From La Dolce Vita and Alain Delon to Preston Warehouse. I can’t think of a more interesting ‘development’. I think it proves something, actually.
Nico found her way into her career by being beautiful. That’s not a criticism – it’s just the way it was then. She was a model, after all. For her to appear in her terrifying way, sweating, smoking, eyes deranged, in Preston, making underground music at the end of her career, and for this to be her best outlet – it’s fantastic. Her looks didn’t support her: it was her artistry and her genius.
She joined The Velvet Underground on Andy Warhol’s orders – he wanted a European chanteuse. With his standing, he could have gotten some cutesy plain French gal to sing along, but instead he chose this odd-sounding icy German lady. She’d had an album made too, Chelsea Girls, and starred in a film of the same name (a film whose poster was the best thing about it, as Warhol admitted). This was all not her best stuff, really. Even in The Velvet Underground’s debut, which is phenomenal. Her best stuff came after, with just John Cale at her side.
Desertshore is one of the greatest albums ever made. It’s tough to find anything like it. People always say it’s cold, and though it seems that way, it is not relentlessly without heart. The depression-scape it creates is momentarily broken in tracks such as The Falconer and Le Petit Chevalier, which serve to make the rest of the album more despairing. But moments like these (excluding the latter, sung by her son) prove the range Nico has – not just creating coolness, but also tenderness. I always thought this from listening to Chelsea Girls. I’ll Keep It With Mine is the best version of that Dylan song, and its vocals are not obtuse to the sunny arrangements. For such a short album, Desertshore feels like an epic.
All of Nico’s solo albums have things to offer, but I think Desertshore and Live In Tokyo are the most essential. Her Tokyo performance features a good mix of her later stuff, some covers, and new versions of older things. The a cappella version of All Tomorrow’s Parties she was doing around this time is shiver-inducing, and is an example of where her iciness is unbeaten by anyone else in the game. I love her cover of My Funny Valentine, too. Nico sounds so bizarre and broken here, paralleling the imperfections of the lover the song is an ode to.
Nico spent her last years beating off a heroin addiction in Salford and then died, tragically, in Ibiza shortly after turning things around.
нико / кино
Thinking of doing a short series of posts on musical icons to pass the time. Here’s the first.
I never understood Patti Smith. My first exposure to her, oddly, was not through her famous proto-punk tracks like Gloria or Rock N Roll N***r, but instead her appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s atrocious Film Socialisme. I never really could forgive her for that, and I think when I first listened to her most famous album, Horses, I had that omen in mind.
Skip forward a few years. I’ve stopped watching Godard films (does great things for your psyche), and I’m this month spending my time with Patti Smith albums.
The name to me is a little ridiculous: Patti, such an old-fashioned name to us now, is not that of a punk star. And some of her music is not that of a punk star either, which is not what the critics had made me believe. I was quite disappointed. Horses still underwhelms me, though I’m growing to it. Its best moment, Birdland, is not very punk.
But then there’s Radio Ethiopia. It’s the edgy kids’ favourite Patti Smith album – but maybe they have a point. It sounds like the conclusion to mood of The Velvet Underground’s groundbreaking first few albums. Patti’s delivery is wild, wailing, and it’s something clearly channeled by so many other wannabes in years following her arrival on the scene. The band backing her is at its harshest here, I think, and allows for their leader’s moments of stream of consciousness as well as producing high-energy rock predicting the official arrival of punk.
I don’t even like punk that much. Or at least, I don’t like where it went. I’m more of a Public Image Ltd fan than I am Sex Pistols – I can’t bear to listen to any of the latter. But I love the punk attitude and what it represents. Patti Smith can package that in a way that appeals to me, without weakening its offensiveness and chaos. I mean, Rock N Roll N***r is a really uncomfortable listen at points, but that’s the point, is it not?
They say Horses was the first time a female rock lead appeared like that on an album cover. The cover of that, and Easter perhaps more so, is iconic. Patti is rather odd looking, and she’s a female rock star. A legend.
Radio Ethiopia: 10/10
(brought to you courtesy of a decent bottle of red – not the best i’ve tasted but good for its price and the fact that it’s from Lidl. Sober me loves Patti Smith too though)
It’s 2018, and therefore fifty years since Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was released. I think it’s one of the best albums ever made.
Funnily, I’d always thought of Sir Van as the epitome of dull dad rock. I had heard Brown Eyed Girl, obviously, which is maligned by the artist himself. And I’d heard that he’d performed in The Last Waltz which was, as far as I was concerned, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, only bearable to the performers because of the heavily-frequented coke room in the back.
But I’d always heard good things about Astral Weeks. And so I listened. Simple as that. People always love dramatic stories for their favourite albums, about when they were listening to it and how it cured their mum’s cancer. But I simply listened, and that was enough.
I’ve been reading Proust recently. It’s admittedly quite tedious, at least in the original French, which is a tough pill to swallow, and which contains many ridiculously long sentences, which are intertwined with random bits of knowledge, that appear out of nowhere and mix the present with the past, and don’t seem to go anywhere, or at least that’s what I think, and which sometimes seem to defy grammar, only making sense when the final clause comes about. Astral Weeks is sort of like that. It’s just that it takes an hour to get through as opposed to half a lifetime.
Proust’s long winding sentences reflect on perspective. It’s about the narrator remembering and experiencing things in the present, past, and future. The entire novel, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, is about memory and the fleeting present. You cannot relive things since they are always going to be re-interpreted with the lens you take in the future. There is thus not really any such thing as reality with the meaning of ‘truth’. Reality is itself about mistruth. Everything is blurred by perspective.
Where Astral Weeks comes into this is not just in its musical freedom (taking huge jazz influences), which isn’t too far from the stylistic freedom Proust takes, but also in the same concept of memory. The album is dotted with references to Morrison’s past – Belfast streets, certain houses he remembers, little experiences – yet they’re all mentioned with a modern sensibility. As much as it is about his childhood, it is also about his troubled love life; concrete places like Cypress Avenue, which may not have seemed all that relevant as a child, have become, after mature recollection, symbols of something very important. Proustian.
But this is all irrelevant to just enjoying the album, I think. Its uncompromising freedom and the sense of drifting that it manifests may alienate some unseasoned listeners, but I think it is overall accessible to anyone who is capable of feeling nostalgia, which counts most of us. The beauty is mixed with a slight sadness, as is typical of nostalgia. The string arrangement at the end of Madame George is a euphoric climax and yet still holds a melancholic quality.
Morrison is a fantastic image-maker, and not a story-teller. Someone who goes into the songs on this album expecting to be told narratives and to be bombarded with robust lyrics is going to be disappointed. What is sung here is vague, beautifully constructed, and I believe very personal. As already mentioned, there are many references to Belfast. Instead of trying to understand these, you should instead understand what is making Morrison conjure up these images in his writing process. It is personal, and I am going to doubt very much that you have the same attachment to Cypress Avenue as Van does. You instead think about what it represents to him, and what it means to you. I know exactly what it means to me, and it’s not relevant to anybody else.
Desperately procrastinating from revision by writing 600 words on a topic that isn’t something I need to know for any exam, yet still contains reference to a text I have to study, even if it is in microscopic detail.