Nina Antonia interviews Robert King about Life and Love with Nico

N: How did you meet Nico?

R: It was February 1981, I’d just turned 20 and this French photographer Antoine Giacomoni and a girl called Agnes de Temps, he was taking photographs of the Scars for a French magazine and she was going out with him. My relationship with the Scars was quite fractured, I was moving around London but they stayed in a flat together. Antoine and Agnes heard that I was looking for a place to stay and they had a spare room in their flat. After an hour of meeting them they said I could move into their flat, that’s how well we got on. I moved into the flat and it turned out that Nico was staying there. It was in Ladbroke Grove, Clarendon road (Cambridge Gardens) where Rough Trade used to be. Nico was recording ‘The Drama of Exile’. They never told me she was staying there. I was a Nico fan anyway. I would use the word ‘disturbing’ but I don’t mean that in a negative sense, I can’t find the right adjective. It was pretty bizarre. For some strange reason, they’d primed her to meet me so she was nervous. When you think about the reputation she had ‘Nico from The Velvet Underground’ you wouldn’t have thought of her as nervous but she was quite a shy, private person. She was very friendly and contrary to her persona, she smiled a lot, made jokes, laughed, she was very erudite, intelligent. 

That first day that I went to check out the room, the rest of The Scars came along. I checked the room out, I was happy to take it, so we were sitting there, taking drugs, and the rest of the Scars were smoking hashish. After about half an hour, Nico spoke to Antoine and got rid of the rest of The Scars, because she didn’t like them. The first thing she said to me was ‘You are Shiva, the destroyer of worlds’ Being 20 I didn’t know what she meant, it was pretty bizarre. She was completely from how I imagined she’d be, I’d built up this image from listening to the VU as a kid. Obviously she was out of her head, but that’s not important, the important thing was there was no act. She was very vulnerable, she wasn’t very confident I think that’s why she took heroin. I can relate to that myself. I’m very private, I don’t talk a lot and people think I’m a snob but I’m not, I’m just private. She recognised that in me, we had a common bond, things in common.

N: Was it hard for her being Nico, having this persona?

R: She didn’t like it at all or that everybody always referred to the VU. One time the door went, Orange Juice were at the door. Of course I know them, especially Edwin. But they wanted me to ask her if she would sing. They were going into the studio and they wanted her to sing on a track. I told them that I’d ask her and to come back the following day. I played her a couple of their songs and she didn’t want to have anything to do with them because they were so derivative of the VU. She told me that the only things that she liked about the Velvet Underground were John Cale and Mo Tucker, they were the only two that made her feel welcome, and the others weren’t so kind. She didn’t enjoy being in the VU and she never made any money from it. Not a penny. 

I had the impression that she was lost. In the 18 month period that I knew, there were three occasions when she took off for another geographic location, leaving behind everything except for the harmonium. She travelled across the continent in just the clothes she was wearing and her harmonium. She never ever had any money she’d get to the end of the line and have to cut ties. It’s sad when you think of her heritage. When I met her she had no money whatsoever, I was quite shocked. Most of her drugs were given to her by friends. People would want to hang out with her, get their photograph taken with her but they wouldn’t want to help her. Nico came from a fractured family. Her mother pushed her into modelling when she was 15, since then she was a pawn in other people’s schemes. Nowadays children can consciously make decisions for themselves. A good example of that was we went to NY and she introduced me to Andy Warhol and she was nervous of introducing me to him, ‘What if he doesn’t like you’? She wanted his approval. It wasn’t a problem because he liked me. He was very protective of Nico and gentle. There were times when we were in company with him and people would approach him and try and get near to him and he’d put his hands up and walk backwards to get away from them but with Nico I remember him putting his hands around her shoulders so he must have really liked her. We were there just after the Chelsea Hotel documentary  I wouldn’t get involved in it because I didn’t think it was right. The only reason that Nico did was because they paid her. She sang Chelsea Girls in it, very badly. She’d become a penny circus performer. Most of the audience weren’t interested in ‘Drama of Exile’ or her later material, all they wanted was ‘Chelsea Girls’ and ‘Sunday Morning’ .  Nico wanted to be recognised as an artiste and to be given the respect she’d read about in the music press but never experience in real life. People treated her like this legendary cult performer but she never enjoyed the fruits of that at any time.

I was shocked at what Alan Wise wrote about me. In September 1981, I got a phone call from a Manchester promoter who wanted Nico to play two shows there.  What had happened was that after Nico had recorded Drama of Exile, the people who had recorded it with her where also staying in the Ladbroke Grove apartment Philippe Quilichini and Antoine Giacomoni were the Corsican brothers and Nadett Duget who was Philippe’s girlfriend. They’d gone in the studio with her, they’d made a monitor mix of the sessions and Nadett was selling it to people for heroin, everybody in that flat was taking heroin. It was a crazy. I did some keyboards and vocals on that album although I never got credited for it. They left her high and dry, they went back to Paris. I was lucky because I still had a record deal with Charisma and I said to her  ‘Look my money’s starting to run out’ she wanted to do gigs anyway and wanted to go back to it being just her and her harmonium, with a band now and again. I organised a tour, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh. I tour managed it. We met Alan Wise in Manchester, he was from a wealthy Jewish family. He was promoting gigs and he had a vacant flat and said that we could say there. I had a feeling that he wanted to get his claws into Nico. It was September 1981, and I had an American tour coming up with the Scars in the October. He signed her up for a three year contract. I read somewhere that he said that Nico was paying for me. Nico had no money,  all of Nico’s money went on heroin. The last thing she would do was give her money to anyone. I was a heroin addict at the time as well, so I understand. She ended up with these musicians around her, one of whom wrote a parody book about her ‘Songs’ which I found quite distasteful.

N: Do you think she just got tired of fighting?

R: Yes, when I came back from America, I phoned her and she said she wanted to come back to London and I said ‘Well just come down’ and she said that she couldn’t because she had commitments, Alan Wise had built a band around her. I still saw her on and off but I didn’t like the scene around and these people who got jealous of anyone who got near her. But if I was in the same city at the same time she was, we’d meet. She was trapped in the same way she’d felt trapped by the VU. I don’t know if you have any experience of heroin, if you do then you will know what I am talking about. If heroin was being delivered to her every day, she’s not going to break that habit but she did eventually, she got herself on to methadone. It must have been pretty bad for her to have done that. I think the impetus for that was that Ari got himself a habit and I don’t think she wanted him to go the same way she did. When I went to America I left Nico and Ari with Alan Wise, I wasn’t happy about it all but there was nothing I could do. Nico told me about the 3 year contract. I don’t think she cared about the contract she was getting a regular supply of heroin which meant she could function. It sounds terrible but that’s the reality of addiction.

N: I don’t know if it’s because JC and LR are men that they got an easier ride…

R: I met both of them. John Cale was a good guy and he never took an shit either. He was very patient with her though. Lou Reed was a thug, he threatened me the first night he might me. He told me ‘Shut up little boy.’  I thought ‘Who the fuck are you? Just because you’ve written a couple of songs…..’ I said ‘Look I’m Scottish; you may think you are tough but have you ever met a Scottish guy when he is crazy?’ He saw my eyes and after that he gave me a bit more respect. That happened in Earl’s Court; we had a flat there for a bit. It was the same group of people, Nico, myself, Phillip, Antoine, Nadett and Agnes; we moved lock stock and barrel from Ladbroke Grove to there. They sold the record to two different labels; she got all the fall -out from it and none of the money, all she got was a quarter gram of heroin a day. 

N: Relationship?

R: Very good, she was 20 years older than me. She told me that I was the most interesting person she’d met since Jim Morrison. She said I had good lyrics in my head and I held myself well when I met people, she said that I was able to make people like me and I was able to make people laugh. I liked her because she was the complete opposite of her image. We spent most of our time in the kitchen drinking tea, in the afternoon we’d go out. There was always a white transit van parked outside our flat. We’d bang on the transit van; it belonged to Rip Rig and Panic. They tumble out of the van and go to the pub with us to play pool, have a glass of Guinness and then one of the band would drive us around London looking for heroin. That was the late 70’s early 80’s when people would help each other. 

N: Sound like the late Sixties.

R: Yes only Nico hated hippies, she thought they spent their time doing nothing. She’d always spend time everyday writing lyrics. Everybody has this idea that Nico spent most of her time out her head. She was but she did things, we didn’t stop functioning as musicians, we’d discuss songs, films, Jean Luc Goddard was one of her favourites. We’d talk, she told me about Alain Delon, how she’d met him at a party, they’d had a tryst but he denied paternity of Ari. Ari is the spitting image of him, he denied parentage but his parent’s paid for his schooling, they brought him up. Nico was furious with Delon; she called him a ‘Fuckface’ her words not mine. But Alain Delon had a history of that. She mentioned Jackson Browne, apparently he was a bit mean to her, and he used to phone her when he was bored and then go off with other women. The person she spoke about most was Andy Warhol, she really loved him. I never wanted to delve to deeply into her past. Andy Warhol must have liked her, he accepted me into his circle and after an hour he started calling me ‘Butterfly’ because I was talking to all the ladies in the room. We stayed with Andy Warhol for a week in his apartment in Central Park he had a lot of tenderness for her. 

What I’m saying is only about 2% of the story, you never find out the whole truth about anybody. We were in each other’s pockets for 18 months and then I saw her on and off for 5 years.

N: What did you learn from her?

R: Never trust anybody. I saw the way that she was treated by people. Give them the benefit of the doubt but don’t trust them. Their perception of reality is never going to be the same as yours. They don’t see reality…..I can only imagine what she must have thought when people talked about her. At that time in 1981, that period in musical history, heroin was even more demonised that usual and anyone that took it was evil, bad and wrong. 

N: I think it’s turned full circle again.

R: That’s why I called my band ‘Opium Kitchen’ Everybody thinks I’m a junkie so I thought ;Fuck you, I don’t take heroin anymore but I don’t regret my experiences through because I met so many good people through it, the list is endless, Nico, Johnny Thunders, Steve New. The list is endless but I wouldn’t want to invade their privacy. Nico’s idea was to one day walk away from it, did you know that her family owned land in Ibiza? And she had the claim to a countess. I never got all the facts but I remember one night when she was low that she could legally put ‘Countess’ in front of her name. Her family must have gotten really dislocated by the Second World War. I know that some of her family were murdered in concentration camps. I asked her a few times about her childhood but she glossed it over and talked about something else so I didn’t take it further. She was a very shy, vulnerable person; she wasn’t this dark mysterious force she’s been painted as. In music you can release yourself, you don’t have to stay with the rules that govern your life you can realise the demons. Janitor of Lunacy, if you listen to the lyrics what the hell was going on in her head? But she always did it best when it was just her and her harmonium. On Drama, songs like Genghis K really work but the really powerful stuff is her and the harmonium. She was proudest of ‘The End’ she said that was the happiest two weeks of her life. She had a life, they’d done live shows, and she really loved that album. She hated Chelsea Girls. I disagreed with her; it’s one of the classic albums of the 1960s. She told me she went into the studio and demoed the songs and then she went away and then John Cale and Lou Reed but down all this baroque music. She was used as a product. You can imagine how much of an affront it must have been to her to have been turned into the Mama’s and Papas. I mean we argued about it, you are right when you use the word lovely. I don’t think she wanted to make lovely music, she’d worked with Fellini, then she’d done the VU and made films with Andy Warhol, she’d learned that difficult can be good then Lou Reed and John Cale turned her into folk music – in her eyes – personally I think they were cashing in on her image. 

N: She turned away from that image in the end which was courageous.

R: But unfortunate for her because that pushed her further into addiction. My opinion is that she was she was getting pushed into a twee so she kicked against the pricks which exacerbated any indulgent tendencies within her. She’d hated being a model. She told me that when she went on modelling assignments a lot of the photographers wanted to have sex with her, they expected to have sex with her. She was a catholic girl as a well, a German Catholic, back in the late 40’s early 50’s it would have been a pretty heavy thing. Her mum pushing her into modelling and then photographers wanting to have sex, I should imagine that’s why she pushed away so hard from all of it. My thoughts come from what she said to me but I981 is a long time ago. I want you to give her some dignity.