the heroin.
In 2016, Patti Smith and her daughter, Jesse Paris, launched Killer Road for their South Walk Collective. In it they speak of the Ibizan afternoon in which Nico died. A year later, the director Susana Nichiarelli filmed Nico. 1988, a biopic about the last years of the diva, with Tryne Dynholm as the protagonist. Musicians such as Shannon Hoon, icon of the 90s with his band Blind Melon, baptized their daughters as Nico. A tribute to the underground muse.
Nico was an example of how beauty encloses bright minds in the cliché. Her own physical and mental destruction was part of her attack to the social conventions that did not allow her to explore her talent. However, it will always be an icon for lovers of the alternative, of the wild talent. Nico’s lights and shadows will never erase her face.
* To the memory of my father and our Nico.