It’s been some time since I read James Young’s other work on that paradigmatic Germanic femme fatale, Nico: Songs They Never Play On the Radio. From memory, this volume contains some of the same material but is an expanded version which also includes a great deal of later material, including the making of Camera Obscura (produced by John Cale) and extended tours behind the Iron Curtain. As a full-fledged Nico obsessive (and one who holds the view that her critically neglected work of the ‘80s, in particular Camera Obscura and The Drama of Exile, represent the pinnacle of her achievements) this was an essential document.
Young himself gives the impression of a slightly unreliable (not to mention bitter) narrator, at least as far as his faux-deprecating picture of himself as naïve outsider is concerned (he left a degree at an Oxbridge to become Nico’s pianist, thereby entering a bizarre, shabby and deeply seamy underworld of addiction, immorality and eccentricity). Having said this, however, is prose is poetic without being overblown or over-reaching itself, perfect for the task at hand, and in itself this book is an important historical document of a figure whose genius, at first so little recognized as a result of her beauty, was never eclipsed by her spiral into the darkness of addiction and poverty (indeed, Young suggests that she herself had felt that beauty as a burden in that regard).
I generally don’t read biographies of artists in whom I’m interested, because I often emerge liking them less, but in this case – well, Nico certainly doesn’t come across as a likeable character per se, as one who you’d trust or lend money to, but (as in the case of White’s biography of Genet) my respect for her was, if anything, heightened by this severely unglamorous work which scours the depths of the abject. John Cooper Clarke, on the other hand, another pet cult figure of mine, doesn’t come across quite so well during his cameo role (though if any song encapsulates the mood and environs of this book, it’s his most well-known piece Beasley Street). On that note, other figures are also dragged down from their pedestals – in particular, John Cale, who appears as a thoroughly nasty piece of work in both his drug-addled and health-yuppie phases (which casts an interesting light on his appearance in the essential documentary Nico:Icon, which closes with his particularly moving cover of Frozen Warnings). Nico’s son Ari (fathered by Alain Delon, who refused to acknowledge him) is also depicted as almost unbelievably venial, although with his background (disavowed by his father, abandoned by Nico and raised mostly by Delon’s mother) one wonders what chances he had. As in other junkie narratives, the pursuit of a fix forms part of a rambling and cyclical rather than traditionally-shaped story arc, but unlike those (with the singular exception of William Burroughs’ work of that title) this in no way becomes frustrating for the reader. Ultimately,as a tale of the dark underside of fame’s excesses and the characters who inhabit it, Nico: The End outranks in darkness even other notable works such as Marc Almond’s Tainted Life.
Nico, like certain other artists (Emily Dickinson springs to mind) is an anomaly, inasmuch as one is bound to ask – where did her art come from? It seems to have emerged fully-formed from an alien place, unprecedented, with a quality of liminality in its very appearance in our reality. One of the interesting things about this book is the fact that Young doesn’t really recognize or discuss Nico’s work as such. This is refreshing, given how many books are written by adoring fans, but he does, at least from the perspective of my taste, misrecognise the value of the work that he was actually involved in – in particular, the amazing, experimental synth-driven Camera Obscura, and in particular its cover of 'My Funny Valentine,' personally by far my favourite rendition of that standard, which Young excoriates in detail. Finally, though, the inherent and unaffected alienation of this subject position is nothing if not apt.