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Music

When Frank Zappa cruelly parodied Nico live onstage

@SamWKemp

Nico’s life has rarely been her own. Whether appearing in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, being made one of Andy Warhol’s ‘Superstars’ or singing with The Velvet Underground, her personas have always been the property of other people and, typically, those people were men. Despite this, Nico’s creative life, which encompassed modelling, acting and singing, was underpinned by an undeniable self-confidence. In La Dolce Vita, she stands out not simply because of her otherworldly beauty, but because she breezes through four languages as if it’s nothing at all. As a model, she embodied the very pinnacle of European sensuality and refused to hide her disdain for those who didn’t live up to her standards: “I was tall, I was blonde, and was dignified,” she once said. “Nothing more is needed to make an effect”.

This self-confidence translated to her musical career too. Despite possessing no innate musical ability, Nico was invited by Andy Warhol to join The Factory’s house band, The Velvet Underground. With Loud Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucket and Sterling Morrison, Nico helped record the group’s definitive album, singing on many of its most memorable tracks. Acceptance, it should be noted, was not forthcoming. In the early studio sessions, John Cale and Lou Reed would listen back to recordings and snigger at Nico’s off-key drawls. However, for her, amateurism was an art form in itself; it was what had attracted her to The Velvet Underground in the first place. “I admired them because they weren’t afraid to be bad, she said. “I thought they were very honest”.

Unfortunately, not everyone appreciated honesty as much as she did. Nico’s debut solo album, Chelsea Girl, might be revered as a classic now, but it was almost universally panned at the time. Nico hated the production on the LP, and she dismissed the record as frivolous pop music unworthy of further thought. But despite this disappointment, she continued to pursue music on her own terms, taking up the harmonium after Jim Morrison suggested she learn an instrument and start writing songs of her own.

After receiving tuition from jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, Nico moved to L.A. with another of Warhol’s superstars and set about developing her own sound. According to that long-suffering cohabitor, Nico would practice for hours with the curtains drawn, playing the same simple chords and singing in the same funerary tone, often surrounded by candles. Before long, she started gigging on her own.

The music manager Danny Fields was at her first performance in L.A. and remembers how she was like “a child discovering a musical instrument for the first time. She would just press one note and bend her ear toward the keyboard and listen to it, and press it again”. Apparently, Frank Zappa was also in the audience that night. No sooner had she left the stage than he allegedly jumped in front of the microphone and started doing a parody of her set, playing messy chord progressions and yelling garbled nonsense, much to the crowd’s glee. Nobody could understand why this beautiful woman insisted on taking herself so seriously. Surely, she was as frivolous as the pop music she despised. Where was Andy Warhol’s Superstar? Where was the platinum blonde Chelsea Girl? Not here, not anywhere.

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