Nico : The Marble Index

Reissue of doomed iconic figurehead’s defining moment

Although most famous for fronting the first Velvet Underground album, Nico was actually central to every key cultural movement from the 1950s onwards. First she was an in-demand model, then in the ’60s an aloof chanteuse, in the ’70s a proto-goth punk and in the ’80s a weather-beaten heroin addict and Ibiza resident. Born in Cologne in Nazi Germany in 1938, Nico established her career acting in one of the greatest movies ever, playing herself in La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s portrait of ennui and successful but empty lives. The themes of this film became the blueprint for her own life: this was a woman who was born into beauty and fame (she even attended the same acting class as Marilyn Monroe), but found the whole thing so very, very boring.

This, Nico’s second album from 1969, ignored rock’n’roll completely in favour of a chilly Eastern European sensibility. ‘The Marble Index’ also introduced the wheezing sound of the harmonium, a pedal-powered keyboard instrument that became as much of a trademark as her diffident singing style. Both proved particularly effective on ‘Ari’s Song’ (named for her son) and ‘Frozen Warnings’. The album also features string arrangements by Velvets superbrain John Cale; the icy beauty of the strings on ‘No One Is There’ were a match for Nico’s own: the result is a stark, oppressive opus that has influenced everyone from PJ Harvey to The Duke Spirit.

Still, even this artistic triumph failed to make her happy, just as a string of relationships with key figures from rock’s history left her unsatisified: conquests included Brian Jones, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan (who wrote a song, ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, for her), Lou Reed and Jim Morrison. Ultimately, though, her favourite squeeze was heroin, a love so powerful it quashed her narcissism and leeched her talent. In 1967 she was the glamorous blonde embodiment of the dark side of the first summer of love; in Ibiza in July 1988, as the second summer of love was in full swing, this glamourous should-have-been fell off her bicycle and suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. Nico was dead before sunset. Bleak but beautiful, this album remains the most fitting embodiment of her doomed glamour.

Anthony Thornton