Nico, the German-Born vocalist who sang with the Velvet Underground and released several classic albums of hypnotic art rock, died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 18th in Ibiza, Spain. She was forty-nine.
The singer had been in apparent good health despite earlier periods of drug abuse. “It had been a year and a half since she decided heroin was no good for her,” said her manager, Alan Wise.
Born Christa Päffgen on October 16th, 1938, in Cologne, Germany, she became a fashion model at fourteen; in 1961, she appeared in Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita.
Her singing career began at the Blue Angel, a New York nightclub, in 1964. A year later, she released a single in England, “The Last Mile,” which was produced and arranged by Jimmy Page; Rolling Stone Brian Jones played on the B side, a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’.”
In 1966, Nico was introduced to Andy Warhol, and the pop auteur soon teamed her with his rock protégés, the Velvet Underground. The oddly compelling match – the breathy German vocalist and the streetwise electric-pop terrorists – was vividly captured on the band’s 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico.
The founding bassist of the Velvets, John Cale, says that in performance Nico was “like a rock. She didn’t move up there. It all came through the voice.”
“She was very forbidding,” says Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison, “especially at the height of her beauty.”
Later in 1967, Nico went solo, releasing an album titled Chelsea Girl, a collection of songs by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the teenage Jackson Browne, who was her guitarist for a while. “She was very sweet,” Browne says. “Yet she didn’t really trust anybody and could be very rough and willful.”
With the 1969 album The Marble Index, a haunting song cycle heightened by the trademark drone of her harmonium, Nico “truly carved herself a niche,” says Cale, who arranged and played on the LP. “I don’t think she saw rock & roll as her particular strength. Whatever poetic ability she had was strongly in the European artistic tradition.” Desert-shore, released in 1971, was even more austere, and her 1974 reading of the Doors’ song “The End” transformed Jim Morrison’s Oedipal imagery into pure Gothic horror.
Nico recorded only intermittently during the Seventies, and her last studio effort, Camera Obscura, came out in 1985. But she had resumed touring in recent years and had performed a concert of new material in Berlin four weeks before her death.
This story is from the September 9, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.