An imperious blond German ex-model with a voice once described as like “a body falling through a window”, Nico was already extraordinary by the time she leant her vocals to songs including Femme Fatale and All Tomorrow’s Parties on the Velvet Underground’s classic first album, produced by Andy Warhol.
Soon after that, she embarked on a solo career, and made records, such as The Marble Index, that were even darker, with despairing lyrics and a wheezing harmonium accompanying Nico’s Teutonic tones. By this time, she was no longer blond – she disdained her traffic-stopping looks – and was addicted to heroin.
Music and drugs led her to Manchester, where she lived for much of the 80s. As a new show about her, The Nico Project, comes to the Manchester international festival, the Guardian spoke to some of the people who found themselves working and hanging out with a cultural icon.
Nigel Bagley (co-manager, promoter): We were booking artists for the Rafters nightclub in Manchester in 1981 when I got a call from an agency telling me that Nico was in a pub in London, was a mess and was borrowing money off everyone. The person said: “You can book her, but I’ve no idea if she will turn up.” I’d had the Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico June 1, 1974 live album since I was 12, which led me to The Velvet Underground & Nico, so it was a chance to put on my childhood heroine. I booked her for £200. Then the agency called back, asking: “Can you get her some heroin?”
Phil Jones (co-manager, promoter): She turned up with her harmonium. Her arms were horrible, but otherwise she didn’t look as if she’d been taking heroin for years. We realised what an icon she was later when we put her on in London and Siouxsie [Sioux], Duran Duran and all these film stars turned up. At that first Rafters gig, New Order, Tony Wilson and the Factory Records lot were on the guest list. She sang Femme Fatale, All Tomorrow’s Parties and I’m Waiting for the Man. Alan Wise [her manager] was enthralled. She had nowhere to stay and he said: “We can’t just let her go.”
Nigel Bagley: We put her up in a Polish B&B. She put a “do not disturb” sign on the door and was there for three weeks.
Phil Jones: She needed to perform to get money for drugs, and the next thing we knew, Wise had bamboozled her into letting us co-manage her. A Polish ex-servicemen’s club gave her a room for a while. She moved into people’s houses because they liked the idea of having Nico in the spare room, but then they would say the kids were scared of her, so she got a flat in Sedgeley Park in Prestwich. We hooked her up with musicians, and Manchester was her home for years.
Martin Bramah (guitarist): I think she was aware that there was a scene – Joy Division, dark music – or maybe she just liked the cheap heroin. When we were on the road, there was a lot of waiting around unsavoury parts of town – she would post letters full of heroin to herself at the next hotel – whereas in Manchester, she had a dealer. But she didn’t see the grubby, industrial city I grew up in. She’d gaze at the Victorian architecture and say: “This is so romantic.”
Phil Jones: She liked the fact that she was a bit of celeb, and people were a bit in awe of her – Tony Wilson called her “ma’am” – but she also really liked normality. On Sunday nights, we would go to the Kwok Man in Chinatown for a Chinese meal. Alan took her to meet his family at Christmas. She liked the pubs in Prestwich, where she could play pool and be anonymous.
Richard Hector-Jones (bystander): I saw her being searched by police in the Spinners Arms – a then-notorious pub in Hulme. My friend whispered: “That’s Nico,” and I was thinking: “What the fuck is a star from the Velvet Underground doing in this shit-hole?”
“Spider” Mike King (guitarist): She was a true bohemian. Her whole world was in a holdall: a change of underwear and a blouse.
Jane Goldstraw (friend): I think sometimes she just craved to be herself, and she could be that with me because I didn’t want anything from her – I didn’t take drugs. She loved my soup. We’d watch a film or sing; I would play piano. She rode her bicycle around Manchester, and we’d take my dog and kids, and walk across the moors. I think she was very lonely, but so was I.
Nigel Bagley: She didn’t really socialise with the Manchester glitterati or hang out in clubs. Hooky [Peter Hook from New Order] would occasionally turn up. Later, she shared a flat with John Cooper Clarke in London, but her heroes were from a previous generation; the Bob Dylans and so on. She once asked me round for dinner, and there was this bizarre scene of Nico cooking couscous with one hand and cooking up heroin with the other. I was thinking: “I hope she doesn’t mix them up.” She has such a dark image, but there was so much funny stuff, and she was wonderfully deadpan. We met the film director John Waters who asked if she would sing at his funeral. She said: “Call me when you’re dead.”
Una Baines (keyboards): She OD’d on a ferry between the Hook of Holland and Harwich, and was read the last rites. Afterwards, we were all searched by customs and Nico just sat there, cool as a cucumber. They didn’t find anything, and she said: “Did you see how I hypnotised the dog?”
Jane Goldstraw: She loved to shock. We’d go to the local shops and she’d go: “This is Jane, my girlfriend” – which I wasn’t – “I love her”. And, of course, this being the 1980s, people’s jaws would drop.
Graham “Dids” Dowdall (drums): She was very matter-of-fact, very down to earth: “Let’s just do this.” At my first rehearsal, the microphone didn’t work, so she sang without one and every hair on my neck stood on end.
Una Baines: She let me sound-check her Indian pump organ. Patti Smith bought it for her. You were with her, learning songs like David Bowie’s Heroes, thinking: “Is this real?”
Martin Bramah: In the car, she would get herself nicely stoned and reminisce about her lovers – Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison. She knew it enthralled people. Lovely, romantic tales.
Mike King: I think the relationship with Alain Delon [with whom she had a son, Ari, in 1962] had caused her a lot of pain. She carried with her the separation from these worlds.
James Young (keyboards): When she was withdrawing [from heroin], she would become very angry. So there was a lot of anger being suppressed.
Phil Jones: If she wasn’t taking heroin, she started feeling things, and she couldn’t cope with that because she didn’t know where it would go.
James Young: There was a sea of darkness there. She was born [Christa Päffgen] in the Nazi period [in 1938], evacuated to her grandfather’s house [on the outskirts of Berlin] and saw Berlin in flames. And the guilt of being German after Hitler, and having to do things she didn’t want to do to escape. She was an alpha female. It took guts as a teenager to go to Paris and seek out the right circles in the postwar ruins of Europe. When she was modelling for Chanel, she was given amphetamines to stay thin – that was legal then – and it normalised drug-taking.
Nigel Bagley: I once asked her why she took heroin. She said: “Well, if I was a drunk, I’d be fat.” In the early years, making La Dolce Vita with Fellini and everything else, she was the equivalent of today’s reality TV stars: thrust into fame and voted one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world. Then she was a superstar with Andy Warhol in New York, and drugs were around.
James Young: She said: “The bad thoughts come when I don’t have smack.” She once told me she had been raped as a teenager. People cast doubt on her stories, but why would you make that up?
Jane Goldstraw: She told me that, when she was three years old during the war, she lived on a farm near a death camp, and she remembered treading over bodies. But there are conflicting stories. She was quite an overpowering woman if you let her be one.
Nigel Bagley: At one gig, she introduced Deutschland über Alles, saying: “My father was a homosexual and died in a concentration camp.” And, of course, the audience was in floods of tears. The backstory was part of the performance, and it kept changing.
Phil Jones: If she told you something personally, it tended to be true. In Oliver Stone’s Doors film, there’s a scene where she gives Jim Morrison a blowjob in a lift. She would have been really affronted by that. She’d read this sort of thing in books and told me: “That never fucking happened.” She never was a femme fatale. She just got hit on a lot by very famous people. I think she was abused along the way. She told me five times: “Jim Morrison was the only man I ever loved.” She carried resentments, but she must have done something right because she assured her status while in the Velvet Underground and then created an idiosyncratic canon that was unlike anything else in music.
James Young: She found her artistic direction with [1968’s] The Marble Index. Paul Morrissey [a Warhol collaborator] concluded that taking heroin and wearing black clothes was a renunciation of the world, so she could concentrate on being an artist, almost like a nun would do. Black on black, motorcycle boots, pre-goth, badass.
Una Baines: I don’t think she’d have labelled herself a feminist because she hated any form of ideology. She did say her only regret was not being born a man. I think she wanted the same privileges and power that men have. She felt people were only interested in her looks. She wanted something more substantial. She wrote songs in her second language. She was fluent in seven. The song No One is There was about Nixon. It’s superbly written. She is still not appreciated for her talent.
Nigel Bagley: There are so many stories about her. The ones about racism … we never saw that in Manchester. She was in a multicultural city and was good friends with Yankee Bill, our American-Jamaican doorman.
Graham Dowdall: She played an Indian instrument, worked with north Africans, and brought that to her music. She was certainly capable of very casual racism about Alan [Wise], who was Jewish, but that was a way of having a go at Al. Their relationship was among the most complex I’ve encountered. They were interdependent. He loved Nico, but it was unrequited.
Phil Jones: She laughed at herself and the absurdity of it all. She’d say: “How did I get here?” and I’d say: “Nico, you turned up for that gig, and you’re still here. And Alan is running your life.” And she’d say: “I hate him!”
Nigel Bagley: The regret is that she didn’t make more music in Manchester. She had signed some messy deals which prevented her recording. She used to sing torch songs in the car. We put her in the studio with Martin Hannett, who shared certain behavioural habits [a heroin addiction]. A single, Procession, worked well, and All Tomorrow’s Parties on the B-side was sensational. So we gave her £1,000 to do an album and she ran away to London. It turned out that she didn’t have any songs, but didn’t want to admit it. Like John Cooper Clarke, heroin stopped her writing.
Jane Goldstraw: I don’t think she was interested in the local music scene. When the Haçienda audience were noisy, she just screamed in this piercing voice: “Shut up! You are so rude! When you are quiet, I’ll carry on.” And there was silence. She could do that.
John Keenan (promoter): The last time I put her on, she was in her leather trousers, and asked: “Why don’t more people see me? I will be dead soon.” I think she thought that, at 49, she was through; that generation thought everyone was past it when they got to 50.
Phil Jones: Al eventually persuaded her on to a methadone programme and we finally got her royalties for her – a lot of money. So she was able to come off drugs, decamp to Ibiza and live a normal life with her son. Then I saw the headline in Melody Maker: “Nico dead.” I was hysterical. I didn’t know I could be so upset. [She died in 1988 of a cerebral haemorrhage while riding a bicycle in Ibiza. She was 49.]
Jane Goldstraw: It broke my heart. She liked to hold my hand.
James Young: She was wonderful, maddening, beautiful, a monster, incredibly gifted and phenomenally lazy. Hugely contradictory. I learned more musically from her than anyone else.
John Keenan: I overheard her being asked how she would like to be remembered. She deadpanned: “By a tombstone.”
Maxine Peake plays Nico in the Manchester international festival’s The Nico Project at the Stoller Hall, Hunts Bank, Manchester, 10-13 July and 16-21 July. James Young’s book, Songs They Never Play on the Radio, is published by Bloomsbury.