6.12.09

Rare or Unreleased 37: Nico Meditation Music

Did you ever fall asleep to an album by Nico, drifting in and out of slumber, only to find the same drone, different song? If not, then I've compiled some rare recordings made for the BBC in 1971 and '74. (In 128kps only. Beggars can't be choosers.)

  1. We've Got the Gold
  2. Janitor of Lunacy (1971)
  3. Secret Side
  4. You Forgot to Answer
  5. No One Is There
  6. Janitor of Lunacy (1974)
  7. Frozen Warnings
  8. The End

I'm reluctant to mention their names, so often do they overshadow that of Nico, but the German singer is an icon by dint of the mostly sexually oriented gossip surrounding her association with men: Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Serge Gainsbourg, Andrew Loog Oldham and, er, Jackson Brown. Whereas some of these classic rock heavyweights (and the one modern art giant) are venerated as geniuses absolutely definitive of our modern Anglo-American culture, Nico is the model who gave Jim Morrison a blowjob in an elevator. Patronisingly, she's the «muse» of all these poets, rather than a poet in her own right. (The men are talking, Nico.) Yet Nico had her own muses: on this compilation alone there's Jim Morrison («You Forgot to Answer»), Brian Jones («Janitor of Lunacy») and, er, Richard Nixon («No One Is There»).

More recent generations will perhaps know Nico's music mainly through quasi-arthouse film director Wes Anderson's use of a song that she herself disowned, in the flaccid dramedy and unthinking man's existentialist flick, The Royal Tenenbaums, wherein Nico and Nick Drake alike are cast in the limiting pigeonhole of «suicide music». (Reducing their multi-faceted oeuvre to some kind of suicidesploitation—slaves to the cartoon-like image of their current legacy, as curated by mediocre critics and self-proclaimed connoisseurs more taken with inconsequential gossip and sensational morbidity than the actual contents of the work.)

Not that Drake can compare to Nico. Drake's songs, too, dealt with what one might pompously refer to as «emptiness.» But he filled it with self-pity. This is simply not on with Nico. Though many people take observation for moaning sometimes, you can take cold, hard looks without feeling sorry for yourself. Which makes it all the colder and harder. (And I mean that in a laudatory sense, not a pitying one.)

Laying aside the pop culture references for a minute, if you actually listen to Nico's music you'll find it so uncompromising and courageous you need to summon bravery and stamina just to sit through it.

Not merely for the sake of it, mind you. For all the emotional drain, there's a reward: truth, unsullied by sentimental flourishes to sweeten the pill. Typically, of course, truth is not only a reward, but also a punishment, so you better put yourself in the mindset of a masochist as well as a scientist before you sit yourself down to a session of Nico's unrelenting stare at what lies beneath our fickle, scuttering sentiments. You know, those things we use to distract ourselves from reality?

Unlike Dylan or Cohen, Nico doesn't turn to beauty or passion as effects to make what she sees clearer than most more palatable for the rest of us (or for herself). Upon first hearing the flat drone of her voice you may be mistaken for thinking she's cold. But you'll soon realise she's not; she's merely avoiding sentimentality. And that takes determination and concentration (not to mention guts).

Listening to her best albums, the thought might occur to you that Nico relied on yet another man, her usual arranger John Cale. Without devaluing his contribution to her classic albums, these solo recordings—made for John Peel at the BBC in 1971 and 1974, with only Nico's voice and harmonium (and without Brian Eno's dated and intrusive synths on the '74 sessions)—amply prove that she was a singular, self-sufficient artist of considerable greatness. For all their poetry, neither Reed, Dylan, Cohen nor Gainsbourg ever managed to create as piercing an effect as Nico did—achieving perhaps stolen moments of supreme focus in a couplet here and there, but never in their performances. (Warhol, Pop, Morrison and Taylor never even came close.)

Dylan and Reed, in particular, are always «recreating» themselves and restlessly trying something «new,» lest they stagnate. There was no such need for Nico (except for the financial need that made her play Velvet Underground classics to punks in the later years of her career). She merely kept on staring, her eye on the prize, never wavering from the most uncomfortable, yet ever-present that there is. Once you've hit upon it, there's no point in searching for truth.

The relentless monotony and repetition in Nico's music isn't due to lack of imagination, or to limited range or know-how. It's about concentration; about focussing on the supremely uncomfortable yet fundamental without once averting your eyes. There's no distraction in Nico's music. Nor is there any release. This is what makes it so unbearable, and this is what makes it so great: the true reality for any conscious being, in song format!

Welcome to the hole, without any of the numerous things we try to fill it with.

2 comments:

  1. You demonstrate much insight and understanding concerning Nico and her contemporaries. Well done!

    ReplyDelete