Tag Archive: Nico


A Downward Spiral

The Rolling Stones, beyond all else, are a personality-based band. A lot of the best bands and artists are – The Beatles, David Bowie, U2, the Smashing Pumpkins in their heyday – and it’s something marketing executives and image creators know all too well. It’s not just the music that people hear – it’s who’s making the music, too. People connect so much more with a song if they know the name and see the face of person singing it.

Brian Jones

Left without a connecting face, the Rolling Stones would still have been successful, but I think that over half of their fame came from Mick Jagger and his mind-blowing stage presence. The Stones were one of the innovators of image and personality in rock music. Not only Mick, but Keith and the others had distinctiveness as well, including Brian Jones.

Brian was unique within the Stones for his blonde hair compared to the sandy to dark brown of the others. His teardrop-shaped guitar stuck in listeners’ minds, too. But the capstone of his fame was in the form of his tragic death. He died at age 27, but at that time, he was only the 2nd super-famous musician to die at that age. The real notability of his demise came from the manner of his death: drowning in a swimming pool.

Let’s back up a bit. The story arguably starts with the arrival in the Stones’ lives of Andrew Loog Oldham, their manager. He recognized early on that Jagger had stage presence coming out his ears, and also that the most successful bands (meaning the Beatles and the Beach Boys) wrote their own songs. Thus, he directed the career of the band in those directions.

Brian Jones started the band (and came up with the name) only a few years earlier, and was the de facto leader. His original idea for the Rolling Stones was to cover the blues and boogie numbers by black American musicians he so loved. The novelty of white British guys playing soulful American classics was enough to get them a name. Brian was the top dog until Andrew started shaking things up by having Mick take the lead in their shows, and by encouraging Mick and Keith to start writing songs together. Brian, unfortunately, was slowly being left out in the cold.

By 1968, Brian Jones was only in the band because he hadn’t been kicked out yet. He contributed almost nothing to the music; the other band members even turned off his guitar sometimes. When he interacted with them, he was distant at best, hostile and sniping at worst. Even so, his friendships were increasing outside the band with people like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Burdon. He was the unofficial emcee at the famous Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, along with his then-girlfriend, Velvet Underground collaborator Nico.

Jones’s last significant contribution to the Stones was playing slide guitar on “No Expectations,” though he also played little parts on the Let It Bleed tracks “Midnight Rambler” and “You Got the Silver.” Preceding the production of Let It Bleed, he had numerous troubles with the law over drugs. A judge had mercy on him after a jury found him guilty of possession, and gave him a fine instead of jail time, and there were also rumors of a conspiracy against Jones and the rest of the Rolling Stones. The unsubstantiated theory goes that the police wanted to make an example of all the Stones in order to deter the British public from drugs.

The final straw came when the Stones were going to tour America again in support of Let It Bleed (slated for a July 1969 release) and Brian was denied a work visa. At that point, Jagger and company had had enough; they hired Mick Taylor to replace Jones on guitar, and Jones moved into a mansion in East Sussex where he descended in a wild downward spiral of drugs, sex, and misadventure that was his eventual undoing.

“Elvis didn’t expectorate on his fans!”

Let that be a lesson to you, kids: don’t do drugs. But don’t take my word for it; ask Brian Jones. Oh, that’s right, you can’t. ‘Cause he’s dead.

Hey, do you like my impression of the dad on Freaks and Geeks?

Monday: The death of the 1960s.

The Velvet Underground + Nico + Andy Warhol

The prize for the trippiest song of the 60’s is won by “Venus In Furs” by the Velvet Underground (silver medal would go to the Doors’ “The End”). Lou Reed and John Cale were initially brought together by their shared appreciation for the drone: using sustained notes and chords in long and sometimes disharmonious strains, creating a sound that’s designed to help the listener descend into madness. The two of them created drones no stronger than on “Venus In Furs.” Reed’s use of the ostrich guitar is particularly notable. In addition, the lyrics penned by Lou Reed present nothing less squirm-inducing than sado-masochism, which is sexual play-acting that depends upon one person being “master” (or in this case “mistress”) over the other person, who is the “servant.” The servant is completely beholden to the master, dependant on him/her for everything. In this way, the master exerts absolute power over the servant. At its heart, sado-masochism is the desire for power expressed in sexual terms.

“Venus In Furs” is based on a novella of the same name by 19th century Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (his name is where the term “masochism” comes from). The novella appears to make a comment about equality among the genders, and even has whispers of the women’s movement.

the cover of VU&N, with the peel-off sticker

Finally, we have “European Son,” which completes the dream of the album with a dizzying freak-out of absolute madness. From the very beginning of this nearly 8 minute track, one can hear the nervousness and tension in the music. It’s a dam that is just barely holding the river back for the first minute or so. Suddenly, the sound of breaking glass; a piece of the dam breaks, then another, letting streams of water out at various points. Soon, the dam gives way and the entire river rushes forward with abandon. The Velvet Underground & Nico ends in approximately seven minutes of utter chaos; instruments become amorphous shapes in a multi-colored world, and the swirls and pinwheels of sound lose all form and coherency. When the album finally ends, the listener is crying “no more.” Oddly enough, “European Son” is nothing compared to the track that ends VU’s second album, “Sister Ray.”

I had heard about the Velvet Underground ever since I really started paying attention to popular music history, which was when I was about 13. However, I had never heard any of their music, or at least not knowingly. I had heard R.E.M.’s two VU cover songs from Dead Letter Office (“Femme Fatale” and “There She Goes Again”), and I had probably heard snippets of VU songs in my voluminous viewing of MTV and VH1. I ate up Behind the Music and Legends like jelly beans. But sadly, it was embarking on the project you are currently reading which brought the Velvet Underground into my zone of deliberate listening. The Velvet Underground was always a name I knew from musical lore, but had no application for. I understood them to be incredibly foundational (half of my musical heroes listed them as a primary influence) but didn’t understand why. In the full scope of my life, my conversion to a Velvets fan has been very recent. Now, on the other side of it, I wonder what took me so freakin’ long.

Friday: the art of Jimi Hendrix

The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico – 3/12/1967

The Velvet Underground’s first album is kind of like a dream, shifting and undulating as a mirage would. Poppy and bright one minute, dark and sardonic the next, The Velvet Underground & Nico presents the New York experience with a smirking laziness and cynical amusement about its inherent darkness. It drops names of places in NYC with generosity, and now having lived there I understand them. But beware: this is New York as seen through the eyes of a heroin addict, which colors every perception.

The album starts with a tinkly, delicate celesta melody, followed by a fey voice. “Sunday Morning,” the first track, is a soft introduction to this dream-like landscape, and a very pretty one. The name “Sunday Morning” was penciled in at the top of the track list on the album’s back cover because it wasn’t originally intended to be on there. Verve Records bigwig Tom Wilson suggested late in the game that the record needed one more song with lead vocals by Nico, to potentially be a big single. In the end, Nico only sang background on the track.

It might be said (incorrectly) that the album truly starts with the second track, “I’m Waiting For the Man.” This is Lou Reed’s deadpan and surprisingly frank description of the narrator (presumably Reed himself) going up to the corner of Lexington Ave. and 125th St. (Spanish Harlem to the uninitiated) to buy $26 worth of heroin, and use some of it on the premises. It bears a trademark of Reed’s writing in that it deals with important subject matter in a morally neutral voice and observational tone. Even though it’s in 1st person and the narrator is in the thick of heavy drug use, Reed doesn’t comment or expound; he merely presents.

This motif is also present in “Heroin,” the seventh track. The music of “Heroin” is intended to be representative of what it’s like to be on its namesake drug, and the lyrics detail with some startling beauty the feelings associated with it. I’ve never been on it myself (I prefer not to take drugs that don’t prevent me from dying), but I remember it being described as the best orgasm you’ve ever had x100, and lasting several hours. To me, the best description comes from Reed himself: “I feel just like Jesus’ son.” Reed caught a lot of flack, some people saying that in his naked and uncommented portrayal of drug use he was implicitly glorifying it. It was a sin of omission at worst; I would wager that anyone tipped over into heroin addiction by this song was already too far gone.

The pairing of Nico and the VU might seem awkward and unnecessary, but it was worth it for the creation of a single 6 minute track. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is like a hazy specter, haunting and beautiful. Nico’s deep alto is the centerpiece of the song’s deadened plodding. John Cale’s relentless piano (complete with a chain of paperclips woven throughout the strings) and Lou Reed’s ostrich guitar (all 6 strings tuned to the same note in different octaves) work in perfect harmony with Nico’s non-histrionic voice, creating a sound that can’t be duplicated. There is so much magic here that it boggles the mind. Its subject matter is that the celebrity/high art/rich living lifestyle, which the Factory was a big part of, is ultimately empty and unfulfilling. Lou Reed was very good at self-examination, but not so good at self-improvement.

Nico’s other two contributions fall pretty flat. “Femme Fatale” is a song Andy Warhol asked Lou Reed to write about Factory superstar Edie Sedgwick, sung by another Factory superstar. Andy’s odyssey with Edie is the stuff of legend, and “Femme Fatale” is a fairly accurate portrait of her, as well as true to Andy’s perception of her. But the song itself is rather bland and unexciting. I think Nico’s voice is best used in a doomy, unsettling presentation, like “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the third Nico song on the record, are simply not that. They’re both little more than pop tunes, sterling though they may be. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is even one of Reed’s favorites; after Nico and the Velvets parted ways in late ’67, they performed the song imitating Nico’s German accent.

More about VU&N on Wednesday!

The Big Apple

In the summer of 2009, my wife and I moved to New York City; more specifically Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. Previously, we lived in western Massachusetts, a place filled with forests and general stores and Robert Frost-esque rock walls. Needless to say, there was a bit of culture shock. I had gone to college out near Boston, so I was a little used to the grind and crawl of city dwelling, but Ruthanne was less prepared. She spent the first 2 months nervous and unhappy; she liked the rock walls, and didn’t like the cement wall that our apartment window looked out on.

New York isn’t hiking paths and twisty roads and mountains that are really hills; it’s plazas and avenues and digital billboards in Times Square. It’s Frank Sinatra and the Today Show and TKTS and restaurants we’d never heard of. It’s a place that almost lives up to your expectations you had since you were a kid, but falls tragically short.

But there is another side to the Big Apple (a name no native New Yorker has ever uttered in his life); a stereotypical seedy underbelly part of its past, now acknowledged as lore and legend. Andy Warhol and the Factory and drug-addled parties are an integral part of it. Describing in detached detail that aspect of NYC, as a Greek chorus might the plight of Oedipus, is the Velvet Underground.

The Velvet Underground started as two guys (Lou Reed and John Cale) who loved the avant garde, and eventually became the house band of the Factory, Andy Warhol’s art/movie studio. The Factory had its original home on 47th St. in Manhattan, and was populated by a cadre of artists, hangers-on, drug addicts, and Warhol’s friends. Usually, a single Factory denizen would be all four.

Andy Warhol

Andy was one unique cat. Everything I’ve read, heard and seen about him says he was spacey, free-thinking and revolutionary in his own way, but also manipulative, insensitive, and capable of extreme cruelty. His films are some of the most sexually explicit (and sexually bizarre) ever produced, though he was an unmarried, deeply Catholic virgin. Some say he was gay, but as far as intercourse with another human being goes, I don’t think Andy ever had it.

Enter the VU. After humble beginnings, including John Cale giving their demo tape to Marianne Faithful in the hope she would pass it on to Mick Jagger (she didn’t), Andy Warhol eventually took notice of them. In addition to becoming the Factory’s house band, the Velvet Underground also provided the musical accompaniment to Warhol’s traveling multimedia art show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol also became the band’s manager, and the Velvets benefited from Andy’s high public profile. He “produced” (that’s with air quotes) their first album, though his involvement was little, in the name of giving the band free rein over their own sound. But the most important contribution Andy made was his suggestion (which translated as his undeniable command) that they be joined on a few songs by singer and Factory It Girl Nico.

Ah, Nico. I’m tempted to think the pairing of Nico and the Velvets didn’t initially excite any of the people involved, and was a grudging thing at best, but I’ve seen no indication of that. Still, some of the best parts of their first album came when Nico had no involvement whatsoever. Nico, who was an individual artist in her own right, couldn’t simply be absorbed as a member of the Velvet Underground. I don’t think either party would have been satisfied with that; Nico would have to share the spotlight with four other people, and VU would have to take on what was essentially dead weight. Like it or not, that pairing created an environment that might not have produced such a fantastic album had it not happened. It couldn’t be sustained, though – Nico quit before 1967 was even over.