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Credit: Horses/Wikimedia

How Patti Smith helped Nico to stay in music

By the time Patti Smith met the austere but deeply complex Nico, the ex-Velvet-Underground singer was in deep poverty and hooked on heroin. When doing some digging into Patti’s two memoirs, Just Kids, and The M Train; there was very little to no divulgence, on Patti’s part, as to the nature of this meeting. In her usual manner of maintaining all things sacred that are deserving as such, the poet chose not to tarnish Nico’s image. Patti may have felt, that as she had come from a place of charity in Nico’s time of need, she held a responsibility, in the true samaritan fashion, to remain anonymous.

However, Nico may have felt a responsibility too; she needed to tell her side of the story, which she did as according to Richard Witts’ 1993 biography, From Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon. The story is one of touching friendship and a welcomed slice of humanity we all need in 2020. “Patti was very kind to me,” recalled the German model.

“Early in 1978, my harmonium was stolen from me. I was without any money and now I couldn’t even earn a living playing without my organ. A friend of mine saw one with green bellows in an obscure shop, the only one in Paris. Patti bought it for me. I was so happy and ashamed. I said, “I’ll give you back the money when I get it”, but she insisted the organ was a present and I should forget about the money. I cried. I was ashamed she saw me without money.”

Both artists contain certain violence within their volatile nature, which they both may have recognised within each other. Although their voices are fragile and wavering — they both represent the exotic toughness of eastern European stubbornness and an unwillingness to compromise their principles. Listening to Patti Smith’s album, Horses, you will be able to hear the ferocity of her words, as they shatter the glass of a quiet comfort found in polite establishments; Patti Smith is the female embodiment of punk after all. She pushed the limits of what was socially acceptable; she created strange landscapes throughout the album, especially with the three-part ‘Land’ track.

Nico commented on this album as well as meeting Patti various times, “I had met Patti in New York when she was a young poet on the scene. She was a female Leonard Cohen when she moved from writing to singing, and I liked her because she was thin but strong. John Cale produced her first album, which was about heroin (Horses, 1975). Then I met her in Paris and got to know her better.”

“I felt like she could be a sister because she was the double of Philippe (Garrel Nico’s French underground filmmaker/ lover/artistic collaborator of the time. They made several films together: Nico was the Marlene Dietrich to his Josef von Sternberg), and I liked to be together with her. But she has become boring now and married. She should have married John Cale and they could live in a gingerbread house and make gingerbread children.”

Nico, on the other hand, was a brute force herself. Known to have literal violent tendencies tinged with racist rhetoric. According to a 2007 Guardian article by Simon Reynolds, a story of extreme outrage ran as such, “She had a definite Nordic Aryan streak, [the belief] that she was physically, spiritually and creatively superior.” Worse, on one occasion, she acted those beliefs out, explosively. In the restaurant at the Chelsea Hotel sometime in the very early 1970s, Nico sat with a bunch of musicians, among them a beautiful mixed-race singer who’d worked with Jimi Hendrix.

According to Fields, “Nico was, I dunno, feeling neglected, or drunk, but suddenly she said ‘I hate black people,’ and smashed a wineglass on the table and stuck it in the girl’s eye. There was lots of blood and screaming. Fortunately, she just twisted it around her eye socket, so the glass never reached [the eye] but it’s not like she was being cautious.” Fields claims the Warhol crowd spirited Nico on to a plane and out of the country the next morning, while somehow managing to placate the victim and hush up the affair.

When Nico was alive, she and Patti maintained a positive relationship. Considering the poetic extremities that these two mercurial creatures operated within, it is paradoxically both a shock and what was expected to happen, when they met and only solace was found within each other;  when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object – where else to turn to but love?

Watch Patti Smith cover Nico’s haunting “My Only Child”, off her stark Desertshore album, produced by John Cale.

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