Velvet Underground

Nico 'I'll keep it with mine' (Chelsea Girl, 1967)

Coco Chanel famously said once, ‘Elegance is refusal’ – a comment that reflected her belief that to be truly elegant you needed to remove an item, a piece of jewellery, perhaps, before going out in public. But this notion also reflects something of the Parisian psychic milieu Chanel came to represent where notions of control and self-control are enacted daily, and come to filter your consciousness of what is valuable and important. To be elegant is to be under-stated; to refuse (excess).

I always think of this comment when listening to Nico’ s cover of the Bob Dylan song, ‘I’ll keep it with mine’ – but this quality of refusal is, I’d suggest, something that more broadly defines her as a performer and artist. It’s impossible to under-estimate the pressure the former model and Fellini film-star, Nico would have been under to use her beauty to promote her art, to make herself accessible and how this pressure might have flowed on to the creation of her music.

But if you watch films of Nico from the 60s, she is nonchalant and absent, almost. She is not playing the game, perhaps she doesn’t even notice that ‘the game’ is there.

There is always something challenging about Nico’s music, some thought behind it. Such intellectual foundations can make her music 'difficult' and rarely easy listening, but her music always, always carries the imprint of her character: it’s unmistakably her. I admire Nico’s insistence that we hear her music, as she wanted it, on her terms. The irony, of course, is that during post production for Chelsea Girl the excessive and corny string and flute overdubs were added by the album producer and arranger, without her consultation or agreement.

In 1981, as Nico said in relation to the album:

I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And 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 flute! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute.

My description above makes Nico seem rather fierce – words I would prefer to use regarding her are austere, or serious – but what transforms this song is an unexpected softness that comes through, alongside a naïve simplicity. Such qualities are not often associated with Nico, or her oeuvre (understatement alert).

You will search, babe, at any cost,
But how long, babe, can you search for what’s not lost ?
Everybody will help you,
Some people are very kind.
But if I can save you any time,
Come on, give it to me,
I’ll keep it with mine.

I can’t help it if you might think I am odd
If I say I’m not loving you for what you are
But for what you’re not.
Everybody will help you,
Discover what you set out to find
But if I can save you any time,
Come on, give it to me,
I’ll keep it with mine.

The train leaves at half past ten
But it’ll be back tomorrow same time again.
The conductor, he’s weary,
Still stuck on the line.
But if I can save you any time,
Come on, give it to me,
I’ll keep it with mine.

This naivete comes partly from the lyrics especially the verse that has the children’s nursery rhyme aspect: ‘The train leaves at half past ten/But it'll be back tomorrow same time again.
The conductor, he's weary,/Still stuck on the line.’

I have no idea what that means, or why it was included as it has no apparent connection with the rest of the song, but I like it. Similarly, I have spent a long time thinking about the lines ...

‘If I say I'm not loving you for what you are
But for what you're not.'

trying to understand what it means; to love someone for what they are not? How would that work, in practice? Would it mean loving something that only ever exists in the abstract, as an abstraction, in that it is not linked to the person who exists?

The surprising feeling, I mentioned comes through the way Nico sings this song, the way she softens certain words, most notably I, as in ‘but if I can save you any time’ and later at around 1’52, when she sings the same line it’s the same effect, she really sounds sincere here. This feeling also comes through in the eccentric phrasing at the end of the lines where it becomes all loose (will help yo-ou; some people are ve-ery ki-ind etc).

I also love the way Nico sings one of the greatest lines in any 60s song ever: ‘I can't help it if you might think I am odd’. She sings it in such a serious way it always makes me smile. She is so resolutely not wanting us to think she is trying to win us over here, but this refusal makes her seem even more charming.   

Overall the effect is that Nico is stating the song, not singing it. She is not trying to convince us, or the subject of her attentions and this kind of non-performance is what I like about it most. Unlike Janis Joplin entreating and beseeching, or French stars, such as Françoise Hardy playing the coquette, with their soft-lilting little-girl voices and demeanour, Nico’s presence is her true gift. She says simply: here I am, this is me. For me this is true.  

Not everyone has the same point of view, of course, there are lots of negative comments about Nico under her videos, most of them making churlish comments about her voice, being out of tune or whatever it might be. But again, if we accept her as an artist with all her talents and limitations, such comments are a bit off-mark, as it is the imperfection that makes her seem authentic. All of this reminds me of the Japanese appreciation of ceramics that were broken, or somehow damaged:

Kintsugi (金継ぎ?, きんつぎ, "golden joinery"), also known as Kintsukuroi (金繕い?, きんつくろい, "golden repair"), is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered goldsilver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e technique. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

Kintsugi can relate to the Japanese philosophy of "no mind" (無心 mushin?), which encompasses the concepts of non-attachment, acceptance of change and fate as aspects of human life.

Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated... a kind of physical expssion of the spirit of mushin....Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. ...The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identification with, [things] outside oneself.

— Christy Bartlett, Flickwerk: The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics



(This song always makes me think of an Australian song by Paul Kelly ‘You can put your shoes under my bed’ which while not of the same ilk, I mean it is much simpler - it is a rather basic pop-song in many respects - has a similar feel about it for me. Perhaps this association comes through the delivery or the short sentences, I’m not sure. Yes, I know the sound of this song is a bit ‘dated’ and the saxophone is a bit, well … not my kind of thing, but still, it is moving. Now being so far away from Australia and for so long, I often find myself listening to music like this; music that is far from impressive in terms of my reputation as someone with the hardcore/discerning tastes of someone who writes about music, let’s say.

But the direct simplicity of this music offers me comfort. This music reminds me of houses dark, with no light in the middle of a summer’s day; wooden floorboards shining almost in the half-light, and me lying there as a small child feeling the cool against my bare legs, always so amazed at the impression of endlessness and space all around me, waiting for my name to be called, so that I might rejoin the others). 

'Ocean' Lou Reed/Velvet Underground - demo versions

Red and black beetles are joined, as I poke at them and they waddle backwards on the hot concrete; walking home from school with the other children, at the end of summer. Decades later I return to this memory, a little unnaturally; this single memory.

This single memory. Uncertain as to why, but wanting the empty comfort that forever eludes me. Older brothers playing me vinyl records. 

Now as I seek connection with my past I return to Lou Reed and the Velvets, remembering that first listening to 'Ocean' (and 'Heroin' discovering that process of development and the falling back, and feeling some kind of amazement at the essential mystery of it all).    

One, two, three, four ... 

Writing about music is a strange thing as the songs that really touch you leave you without words, but listen to the kick of that beat and how it works with the country-esque guitar - how those elements work together and Lou Reed sings above it all. 

Thinking back now I think the version that really affected me deeply was the live version on the double album, 1969 ... Just like the girl listening to the New York station whose life was saved by rock n'roll something shifted for me when I heard this for the first time.

And just to keep it fresh, here's a very rare acoustic demo (just Lou Reed on guitar) where the delivery takes on an entirely different tone.


Nico's 'The Marble Index' (Elektra, 1968)

According to the story, Nico's The Marble Index was the only music the American singer-songwriter, Elliott Smith listened to in the months before his violent death.

I find your albums really good to listen to late at night. What is your perfect 2.45am album?

(Smith) There are several. I think ‘Marquee Moon’ by Television and ‘The Marble Index’ by Nico (laughs).
— Interview with Elliott Smith, 'There has to be darkness in my songs' NME, March 2000

Released in 1968, Nico's The Marble Index - produced by John Cale - was a commercial failure and led to Nico being dropped by Elektra, but has since been recognised as an album of genius. Critics tend to use negative adjectives to describe it (desolate, frightening); at times even mocking it for its strange 'suicidal' mood, and yet what strikes me is the strength of the music, as embodied by Nico's voice. 

Nico's voice is at once highly individual, but also operates as just another instrument, merging with the broader soundscape (that is reminiscent of Cage, with its random recurring elements, or contemporary electronic music), see here the first track in particular, 'Lawns of Dawns'.

Her music seems both modern and ancient. Richard Watts writes that Nico's melodies are often modal, with a flattened sixth or seventh as you find in Plainchant, or folk and medieval music. 

My melodies are from the Middle Ages,’ Nico told a journalist. ‘They are from my Russian soul. I do not mean this literally, but they are that in my imagination. John Cale said that they are not tonal. They do not come from our key system. They are too old in their arrangement.
— Nico: The life and lies of an icon, Richard Watts (Virgin Publishing, 1993)

 The album only lasts a little over 30 minutes, but within that time Nico evokes an imaginary space - with mythic overtones - that is also extremely intimate. 

One of the saddest stories among the many from Nico's life relates to her son, Ari; heavily addicted to heroin, she returned to visit him (at the home of Alain Delon's parents, who raised him, near Paris) and brought him an apple as a gift, completely unaware that this might not be an appropriate present for a child.

Ari is present in Nico's music: singing the French folk-song 'Le Petit Chevalier' on her album, Desertshore (1970) and also being sung to in the kind of lullaby on 'Ari's Song' on The Marble Index

Sail away, sail away my little boy
Let the wind fill your heart with light and joy
Sail away my little boy
Let the rain wash away your cloudy days
Sail away into a dream
Let the wind send you a fantasy
Of the ancient silver sea
Now you see that only dreams
Can send you where you want to be
Now you find those faces
Are not holding places
Where you thought they’d be
And later as you go again
You will agree
That it was all a dream
Sail away, sail away my little boy
Let the wind fill your heart with light and joy
Sail away my little boy

Here Nico sings about escape, but also urges her son to understand that 'those places are not hiding places' - and it is in this ambiguous moment that you can hear her voice open, with an expression of great feeling.

Motherhood is a recurring theme in Nico's work, perhaps most notably in the song that was played at her funeral, Mutterlein from Desertshore that was written in memory of her mother. 

On the cover of Desertshore, you see a still from a Philippe Garrel film, with the child Ari leading his mother on a white horse (according to Richard Watts the little boy isn't Ari) walking with such confidence and assurance: when you remember the tragedy of his life, this image strikes me as monumentally sad.

The reissue from Rhino of these two albums, Frozen Borderline from 2009, takes its title from a line in 'Frozen Warnings' and includes a magical version of the track with Nico where she is accompanied only by viola. It is quite lovely.