There’s a long-standing view of Nico as doomed heroin(e), producing records that make Closer and Pornography seem light-hearted by comparison, and almost too difficult to listen to. The reality is that -while the records may make for a disturbing and uneasy experience -there is also a dark, tragic beauty to the records. Even if she hadn’t died in the late 1980s (as the result of a brain hemorrhage, not heroin as is sometimes incorrectly believed), these albums would still bewitched and bewilder.
Much of the sound is dominated by the harmonium, which defined the Nico sound from The Marble Index onwards (she didn’t care for the sound of her debut, Chelsea Girls). In addition, the production of John Cale and the musical contributions of Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera (then closely aligned with Roxy Music) make for an album that is far more intense than The Marble Index or Desertshore.
If ‘Janitor Of Lunacy,’ which opens Desertshore, is about The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones (once her lover), then it’s the ghost of another lover, The Doors’ Jim Morrison, which haunts this record. ‘You Forgot To Answer’ tells of her misery trying to reach Morrison by ‘phone, only to discover he had died. And her reading of The Doors’ ‘The End’ is a million miles away from the Doors’ original. If that is now -let’s face it-coloured by its’ use in Apocalypse Now, then Nico’s version is from an as yet unmade film, sung in a decaying German hotel, where Nick Cave serenades angels* and where Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are trying to confront their hideous shared past through S&M.**
Another shadow hanging over the album is the inclusion of ‘Das Lied Der Deutschen,’ the German National Anthem. Nico does indeed sing the ‘uber alles’ verse -but interestingly, for those who worry about Nazi associations, this was usually dedicated in concert to Andreas Baader, leader of the Red Army Faction.
As well as the original album, there’s also Peel session versions of the tracks, and performances from London’s Rainbow in 1974. Listening to these straight after may be too intence for many, but there’s no doubt that these are not mere filler.
A frightening, but utterly inspired and still strikingly original album, nearly forty years since its’ first release.
The End is out now on Universal/Island.