Half goddess, half icicle, Nico was the Warhol muse who inspired the ‘sexcess’ of rock’s most outrageous band – The Velvet Underground, writes DYLAN JONES
When Andy Warhol and his entourage – his Superstars – hit a New York nightspot, they took centre stage: a raucous, cross-dressing, wired up, spaced out collection of freaks.
‘We were not at the show,’ Warhol liked to say. ‘We were the show.’
But at an insalubrious Greenwich Village tourist trap called the Cafe Bizarre in December 1965, the script was flipped.
What the white-haired pop artist, his muse Edie Sedgwick and their glamour gang witnessed blew their minds: an art rock band called the Velvet Underground.
What followed was five years of sexual excess, wild drug binges and a sensational succession of songs that inspired everything from glam to punk.
The Velvet Underground became the ultimate in Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll.
After that first gig, film director and Warhol collaborator Paul Morrissey recalled that neither he nor Andy could tell if the drummer was a boy or a girl (they liked that).
All the songs appeared to be about drugs (they liked that even more) and they all wore sunglasses – which made them appear as though they were auditioning for Warhol’s 24-hour art studio, The Factory.
None of the Velvets had heard of The Factory. But they were about to become fully paid-up members … Warhol’s chosen court musicians. Immediately their set was over, Warhol turned to his gang and said: ‘Gee, do you think we should, uh, buy them?’
The four-piece had played their first paid gig less than a week earlier and on the strength of that landed a residency at the Bizarre. Their music was extraordinary – veering from atonal shrieking to exquisite melodies, with lyrics about addiction and transgressive, sado-masochistic sex.
One song, building from a slow throb to a manic improvised thrash, recreated the rush of shooting up with heroin and could last 20 minutes or more.
They were led by Lou Reed, a self-created malcontent from Long Island, New York, who had only recently recovered from electroshock treatment for what his parents believed were homosexual tendencies. The bass player was avant-garde visionary John Cale, a ridiculously gifted classical player from Wales.
Standing up to batter her drumkit with mallets, the androgynous Moe Tucker from Levittown never used cymbals and had the most idiosyncratic style of 60s rock band percussionists.
Then there was the rhythm guitarist, Sterling Morrison, a mild-mannered man from Poughkeepsie, New York, who projected a weird sense of normality.
They had everything, Warhol decided, except conventional sex appeal. And for that, he had the solution: his waif-like model and It Girl, Edie. He’d met her nine months earlier, in March 1965, at a birthday party for playwright Tennessee Williams. When he saw her, he sucked in his breath, and said: ‘Oh, she’s so beautiful!’
Warhol resolved to make Sedgwick his best Superstar, his very own Marilyn. She would turn up to fancy society parties barefoot, or for dinner dates in little more than a leotard accessorised with huge Greenwich Village bangles, multi-strand necklaces and dangling chandelier earrings.
Maybe she’d be wearing just a white mink coat and nothing else.
Above all else, she had her signatures: delicate, alabaster skin, sootily rimmed teacup eyes, her Liz Taylor brows and her — totally shocking for 1965 — silver shock of gamine-like hair, dyed to match her mentor’s.
But she was already deep into drugs, both fast and slow. As the Vogue editor Diana Vreeland said: ‘Edie was after life and sometimes life doesn’t come fast enough.’ Her childhood had been ultra-privileged, yet awful.
Her father tried to sleep with her when she was seven. ‘Nobody told me that incest was a bad thing or anything, but I just didn’t feel turned on by incest,’ she said.
Edie was sent to the Silver Hill psychiatric hospital in 1962 suffering from acute anorexia and had an abortion after becoming pregnant while on a hospital pass.
A few months later her brother Minty hanged himself, having recently told his father he was gay.
Edie was eager to front the band but, alarmed by her worsening addictions, Warhol changed his mind. Instead, he picked a model and actress known for her affairs with music and film stars including Bob Dylan and Alain Delon. Her name was Christa Paffgen but her stage name was Nico.
First, Warhol had to convince the Velvets’ vocalist and chief songwriter, Reed, to step back for her.
Lewis Allen Reed was born in 1942 into a solid middle-class Jewish family in Long Island.
By the time he was 17, his father (an accountant) and mother (a former beauty queen) had become frightened of his mood swings and, worse yet, what they suspected were gay predilections.
At the time, the homosexual was, along with the communist, the most threatening, subversive character in American culture.
Reed was sent to Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens, for nonconvulsive electric shock therapy, three times a week for eight weeks.
‘They put a thing down your throat,’ Reed said, ‘so you don’t swallow your tongue and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable.’
A natural songwriter, he took a job with Pickwick Records, bashing out identikit pop: surfing songs, hot-rod songs, motorcycle songs, romantic ballads. Inspired by a fashion revival for ostrich feathers, he wrote a gimmicky song called The Ostrich and invented a silly dance to go with it.
Pickwick released it under the name The Primitives and assembled a band for a Vogue photoshoot. One successful Primitives applicant, picked for his long hair, was 22-year-old musician John Cale. Born in 1942 in the Amman Valley, between Swansea and Carmarthen, Cale was the son of an English-speaking coal miner and a Welsh teacher.
His grandmother forbade the speaking of English in the house. ‘It left me unable to really talk to my father,’ he said.
Reed and Cale started collaborating, socialising constantly, and moved in together on New York’s Lower East Side – Cale resisting Reed’s amorous advances.
They called themselves The Warlocks, recruited Morrison (a friend from Reed’s college days), changed their name to The Falling Spikes, and finally chose The Velvet Underground, inspired by journalist Michael Leigh’s infamous 1963 paperback of that name about ‘aberrant’ sexual behaviour.
When Reed hired Maureen (Moe) Tucker, the younger sister of one of Morrison’s friends, she was working as an IBM keypunch operator.
‘The Factory was totally nuts,’ said Moe of her first visit to Warhol’s lair. ‘I was very shy. I’ll be blunt: I had never heard anyone say the word “f**k”. I swear to God, that’s the truth. That just was not the way anybody I knew talked.’
The Factory was on East 47th Street, just a five-minute walk from the United Nations.
Decorated with tin foil and fractured mirrors, everything was painted silver, even the elevator and the toilet bowl. ‘Silver is narcissism,’ said Warhol. ‘Mirrors are backed with silver.’
It was home to Warhol’s ever-growing coterie of assistants, hangers-on, hustlers, speed freaks, drag queens, on–off boyfriends and random uptown/downtown socialites. Because the artist called them Superstars, they all believed they were. Warhol presented Nico as an ultimatum to the band.
He would manage them, give them a place to rehearse, finance their equipment, support them, find them a record deal, produce them and make them famous … as long as they gave him 25 per cent of their earnings, did what they were told and put Nico at the microphone.
She may have looked extraordinary, but not everyone who saw Nico perform was so enamoured of her vocal prowess. One critic described her voice as ‘like a cello getting up in the morning’. But when Mick Jagger first heard her, he started telling anyone who cared that he thought she was going to be the next Joan Baez. She was half goddess, half icicle, a female mirror to Warhol.
She was blonde, possessed a shyness that manifested itself as arrogance and – to those outside the set – weird.
He liked her because her talents were finite, making her no threat to him.
The band capitalised on the strangeness of her voice with live numbers such as Melody Laughter, 25 minutes of minimal Moe Tucker percussion, guitar/viola drones and Nico wails.
In March 1967, The Velvet Underground’s first album was released with a cover designed by Warhol: a banana with a sticker that read ‘peel slowly and see’. Underneath, the fruit was pink.
Critics hated it. Reed’s favourite review of the album, which he used to repeat to anyone who would listen, was: ‘The flowers of evil are in bloom. Someone has to stamp them out before they spread.’
But aficionados picked up on it quickly. David Bowie played it constantly: ‘That December, my band Buzz broke up, but not without my demanding we play I’m Waiting For The Man as one of the encore songs at our last gig. It was the first time a Velvet song had been covered by anyone, anywhere in the world. Lucky me.’
A band is always a drama in itself, and each member of The Velvet Underground had issues with the others. Reed was becoming wary of Cale, Cale was becoming frustrated with Reed and both now had their issues with Nico (sexual, as well as creative).
She was increasingly consumed by drug and alcohol abuse. When she arrived more than two hours late for a concert in Boston, Reed refused to let her on stage and fired her soon afterwards. (She died in 1988 following a cycling accident in Ibiza.)
Touring placed still more strain on the group. They might have been the very apex of downtown cool in New York, but in more conservative states they were just a bunch of black-clad ne’er-do-wells in wraparound sunglasses and European shoes. ‘These were primitive times,’ says John Cale, ‘driving around in a van, taking enormous amounts of speed, being stopped by the police.’
One night, in the middle of Ohio, they were waved down by traffic cops and accused of kidnapping children: the girls riding with them were young and couldn’t produce notes from their parents.
Drug use heightened the tensions. Before meeting Reed, Cale said, he had snorted, smoked and swallowed the best drugs in New York, but he had never injected anything. When he joined The Velvet Underground, he discovered heroin. Reed helped him overcome his squeamishness with needles.
The experience ‘was magic for two guys as uptight and distanced from their surroundings as Lou and me’. A profound drug culture already existed at The Factory — Warhol, for instance, was constantly taking Obetrol, a pink diet pill. Amphetamines were the order of every day and night, creating an atmosphere of almost permanent paranoia, and building up tensions between Reed and Cale.
By September 1968, after a second album that included an 18-minute ear-shattering squall of a composition about a transvestite drug dealer called Sister Ray, Reed had had enough of avant-garde noise.
Following two gigs at the Boston Tea Party, he called Morrison and Tucker to a meeting at the Riviera Cafe in the West Village without Cale’s knowledge and told them that Cale was out of the band.
In his place, they hired bassist and organist Doug Yule, picked because his birthday fell in late February. ‘The band was Pisces, Pisces, Virgo, Virgo,’ Yule said, ‘and astrology was all the rage. When John was fired, they wanted a Pisces like John but someone who was more manageable than John Cale, because John had a strong personality, which I guess is part of the conflict between him and Lou.’
A third, self-titled album filled with quiet and sometimes heartbreaking songs followed. By the time the fourth album, Loaded, was released – featuring Sweet Jane, perhaps the best known of all Velvet Underground’s songs – Reed was exhausted, both physically and psychologically.
He left the band in 1970, leaving Manhattan for his parents’ home in Freeport, Long Island. A year later, Sterling quit, too.
By then, Edie Sedgwick, The Velvet Underground frontwoman who never was, had drifted a long way from her Superstar days. Her drug addictions became so debilitating that in her final movie with Warhol, in 1969, the artist gave one chilling direction: ‘I want something where Edie commits suicide at the end.’
Later, pondering aloud, he said: ‘Do you think Edie will let us film her when she commits suicide?’
Her favourite cocktail was a speedball, or a shot of heroin in one arm and amphetamines in the other. She set fire to her apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, underwent electroshock therapy and was incarcerated and hospitalised time and time again.
In July 1971 she married a fellow patient from the hospital, tying the knot on the Sedgwick family ranch, Laguna in California.
Four months later, she suffocated in her sleep, face down in her pillow, aged 28.
The coroner classified the death as ‘Undetermined/Accident/Suicide’ and the cause of death as ‘probable acute barbiturate intoxication’. As one obituarist said, she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth … and died with a ladle of barbiturates in her system.
Adapted from Loaded: The Life (And Afterlife) Of The Velvet Underground by Dylan Jones (White Rabbit, £25). © Dylan Jones 2023.
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