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Made You Look: On Beauty, Ugliness, and Nico

The one-time Velvet Underground singer and Andy Warhol acolyte was a misunderstood muse. A new movie shows the darkness and independent spirit that defined the second half of her life.

The singer Nico Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The German musician Nico had disdain for a great many things, but few galled her as much as the way Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison pronounced the phrase femme fatale. “The name of this song is ‘Fahm Fahtahl,’” the European daughter would scold her bandmates while recording what would become the legendary 1967 record The Velvet Underground and Nico. Naturally, this made Reed and Morrison lean ever harder into their graceless American accents when recording their backup vocals: She’s a femme fay-taaaaallll. The Velvet Underground and Nico is full of collisions and this was probably the most harmlessly playful one—a couple of American boys pestering the European ice queen with their stereotypically crass enunciation. Still, it gestures toward more solemn feelings of alienation and misunderstanding that would haunt Nico long after she left the Velvet Underground, for the rest of her troubled life.

Susanna Nicchiarelli’s affecting new movie, Nico, 1988, seeks to reframe Nico’s story, focusing not on the heady days of the Velvets and Andy Warhol’s Factory but instead on the last few years before the singer died at the age of 49. It’s a radical gesture—people love to watch biopics about the party, less so the long cleanup after the party’s over—but it is in keeping with how Nico perceived and told her own story. “My life started after my experience with the Velvet Underground,” she (or at least Nicchiarelli and the actress Trine Dyrholm’s interpretation of her) says in the film. Still, that would be news to most people with a passing knowledge of Nico’s music. Although she sang lead on only three songs with the Velvets and departed the group not long after its debut album came out, she’s long been most closely associated with the so-called “Banana Album”—a record on which she had little creative input.

One of many things Nicchiarelli’s movie reminds us is that Nico’s later music was darker, deeper, and infinitely richer than most people realize. In fact, the whole second half of her career was a defiant and fascinating repudiation of everything that had drawn people to the former model and muse in the first place. “She hated the idea of being blonde and beautiful,” her longtime collaborator John Cale said after her death. “She hated being a woman, because she figured all her beauty had brought her was grief.”

Nico was born Christa Päffgen in Cologne, Germany, on October 16, 1938. She was a child of war; some of her earliest memories were of her home country being bombed. Nico’s father went to war and subsequently died around this time, though the exact circumstances of his death are murky (it has been said that he suffered a head injury in battle and then was sent to a concentration camp). An air of apocalypse hung over her formative years. Nico, 1988 opens under a red sky, with a child asking her mother, “What’s that light?” “It’s Berlin, darling,” the mother replies. “Berlin is burning.”

Christa and her mother moved back there after the war, and it was in that city of ruins that Christa and her icepick cheekbones began modeling at the age of 15. She was a little reluctant at first, but it was one way to keep a family without a patriarch afloat. Modeling, too, offered her people, places: In Paris, she worked for Coco Chanel; in Rome, she charmed Federico Fellini enough to give her a walk-on role in La Dolce Vita; and when she finally got to New York it was at the request of the powerful agent Eileen Ford. But the industry had darker things to offer, too; it was during this time that she developed a proclivity for amphetamines. She’d tell her future bandmate James Young, who later wrote a book about his time with Nico, “They used to give it to us so we’d stay thin.”

Two important men shaped her future around this time. The first was the German photographer Herbert Tobias, who christened her “Nico,” in honor of a man he was infatuated with. This turned out to be a perfect moniker for her and all that’s embodied in her voice: the androgyny, the alienation from nationality, the constant nag of something lost. Then in New York, she met Andy Warhol and eventually fell in with the Factory crowd. He had just started managing a band, and he thought Nico—who had recorded a folksy single and been moonlighting as a singer at a club called the Blue Angel—might be a worthy addition.

“Of course Lou Reed almost gagged when I said we need a girl singing with the group,” Factory filmmaker Paul Morrissey has recalled. “I didn’t want to say that they needed somebody who had some sort of talent, but that’s what I meant.” This is an unfair swipe at Reed, for sure (he’d eventually prove that he could lead the band in his own right, and of course go on to a brilliant solo career), but Nico’s magnetic charisma was its own kind of superpower. “It was hard not to look at her,” writes Reed’s biographer Anthony DeCurtis, “and Warhol and Morrissey understood the appeal of that—they were visual artists, after all, not musical ones. And Nico’s visual qualities, far more than anything to do with music, were the reason they installed her as the Velvet’s lead singer.” Sterling Morrison put it more succinctly: “We’ve got a statue in the band.”

And yet, especially in her days as a benignly pretty Factory Girl, there is a dissonance between the visual and aural aspects of Nico. You just don’t expect that face to go with that voice—a low, primal om. On a song like “Femme Fatale” or “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” her voice is both thudding and strangely light on its feet, like an elephant in high heels. Of the three Velvets songs she sings, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” suits her best, and is perhaps the clearest harbinger of what came next, both sonically and in her life. “For Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown,” she sings with a droning, oddly defiant sadness. “For whom none will go mourning.”

As a culture, we love beauty almost as much as we love to deny its power over us. The truth—inconvenient to stories about Reed’s genius and Cale’s pioneering vision—is that in the music industry of 1966, the Velvet Underground might never have gotten signed without Nico. The former Columbia executive Tom Wilson put them on his new label Verve/MGM almost solely because he believed that Nico was a star. (This of course irked Reed, who still insisted on singing the majority of the songs on their record, including a new one he’d written expressly for Nico, the opener “Sunday Morning.”) But it’s just not the same record without the push and pull of Nico’s and Reed’s personalities. Reed has a voice nimble enough to slip in and out of many masks—he’d prove this even more as his career progressed. But Nico’s elemental tone cannot be anything other than what it is: The sad, sweet thud of being alive and knowing for certain that one day you will return to the wretched earth. Femme fatale indeed.

When I was a teenager I used to think that “These Days” was one of the saddest songs in the world. It is thick with regret, a certain self-conscious criticism (“Please don’t confront me with my failures/I had not forgotten them”), and premature world-weariness. “I had a lover/I don’t think I’d risk another these days,” sings Nico, age 29. (The song was written by her own lover, Jackson Browne, who was a full decade younger than she.) And, even more nihilistically: “I wonder if I’ll see another highway.” Like so many people around my age, I first encountered “These Days” in the Wes Anderson extended universe, as it’s used to great effect soundtracking the way the world stops when the gorgeous, kohl-eyed Margot Tenenbaum walks off a bus. Later in The Royal Tenenbaums, another Nico song, “The Fairest of the Seasons,” is used to soundtrack—what else?—a funeral.

Nico did indeed cry the first time she heard Chelsea Girl, her 1967 debut album on which those songs appear, but they were tears of frustration and thwarted artistic vision. (And … flutes.) “I still cannot listen to it,” she said in 1981, “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! ... The first time I heard the album, I cried, and it was all because of the flute.” Although it remains her best-known solo album, Chelsea Girl did not reflect Nico’s vision so much as “her aura commodified by men who were intoxicated with the idea of Nico,” as the critic Quinn Moreland wrote in a reappraisal of the record last year. The songs were primarily penned by Browne, Reed, and Cale, and the title is of course a nod to Warhol and Morrissey’s 1966 experimental film, in which Nico appeared. Chelsea Girl is a melancholic and affecting record, but it bespeaks a kind of aestheticized sadness, created and admired by male imaginations. In the places Nico was headed, there would be no gently lilting flutes.

In all of pop history, very few albums released by the same artist in a two-year span are as divergent than Nico’s first two solo albums. The Marble Index, released in November 1968, is an express ticket to a frigid hell. Approaching its 50th anniversary, it is staggering to comprehend what a bold and forward-thinking statement this record was at the time. Its stark, tormented feeling and avant-garde arrangements are sometimes compared to the later work of Scott Walker, but even he was still making baroque pop music in 1968. Though it flopped commercially (said Cale, who produced it, “You can’t sell suicide”), The Marble Index has become hugely influential on a number of experimental and independent musicians in the years since. Some believe it to be the first goth album; early genre pioneers the Cult and Bauhaus have indeed both cited it as an inspiration. But it is also a powerful missive from rock bottom that has resonated with those experiencing depression and addiction. In a posthumously published interview with NME, Elliott Smith said it was one of his favorite albums to listen to in the middle of the night. When the interviewer subsequently asked him, “If you could find a secret passage to anyone’s head, Being John Malkovich style, whose would it be?” Smith replied, “Probably Nico.”

It’s this duality of Nico that fascinates me most, and the moment when she pivoted with all her might from sad girl to depressed woman. Chelsea Girl bespoke a pouty kind of sadness that just longs to be seen, while The Marble Index invokes the sort of terror and dread from which most people want to look away. And yet it’s still predicated on the look—Nico knew as well as any former model that a woman is always seen but only with luck is she heard. The image she started throwing back at the world, though, wasn’t meant to placate or please. “She started at some point having a real resentment over her good looks,” Paul Morrissey has said. “She hated the fact that people thought she was beautiful … she was happy to be called ugly.”

It’s often hard to conjure sympathy for people who complain about the burdens of being good-looking, but in truth beauty can put people off as easily as it can draw them in. Nico certainly found this to be the case, and in her solo career she became adept at expressing this. One of Nico’s best and most enduring self-penned songs is “Afraid,” from her sparse and elegiac 1970 album Desertshore. (Another Neko, as in Neko Case, covered it on her 2013 album, her most candid about depression.) “You are beautiful,” sings the woman who once vowed to be another’s mirror, “and you are alone.”

In Nico, Songs They Never Play on the Radio, a memoir of Nico’s later years, her keyboard player James Young remembers Nico complaining, “[Warhol] always seems too busy to see me when I call him.” Young told her it was because she kept asking him to borrow money. But really, he admits, it was clearly for reasons Young couldn’t say to her face: “Her beauty had faded, her celebrity marginalized, she’d lost her iconic value as an image of the ‘European Moon Goddess’ once so essential an acquisition to the great collector’s gallery of social archetypes.”

A long way from the amphetamines of her modeling days, Nico’s drug of choice eventually became heroin (Reed’s drug use made the opposite trajectory) and Nico, 1988 follows the quiet and repetitive everyday quest of the longtime addict searching for her next fix. It is a portrait not only of a junkie but of the culture that glamorizes her, enables her, and then finally distances itself from her cries for help. But Nico doesn’t go quietly. Under a tangled mop of dark hair, the Danish actress Trine Dyrholm gives a searing and intense lead performance that does not erase the troubling parts of Nico’s personality (a petty temper, a childishly performative streak of anti-Semitism, a style of parenting that at times put her only son in danger) but at the same time imbues her with a gruff charisma.

I saw the film about a month ago, but I’ve been thinking of it a lot this week, in seeing how the media has been struggling to make sense of the pop star Demi Lovato’s recent overdose. TMZ first broke the Lovato story, and yet alongside sensationalized stories about her progress and recovery, I am encouraged to click on stories like, “Hailey Baldwin and Selena Gomez… WHO’D YOU RATHER?!” illustrated by nearly identical bikini selfies of Justin Bieber’s fiancée and ex-girlfriend. As a culture we still do not have the language or the tone to have meaningful conversations about addiction, let alone the larger cultural forces that drive people to substance abuse. Misogyny, depression, and the punishing standards of beauty are certainly not exclusively to blame for either of these women struggling with addiction, and yet they should not be considered entirely beside the point, either.

Nico died in Ibiza 30 years ago last month. She was riding a bicycle when she suffered what has been reported as either a brain hemorrhage or a heart attack. The film does not sensationalize her death, and indeed it ends on something of an optimistic note, which feels generous to its subject and the viewer. Though it doesn’t strain to make her a sympathetic character, Nico, 1988 grants its subject some dignity and will hopefully direct some people to the strange, unflinching music she made later in life.

Since seeing the movie, I’ve watched a clip of her performing a rough, punkish cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” half a dozen times. She looks haunted, possibly strung out, and utterly entranced by the music. Nico was also a great interpreter of other people’s music (her cover of “The End” is infinitely more fucked-up than the Doors’ version) and here she unlocks a raw, tragic energy in the song that hadn’t before existed. At rock bottom, she still had an unsettling magnetism. Even when what she had to show you was deeply unpleasant, Nico always made you look.