Forgotten series: Nico – The Marble Index (1969)

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“The marble index of a mind for ever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone,” wrote Wordsworth in “The Prelude.” It was from this poem that German über model-turned-singer Nico took the inspiration for the title of this extraordinary 1969 solo album.

The Marble Index, an album that Lester Bangs famously claimed “scared the shit out of him” failed commercially and disappeared without a trace upon its release. Its contemporary listeners could find nothing they related to in its glacial, European avant-garde sounds, but it later claimed a new set of admirers among the post-punk, Goth scene, especially in Manchester where Nico found herself in the 1980s, living in a bedsit in the Sedgley Park area. Today, the album is often seen by critics as merely an interesting musical oddity, which fails to respect the haunting beauty of Nico’s song writing.

The album’s producer, John Cale, who Nico had previously worked with in the Velvet Underground, said of its creation “everything she did was part of her vision to be a different person … It was so highly personal, that was why it was so powerful.”

Born Christa Päffgen, Nico began her rise to fame in the late 1950s, literally picked off the streets of Berlin to be a model. Her striking looks took her to Paris and then to Italy where she was featured in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” before attracting the attentions of Andy Warhol, who championed her as a Factory superstar in New York. “She was like a marble sculpture, a goddess, from Valhalla or something,” recalled Factory regular Billy Name. She was mostly famous for just being Nico, and pop glitterati such as Brian Jones, Jimmy Page and Bob Dylan as well as actor Alain Delon (with whom she had a child, although he denied his paternity), fell under her spell.

Yet, Nico seemed strangely isolated. This is something repeatedly shared by those who knew her at the time; Joe Boyd thought she seemed like “someone grappling with a terrible inner void.” Nico became increasingly unhappy about her role as an object and icon. Even her brief stint as front woman for the Velvet Underground was based on her looks; her blonde Aryan aura offsetting the dark, junkie image of the band. Nico began to resent her beauty, seeing her looks as distracting from her artistic identity.

The Marble Index was her means of transformation from muse and beautiful object into artist. Nico hated her first solo album, Chelsea Girl, seeing it as pop music. A brief relationship with Jim Morrison introduced her to the poems of William Blake, and the idea she could be a song writer herself, as well as deliberately changing her whole look, dying her hair black. Using a harmonium which she had brought back from India, the songs of The Marble Index began to take shape. The harmonium proved the perfect accompaniment to her sonorous voice (she is said to have taken her singing style from Hildegard Knef, who in turn emulated Marlene Dietrich via Zarah Leander). The instrument was said to remind Nico of the wind, and imposed an elemental quality on her songs, with simple, child-like, repetitive melodies creating an austere, almost medieval atmosphere.

Elektra soundman Frazier Mohawk said it was not an album you could listen to, more “a hole you fall into.” He was correct, but not in the way he intended. The shimmering collage of sound imposed across the canvas of her songs by John Cale plunge the listener into a sonic journey, “a voyage through strange seas, alone,” sometimes disconcerting, but never, as often described, harrowing — always contemplative and always beautiful. The songs seem suspended in time, detached from the tumultuous years of its creation, the last years of the 1960s. “Jim Morrison told me people are looking at the streets, and I am looking at the moon,” said Nico, “I don’t feel connected enough to throw stones at a policeman, I want to throw stones at the whole world.”

The opener “Lawn of Dawns” was inspired by Nico’s peyote trip in the Californian desert with Morrison. She experienced the sensation of the sky becoming a deep green sea, and then a garden. “I do not swim,” she said, “and I was frightened when it was water and more resolved when it was land. I felt embraced by the sky-garden.” This feeling is perfectly reproduced in the song, the feeling of threading through submarine depths, through to the light and air. The next song, “No One is There,” was written in Positano, an Italian town which Steinbeck described as “a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there.” Cale’s soaring viola conjures this unreality, and although Nico said the song was written for Nixon, it feels more like a silent walk though medieval streets, moonlight glittering on the ancient harbour.

“It isn’t noise to me,” Nico said of The Marble Index. “Pop music sounds like noise. It is like silence when a war is going on. Elementary noise and silence.”

Everything on the album hints at spaces, emptiness, the inner void perceived by Joe Boyd. Yet it creates spaces in the listeners mind to grasp at something unmanifested, a peace like the silence after war.

Nico’s transformation with The Marble Index was powerful, but to an outside eye, not a positive one. She became increasingly nomadic, isolated and dependant on heroin. By the mid 1980s, Nico was hardly recognizable as the star of Chelsea Girl, a full-blown junkie who had lost her famous looks. Yet all who knew her at this time recall Nico as a free spirit.

She would be in her 70s if she were alive. Nico died in 1988 after falling from her bike in Ibiza. According to son Ari, she was finally clean of heroin and enthusiastic about making new music. Today, it is likely that New Weird America scenesters would be clamouring to work with her, and critics would be falling at her feet. The positive reactions to Cale’s recent live tributes to Nico suggest so. But would she have wanted this? The fame Nico had initially craved seems to have done nothing to fill her inner void.

Nico herself claimed to have no regrets. The Marble Index remains as enigmatic as the woman herself.

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Ben Tweddell

Ben Tweddell

Ben Tweddell is best known as guitarist with Thistletown, a psychedelic folk band from Falmouth, Cornwall, with roots in the music of obscure 1970s groups like Heron and Trees. Thistletown issued the album Rosemarie, and performed at Green Man Festival before initially disbanding in 2008. He studied at the University of Exeter. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Ben Tweddell
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