THE LOW, GUTTERAL affirmative from the tall bedraggled brunette slumped on a barstool at the Honey Tree Pub was everything I’d been hoping for since moving to New York six months earlier. The corner bar/restaurant where I waitressed was conveniently located between a methadone clinic and the down-on-its heels Gramercy Park Hotel. Both attracted a certain sort of musician – and I was a fledgling music writer, looking for subjects. Imagine my shock when I spotted Nico slowly walk in the door and make her way to the bar. She’d just had her little cup of methadone and wanted cheesecake and amaretto on the rocks.
The dozen years since the legendary Moon Goddess fronted the Velvet Underground in 1967 had not been kind to Nico. Her long platinum hair was now a scraggly dark mane; her pronounced cheekbones padded with flesh, her sensual lips chapped. The sleek white pantsuit had been replaced by layers of earth-toned garments over a long skirt and blouse, making her look like a heavyset gypsy woman who’d spent too much time around a campfire. But still – she was Nico, with that deep monotone voice and thick German accent.
She came into the Honey Tree three times before I popped the question: “Can I interview you?” Nico looked at me blankly, sipping her amaretto, without asking where our interview would be published. A good thing – since I had no idea. The Honey Tree’s owners had a strict rule about fraternizing with customers, so I made a plan to meet her the next afternoon – my day off – and conduct our taped conversation at a loft where she was crashing. She’d recently been mugged in Union Square Park, she told me, and was broke. I gave her $20 from my tip jar.
A fellow North Carolina expat music lover, my friend Nancy, accompanied me to meet Nico – I was too nervous to interview her alone. Gripping my clunky audiocassette recorder, we met outside the Honey Tree on Third Avenue and 20th Street, and the adventure began. Nico wanted to stop by the Factory to see if Ahnnndy would loan her some money. My first-ever interview AND a possible meeting with Andy Warhol – Nancy and I looked at each other with excitement as we got into the small elevator that took us up to the latterday Warhol headquarters on Broadway at 17th Street. Trailing behind Nico like a pair of flunkies – trying our best to look cool – we were told that Andy wasn’t in that day. Nico, looking more forlorn than ever, turned back to the elevator and we followed without saying a word.
Our next stop was the Chelsea loft belonging to an avant-garde bassist where Nico’s mattress on the floor was surrounded by a few bags of belongings. We sat at an oak table, I pushed RECORD, and our Southern-inflected questions began: her part in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita?; her first 45 with Brian Jones and Jimmy Page?; the songs Lou Reed wrote for her, “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”?; her solo albums Chelsea Girl, Marble Index, Desertshore, The End?, her performances with former bandmate John Cale? I wanted to ask about her trysts with Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison, and a teenage Jackson Brown but thought it more professional to stick to the music. Most of her answers were short and vague, in that sonorous voice: “It was great” and “of course.”
When we told her we hailed from North Carolina, where we were certain her music would find enthusiastic audiences, she perked up: “Wasn’t that the place where the crazyman killed all his followers with the same poison that Hitler used?” It took us a few minutes before we realized she was referring to the Jonestown massacre, in Guyana.
That wasn’t Nico’s only misconception. “You know, the guy in the Clash who goes down on his knees? He is actually a Nazi,” she said. “What? You mean Joe Strummer? How could that be?” we asked in disbelief. “I performed on a Rock Against Racism show with them in London,” she told us. “And after it was over, I told him I liked their performance, and he said, “Oh, well, my heart wasn’t in it.’ So, seeee…that means he’s a Nazi.”
By now it was getting late, and we decided to go to a bar. Nico suggested El Quijote, the watering hole next door to the Chelsea Hotel, where she’d stayed in the old days. Nancy and I took barstools next to Nico’s and ordered her an amoretto. Her mood had darkened, but she still seemed game for our probing. I posed the question, “Nico, of all the things you’ve done in your life, what is the most meaningful to you?” “Giving birth to my son, Ari,” she answered without a moment’s hesitation. Earlier, she’d told us that she had Ari with French actor Alain Delon, whose mother was raising the child and refused to let Nico see him.
A few days later, on Halloween, Nico performed at the Chelsea’s Squat Theater, pedaling a harmonium and stopping between songs to ask for aspirin. “I have a headache,” she said. “Does anyone have a cigarette?” That was the last time I saw her. As for our interview, it was published in January 1980 in my friend’s underground ‘zine called The Heroin Addict.
A sad footnote: At age 49 in July 1988, Nico died from a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in a bicycle accident in Ibiza. By the time someone found her lying by the road and took her to a charity hospital, it was too late. A decade later, my chapter on Nico was published by Random House in a history of women in rock & roll.