(photograph by Danny Fields. Garden of the Portobello Hotel, London)
Monday’s full blue blood moon weaved its strange magic. Few rock tomes stand the test of time but James Young’s ‘Songs They Never Play on the Radio’ will always have a permanent place on the bookshelf. Some thirty years have slipped by since Young played keyboards for Nico, then penned a slender yet mischievous memoir of his adventures touring with the Moon Goddess. Nico always managed to escape the modish, even if she started her career as a model, before Andy Warhol inducted her into the Velvet Underground as their resident chanteuse. Her solitary aura and aloof stance separated her from her more frenetic band-mates. Reincarnating as a solo artist, she morphed into The Moon Goddess, composing haunting dreamscapes on a harmonium. Art can only survive time’s relentless harvest if it touches upon eternal themes. Nico’s music, a silvered interior wilderness carved out of night and thronged by shadows can never date because it is unclassifiable whilst being Gothic in the manner of Pugin. Some years ago, I interviewed Alan Wise, who pivotal to Manchester’s post punk music resurgence, left his unique imprint on both the Hacienda and Factory Records. However, it was as a Nico aficionado that I sought Wise out. Featured as ‘Doctor Demetrius’ in Young’s tome, Wise managed Nico in the last years of her life, though he was clearly in the thrall of the Moon Goddess as this rare and insightful interview attests. Like Nico, Alan Wise has since gone over the frozen borderline, though I have no doubt he is still in the stately procession of the Moon Goddess.
Alan Wise Interview
(with some words from Ari, at conclusion)
N: When you first met Nico what where you doing?
A: It was 1981, at the time I was running nights at a club called Rafters and she was booked to play there by Mike Hince who worked for Rough Trade. He introduced a lot of interesting stuff to us. I didn’t really know who she was and when he made the booking I said, ‘Who is he?’ What happened was I saw her arriving with her boyfriend, Robert, from the Scars, a young Scottish guy. She was carrying her harmonium and I was just going out to get something to eat at the Italian restaurant next door. I liked the look of them, they looked interesting, bohemian. I said ‘Would you like something to eat? Are you hungry?’ Of course they were. We went next door for something to eat.
N: Where her circumstances quite precarious?
A: Yes, very, they were travelling on buses, doing gigs for money, there wasn’t that great a fee, she had a tour of the North to do so I went with her, to look after her. Both she and Robert were hopeless; they had no sense of organisation or the money side of it, and no access to legal supplies methadone.
N: There must have been something about Nico that made you want to be act like this …..to be valiant?
A: I liked her instantly I thought she was a very interesting character. I only got involved in entertainment to meet interesting characters. She was strong but vulnerable, bright, charming. I found her somewhere to live, she’d been touring but she liked Manchester because of the Victorian architecture. Initially she was staying in a Polish hotel in Whalley Range (what do you get for your trouble and pain?) the Polex owned by a war hero, it was very cheap, she didn’t have much money. After that, she came to live in Didsbury with me, only briefly, then she moved to the other side of Manchester, a beautiful area called Prestwich Park (house was called Moresby) it was Victorian.
I remember when Gregory Corso was staying with her, it was funny, they had this banter, they’d watch old films, ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ and Nico would say ‘I wish I had a mine’ and Gregory would respond ‘Sorry Nico, I can’t help you, I haven’t got a mind’ ‘I didn’t say ‘Mind’ Gregory, I said ‘Mine’…’Gregory was with us for about a year, he was sending letters home to his wife telling her that he ‘Staying with a lovely couple in the Lake District. I said to him ‘You’re hardly staying with a lovely couple in the Lake District’ He said ‘Alan a gentleman doesn’t read someone else’s mail.
N: Did she talk much about the past?
A: All the time, Nico’s life was the past. Berlin, the war, what she’d done, modelling, why she didn’t like it. I spoke to Andrew Loog Oldham about her; he said that when he’d met, she’d been very ‘Harvey Nichol’s’ meaning nice clothes, bright attire, fairly upbeat, what you might consider a ‘Lightweight’ but her personality changed because of her opiate use. She got into that culture. Had she not got into opiates she may simply have been a light hearted German Folk Singer, as ‘I’m Not Sayin’ suggests. The heavy Marlene Dietrich stance came later. Oldham said her character wasn’t like that at all. She could be moody, but I’d have said it was because of all the drugs she took over the years. Her mood altered every few seconds but she could talk and be charming and witty. She said what she did and got on with it. She was one of the last Left Bank Bohemians. She read good books, although she hadn’t had a formal education in the sense that she hadn’t gone to university, which she regretted and said was because of the war, she always read good books. Dostoyevsky, Solzyenitschen? (Gulag Archipelago) quality English writers. She liked being solitary but she’d also socialise but she wasn’t a snob, she’d hang out at the local pool hall, strike up a conversation with a bum.
N: What happened to her harmonium?
A: Ari, (Nico’s son) took it back to Paris but his girlfriend sold it; it was here for a long time.
N: Ari is staying with you? What kind of a relationship is it?
A: Depressing (laughs) It’s not a permanent thing, he was poorly in France so I’m looking after him. Ari’s memoirs were very well received in France. He’s decided he’d like to get it released in England if he can get a translator. He’d love a deal for it in the UK. He can’t remember what he signed for with the French publisher, in that respect he’s just like his mother. We’re not friends, were family, I’ve known him for so long. His mum was family to me, and so is Ari, it’s a family affair. I remember some Dutch promoters came to see us, they said ‘Not only do you work together, you live in the same house.’ Our working relationship wasn’t business, it was family, we didn’t have a proper contract, we fought and made up like family.
N: Is James Young’s book a true reflection?
A: No but it’s comical, I helped him write it. We decided to write a funny book that was a bit like our experiences, but the publisher didn’t want it done like that and the only way they were going to pay an advance was to finish the book as a biography but it’s not an accurate account. Life was much more comical than that and she did very nice venues, you can’t tell me that the Palais De Beaux Arts and some of the Italian theatres we played were dumps. James portrayed the down side of pop life because it was attractive, of course it was representative of certain aspects, but it ignored an awful lot of other things.
N: Any truth to the story that Nico wanted to be a florist?
A: That was towards the end, she wanted to work in a flower shop until she found out the wages. She went to a florists to ask how much they paid. They told her £150, she said ‘I can’t live on a £150 a day’. They said no, it’s £150 a week. It was a local place, she’d worked in a florists before and she liked flowers.
N: Marriage proposal from a Hassidic admirer?
A: That was really comical, he was about a 110. He owned the house she lived in. What she used to do was the light the fires for him on a Saturday. Jewish law states that one shouldn’t do any work on a Saturday, so they invite non-Jewish people in. Incredible as it sounds she volunteered to light the fires for him and put the oven on. She’d done this as a child. But he asked her to marry him. She seemed to think it was serious.
One time she was in hospital, she had septicaemia, it was 1983. The hospital was in Crumsall. She would dominate the ward by turning the television over when ‘Coronation Street’ came on. She put on intellectual, educational programmes that no one else wanted to see. When I went to see her, she gave me the run down on the ward ‘That women there, she is such a moron she watches rubbish on TV’ ‘This one reads a terrible paper’ ‘That one over there, her husband is always very noisy’ but then she pointed to the women in the bed next to her ‘And this one sleeps with a tiger’ ‘You what’? ‘Or maybe I’m imagining it’ She didn’t know but the fact that this woman was sleeping with a tiger seemed perfectly acceptable to Nico. I remember when she used to do TV interviews, she’d be asked a question, like ‘Would you like a car?’ then they’d go on to another subject, say for instance ‘Rome’ but she’d still be responding to the car question, while they were on to ‘Rome being an ancient civilisation’ She’d say ‘About 2000 years’ and of course it would sound like she’d asked for a 2000 year old car. The conversation she was carrying on in her head was 15 minutes behind everyone else. Looking back, I think she has more talent now that I did then. She wasn’t a rock singer, her strongest work was her own, ‘The End’ ‘Marble Index’’ she was really an avant -garde torch singer in the Dietrich tradition. Her songs were sort of folky, fairy tale, following a Germanic tradition. At the time she wasn’t liked in Germany but now she’s considered a star there. She didn’t like playing Germany, she found it boring and the promoters always wanted to stick to time, they were always so dramatic. She wasn’t rock n’ roll. She did one programme and she said, ‘I don’t know anything about rock and roll; I don’t know why you are asking me.” She was more interested in classical music. She liked modern classical composers, she like Max Bruch, but the greatest one for her was Mahler, the greatest piece of music for her was Mahler’s 5th symphony. She liked the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed and The Doors. One time we were travelling across the Alps and she took over from me, then after a little while she said, ‘I can see Jim’s face in the road’ The rest of us said’ what about the fucking road Nico, we’re getting out’ the whole group got out and waited by the side of the mountain rather than travel with her. She carried on with Barbara, her faithful companion, driving.
N: The way you describe Nico it’s almost as if she lived in a hallucinogenic fairy story
A: She lived like her act, there was no separate persona to the person you saw on stage to the one at home except she wanted to change her name back to Christa Paffgen, she said I’m not Nico, I’m Christa, Nico was a photographer who gave me that name. She was getting a bit tired of the Nico persona.
N: Do you think Manchester afforded her some shelter from that?
A: We lived in Manchester and in London, 29 Effra Road; it was me, Nico and John Cooper Clarke.
N: Did you set up the Martin Hannet sessions?
A: Yes, he was a friend of mine, it was called ‘Procession’ it was a long time since then, we only made one studio album and one live album, which sold a lot. One was ‘Camera Obscura’ which came out on Beggars Banquet, produced by John Cale with the Faction which was James Young, Graham Dowdall & Mike Hinc.
N: You helped her get a script that must have made things easier for her?
A: Yes, she had a doctor who prescribed her methadone
N: The letter?
A: That was a weird occurrence, we went back to her hold out with a BBC camera crew, this was a few months ago, we returned to the house on Prestwich Park South,’ Moresby’ it’s called. It’s a big Victorian house; Nico lived in the upper part of the house, the new owner restored into one about 20 years ago. When she saw the BBC crew, the owner came down. She said, ‘You must have come about Nico; she left her room in a mess’. I said to her ‘Do you mean to tell me you haven’t tidied it up in all that time?’ ‘No, I left it the same but I found a letter’. Unfortunately, the BBC crew nicked it but it was written by Nico to Alain Delon asking him to look after Ari. It was never sent.
N: She must have had some sort of premonition. Ibiza was just meant to be a holiday?
A: Yes, she did her last show in Berlin, they always say that where you do your last show is your hometown and then she went to Ibiza. Ari was with her. She went cycling on a hot day and had a stroke; it wasn’t the fall off the bicycle that killed her. It was the stroke. The last person to see her, by a strange twist, was Peter Hook from New Order. New Order where on their way to the airport and they saw her at a café and waved and she waved back. Very strange.
N: How best would you guide me to write about Nico?
A: You have to go back to her origins, Germany, the war, Berlin.
N: Dick Witts claimed she had a tortured relationship with her mother.
A: She loved her mother very much, sometimes she was unwell but she loved her. Dick Witts claimed to have known Nico well, but he only met her once, she went to his flat but she was uncertain as to whether she wanted him as a biographer.
Ari: ‘I have only good memories of my mother. She was a very funny character she had a great sense of humour. She loved me very much, we had a special relationship. It was unique, almost like man and wife, although nothing incestuous, although people sometimes thought we were married. We had an artistic relationship, she was a great lady and I miss her very much. I was with her when she died. To me she was just my mother, a great woman who always tried to protect me.’