In the spring of 1978, my friend, the writer Kurt Loder, and I saw a then-rare New York club show by Nico, the arctic chanteuse of the Velvet Underground, at the club Reno Sweeney’s. She was not the same woman I knew from the covers of 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico or her first solo album, Chelsea Girl, also issued that year: lithe perfection; a blinding-yellow cascade of hair framing the serene challenge in her beauty. The former Christa Päffgen was nearing 40 and had broadened, her figure both hidden and betrayed by a dark shapeless smock. Her hair was a grim shade of brown.
But there was no mistaking the formidable cheekbones or the imperious German cadence of her voice, in performance and backstage in conversation. I have long since lost the tape I made of that night’s show, on a barely hidden cassette machine. But I’m certain Nico’s set included the cold elegance and foreboding of “Frozen Warnings,” from her 1968 album, The Marble Index, and her signature possession of “The End” by the Doors, drawn out by the long agonized breaths of her harmonium.
All the Nicos, all at once
All of those Nicos – the lethal venus of 1966-67; the stoic sorceress of The Marble Index and 1970’s Desertshore; the commanding matron I saw that night in New York – are present, with affectionate and gently comic detail, in Chelsea Mädchen, a portrait in performance by the colorful New York alternative-country-and-cabaret singer Tammy Faye Starlite. Based on an actual interview Nico gave in the mid-Eighties, during an Australian tour, the show – which Starlite has presented around town, in periodic runs, since the summer of 2010 – is a skeletal history in reflections with Starlite, as Nico, answering questions from a reporter, played by Jeff Ward, about the German ice queen’s career, lovers and collaborators, the last two often one in the same.
Starlite has the proper blonde hair and packs an accent just the right side of exagerration. She punctuates Nico’s fondly blunt and drolly unforgiving characterizations of Bob Dylan (who gave her the immortal “I’ll Keep It With Mine”) the Velvets’ Lou Reed (“a usurper of souls”) and the teenage Jackson Browne (her accompanist for a spell after the Velvets) with regal sweeps of hair and exasperated stares, her eyes as wide as headlights. At one show this year, when Ward was unavailable, Kurt – who interviewed Nico in ’78 – took that role, a nice bit of history repeating itself.
Each chapter of Nico’s ascent in the Sixties and long fall into cultdom (via a 15-year addiction to heroin) is marked by songs, from her 1965 folk-pop debut “I’m Not Saying” to the sepulchral version of “My Funny Valentine” on Nico’s final studio album, Camera Obscura, issued three years before her death in 1988. Starlite does not play the harmonium. But accompanied by a chamber-size band of guitar, bass, piano, reeds, drums and strings, Starlite pays vocal tribute with earnest and believable poise, revisiting Nico’s three seminal songs on the first Velvets album – “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Femme Fatale” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” – with both tenderness and cool observation. She also sings Browne’s “These Days,” from Chelsea Girl, with Nico’s original care.
The Chelsea Girls
There is one hilarious sequence involving the song “Chelsea Girls” – written by Reed and Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison about the army of Warhol ingenues resident at that hotel – and “the damned flute” that dogged Nico throughout the 1967 recording, courtesy of producer Tom Wilson. Starlite milks Nico’s lingering anger, two decades on, with slapstick. It is also a telling moment: an imperial woman who bent rock’s great men to her will but was so often dependent on their attentions and talents for her art. Where there is bitterness in Starlite/Nico’s responses to Ward’s queries, there is also lasting hurt and unfulfilled ambition.
Directed by Michael Schiralli, Chelsea Mädchen is at the Duplex Cabaret Theater, 61 Chrisopher Street in New York City, with performances on Saturdays at 9:30 PM through November 19th. The show mocks and honors its subject with loving regard; it certainly captures the woman I met, however briefly, in 1978. And it will send you back to the records, including that one with the damned flute.