Top critical review
11 people found this helpful
Myth-busting account of being on the road with Nico in the 1980s
on 13 December 2007
This book is nothing if not iconoclastic. James Young was keyboardist for German-born singer Nico during her performances and recordings throughout the 1980s until her premature death on the island of Ibiza on July 18, 1988. Having already been so many people - European catwalk model, French actress (e.g. starring in Fellini's La Dolche Vita), Warhol superstar and a sexy chanteuse with The Velvet Underground - Nico was now Queen of the Junkies, living off scattered solo shows and intermittently releasing albums. After a lull, she decided to launch a comeback in 1982 whilst living in Manchester; a local music entrepreneur, Dr. Demetrius, became her manager and, inevitably, also a go-between for drugs: "Nico needs to work in order to buy heroin, and heroin in order to work," he said. With a motley crew of amateur musicians including Young (who had only played at a few bar mitzvahs previously), Nico embarked on chaotic, largely unsuccessful tours of the US, Italy, Eastern Europe, Australia and Japan. All the while, Young argues, Nico's heart belonged to heroin: "Nothing outside really impinged on her terrifying single-mindedness, her obsessive neurological and emotional need for heroin". What follows are a string of stories from these tours in which Young characterises Nico as consistently lazy, having anorexic tendencies (living off custard and yoghurt, she finds solid food repulsive), a "monster" who makes selfish demands and is prone to tantrums and impatience: "What might have been the forgivable narcissism of a fashionable beauty had now become a tiresome and undignified egotism".
Enveloped by a permanent vapour of opiated hash and burnt heroin, Nico had retreated so far into drug abuse that human relationships were no longer possible. Part of her seemed to relish having sunk so low. There are moments in this book, however, when her emotional vulnerability becomes pathetically clear. Hoping that Bob Dylan would drop by after one of her live shows, she baths - for the first time in months! - and buys a new shirt for the occasion, but he doesn't appear. Young finds her sobbing in the decrepit dressing room, complaining that "no one comes to see me anymore". On another occasion, after an audience has given her an especially negative reception, she silently weeps at her derelict career: "I guess I'm through". Young, sober and pragmatic, concludes with hindsight: "Nico's songs of mortality and decay were not compatible with the dominant rhythm of the eighties".
On the way, there are weird and funny encounters with John Cale, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Young's descriptions of ex-Velvet Cale are particularly amusing, recording his transformation in less than two years from a bloated control freak brimming with paranoid conspiracy theories and tales of Artificial Intelligence to some kind of well-toned, clean-living, anti-smoking Zen Buddist. Some of the stories are less appealing: Young recalls Nico's only son, Ari, trying to sell his dead mother's methadone at her funeral and pocketing the proceeds of a memorial concert held in her name. There is also the suggestion that Nico was raped as a fifteen year-old by an American soldier who was court-martialled and shot for the offence.
James Young is a generous and self-effacing writer, unfettered by bitterness or score-settling; for him, being with Nico on tour was an escape from the dusty, book-strewn world of academia rather than an avowed attempt to jump-start his own career. He is not too proud to appear naive (when Nico covertly asks him for something sharp - i.e. a hypodermic needle - he hands her his Swiss army knife!) nor to admit to prostitutes and porno mags on the tour. Probably not to everyone's taste are his relentless descriptions of bad bodily odours and flesh bloating, flaking, sweating and riven with abscesses and heroin tracks. Nor his penchant for rendering accent textually for the whole book as a way of lightly mocking all concerned, especially Nico ("I was in the Sa-haaara, making a film...that's lo-onely") and Le Kid ("My muzzerre should play ze Carnegie 'All").
Nico's last concert was not, alas, to be in the Carnegie Hall, but in Berlin at the Planetarium a month before she died (Berlin was, in fact, the city in which she would be buried). "Nico wailed out of tune", but the German audience was reasonably positive. The last song Nico played live was one requested by Young and was his favourite of all her songs -
You do not seem to be listening
You do not seem to be listening
The high tide is taking everything
And you forget to answer.
(Nico, 'You Forgot to Answer')