You Are Beautiful And You Are Alone – The Story of Nico


by Roxanne Fontana

……………In a world that is far less compatible with the persona, mind and music of Nico than the one she lived in, than the one that she was consistently an outcast in, somehow with Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s You Are Beautiful And You Are Alone – the Story of Nico (Faber Books), Nico is brought lovingly into the mainstream.  As a compulsively and naturally analytical person, I am still trying to get my head around how this has been done, and can only come up with one word to define this happening:  magic.

                Nearly 30 years ago, we were treated to a tome by her 1980s keyboardist James Young, Nico the end, and a Virgin books dense biography Nico the Life & Lies of An Icon by Richard Witts, which both sit lovingly on my bookshelf still.  Both were satisfying books, the former very entertaining with many laugh-out-loud moments, and the latter informative and exhaustive in its research of a fascinating and complex life.

……………I am more than a fan of Nico’s music – I hold her story dear to my heart.  Like many (including the author as she reveals at the beginning of the book), during most of my lifetime I knew  only of the name, Nico, that she briefly sang with the Velvet Underground, and the heroin addiction – that’s it – nothing more.  It was on a 1991 move to Prague, Czechoslovakia, as I was being brought around to record companies to shop my own music demos, that Nico entered my orbit.  I had a meeting with an A&R man at a certain Globus Records in Prague.  He was interested in me, except he saw one problem, “The Czech people are very sensitive about Nico.”  I was bewildered, but he seemed to think that I had something in common with her image.  I’ve never been as beautiful as Nico, even as a young woman, at all.  However, the combination of the blonde hairstyle – and being image-aware in full make-up, and yet with unconventional demeanour, and the way I was conducting myself at the meeting, with seriousness, potential acumen and rebellion, with the odd curse-word thrown in, brought him to this dismissive conclusion, not to sign me.  Then there was my cover of Downtown Magazine, declaring I was ‘The Hippest Lady In New York’ – a cover photo that does look as if it is mimicking the cover of Nico’s album, ‘Chelsea Girl’.  This sameness was completely accidental, and neither I nor the photographer, George du Bose, had ever uttered trying to capture Nico’s image during the shoot.  Of course, I wished I hadn’t brought that magazine to the meeting in Prague.  I protested that I sound nothing like the Velvet Underground (I didn’t dare mention comparisons I heard at CBGB’s in my early days).  I pointed out that I sing in an unusually high voice, not a low one, and that my songs are traditionally melodic in a different way than theirs, with probably more in common with Motown.  He laughed this off and said to believe him, “the Czechs are going to think you are trying to be Nico.  No one can replace her.”   I was furious, and left.

……………I eventually ended up back at my home base in New York City.  I relayed this story to my new drummer, RichTeeter, a well-known drummer from his days with NYC punk band, The Dictators.  Rich was determined to share his own Nico obsession with me, to tell me all about her music.  What followed were copies of her albums on cassette tapes that he made and gave to me.  I did fall in love with her sound, and around the same time, those aforementioned books came out.  I was no longer furious at the Czech record company’s comparison to myself, and found the insight of it complimentary.  Like Nico, I have my own ideals about everything, cannot be led around by popular thought, and have immediate knee-jerk reactions to anything that annoys my cultural sensibilities.  The astute record company man had seen the enigma, and the blonde hair, and had drawn conclusions.

……………When I found out about this book coming out, I immediately bristled.  Why? I thought. There are already two great books out.  What more can be known than what are contained therein?   And then there were people heralding the author on social media.  People who are, shall we say, very au courant – 2021 culture, politically correct, very black and white:  women’s rights, and champions of establishment.  Nico has been dubbed ‘Queen of Goth,’ ‘Queen of Punk,’ but the most accurate description of her is ‘Queen of Counter Culture’  – a woman whose instant reaction to her mother’s dismay at her lighting a joint in public was “Don’t be so naïve.”  And there were some blurbs gracing the book’s promotion from respected folks, which had me thinking, Oh no, this can’t be good.

……………Then there was an advance review in a British newspaper.  The review and reveal pretty much blew my mind.  This author had, it seemed, managed to find new stories, new ‘explanations’ – by example, the review shared the background of her relationship with Alain Delon.  It divulged that the book was serious, not just a fandom book, not just something-to-do for the author.  It was also clear just from the review, and rightly so, that there is only a hint of emotion conveyed, a sympathetic tone without injected hyper-fandom.  My instinct told me from the review, that this book is it, this is it!  I immediately wrote a message to the author telling her that I had read the review and that I was completely cynical about this book but I am having a great feeling, and I can’t wait.  I had to share it with her, the actual author, no one else would do, such is my own hyper-fandom.

……………And so I eagerly laid myself down into bed with it, on the night of its release date here in the UK.  I sighed immediately however, with my original cynicism, when I saw the book opening with a quote from Marianne Faithfull.  Something about having in common with Nico the fury of being ignored.   There I was again saying aloud, ‘No, just no.’  The last thing Marianne Faithfull ever was was ignored.  She was ‘discovered’ in blue jeans at a posh record party for God’s sake, and her career eclipsed Adrienne Posta, whose party it was, and she’s still making records, bringing in all eager folk, with a mere request.  My mind went back to the story I read that when Nico was alive she was compared to Marianne once and she was deeply offended to have been compared to “somebody’s girlfriend.”  I quickly recovered from my cynicism however, as I was still in awe of the book cover, and how good the book might be.  What awed me was the major publisher procured to tell this story, all these years after Nico’s failed music career, especially insofar as money goes – now more than ever the barometer of success and public care.  The cover of our UK version, in my opinion far superior to the American one, reveals a 1970s Nico, looking as if she is almost crucified to the N of her own name.  The ‘N’, a deep and bright red large letter that is actually embossed while the rest of the cover’s artwork lay flat.  I love this, that there has been so much care to bring Nico’s story, today amidst the boring, if not sickening, negative  and divisive tone of today’s mainstream press-driven society.  Perhaps unwittingly, in our era of cancel culture, they’ve made a path for Nico, of all people – the most behaviourally counter-culture recording artist that I can think of, and this is where I have to conclude it is magic, and magic alone, like a lucky star. 

……………Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is a professor.  Scholars who write rock books usually get bogged down in their research, where the work may be considered the best on the subject, but is usually left behind for more emotional portrayals.  Not this book.  Jennifer manages to tell us the stories, with all the warts and horrors in place, without vilifying the subject ever, or over-idolizing her.  There is no condemnation, there is no glossing over the horrors to revere Saint Nico.  There are facts, and there is affection, a well-placed understated affection.  As previously stated, the author is clearly a very modern woman.  Some of the folks she has gotten involved with the book for promotion, blurbs, discussion, share that.  None of these folks have anything in common with Nico.   You learn from this book then of Jennifer’s own non-discriminatory musical tastes – everyone mentioned in her book she reveres as super special.  While I cannot relate to that attitude, it is exactly Jennifer’s attitude, her sincere open mind, which has enabled her to write such a great book – that combination of factual research injected with her unique sympathy for the subject, which has opened the door for Nico in 2021.  Yet Nico is the farthest thing in the world from a woman who, for example, would be concerned with “equal rights for women,” (and according to this book’s research, preferred the company of men to women).

……………When Nico states in an interview that her only regret in life was to not have been born as a man, you can tell she means it literally, more than making a statement on “women’s discrimination”.  An example of modern outrage towards the days of old is the common act of women artists, writers, who would change their name to a man’s name to get published and accepted seriously.  Clearly it isn’t right that that happened, yet the focus usually overshadows what is most important – the work itself.  I have always contended that any artist really worth their salt (equipped with some level of mental cohesion) knows the essential is the creation, and to get it out there – not your female sex.  Falsehood and grand-standing, show-boating publicity are not far apart from such hollow concerns.   Nico cared about her creative output more than perceptions, that is for sure.  As a true artist she knew that the person is just the medium for the message.   The premiere obsession is to get the art OUT into the world, not ourselves, and not our gender or race or nationality.  Nico is actually a man’s name, a name she kept proudly, and was absolutely fine with, rejecting her more feminine Christa birth name.

……………I purposely omit any of the stories that are in this book.  I can’t do it justice the way the author has.  But it is all there, the Nazi childhood, the disappointments that did actually succeed to break her, her loose tongue.  Nico’s amazing graciousness runs throughout – some of the things she had to endure (outside of the troublesome childhood), from friends, and musicians, including the properly demonized Lou Reed – yet nary a bridge did she ever burn, which is quite astounding.   The mere exception is her violent outburst at the El Quijote Restaurant next to the Chelsea Hotel, which she could have easily gone to jail for.  Perhaps her incredible victimization from the aforementioned and also from the music business fools, bubbling to the surface and exploding.  Although it isn’t too shabby to have the only person in this theatre to remain loyal and in love with you, be the biggest star, Andy Warhol. 

……………You Are Beautiful And You Are Alone is the best book on Nico ever, and as I say again, thankfully and magically given the highest profile.   I tried to imagine how she would react to this complete exposure of her life, being reviewed and considered in the world she could never break through to, and which nowadays is even more at odds with her lifestyle and the way she thought about things.  I think she would approve, and finally be happy with this telling of the truth, how it is understood and conveyed by Jennifer.  A masterpiece.

Roxanne Fontana is a British-based Italian-American singer/songwriter/recording artist.



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