Graded on a Curve:
Nico,
Chelsea Girl

Everybody, or so it seems, loves Teutonic chanteuse Nico’s absolutely enchanting 1967 debut solo album Chelsea Girl–except Nico. In 1981 she said, “I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! They added strings and–I didn’t like them, but I could live with them. But the flutes! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute.”

“They” were Velvet Underground producer Tom Wilson and arranger Larry Fallon, and as should be obvious from the above quote they sugar-frosted Chelsea Girl without so much as asking for Nico’s by your live.

Nico may have been crestfallen about Chelsea Girl, but generations of listeners have been bewitched by her hauntingly droning approach to songs by the likes of the young Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and (of course) her former Velvet Underground bandmates Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison. These songs are as coldly tender as a Baltic Sea wind blowing through the pines of Spreewald Forest where Nico spent her childhood war years, watching the flickering lights of Allied bombers devastating Berlin on the horizon.

The veddy veddy German Nico (aka Christa Päffgen) is certainly one of the most distinctive vocalists you’ll ever run across; my East German ex-Frau lost her accent within a year or so of leaving the Deutschland, but the ex-model, Warhol actress, and member of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable’s accent remained every bit as thick as the walls of Hitler’s bunker, making her without a doubt the frostiest Ice Queen in the history of modern pop music.

But Nico’s frigid vocals are warmed up by this collection of winsome songs; with the exception of the eerily beautiful (and vaguely Middle Eastern sounding) “It Was a Pleasure Then” (on which Reed and Cale bring to bear the all of the dissonant powers they displayed on “European Son”) “Chelsea Girls,” and Hardin’s “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce” the tunes are fetching, and the Wilson-Fallon strings and flute overlay gives the LP an accessible, chamber pop sheen. Which, of course, Nico despised.

Some albums are disparate affairs; others are uniform in mood. Chelsea Girl falls into the latter category; its 10 songs, taken as a whole, evoke a bittersweet wistfulness. They bring to my mind the misty grey days I used to spend with my former significant other walking across the desolate potato fields of Mecklenburg-Vorpommen off the Baltic Coast, storks wheeling regally overhead towards their nests in the smokestacks of derelict sugar factories. The LP conjures memories and induces trances, alternately haunts and teases, leads one by the hand down a set of stone steps to the cemetery where your dreams are buried.

This is Nacht Musik to be listened to alone, preferably while strolling the backstreets of Berlin or Hamburg–some Northern German metropolis where the fog is made welcome, and the weight of history lies as heavy as the monolithic Nazi-era flak towers that still stand in the latter city. Nico is a siren calling you back to a place you never even knew was home, harkening you back to a lurking sadness you didn’t even know you felt.

Very few artists have this power to bewitch, intoxicate and mesmerize; in its power Chelsea Girl reminds me of nothing so much as Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, another masterpiece of stirring evocation and sustained mood. I have my favorites (Browne’s “These Days,” Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” Reed and Morrison’s “Chelsea Girls,” Reed and Cale’s “Little Sister”) and you probably have yours, but in the end they’re all enchanting, they all flicker and disappear the moment you turn your gaze upon them, they’re all as hard to catch as the fugitive feather falling from the sky in “Somewhere There’s a Feather.”

Nico would go on to make her artistic dreams come true on 1969’s The Marble Index, 1970’s Desertshore, and later albums, all of which are formidably stark and fully realized evocations of gloom, doomm and other Wagnerian fun stuff. I find ‘em a bit too Gotterdammerung bleak for my tastes, which ain’t to take away from the fact that “Janitor of Lunacy” is probably the greatest song title of all time. If you’re a depressive or just like to pretend you’re one, I suggest you check them out.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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