When Nico fell off her bike in Ibiza in 1988, a not uncommon response was surprise that she was still alive, given her undiminished enthusiasm for smack. The portrait that emerged in posthumous biographies was not an entirely sympathetic one but nonetheless the enigma remained largely enigmatic.
As one of the first supermodels and after a brief appearance in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, she fell in with Warhol’s dysfunctional factory family (‘Drella famously describing her as “Greta Garbo with the voice of an IBM computer”) and found herself singing with the Velvet Underground, much to the chagrin of Lou Reed, who never seemed entirely comfortable sharing a spotlight. At the peak of her fame, in the late ‘60s and early 70’s, her list of lovers included, Reed, Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop and Alan Delon. She was one of the uptown brought downtown machinations of Warhol’s social engineering project, androgynous, unknowable, manufactured. A perfect Manichean candidate.
Her subsequent solo material, glacial, off key drones sung as she accompanied herself on the harmonium and produced by Cale was, love it or loathe it, far more consistent than either John Cale or Lou Reed’s solo discs. Icy, junk sick, lullabies of despair and ennui that compensated for their lack of musical diversity and ambition with a haunting and haunted simplicity. Repetition is everything.
Twenty years after her death Nico was the subject of a memorial concert in London staged by John Cale. Here in Berlin this anniversary was commemorated by an exhibition at Gallery Christian Nagel, a screening of Nico, Icon at Bablyon Mitte and tonight’s gala concert (look out for Nico on Ice (!), November 20th Sophiensaele)
After the manner of the Volksbuhne, this was a strange evening. Presided over by LUTZ LÜÜL ULBRICH of Ash Ra infamy, it veered between the toe-curlingly sentimental and the stupefyingly pretentious but managed, occasionally, to be quite moving, which is perhaps not unlike Miss Paffgen herself.
SOAP&SKIN, from Wien, played a lilting rendition of Afraid with its chilling advice to ‘take someone else’s will as your own’, on the grand piano with a haunted electronic glitchscape scratching away beneath. LUTZ LÜÜL ULBRICH contributed both a reading and a set of fairly folksy versions in which he was accompanied on guitar by an accordion, bowed saw and electric bass.
Longeurs were provide by JUTTA KOETHER, in the form of a theoretical text which appeared to link Nico with Benjamin, the Frankfurt school, Hegel, negative dialectics and whatever else might have come to mind when she sat down for half an hour to write it, followed by an experimental keyboard set in which alternate chords were played with her head. Someone in the audience shouted “Yeah, rock element!”
GUDRUN GUT’s glitch duet went a long way to redeeming the whole affair and culminated in an original song, Baden Baden in which, it seemed, she had invented a new genre, that of wind assisted techno.
Gut, by name and by nature, was followed on stage by a bunch of jazz nonentities whose name seemed to matter to an older section of the audience, their slick quartet stylings and professional singer so wide of the mark as to best be passed over with a shudder.
Not to be outdone by JUTTA KOETHER, MARIANNE ENZENSBERGER, whose text was far more lucid, funny and un-self-indulgent, threw herself to her knees, James Brown style, to sing a number (I was not the only one in the audience suppressing a titter). This being the Volksbuhne certain sections of the show were also bookended by heavy handed Pina Bausch style video in which a series of movements, later revealed as being extrapolated from an early film of Miss Päffgen on the beach, were acted out. The audience had reacted with suppressed mirth when earlier a mime had arrived on stage to sign theatrical distress.
That they managed to suppress their mirth was down to the strength of JAMES YOUNG and THE GOLDEN HUNGER’s interpretations. Young, who played keyboard with Nico from 81 to 88 and wrote a book about his experiences, Songs They Never Play On The Radio, played a stern an austere piano and did a passable impression of John Cale, backed up by scattered digital percussion, guitar and Germanys 70s Hitwonder MARIANNE ROSENBERG, whose voice had just the right mittel European, smack hazed indifference to channel Nico.
Unfortunately the whole event risked collapsing into farce as members of the assembled cast then took there positions around the piano in a cameo that would even make Val Doonican shudder. Even a dead junkie deserves better than this.