Christa Päffgen (16 October 1938 – 18 July 1988), better known by her stage name Nico, was a German singer-songwriter, lyricist, composer, musician, fashion model, and actress who became famous as a Warhol superstar in the 1960s.
She is known for her vocals on the Velvet Underground's debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), and her work as a solo artist. She also had roles in several films, including Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) and Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls (1966).
Nico was born Christa Päffgen in Cologne. When she was two years old, she moved with her mother and grandfather to the Spreewald forest outside of Berlin to escape the World War II bombardments of Cologne. Her father Hermann, born into a dynasty of Colognian master brewers, was enlisted as a soldier during the war and sustained head injuries that caused severe brain damage and ended his life in a psychiatric institution; according to an unproven rumor, he was variously said to have died in a concentration camp, or to have faded away as a result of shell shock.
In 1946, Nico and her mother relocated to downtown Berlin, where Nico worked as a seamstress. She attended school until the age 13, and began selling lingerie in the exclusive department store KaDeWe, eventually getting modeling jobs in Berlin. At five feet ten inches and with chiseled features and porcelain skin, Nico rose to prominence as a fashion model as a teenager.
At the age of 15, while working as a temp for the U.S. Air Force, Nico was raped by an American sergeant. The sergeant was court-martialled and Nico gave evidence for the prosecution at his trial. Nico's song "Secret Side" from the album The End makes oblique references to the rape.
Nico was discovered at 16 by the photographer Herbert Tobias while both were working at a KaDeWe fashion show in Berlin. He gave her the name Nico after her ex-boyfriend, filmmaker Nikos Papatakis, and she used it for the rest of her life. She moved to Paris and began working for Vogue, Tempo, Vie Nuove, Mascotte Spettacolo, Camera, Elle, and other fashion magazines. At age 17, she was contracted by Coco Chanel to promote their products, but she fled to New York City and abandoned the job. Through her travels, she learned to speak English, Spanish, and French.
After appearing in several television advertisements, Nico got a small role in Alberto Lattuada's film La Tempesta (1958). She also appeared in Rudolph Maté's For the First Time, with Mario Lanza, later that year.
In 1959, she was invited to the set of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, where she attracted the attention of the acclaimed director, who gave her a minor role in the film as herself. By this time, she was living in New York and taking acting classes with Lee Strasberg.
After a role in the 1961 Jean Paul Belmondo film A Man Named Rocca, she appeared as the cover model on jazz pianist Bill Evans' 1962 album, Moon Beams. After splitting her time between New York and Paris, she got the lead role in Jacques Poitrenaud's Strip-Tease (1963). She recorded the title track, which was written by Serge Gainsbourg but not released until 2001, when it was included in the compilation Le Cinéma de Serge Gainsbourg. In 1962, Nico gave birth to her son, Christian Aaron "Ari" Päffgen, commonly held to have been fathered by French actor Alain Delon. Delon always denied his paternity. The child was raised mostly by Delon's mother and her husband and eventually was adopted by them, taking their surname, Boulogne.
Nico's first performances as a singer took place in December 1963 at New York's Blue Angel nightclub, where she sang standards such as "My Funny Valentine".
In 1965, Nico met the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones and recorded her first single, "I'm Not Sayin'" with the B-side "The Last Mile", produced by Jimmy Page for Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate label. Actor Ben Carruthers introduced her to Bob Dylan in Paris that summer. In 1967 Nico recorded his song "I'll Keep It with Mine" for her first album, Chelsea Girl. Dylan had written the tune for Judy Collins in 1964, according to her own liner notes from the Geffen Records' album Judy Collins Sings Dylan (she was the first artist to release the song, in 1965).
After being introduced by Brian Jones, she began working in New York with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey on their experimental films, including Chelsea Girls, The Closet, Sunset and Imitation of Christ.
When Warhol began managing the Velvet Underground he proposed that the group take on Nico as a "chanteuse". They consented reluctantly, for both personal and musical reasons. The group became the centerpiece of Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multimedia performance featuring music, light, film and dance. Nico sang lead vocals on three songs ("Femme Fatale", "All Tomorrow's Parties", "I'll Be Your Mirror"), and backing vocal on "Sunday Morning", on the band's debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967). Nico's tenure with the Velvet Underground was marked by personal and musical difficulties. Violist and bassist John Cale has written that Nico's long preparations in the dressing room and pre-performance good luck ritual (burning a candle) would often hold up a performance, which especially irritated band member Lou Reed. Nico's partial deafness also would sometimes cause her to veer off key, for which she was ridiculed by other band members. The album went on to become a classic, ranked 13th on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, though it was poorly received at the time of its release.
Immediately following her musical work with the Velvet Underground, Nico began work as a solo artist, performing regularly at The Dom in New York City. At these shows, she was accompanied by a revolving cast of guitarists, including members of the Velvet Underground, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Jackson Browne.
For her debut album, 1967's Chelsea Girl, she recorded songs by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin and Jackson Browne, among others. Velvet Underground members Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison contributed to the album, with Nico, Reed and Cale co-writing one song, "It Was a Pleasure Then." Chelsea Girl is a traditional chamber-folk album, which influenced artists such as Leonard Cohen, with strings and flute arrangements by producer Tom Wilson. Nico was not satisfied with it and had little say in its production. She said in 1981: "I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! ... They added strings, and— I didn't like them, but I could live with them. But the flute! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute." In California, Nico spent time with Jim Morrison of the Doors. Morrison encouraged her to write her own songs.
For The Marble Index, released in 1969, Nico wrote the lyrics and music. Accompaniment mainly centered around Nico's harmonium, while John Cale added an array of folk and classical instruments, and arranged the album. The harmonium became her signature instrument for the rest of her career. The album has a classical-cum-European folk sound.
Returning to live performance in the early 1970s, Nico (accompanying herself on harmonium) gave concerts in Amsterdam as well as London, where she and John Cale opened for Pink Floyd. 1972 saw a one-off live reunion of Nico, Cale and Lou Reed at the Bataclan in Paris.
Nico released two more solo albums in the 1970s, Desertshore (1970) and The End... (1974). She wrote the music, sang, and played the harmonium. Cale produced and played most of the other instruments on both albums. The End... featured Brian Eno on synthesizer and Phil Manzanera on guitar, both from Roxy Music. She appeared at the Rainbow Theatre, in London, with Cale, Eno, and Kevin Ayers. The album June 1, 1974 was the result of this concert. Nico performed a version of the Doors' "The End", which was the catalyst for The End... later that year.
Between 1970 and 1979, Nico made about seven films with French director Philippe Garrel. She met Garrel in 1969 and contributed the song "The Falconer" to his film Le Lit de la Vierge. Soon after, she was living with Garrel and became a central figure in his cinematic and personal circles. Nico's first acting appearance with Garrel occurred in his 1972 film, La Cicatrice Intérieure. Nico also supplied the music for this film and collaborated closely with the director. She also appeared in the Garrel films Anathor (1972); the silent Jean Seberg feature Les Hautes Solitudes, released in 1974; Un ange passe (1975); Le Berceau de cristal (1976), starring Pierre Clémenti, Nico and Anita Pallenberg; and Voyage au jardin des morts (1978). His 1991 film J'entends Plus la Guitare is dedicated to Nico.
On 13 December 1974, Nico opened for Tangerine Dream's infamous concert at Reims Cathedral in Reims, France. The promoter had so greatly oversold tickets for the show that members of the audience couldn't move or reach the outside, eventually resulting in some fans urinating inside the cathedral hall.
Around this time, Nico became involved with Berliner musician Lutz Ulbrich (Lüül), guitarist for Ash Ra Tempel. Ulbrich would accompany Nico on guitar at many of her subsequent concerts through the rest of the decade. Also in this time period, Nico let her hair return to its natural color of brown and took to dressing mostly in black. This would be her public image from then on.
Nico and Island Records allegedly had many disputes during this time, and in 1975 the label dropped her from their roster.
In September 1978, Nico performed at the Canet Roc '78 festival in Catalonia. Also performing at this event were Blondie, Kevin Ayers, and Ultravox. She made a vocal contribution to Neuronium's second album, Vuelo Químico, as she was at the studio, by chance, while it was being recorded in Barcelona in 1978 by Michel Huygen, Carlos Guirao and Albert Gimenez. She read excerpts from Ulalume by Edgar Allan Poe. She said that she was deeply moved by the music, so she couldn't help but make a contribution. During the same year, Nico briefly toured as supporting act for Siouxsie and the Banshees, one of many post-punk bands who admired Nico. In Paris, Patti Smith bought a new harmonium for Nico after her original was stolen. Other fans of Nico included John Lydon (of the Sex Pistols), Dave Vanian (of the Damned), and Tommy Gear (of the Screamers).
Nico returned to New York in 1979 where her comeback concert at CBGB (accompanied by John Cale and Lutz Ulbrich) was reviewed positively in The New York Times. She began playing regularly at the Squat Theatre and other venues with Jim Tisdall accompanying her on harp and Gittler guitar. They played together on a sold-out tour of twelve cities in the East and Midwest. At some shows, she was accompanied on guitar by Cheetah Chrome (the Dead Boys).
In France, Nico was introduced to photographer Antoine Giacomoni. Giacomoni's photos of Nico would be used for her next album, and would eventually be featured in a book (Nico: Photographies, Horizon Illimite, Paris, 2002). Through Antoine Giacomoni, she met Corsican bassist Philippe Quilichini. Nico recorded her next studio album, Drama of Exile, in 1981. produced by Philippe Quilichini. Mahamad Hadi aka Mad Sheer Khan played oriental rock guitar and wrote all the oriental production. It was a departure from her earlier work with John Cale, featuring a mixture of rock and Middle Eastern arrangements. For this album, in addition to originals like "Genghis Khan" and "Sixty Forty", Nico recorded covers of the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting for the Man" and David Bowie's "Heroes". Drama of Exile was released twice, in two different versions, the second appearing in 1983.
After relocating to Manchester, England, in the early '80s, Nico acquired a manager, Alan Wise, and began working with a variety of backing bands for her many live performances. These bands included Blue Orchids, the Bedlamites and the Faction.
In 1981, Nico released the Philippe Quilichini-produced single "Saeta"/"Vegas" on Flicknife Records. The following year saw another single, "Procession" produced by Martin Hannett and featuring the Invisible Girls. Included on the "Procession" single was a new version of the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties".
At this time, Nico was often cited as an influence on the gothic rock scene, admired by such artists as Peter Murphy of Bauhaus as well as Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and The Banshees, whose foreboding vocals are influenced by Nico's distinct dark style of singing. At Salford University in 1982, Nico would join Bauhaus for a performance of "I'm Waiting for the Man". That same year, Nico's supporting acts included the Sisters of Mercy and Gene Loves Jezebel. The Marble Index has frequently been cited as the first goth album, while Nico's dark lyrics, music and persona were also influential.
In September 1982, Nico performed at the Deeside Leisure Centre for the Futurama Festival. The line-up for this show also included the Damned, Dead or Alive, Southern Death Cult, Danse Society, the Membranes and Gene Loves Jezebel.
The live compilations 1982 Tour Diary and En Personne En Europe were released in November 1982 on the 1/2 Records cassette label in France; the ROIR cassette label reissued the former under the revised title "Do Or Die!" in 1983. These releases were followed by more live performances throughout Europe over the next few years.
She recorded her final solo album, Camera Obscura, in 1985, with the Faction (James Young and Graham Dids). Produced by John Cale, it featured Nico's version of the Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart song "My Funny Valentine". The album's closing song was an updated version of "König", which she had previously recorded for La cicatrice interieure. This was the only song on the album to feature only Nico's voice and harmonium. A music video for "My Heart Is Empty" was filmed at The Fridge in Brixton.
The next few years saw frequent live performances by Nico, with tours of Europe, Japan and Australia (usually with the Faction or the Bedlamites). A number of Nico's performances towards the end of her life were recorded and released, including 1982's Heroine, Nico Live in Tokyo, and her final concert, Fata Morgana, recorded on 6 June 1988. The double live album Behind the Iron Curtain was recorded during a tour of Eastern Europe, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and made from recordings of concerts in Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and other cities, and was released before her death in 1988.
A duet called "Your Kisses Burn" with singer Marc Almond was her last studio recording (about a month before her death). It was released a few months after her death on Almond's album The Stars We Are.
Nico's final recording was of her last concert, 'Fata Morgana', at the Berlin Planetarium on 6 June 1988. This was a special event created by Lutz Ulbrich and featured a number of new compositions by Nico and the Faction. As an encore, Nico performed a song from The End..., "You Forget To Answer". A CD of this concert was released in 1994 and again in 2012.
Nico had an affair with French actor Alain Delon and from this relationship conceived a son, Christian Aaron Boulogne, whom Nico called "Ari." Delon denied paternity and Nico had difficulty raising Ari, so the boy was raised by Delon's parents. Ari became a photographer and actor, and had a son in 1999.
Nico saw herself as part of a tradition of bohemian artists, which she traced back to the Romanticism of the early 19th century. She led a nomadic life, living in different countries. Apart from Germany, where she grew up, and Spain, where she died, Nico lived in Italy and France in the 1950s, spent most of the 1960s in the US, and lived in London in the early 1960s and again in the 1980s, when she moved between London and Manchester.
During the final years of her life, she was based around the Prestwich and Salford area of Greater Manchester. Although she was still struggling with addiction, she became interested in music again. For a few months in the 1980s, she shared an apartment in Brixton, London, with punk poet John Cooper Clarke.
Nico was deaf in one ear.
Nico was a heroin addict for over 15 years. In the book Songs They Never Play on the Radio, James Young, a member of her band in the 1980s, recalls many examples of her troubling behaviour due to her "overwhelming" addiction – and also that Nico claimed to have never taken the drug while in the Velvets/Factory scene but only began using during her relationship with Philippe Garrel in the 1970s. She also introduced her son to heroin consumption. Shortly before her death, Nico stopped using heroin and began methadone replacement therapy and began a regimen of bicycle exercise and healthy eating.
Nico was described by some friends and colleagues as racist. Her friend Danny Fields, the American journalist who helped her sign to Elektra Records, described her as "Nazi-esque", saying: "Every once in a while there'd be something about Jews and I'd be, 'But Nico, I'm Jewish,' and she was like 'Yes, yes, I don't mean you.' She had a definite Nordic Aryan streak, that she was physically, spiritually and creatively superior", a view she appears to have continued to maintain throughout her later years. According to Fields, Nico once attacked a mixed-race woman in a restaurant with a smashed wineglass, saying "I hate black people". During a performance in Berlin, the audience rioted after Nico performed the German national anthem "Deutschlandlied", including a verse omitted since 1945 for its nationalist associations. However, Nico dedicated this performance to militant Andreas Baader, leader of the anti-fascist Red Army Faction.
On 18 July 1988, while on vacation on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza with her son Ari, Nico had a heart attack while riding a bicycle, and she hit her head as she fell. A passing taxi driver found her unconscious, and he had difficulty getting her admitted to local hospitals. She was misdiagnosed as suffering from heat exposure, and died at eight o'clock that evening. X-rays later revealed a severe cerebral hemorrhage as the cause of death. Her son later said of the incident:
In the late morning of July 17, 1988, my mother told me she needed to go downtown to buy marijuana. She sat down in front of the mirror and wrapped a black scarf around her head. My mother stared at the mirror and took great care to wrap the scarf appropriately. Down the hill on her bike: "I'll be back soon." She left in the early afternoon on the hottest day of the year.
Nico lies buried in her mother's plot in Grunewald Forest Cemetery in Berlin. A few friends played a tape of "Mütterlein", a song from Desertshore, at her funeral.
In 2016, the band Soundwalk Collective released the album Killer Road, which explores the bicycle ride that ended in Nico's death. The album combines soundscapes with Nico's words spoken by Patti Smith. Smith's daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, was co-composer of the music on the album.
Nico has influenced many musicians, including Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Elliott Smith, Patti Smith, Morrissey, Björk, Henry Rollins, Coil, Jocelyn Pook, Fabienne Shine (who covered "All Tomorrow's Parties"), Dead Can Dance, Marcus Reeves, as well as numerous contemporary goth bands. Kevin Ayers painted a withering and beautiful portrait of Nico in "Decadence" (the centerpiece of his Bananamour album in 1973). The singer-songwriter Elliott Smith cited her as a major inspiration and was said to have listened to The Marble Index for months. Smith performed covers of some of her songs – most notably "Chelsea Girls" and "These Days", both of which he performed live at Satyricon in Portland, Oregon in October 1999. Two of her songs from Chelsea Girl, "The Fairest of the Seasons" and "These Days", both written by Jackson Browne, are featured in Wes Anderson's film The Royal Tenenbaums. Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon named his daughter 'Nico Blue' partly after Nico. Blind Melon's album Nico was released after Hoon's death.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a movie written by John Cameron Mitchell, mentions Nico as an influential artist in its song, "Midnight Radio". The song is written by Stephen Trask. Icelandic singer Björk opened concerts on her 1995–1997 Post tour with "Le Petit Chevalier" from Desertshore. The Cult recorded the song "Nico", which celebrates the life of the singer, on their 2001 album Beyond Good And Evil. For her 2002 album, Kissin Time, Marianne Faithfull recorded "Song for Nico", cowritten with Dave Stewart. Los Angeles band the Warlocks recorded a different song, also entitled "Song for Nico" on their 2003 album, Rise and Fall.
Nico was portrayed by Christina Fulton in the 1991 biographical film The Doors. She was later portrayed by Meredith Ostrom in the 2006 film, Factory Girl, which chronicles the life of fellow "Warhol Superstar", Edie Sedgwick. Soap&Skin portrayed Nico in the theatre play Nico– Sphinx aus Eis in 2008, written by Werner Fritsch. In the play, Nico was portrayed by several actresses. Soap&Skin also recorded her song "Janitor of Lunacy". Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes) has quoted Nico as an influence, in particular the album Desertshore. The opening song on Khan's first album, Fur and Gold, uses the name of that album in its lyrics. During 2007 Khan would open her concerts with the track "Le Petit Chevalier", from that record.
Singer-songwriter Patrick Wolf has been influenced by Nico, and released cover versions of "Afraid" and "Ari's Song" as B-sides on EPs. Rock band Anberlin named one of their songs after her: "Dance, Dance Christa Päffgen" on their album Never Take Friendship Personal. The song also makes reference to her death, and her drug use. Austin-based band Shearwater dedicated their album Palo Santo to the memory of Nico. The opening song ("La Dame et la Licorne") depicts Nico's death at Ibiza, Spain. Windsor for the Derby, another Austin-based band, released an instrumental track named "Nico" in 2000 on their Young God Release "Difference and Repetition." A live version of the song can be found on a limited edition 7-inch.
Marc Almond recorded his song 'Your Kisses Burn' from his 'The Stars We Are' album together with Nico in 1988. It was to be Nico's last studio recording.
Low, an American indie rock group from Duluth, Minnesota, has a song titled "Those Girls (Song For Nico)". It is included on the box set A Lifetime of Temporary Relief: 10 Years of B-Sides and Rarities, released in 2004.
Two Nico tribute concerts took place in Europe in the autumn of 2008 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Nico's birth and the 20th anniversary of her death. On 11 October 2008, John Cale, James Dean Bradfield (of Manic Street Preachers), Fyfe Dangerfield of The Guillemots, Mark Linkous (of Sparklehorse), Peter Murphy (of Bauhaus), Lisa Gerrard and Mark Lanegan appeared on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in London. On 17 October 2008 at the Volksbuehne in Berlin, Nico's ex-boyfriend Lutz Ulbrich, who was her musical collaborator in the late 1970s, presented another tribute concert, which featured Marianne Rosenberg, Soap&Skin, Marianne Enzensberger and James Young, the keyboardist from The Faction, Nico's last band. Nico's son, Ari Boulogne (sometimes called Ari Päffgen), made a brief appearance on stage at the close.
The Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated episode "Art of Darkness" featured a parody of Nico named Eeko.
In 2012, X-TG (featuring members of industrial band Throbbing Gristle) released a re-interpretation of Nico's Desertshore album.
In Autumn of 2012, Rooster Gallery in New York City presented an exhibit called "Nico: New York City". This featured photographs by Jerry Schatzberg.
In January 2013, John Cale organized a tribute A Life Along the Borderline at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City. Performers included Cale, Kim Gordon with Bill Nace, Sharon Van Etten, Meshell Ndegeocello, Stephin Merritt, Peaches, Alison Mosshart, Joan As Police Woman, Greg Dulli, Yeasayer, and Mercury Rev.
Nico's song "Afraid" was covered by Neko Case on the 2013 album The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.
In 2002, Faust Records released two collections of obscure Nico tracks, Reich der Träume (Realm of Dreams) and Walpurgis-Nacht (Walpurgis Night).
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