Monday, July 04, 2005

Her future died in someone's past

You couldn't have invented a more perfect cult icon - a model, singer, actress, and goth precursor, Nico had a fascinating life that intersected paths with a number of equally fascinating people. She had her initial glimpse of fame as a supermodel in Europe; her face was unmistakable and unforgettable - eerily skeletal, often with a blank, piercing stare. In the film world, she had a minor role in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, worked with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey in their film Chelsea Girls, and also had a child with the French actor Alain Delon.

Merritt had listed Nico's debut album Chelsea Girl in Chickfactor as being one of his favorite albums, and one can see how he would be attracted to its nimble string arrangements and gloomy subjects. But much of the appeal (or distaste, for its detractors) of the album is due to Nico's vocals. English was a second language to Nico, who was born in Cologne, Germany, and this is immediately apparent in her husky voice - a voice which whimsically fell in and out of tune and was completely free of vibrato. For his band the 6ths, Merritt takes pleasure in utilizing vocalists for whom English is a second language: Dominique A, Ayako Akashiba, and Miho Hatori. In fact, he's even mentioned that he (perhaps sadistically) gives songs to Japanese singers that have lots of Ls in them on purpose, like "Winter in July" or "Lindy-Lou."

I had previously suggested that the Magnetic Fields' cover of "Heroes" was also somewhat of a tribute to Nico. She, too, had covered the song, and she had perceived the song to be about Bowie fantasizing about kissing her beneath the Berlin Wall:

"Heroes" was written for me. I know that as a fact. I was living in Berlin at the same time as Bowie was there. He recaptured my past, I guess. I can hear it from the lines 'Standing by the wall, the gun shots above our heads and we kissed.' That didn't happen of course. That was his fantasy.

(The generally accepted story for the song's inspiration, however, is that Bowie had witnessed two lovers standing by the wall, but this page offers two additional explanations.)

In the 6ths track "Yet Another Girl," Merritt namechecks the Chelsea Hotel (featured in the forementioned film Chelsea Girls) and even calls the sun a "Chelsea Girl" in the song "Amnesia" (a song that has only been performed live, to the best of my knowledge.) And finally, the Three Terrors performed a cover of "Chelsea Girls" live, so I would be remiss to not feature that song this week. Nico sang lead vocals on three tracks on the debut album by the Velvet Underground (the 1966 entry on the list), while VU members Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison co-wrote and performed on several songs on Chelsea Girl. The three most listener-friendly tracks on Chelsea Girl, however, were written by Jackson Browne, Nico's squeeze at the time: the oft-covered "These Days," the sublime "The Fairest of the Seasons," and this week's second selection, "Somewhere There's a Feather."

Nico - "Chelsea Girls"
Nico - "Somewhere There's a Feather"

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