A little-known fact: Jackson Browne was once a member of the Velvet Underground.
Not really. But not far off. I have a correspondent in Tokyo, a magazine editor, who tells me that the current crop of young people in Japan is sometimes called the “Reissued-CD Generation.” This makes me very uncomfortable. Perhaps because of my own experience as a teenager in the 1960s, I am quite attached to the idea of young people creating and listening to rock music for and by their peers and contemporaries. And in San Diego anyway, this is happening in a wonderfully hearty and healthy fashion. You know this if you tried to shove your way into the “benefit for free records” held recently on the UCSD campus featuring Aminor Forest, Staccato Reads, and Three Mile Pilot, or any number of equivalent shows at the Casbah or SOMA or Bodie’s. Young ears know what speaks to them, which is something (an immediacy, a kind of telepathy, a constant reinvention of language) I’ve always liked about rock and roll.
But this is anyway an essay by a nonteenager about a reissued CD, kind of obscure, joyful to listen to in its own right, and also a fascinating locus of semi-famous or legendary figures from the rock world in 1967: the first solo album by Nico, called Chelsea Girl. It spoke to me then (even though Nico was five, or maybe ten, years older than I was) to some extent, but I always thought (influenced by the point of view of fellow Velvets fans, probably) that it had been spoiled by the strings the producer added onto it. A few years ago I pulled it out, wanting to hear one or two of these songs again, and discovered how wrong I’d been.
The strings are a delight. The album is marvelous — such great songs, such seemingly different dispositions pulled together into such a consistent, unique, articulate world view by the power of the performance, the strength of the artist’s personality. A secret classic. A triumph.
One woman and all those men, and it seems as though every commentator I’ve read has missed the point, which is that the woman is totally in charge. She dominates them all, as she should, because it’s her album. The men may think, and the commentators seem to believe that what entrances them is her beauty and her cool, romantic air of mystery. But in fact the beauty and the air are themselves the result of what really entrances, which is her self-confident sense of what she’s doing: her artistic vision.
She takes, for example, Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” and the song is his no longer — in fact, when he finally recorded it, six years later, I was disappointed — he failed to capture the extraordinary magic that she imbued the song with. Perhaps the song had gotten old for him. But Nico’s perfect recording of it never will.
Clinton Heylin, in his essential pre-punk history, From the Velvets to the Voidoids, says, “The first Nico solo album, recorded between the first two Velvets albums, could easily have been an alternative Velvet Underground and Nico.” (V.U.’s first album, prominent on the “greatest discs of all time” lists of both critics and musicians in the ’80s and ’90s; Nico was forced out or quit the band before the second album.) Heylin cites the five (of ten) songs written by members of the Velvets (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison), and the musical accompaniment they provide, notes that two of the songs had been previously recorded (unissued) by the V.U. and another evolved from a standard improvisation piece from their live shows, and concludes that Chelsea Girl could as well be called Nico and the Velvet Underground. I concur — it’s closer to being part of the essential Velvet oeuvre than any other non-Velvet record, including those made by Reed or Cale, especially because these are the only available recordings of all five of these songs, and they are arguably prime examples of the Velvets’ skewed genius — confounding examples, because ultimately they are under the direction not of Lou or John, but of Nico, the odd girl out.
I was really pissed off at the way Oliver Stone portrayed Nico in his movie The Doors . Stone, wouldn’tcha know, turns her into a pathetic bimbo. Easy enough to do with a heroin user and a woman with a definite penchant for attractive and visible males (she bore actor Alain Delon’s son before she even met any of these rock and rollers) — but the Oliver Stones of this world and their male rock-critic equivalents, all nominally feminists, never give Hendrix or Lennon or JFK the same treatment. Women as angels or whores, same old story. But I digress: Jackson Browne.
Jackson Browne was 18, a kid from Orange County visiting New York City, drawn to the Dom on St. Marks Place because his hero Tim Buckley (also from Orange County) was playing there, doing a set of his own and also backing resident chanteuse Nico (she played in the downstairs bar when she and the Velvets weren’t playing the big room upstairs or some out-of-town engagement). And, well, to make a long story short, young Jackson ended up accompanying Nico on guitar at the Dom for several months (Tim Hardin, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Rambling Jack Elliott had also had the same job, as had a tape-recording of Reed and Cale, but none for more than a day or two at a time) and living with her in her apartment on West 81st and Columbus.
He also wrote three of the ten songs on Chelsea Girl and played guitar behind her on most of the songs. So you see, if Chelsea Girl is almost a great lost Velvet Underground album (and it is, it is), Jackson Browne is almost a great lost Velvet member, even if Jonathan Richman would have been more appreciative of the honor.
But the music. It starts memorably, beautifully, unforgettably, as a great single or album must, and what it starts with is 15 seconds of solo guitar strumming by Jackson Browne. This sets the mood, a mood of great confidence, quietude, and grace. The guitar all but disappears at the 15th second, as the voice and then the strings come in, and guitar is then felt rather than heard throughout most of the album, but it’s always there, with a matter-of-factness that matches Nico’s vocal presence, and a subtle warmth (and sweetness, even) that seems to contradict it. And then the first words: “Now that it’s time...”
Chelsea Girl was apparently recorded, probably rather quickly, in the spring of 1967, with Nico and Jackson performing together live in the studio (one voice, one guitar, sometimes acoustic, sometimes a very clean-sounding electric) presumably in a fashion similar to what they’d been doing night after night in Stanley’s Bar, downstairs at the Dom (in the still-Polish heart of the very hip and soon-to-be-discovered East Village). Tom Wilson was the producer, Gary Kellgren the engineer (the same team that worked on the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat; Wilson also produced most of the first Velvets album, as well as the first two LPs by the Mothers and three Bob Dylan albums — that’s him laughing on Bringing It All Back Home — plus “Girl from the North Country” and “Like a Rolling Stone” and the “electric” hit version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence”). Wilson hired Larry Fallon to write string and flute arrangements and add them to all but two of the ten tracks. The impression one gets from what little has been written about the making of this record is that Nico was not present for the recording of the added accompaniment, and in at least one interview she states that she was not happy with the results.
They make me happy, however. (Hey, if you as a fan deferred to John Lennon’s or Bob Dylan’s or Philip K. Dick’s conversational judgments of their finished work, you’d have to let go of quite a few of your favorite songs and novels.) And I can’t help but think that Nico must have intended something almost exactly like this for these songs, these performances. There are even some vamps in some of the songs that sound as if their only purpose could be to leave space for such additions. Perhaps what she means is that the strings and flute did not ultimately sound as she’d imagined them (usually the case, especially with a first album). And perhaps in saying this she was influenced by her inevitable disappointment when the record sank with neither popular nor critical success, not launching her on an imagined (and much-deserved) career as smart pop EuroAmerican rock chanteuse after all.
It should have been. The brightness and relevance of this album today suggest that she was ahead of her time, or more precisely, outside of time. She not only sings these remarkably durable songs in a manner that is both wholly her own and true to the very essence of the songs’ own nature, she also gathered them herself, with no help from any A&R man, in each case from one of her admirers. (To Reed and Cale and Browne add Dylan and Hardin, with many others waiting in the wings...It is reported in Bockris and Malanga’s Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story, for instance, that “Leonard Cohen attended her every performance [in spring ’67] and later made use of some of her techniques on his own recordings.”)
Rock chanteuse. As serious and excellent as Nico’s later work was, it would have been wonderful to have also had her continue to perform and record cutting-edge work by other songwriters in a European “presentation of the collective emotional news” context, but with her marvelous Anglo-American 1960s “now generation” energy and sensibilities and musical inventiveness.
The first of these songs is simply a masterpiece, still largely undiscovered (there must be another recording, but I’m not aware of one), “The Fairest of the Seasons,” written by Gregory Copeland and Jackson Browne. What imost obviously impressive here is the words (not their narrative but their evocative quality, beauty of language); but the melody and the guitar playing and the string arrangements and the mix and Nico’s superlative vocal performance are equally strong despite their invisibility. They soothe and penetrate. They sink in. And most important they pay off, words and music and vocal all paying off at the end like the end of a particularly powerful short story, when the last words of the song finally arrive at the title phrase and give the entire narrative (young male — or female perhaps — shying and bolting as a sexual friendship moves into love) a deeper and broader significance, as the uncertain one makes a decision: “But do I stay or do I go?/ And it is finally I decide/ That I’d be leaving in the fairest of the seasons.” Wow. I looked it up in Familiar Quotations, but Bartlett seems inclined to give Mr. Copeland free claim to his fine choice of words.
Greg Copeland is the lyricist, I’m sure, even though the great bridging line here (“Yes and the morning has me looking in your eyes and seeing mine”) sounds very much like the Jackson Browne who wrote the classic couplet “You never knew what I saw in you, I don’t know what you saw in me/ Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be” (“Late for the Sky,” 1974). I feel certain Copeland’s the word-writer, because that’s what he was famous for, on the grapevine in 1966 and 1967; he wrote great ornate inspired song verses that Steve Noonan or Pamela Polland, or in this case Jackson Browne, would put music to, just as Larry Beckett wrote words that Tim Buckley added music to in that same brief Orange County songwriter renaissance. And then Greg seemingly vanished without a trace, except that of his considerable influence (wow, now I see what it’s possible to do in a song!) on his contemporaries.
Invisibility. The mystery about Nico’s voice is how extraordinarily present she is despite her apparent absence (she may seem cool and aloof, but in fact she’s engaged and intimate in every phrase and almost every word of these songs, fiercely and successfully conveying the meaning and feeling of things). She not only gives of herself generously, in a manner that opens some receptive quality in the listener, but she also somehow leaves a tremendous amount of space for song and songwriter, so that I hear her voice but I also hear the songwriter’s (male, ten years less experienced) voice in her singing of the song, as though I’m hearing him sing it. It’s very striking. She has in a sense a single trick, a lack of affect that’s a transparent mask allowing great subtleties of emotional content, as Dylan’s trick of a fake voice (the Okie accent) somehow gave him access to his great true voice.
Second song, “These Days,” is by Jackson Browne alone, another classic, and the two opening songs and performances blend into each other emotionally and stylistically and in narrative so that it’s easy to confuse them with each other (the next three songs interweave with each other in a similar fashion, as do the odd pairing of “Somewhere There’s a Feather” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” later in the album). Both “These Days” and “Fairest” are songs about time, I suddenly notice, and then I realize the same can be said, slightly less directly, about every song on the album, songs about time creating a mood of hypnotic timelessness, as if Dylan was uncannily aware of Nico’s needs and powers in 1964 when he wrote, reportedly for and about her, the song he contributed to this record: “But if I can save you any time/ Come on, give it to me, I’ll keep it with mine.” She thanked him. Indeed, there’s some evidence that at that moment she got religion. She determined to become a time-keeping shaman herself.
“These Days” has another wonderful guitar intro, and this time the instrument stays audible throughout the song; this is the guitar/violin tune on which the guitar is most distinct, and so it allows the folk- or rock- (i.e., guitar-) oriented listener the best opportunity to get a fix on how the two types of accompaniment are being balanced or played off against each other. (The first song, appropriately, just tosses you into this musical environment and requires that you accept it.) The strings, whatever they are (probably a violin or two, a viola, and a cello), come in two general forms: long and flowing sounds (legato), that syrupy or moody stuff that makes us rock and rollers reach for our ear plugs (especially in 1967, when we were in a more uncertain struggle to maintain our territory, our rebellion), and short, crisp, rhythmic bursts of sound (staccato).
Both staccato and legato are used liberally in the Chelsea Girl arrangements, but the staccato stuff seems to be the meat of the matter, the place where information is most directly communicated. In “These Days” a light legato (remember, we’re also hearing all that rhythmic and melodic information from the guitar player) accompanies and flavors the first few lines of each verse (until the repeated “these days” section — clever to put the chorus in the middle of the verse!), breaking sharply into staccato alongside the next couplet, the second line of which also manages to be the first line of the verse’s last couplet, which stands out because there are no strings behind it, leg. or stac. How these three lines become two pairs of rhyming lines works like this: “These days I seem to think a lot/About the things that I forgot to do/And all the times I had the...chance to.” The second ending of the middle line soars free (“to do...”), breaking the staccato effect, and then the pause near the end of the last line makes the meter somehow work out in magical fashion.
Notice the way “things I forgot to do” in “These Days” resonates with “Do I really have a hand in my forgetting?” in “Fairest of the Seasons.” I love the way “forgetting” in that song (end of first verse) rhymes with “undernetting” (end of second verse). The third verse stands alone, and fourth and fifth verses again rhyme last words (a strong rhyme because no word within the verse rhymes with these verse-ends), “reason,” and “seasons.”“Fairest” is also more complex in the structure of its string accompaniments: first lines are backed by a syrupy or dreamy (take your choice) legato, which drops out to emphasize the “I want to know” part (again a chorus in the middle of the verse), followed by a staccato string interpolation before the second part of the same line. As the verse continues a slower staccato string part comes in, kind of a cross between legato and staccato because the bowing is longer and gentler but it’s still in bursts. This gives way, at the end of second verse and fourth verse, to a very pronounced staccato string part emphasizing the bridge (“Yes and the morning...”). The lovely way the bass notes of the acoustic guitar are brought forward during “I want to know” is also quite moving; the mix is used very consciously and tastefully here (and the acoustic guitar has been miked particularly well, the sound is tactile and alive).
I’m saying I like the way all these elements of song and performance reinforce each other. It works. And always, I believe, it works because Nico’s vocal allows and encourages and maybe even requires it to. She creates the space. The arranger provides color and texture (and the guitar player rhythm and melody) in accordance with the musical needs of the song as determined and communicated by their mistress’s voice.
Now we come to the Velvet-penned songs.“Little Sister” is either the first song Lou Reed and John Cale wrote together or the first on which Cale requested and received credit. Lou did the words; John did the music or much of the music. Clinton Heylin says it was previously recorded by the Velvets at the sessions for their first album; Cale speaks (probably erroneously) of writing it specifically for Nico’s album. It is different from the later “Little Sister” song that is included in Reed’s book of lyrics. There’s not much to the song except a poignant melody, but the arrangement and vocal performance give it a thrilling beauty. It’s at this moment that the album reaches for greatness, by daring to move into another emotional realm after so successfully creating the reality of the first two songs, all innocence and promise and delighted cries at the discovery of a world of pain and sex and self-doubt. There was already an undercurrent — for me, Nico singing “Please don’t confront me with my failures/ I had not forgotten them” imbues “These Days” with a maturity that can only make us smile at what the 17-year-old author of the song must have been thinking of when he wrote this. The two voices: hers that sings to us, and his that speaks from his text, contrast and harmonize, deepening our felt awareness of what it is to be human and to learn from loss and hope and love. But still: the reality so skillfully and touchingly created in these first two performances is the reality of singer-songwriter land, in the 1970s sense of the term, a world that can be powerfully attractive but ultimately becomes stifling precisely because all this romantic self-image and self-involvement is only a starting place, and its practitioners always sound trapped within it, stuck as it were in the world of these first two songs. When they refuse to stay stuck — one thinks of Joni Mitchell — their fans often lament and do their best to pull them back to familiar territory.
Nico (and Tom Wilson or whoever it was who devised this brilliantly intuitive sequence) does succeed in unselfconsciously uniting California (Browne) and New York (the Velvets), nascent singer-songwriterdom and nascent new wave, not as musical styles particularly (her strength is that she sings and presents the whole album relentlessly in her own style, outside of time, but all the more tuned in to the real forces at large in 1967 because of that) but as perspectives, values, world views. Metaphorically (and actually) this muse sleeps with Lou Reed and with Jackson Browne and does not consider either one to be cooler or closer to the truth. Rather, she is gathering and sharing the truth that she finds through them, which is to say, that in their art which is true to the truth she’s already found (and continues to find) for herself.
The narratives of “Fairest” and “These Days” are ambiguous but involving; they speak of (and evoke) emotional situations and in doing so engage our minds. “Little Sister” on the other hand is entirely atmospheric. It contains almost no information for the mind but is a glorious gentle (subtle) open-ended pulse of feelings. I like its sonic texture. The melody lifts and relaxes me. I like the sound of the singer’s voice. People talk about how they were attracted to the Beatles by their accents, which could sound like cheap suburban exoticism, as Nico’s appeal could be dismissed by the scornful as cheap urban exoticism. But, listening to her sing the words “little bird,” it occurs to me that there is something not cheap but substantial going on in both these instances. We are breaking the hold that spoken language, familiar spoken language, has on us. The accent of the outsider, the other, allows us to hear for the first time that all words have our tribe’s accent on them, constantly reinforcing for us a set of limited messages about the nature of what’s real. Nico’s accent and affectless (in terms of what we’re used to; actually it’s filled with message and information) voice awaken me. I think I was attracted to this 28 years ago when the album came out. But I wasn’t ready to hear it (that glorious gentle penetrating door-opening “little bird”) yet. This is not the Velvets’ sound, nor their well-known subject matter, but it is somehow their landscape. Which may have been their most enduring gift.
The three songs “Little Sister,” “Winter Song,” and “It Was a Pleasure Then” form a unit largely because of an element in their sound. They also share similar provocatively vague word images, but what really weaves them together is this John Cale-ish approach to what music can be, something not just experimental but temperamental, a kind of low rainy note, something Welsh probably and also very lower Manhattan.
“Winter Song” is by Cale alone, so both the first two songs are his composed music (a rarity in the Velvet oeuvre), and “It Was a Pleasure” is a jam, Reed on electric guitar, Cale on electric viola, and Nico on voice. (The songwriting is credited to all three of them.) “Little Sister” features a keyboard, the only one on the album, almost certainly Cale, playing either a Chamberlain or some other kind of mid-’60s electric or electronic organ. A pumping, moaning sound. There’s also a repetitive electric guitar track all through, which could be Lou or Sterling, I suppose, but which could just as well be Jackson playing the song the way Nico (or Reed or Cale) taught him to, and probably is. No flourish anywhere to give it Lou’s fingerprint; the playing is admirably straight, and still very expressive. There are also strings, and, starting at the halfway point, a flute. These serve to sweeten and give texture to the marvelous pulse created by keyboard and voice and guitar. “Winter Song” is baffling in Cale’s seeming absence (he could be the guitar player, although that’s not something he was known to do at this time, or he could be playing a viola part that’s been covered — indeed, replaced — by the orchestrated strings, but more likely he’s just not on this track, though the sound of his music certainly is). Mark Fallon seems to me to deserve a tremendous amount of credit for these arrangements that work so well with both the Brownean aesthetic and the Calean and create such an odd consistency between the two (is this because they are both subsumed within a Nicovian world view?). Guitar here sounds like keyboard. Flute jumps in from the beginning, and the strings are all over the place, bold, dominant, fiery. Lyrics are at the same time excellent and noncommittal, as if we can hear the songwriter explaining that they’re really prose, not a “song,” can feel him and Nico engaged in some earnest (but charming) intellectual experiment.
We also hear Cale (in his lyrics to “Winter Song”) clearly and understandably under Lou’s Reed’s influence. But he comes out with something very much his own (their own, it really is Nico’s too, and the start of a long collaboration) anyway. New directions. New musical language. No great achievements, song to song, but the whole is so much larger than the sum of the parts. These three songs together transport us, with Nico as guide, into a deliciously strange and somehow necessary dreamworld, alien and familiar both at once, childish dark romanticisms on the one hand but at the same time filled with a dignity and originality and taste of mystery that seem essential to our psychic survival.
“It Was a Pleasure Then” reportedly evolved from a Velvets performance piece called “Melody Laughter,” in which Nico warbled, Lou improvised wildly on guitar, and Cale would wander from instrument to instrument while Moe fatalistically attempted to keep the beat. On this album it has words, high school avant-gardeisms in the Reed manner (any of the three could have written them),“Until the stars fell through the cloudy trees onto the grass,” and no drums — there’s no drums or bass guitar anywhere on Chelsea Girl , no pretense that this is a rock and roll album. Lou Reed, in an interview 20 years later, says of the album, “[I wish] they’d just have allowed Cale to arrange it and let me do some more stuff on it. Everything on it — those strings, that flute — should have defeated it. But with the lyrics, Nico’s voice, it somehow managed to survive. We still got ‘It Was a Pleasure Then’ on, they couldn’t stop us. We’d been doing a song like that in our beloved show; it didn’t really have a title. Just all of us following the drone. And there it sits in the middle of that album.”
Reed’s “us” (“they couldn’t stop us”) seems more than a little presumptuous, or anyway can be taken as evidence that he did think this was a Velvet Underground album, or should have been. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that Nico had a vision of her own (as strong-minded as he knew her to be, or maybe he dismissed that as just dumb female stubbornness). But listening to the album today, someone clearly had a very strong vision, intuitive or conscious or both at once. That someone could have been the producer, Tom Wilson, although Wilson’s style with Dylan and the Mothers and the Velvets had consistently been to get out of the way and let genius wail. Occam’s razor, which requires choosing the simplest of available explanations, points to Nico as the more likely source of the fine aesthetic consciousness that holds this record together.
That consciousness not only makes room for “It Was a Pleasure Then,” it insists of it. Nico decisively rejects the limits of the conventional song form even as she celebrates and honors that form. She wishes her characters (the people in her songs) to be free to wander in an environment not restricted by space or time or structure. There’s no geography in these songs, no California, no New York (unless you count the insider reference in the title of “Chelsea Girls”), no Europe or America, no hint of a sense of exile nor sense of belonging, only long corridors and neutral spaces of the imagination, where men and women stroll and meet and prepare to part again.“Winter Song” is enough like “It Was a Pleasure” and at the same time enough like “Little Sister” or “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” (real songs; they have choruses, for example) to anchor “Pleasure” to the album, it fits, it flows, it doesn’t stop our listening (unlike “Mind Garden” by the Byrds or the Velvets’ great but difficult “Murder Mystery”), but still it serves as this mysterious break in the continuity, so that we feel that the picture painted by the album as a whole has some kind of infinity in the middle even though we’re sure of its beginning and end.
Lou’s guitar (must be Lou, could only be Lou) on “It Was a Pleasure Then” takes us on a journey unrestricted by the time conventions of Western music (punctuated erratically and brilliantly by John Cale’s percussive viola), but never does it upstage or even conflict with Nico’s voice, the unfailing omnipresent almost unnoticeable (because it’s always there and so elegantly indefinite) droning heart of song and album.
The first two songs wear daylight colors (the narratives may be bittersweet but the melodies sparkle); the next three are night denizens, stories like shadows, recollections of dreams. Sixth song,“Chelsea Girls,” written by Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, returns us to the light, I think, but it’s not daylight. Nighttime interior shots, well lit so you don’t miss any of the grotesqueries. This is a song Reed would write many more times, notably as “Walk on the Wild Side” — a travelogue through a decadent world, specifically Andy Warhol’s “Factory” in New York in the mid-1960s. Wow, kids, look at the freaks! Reed never recorded this version. In Between Thought and Expression, the Selected Lyrics of Lou Reed, he writes,“ ‘Chelsea Girls’ was written for the Warhol movie of the same name. Since it was written after the movie came out, it did not appear in it.” Nico did appear in the movie, in fact received top billing. It wasn’t her first film — back in 1958 Federico Fellini spotted her and gave her a part in La Dolce Vita.
But she wanted to sing. My significant other loves “Chelsea Girls,” it’s her favorite song on the album. My feelings about it are mixed. It has an immensely attractive melody, and there’s something about the short little rhymed verses that makes them quite evocative even though they barely manage to say anything (triumph of form over content?). In a funny way it’s the pop song of the album. It fits in well, spices the mix quite appropriately. The flute solo’s terrific. But I miss the intimacy. It’s the only song on the record that isn’t in the first or second person. The complicated subjective story being whispered in my ear, and which I am somehow a part of in the other performances, is interrupted here. The singer has become a camera. It’s a catchy, funny tune, and a neat trick to move the perspective outside for a moment, as though each verse of “Chelsea Girls” is describing one of the intense emotional interactions taking place in the other songs. In those songs you and I are talking to each other in one of the various rooms in this hotel. In this song they’re making movies of our misery, and we’re watching them. I’m amused. But I want to turn off the TV now.
“I’ll Keep It With Mine” is a transcendent song and performance. She sounds so happy, maybe because she’s finally getting to record the song Dylan wrote for her (it took her three years). She sings it like she understands it, like she’s solved the koan, like she accepts and identifies with every word. She sings it like she’s him singing to her, and also like she’s herself, passing on the riddle and the promise to the next supplicant. Me? I know I get in touch with something a little deeper and simpler every time I listen. Jackson’s folky guitar (open tuning?) and Larry Fallon’s perky strings sound crazed and delightful. The folk song of the album. The anthem.
The next two songs weave a unit again (in my impression of the album as listener), but in a most peculiar way. They bond because of their inadequacies, an early Jackson Browne song that’s a tad too clever and insubstantial (nicely compact, though), and an early Lou Reed song that’s rather absurdly adolescent but with a great evocative title and chorus. The titles of the two songs sound similar, “Somewhere There’s a Feather” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” and indeed both are meant to be ironic, though you might miss the point with the former and you wish to miss it with the latter, since Lou’s fake empathy is much more poetic and moving (indeed, in Nico’s care it becomes real empathy) than his ranting in the verse about blood, gold, excrement, and entrails.
But in any case these songs, like the second-rate material left for Billie Holiday after the white stars picked out the “good” stuff, are transformed by the singer’s voice and sense of self into powerful, intriguing explorations and restatements of the themes stirred up by the album. The arrangement of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” with its eerie pizzicato (plucked violin strings, advancing like insects in a cartoon horror movie), is particularly effective, bringing back the mood of “Winter Song” but with more than a hint of the campiness of “Chelsea Girls.” Nico vocalizes the pretensions of arty punks and the pretensions of sensitive songpoets with affection and sincerity and respect, bringing us back (through the nuance in her voice, the melodic and rhythmic resolution as she sings “Don’t ask me to/ Explain to you/ There’s nothing to remain but what we see”) to the genuine hungers and fears and fearlessness underlying all this youthful posturing and affectation. Perceives the men within the boys, even if they don’t realize it.
I also like the way “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” and “I’ll Keep It with Mine” become linked as unconscious rewrites of Richard Fariqa and Pauline Marden’s “Pack Up Your Sorrows” (“If somehow you could pack up your sorrows, give them all to me...”). This album is about both the possibility and impossibility of sharing our needs and griefs. The theme seems to allow no resolution, and yet it receives a tremendously moving one as Nico closes with Tim Hardin’s otherwise unrecorded masterwork “Eulogy for Lenny Bruce.” “Why?” she asks, she lets Tim ask through her, I can’t remember when I’ve heard an American singer who could let songwriters speak through her with such immediacy, “Didn’t you listen to the warning words of your friends/ While they told you so?” And answers, and this time perhaps more than any other moment on the album we feel her speaking for herself as well as the author, “I know you couldn’t listen to people talk about/ What they didn’t know.”
It’s a beautiful conclusion to an immensely complex, listenable, satisfying, and enduring recording. The guitar part is so perfect, so quintessentially Hardin, that I find myself wondering if he could be playing it, but considering how extraordinarily difficult it was to get him into a recording studio, let alone an MGM/Verve recording studio, in 1967, I have to believe that it’s Jackson again, that he learned the part from Hardin, or from Hardin through Nico (but how, if she doesn’t play guitar? maybe through the same telepathy by which she got Larry Fallon to arrange and conduct string parts and flute — on the rest of the album; “Eulogy” is just guitar and voice — that I think speak brilliantly all the nuances of her intention, even if she complained later, even if conceivably she never even met Fallon and it was all done just by listening to the messages encoded in the guitar track and in her voice).
Tom Wilson’s dead. So’s Andy Warhol, who first put Nico together with the Velvet Underground (neither was thrilled with the idea, but they performed together in Andy’s light-sound-dance happening the Exploding Plastic Inevitable for almost a year and a half, and she sings four of the songs on the first Velvets album). And Nico’s dead too, died in Ibiza in a bicycle accident in 1988, just short of age 50, though it was only after her death that we learned that she was (almost certainly) born in 1938 in Germany (as Christa Paffgen) rather than in Budapest in 1943. She wanted to be a singer and she was one, recording at least seven more albums and touring and performing to the end. Lester Bangs called her second album, The Marble Index , “the greatest piece of ‘avant-garde classical’ or ‘serious’ music of the last half of the 20th century so far.” Scott Isler in The Trouser Press Record Guide calls it “one of the scariest records ever made.”
Both Chelsea Girl and The Marble Index are currently available as CD reissues at budget prices — indeed, the CD of Chelsea Girl sounds much better, because of the balance between voice and guitar and strings, etc., than the original album. If your record store says it can’t order them, go to a better record store.
Life is short. But great voices live outside of time and invite us to visit them, in their hotel, at our discretion. And tell us secrets we would never have allowed anyone else to whisper in our ears.