Leonard Cohen and Nico are undoubtedly two of the all-time greats. However, the first time they met would see the two iconic musicians at starkly different but pivotal stages in their respective careers. Despite this chasm they bonded instantly. While Nico was one of the leading lights of New York’s vast musical scene, she found herself in a quandary in 1966 after her departure from The Velvet Underground and, in Cohen, she met a kindred spirit.
Cohen was in the process of discovering his own sound and making the transformation from poet to musician when he crossed paths with Nico in 1966. They both were at a new point in their careers, a time in which they were experimenting with new forms of creativity. Nico, who was stepping out into the solo world and creating her debut record Chelsea Girls, would become an inspiration for Cohen and ultimately help him discover his own voice. The mercurial Canadian artist was only on the periphery of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd and he never quite fitted in with the people the pop artist surrounded himself with—but Nico was an exception.
Cohen would recall the first meeting he had with the former Velvet Underground collaborator fondly: “When I first came to New York — I guess it was around 1966 — Nico was singing at The Dom, which was an Andy Warhol club at the time on 8th Street. I just stumbled in there one night and I didn’t know any of these people,” Cohen once recalled. “I saw this girl singing behind the bar,” he added.
“She was a sight to behold. I suppose the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen up to that moment,” he glowingly said, before remembering, “I just walked up and stood in front of her until people pushed me aside. I started writing songs for her then. She introduced me to Lou Reed at that time.”
Still, to this day, there are countless rumours that the bond they had was romantic but Cohen would later deny the speculation, further explaining that the reason why their relationship was platonic wasn’t due to a lack of trying on his behalf. “Somehow I managed to meet her. And within five minutes of our conversation, she told me to forget it, because she was only interested in young men. But she said, I’d love to be a friend of yours — and we became friends,” Cohen said.
Leonard Cohen was a notorious lover and Nico, seemingly, was one of the few people who resisted his advances, an incident which made his infatuation with her even stronger. A few years later, Cohen would revisit his feelings for her on his 1974 track ‘Take This Longing’ which was all about the unrequited love that he had for the German singer. “Nico was very strange. I tried to talk to her and she always replied very mysteriously. No matter what you said she always replied in a curious fashion,” Cohen said to Throat Culture in 1992.
“It was only after many weeks, after being perplexed by her conversation and paralysed by her beauty that she told me she was deaf. She responded to everyone with whatever came into her mind because she could hardly hear a thing. Which explains her particularly strange style. But I definitely wrote ‘Take This Longing‘ thinking of her,” he then added.
Few people had a greater insider’s look at how their friendship blossomed than Andy Warhol who was witnessing first hand just exactly how these two future icons were shaping up at this precarious stage of their respective careers. In his 1980 memoir POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Warhol wrote: “Leonard Cohen the Canadian poet was there (The Dom) quite a few nights in the audience down at the bar, just staring at her. Later on, when he cut a record album I read a review that said his singing was like he was ‘dragging one note over the entire chromatic scale,’ and I couldn’t help thinking of all those hours he’d spent listening to Nico.”
If you listen to The Songs Of Leonard Cohen, you can clearly hear the influence that Nico had on shaping Cohen’s sound at this pivotal moment in his career. The record would go on to help establish Leonard Cohen as a truly special talent that was somehow making the perfect transition into music, at the age of 33. The Factory scene that Warhol had created was a cauldron boiling over with immense talent and despite the way they influenced Cohen, the late singer remains rarely associated with them.
Whether Cohen would have reached the heights he did without having met Nico will never be known. But one thing is for sure, she, unlike many others, left an indelible imprint on the man behind the music.