I had a great English teacher at school. His name was Brian Mitchell, or rather, Mr. Mitchell. He was funny, clever, inspirational and he kept good control of us grammar school boys. He was one of only about three teachers that I had that showed their humanity. When I decided to become a teacher, the main impetus for me was a thought that I could do better than most of my teachers. It’s interesting that I hardly ever had a conversation with any of them. I can remember about three conversations in six years between the ages of 12 and 18. One of them was with Brian Mitchell and it was a disappointing one. It was towards the end of the 5th Year when I had to choose my ‘A’ level subjects. I was told that my preferred choice of Pure Maths, Applied Maths and English would only be possible if I missed two English lessons a week. The Deputy Head told me to find Mr. Mitchell and ask if that would be acceptable to him. I remember walking into his classroom after school one day after school had ended and finding him alone at his desk, marking. I was frustrated to hear that he didn’t think it would be a good idea to miss two lessons a week. I had definitely decided on doing two Maths A levels but I hated the obvious third choice which was Physics. Of course, my choices were heavily influenced by the fact that I thought Brian Mitchell was a great English teacher (because he was funny and told jokes against himself) and I thought Ray Tucker was a terrible teacher (because he shouted a lot). Nothing to do with the subject. In the end I took Physics with Mr. Tucker who turned out to be a very good teacher and was brilliant at helping me organise my notes and get a decent pass. Nevertheless, it rankled that I couldn’t do English A level. I had this experience at the forefront of my mind when I was Director of Studies at Oakmeeds in charge of options and I always did everything I could not to disappoint too many children with their GCSE options.
What’s this got to do with Nico? Have patience, I’m getting there in a very roundabout way.
In my 3rd Year at Royal Holloway College, studying Mathematics, I studied 7 modules. The courses on Special Relativity, Astronomy and Astrophysics were way beyond my comprehension but Combinatorics, Control Theory and Graph Theory were genuinely interesting. However, the module that really caught my attention was “History And Development of Mathematics” which consisted of 2 essays of 5000 words each and 1 of 2000 words. This was the first time since studying Macbeth at ‘O’ level that I had cause to write an essay. (I suppose that this blog is another manifestation of my thwarted need to write more.) The shorter essay was on “The Genesis of Trigonometry”, one of the longer essays was called “The Moral Problems of Scientific Research” and the other one was called “The Marble Index”. Phew! I told you I’d get there in the end but I suppose I need to explain further.
In 1787, William Wordsworth enrolled at St. John’s College, Cambridge. From his room, he could see a statue in the quadrangle and when he investigated, he found out that it was a statue of Sir Isaac Newton created by Louis-Francois Roubiliac. Wordsworth composed the lines “Newton with his prism and silent face. The marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.” My third essay was on the life and works of Sir Isaac Newton and being a smart-arse, I thought I’d give my essay an enigmatic title.
Now, Nico may not have been one of the most amazing human beings in history (as Newton was) but using a reference to Wordsworth’s lines is appropriate. As Simon Goddard wrote, listening to ‘The Marble Index’ “remains an unparalleled musical voyage through the strangest seas of human thought. One to always be taken alone.”
Nico’s birth name was Christa Paffgen. She was born in Cologne in 1938. She started her career by modelling in Paris but fled to new York to avoid having to promote the products of Coco Chanel. She started appearing in films (including a minor role in “La Dolce Vita”) and also started singing. During the Sixties she formed close relationships with Brian Jones, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol who facilitated her singing 3 songs on The Velvet Underground’s first record. In 1967 she recorded a record called “Chelsea Girl” which I really like but she didn’t. It has been described as a chamber-folk record. There are lots of strings and flutes, produced by Tom Wilson, who had produced early Bob Dylan records as well as “The Velvet Underground And Nico.”
In many ways, Nico considered “The Marble Index” to be her first record. It was recorded with lots of input from John Cale who, at the time, was on the point of leaving The Velvet Underground. The boss of Elektra, Jac Holzman, didn’t trust John Cale to be the producer, so Frazier Mohawk (real name Barry Friedman) was nominally in charge although he admitted that he didn’t do much and was really an observer.
The sound of this record is unlike anything else. Nico had recently acquired a harmonium and this is the predominant sound on the record along with some truly original orchestration by John Cale who used piano, guitar, electric viola, harmonica, bass, glockenspiel, bells and a bosun’s pipe to produce a sound that is unsettling. I mean, that word ‘unsettling’ really doesn’t do justice to the sounds that you hear. Frazier Mohawk was quoted as saying “After it was finished, we genuinely thought that people might kill themselves. It isn’t a record you listen to. It’s a hole you fall into.”
John Cale described how he put the instrumentation together like this: “I would do track after track of instrumentation and every one would be totally different from the previous one. Then you’d play all of them together and make sense of what was left. What you had was really four independent parts. It was kind of a compositional technique, making sure you didn’t write conjunctive string parts. They were always working against each other. Each take, you didn’t have any idea of the centre of the song. They had an implied core and then a real core.”
Jim Morrison, of The Doors, whom Nico later called her “soul brother”, encouraged her to write her own songs. They were together in California in July and August 1967, often driving into the desert and experimenting with peyote. Morrison, who encouraged Nico to write down her dreams, read Mary Shelley, William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to her. In 1986 Nico said, “He taught me to write songs. I never thought that I could. He really inspired me a lot. It was like looking in a mirror then.” She began writing her own material; here is an example of her lyrics from “No One Is There”. “Across from behind my window screen/Demon is dancing down the scene/In a crucial parody/Demon is dancing down the scene/He is calling and throwing his arms up in the air/And no one is there/All of them are missing as the game comes to a start/No one is there”.
Simon Goddard described how Francois De Menil made a promotional arthouse film to promote the last song on the record “Evening Of Light” where Nico and Iggy Pop “act out a freakish pagan ritual culminating in a giant burning crucifix. It looked like ‘The Wicker Man’ on heroin. That’s to say, it looked exactly how ‘The Marble Index’ sounded”.
The magazine UNCUT described this record by saying that it is “one of that rare breed of recordings which, the better part of four decades later, still has no adequate comparison, existing in a genre all its own.” Can music truly be original? Obviously, everyone is the sum of their experiences but the unique meeting between Nico and John Cale produced an artistic masterpiece that will almost certainly never be repeated.