21/6/15 – Nico – Chelsea Girl – 1967

Album Of The Day

Nico  Chelsea Girl Cover 1967Recorded shortly after the release of the seminal 1967 album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Nico’s aptly titled Chelsea Girl saw the emergence of a strange, chiseled ice maiden from Berlin,  finding her way into the New York art scene and leaving her unique mark – no pun intended.

Born In Cologne in 1938 as Christa Päffgen, her father was seriously wounded in World War ll and was unable able to recover from his injuries, perhaps the catalyst for Nico, her mother and grandfather to move to the outskirts of Berlin in 1940. Nico’s history and exploits are better researched through dedicated biographies but how she came to make the beautifully disturbing, pastoral masterpiece that is Chelsea Girl might be explained by a short look at her past.

As an actress she appeared in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, also appearing in cult films of the fifties and sixties. Her striking looks and height (5’10”) made her an in demand photographers model. She appeared on the cover of Jazz pianist Bill Evans’ 1962 album Moon Beams and Casey Anderson’s 1965 album Blues Is A Woman Gone. She eventually moved to Paris and appeared in Vogue, Elle and every other fashion magazine that mattered. She allegedly decided that all this was not for her as she was offered a contract by Coco Chanel. She spoke German, French, Spanish and English fluently. An affair with the legendary Alain Delon led to a child that he always denied was his (Ari) brought up by Delon’s parents. In the sixties she met Brian Jones and recorded the single, I’m Not Sayin’ with Jimmy Page on guitar. She met Dylan who gave her I’ll Keep It With Mine that she would later record on the Chelsea Girl album.

Arriving in America, at just the right moment to be part of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, she appeared in Warhols’ experimental film Chelsea Girls. Warhol had suggested Nico should join The Velvet Underground as chanteuse where she sang the classics, Femme Fatale, I’ll Be Your Mirror and All Tomorrow’s Parties with that voice, Nico had arrived.

Chelsea Girls, the album is described as Chamber Folk, it has no bass or drums but is a rich tapestry of electric guitars, strings and flutes (that Nico hated). The album opens with two Jackson Browne songs, The Fairest Of Seasons and These Days (that incidentally he played at the concert in Stockholm last week). “Please do not confront me with my failures, I have not forgotten them”. It’s a strange mixture of uplifting darkness, music made by a happy witch, a dancing devil, it’s softly penetrating, it has you longing for unknown pleasures and falling asleep to experience dangerous dreams.

The next three songs, Little Sister, Winter Song and It Was A Pleasure Then are written by or with Lou Reed and/or John Cale. Nursery rhymes for lost children, a sprightly chamber orchestra and flautist contrasted by Nico’s dark tones. On John Cale’s Winter Song, an electric guitar that sounds like it was recorded in a cardboard box under the bed adds to the atmosphere of lurking monsters behind the curtains.

The snow on your eyelids that curtsy with age
Is freezing the stares on tyranny’s wings.
The bitterness hard and the warmth of your skin
Is diseased with familiar caresses.
Withdrawing from splendor and royal decay
Among all the triumphs and jaded awards
The angry and blazing circus of sun
Blasphemes as the crown prince arises.
You cannot beget all the sins that you owe
To the people of paradise magic
Pretend to answer passion and form
With foreign rationalizations.
Primroses are the jewels that lurk
Among masks of pleasure that flicker with doubt
Embraces of fame that’s simultaneously fear
To advance and demand to be recognized.
The river shall flow through hollow green faces
Of caricature’s resentment etched out of the tongues.
Radiant sphinxes asleep before birth
The classical sensitive failures.
The worshipping wicked cling to the dark of your heart
Lying there and wait with your angels
Moan and ravish from dawn to dusk
The avaricious young lovers.

On It Was A Pleasure Then, pleasure sounds like dipping your tongue into a bowl of spiders and it spawned a thousand Gothic imitators into the seventies and eighties. It’s an incantation, a seance, a pleading ghost, an ugly craftsman fiddling in the corner with contraptions and chains, oiled rags hanging from a broken brown, cracked leather belt, grunting and snorting his way through the construction of an abominable device conjured up to frighten children.

Side Two opens with another Reed composition, this time written with Velvet’s other guitarist, Sterling Morrison. The title track is the centrepiece of the album with its mysterious lyric and the return of the chamber orchestra, strings and flute. It’s a contemporary fairytale of Warhol’s dreamers, lived out in a weird reality that can only be true because everyone seems to be awake – at least some of the time. It’s the original hipsters with their sexperiments and their social scenes collapsing in meaness, ego and drug fuelled insecurities, looking for love in all the wrong places, mistaking adventure for evolution, personal gain and fame for comfort. It’s the saddest exposé of the sixties ever written and exquisitely sung by Nico with her deadpan delivery adding a dark cloud to all those colours and broken dreams.

Here’s Room 506
It’s enough to make you sick
Bridget’s all wrapped up in foil
You wonder if she can uncoil.
Here they come now
See them run now
Here they come now
Chelsea Girls

Here’s Room 115
Filled with S & M queens
Magic marker row
You wonder just high they go.
Here they come now
See them run now
Here they come now
Chelsea Girls

Here’s Pope dear Ondine
Rona’s treated him so mean
She wants another scene
She wants to be a human being.
Here they come now
See them run now
Here they come now
Chelsea Girls

Pepper she’s having fun
She thinks she’s some man’s son
Her perfect love’s don’t last
Her future died in someone’s past.
Here they come now
See them run now
Here they come now
Chelsea Girls

Dear Ingrid’s found her lick
She’s turned another trick
Her treats and times revolve
She’s got problems to be solved
Here they come now
See them run now
Here they come now
Chelsea Girls

Poor Mary, she’s uptight
She can’t turn out her light
She rolled Susan in a ball
And now she can’t see her at all
Here they come now
See them run now
Here they come now
Chelsea Girls

Dropout, she’s in a fix,
Amphetamine has made her sick
White powder in the air
She’s got no bones and can’t be scared
Here they come now
See them run now
Here they come now
Chelsea Girls

Here comes Johnny Bore,
He collapsed on the floor
They shot him up with milk
And when he died sold him for silk
Here they come now
See them run now
Here they come now
Chelsea Girls

Here they come now
See them run now
Here they come now
Chelsea Girls

The coup of releasing an unreleased Bob Dylan song in 1967, illustrates the captivating persona that Nico had sold to her contemporaries. An exotic, German queen looking for an empire, traversing the dens and dungeons of Europe and America, turning the heads of every room she walked into. Although Dylan recorded I’ll Keep It With Mine in 1965, it would be 20 years till he released it showing the goldmine of gems that he kept hidden, the treasures that he could afford to share in this, the most prolific period of his songwriting genius.

Somewhere There’s A Feather is another Jackson Browne song and with its lavish arrangement one wonders how the album would have sounded without all these ornate arrangements that were added to the record after Nico had gone and without her knowledge or consent. Is it the contrast between her voice and this richness that makes the album so interesting, a maudlin party of loneliness, loveless strangers huddled together in a luxurious surroundings unable to befriend each other as they are pampered by servile faceless sycophants that cater to their every whim – without this decadence and despair there might just be a suicidal hopelessness, that, one might say, is how Nico developed on her later despairing albums.

On Lou Reed’s Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams, it seems like a rather naive solution that Nico herself could never have considered. What were her dreams, was she an impossible narcissist, and later a selfish heroin addict that hid in the shadows disturbed by the shallowness of her own beauty? An aesthete, a cynical intellectual, a walking art form? Whatever she was she hated the flute and this must have driven her half mad with despair as she watched her art be manipulated into something she couldn’t abide. How could she be so celebrated in the art scene, so connected to the Svengalis and the artistic giants of the day and yet so absolutely lose control of her first album’s direction?

The album ends with Eulogy To Lenny Bruce another troubled genius misfit of the truth. The song written by yet another troubled genius, Tim Hardin. It seems like wrapping your despair in despair just adds to more despair, but often what gets left behind in these troubles is the sweet elevated high of despicable beauty, of delicious poison and the celebration of angst immortalised in this astounding debut that Nico was unable to endure and she could never ever be happy with in a million years.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nico

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chelsea_Girl_(album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_Beams

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4 Responses to “21/6/15 – Nico – Chelsea Girl – 1967”

  1. simone June 22, 2015 at 1:16 am #

    Sometimes it’s hard to imagine the world weary These Days was written by a teenage Browne as the lyrics always appeared to be written by someone so much older. Perhaps that’s why so many people prefer Nico’s version to Browne’s eventual recording.
    Nico certainly was a striking woman yet so morose. I always had the thought she wanted to be the next Marlene Dietrich – an untouchable image. She does bring to the songs the right emotions though. I wonder if her heroin addiction added to her sullenness? Either way she was icon of the era.

    • Marty Willson-Piper June 22, 2015 at 10:08 am #

      Well apparently at this point she wasn’t into heroin, that happened later in the seventies — this is just how she was.
      By the way I saw her twice in Stockholm years ago. Memorable.

  2. jedmatthew June 23, 2015 at 8:15 pm #

    Love this album. You can hear the influence of Eleanor Rigby on how the strings were recorded. Makes chronological sense as Nico’s album (1967) came out one year after Revolver (1966). George Martin was influenced by the Psycho shower scene horn stabs. The strings were recorded in a new way, super up close and very percussively and in your face. On Chelsea Girl, this bright tone provokes a nice trebly counterpoint to Nico’s throaty, deep vocal delivery. Not so sure about that flute player though 😉

  3. delay plus chorus June 25, 2015 at 6:23 pm #

    She was officially the “It Girl” of 1967, that’s for sure. Two landmark releases within six months, I think that’s the definition of being on a hot streak.

    Excellent insights about the recording of the strings, JM — I wouldn’t have thought of that, but as you mention it it seems quite apparent.

    I actually don’t mind the flute, but it’s interesting reading that Nico’s vision for the album was more guitars and drums. Think it’s too late for John Cale and Moe Tucker to go into the studio with the master tapes and add a few tracks for a special release? It could become the “Smile” of the NYC arthouse scene…

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