Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Nico - The Marble Index

The Marble Index

AOTM #82, March 2007ce
Released 1968 on Elektra Records
Side One
  1. Prelude (0.50)
  2. Lawn of Dawns (3.12)
  3. No One is There (3.36)
  4. Ari’s Song (3.20)
  5. Facing the Wind (4.52)
Side Two
  1. Julius Caesar (Memento Hodié) (4.57)
  2. Frozen Warnings (4.00)
  3. Evening of Light (5.33)

Note 1: This review is written to celebrate the release of Nico’s 2nd and 3rd LPs THE MARBLE INDEX and DESERTSHORE, united on Rhino Records’ double-CD as THE FROZEN BORDERLINE, with extra songs and new versions of already released material. While I’m mainly out of synch with current music trends, it’s wonderful to be able to write about one of my all-time favourites at the same time as members of the press are celebrating her. However, I have chosen only to write about the original LP, rather than include the extra songs included on the new Rhino re-issue, as three decades with this record has made me too subjective to comment on the extra stuff, beautiful though it may be. Finally, many thanks to my darling wife Dorian for allowing me free access to the notes of her forthcoming book MISS X: THE MUSE IN ROCK’N’ROLL.

Note 2: This review is dedicated to Nico in her many roles: as the Artist, as the Muse, and as the Norn tending the well at the foot of Yggdrasil, whilst simultaneously playing the role of Groah the Goddess informing Odin as the traveller Svibdag. Hail Nico enduring, hail Nico forever becoming…

Pre-Nico '50s modelling days as Christa Päffgen

Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone

In the freezing winter mornings of late February 1978, my first wife would leave our one-room bedsit in Liverpool’s Prospect Vale at 7.15 am for her teaching job ninety minutes away, and I would throw this record on to our hairdryer-sized portable record player and do the few dishes with a single kettle-full of boiled water, and contemplate my possible future life as a full-time artist over a cup of hot sweet tea, clothed in t-shirt, pyjamas, two dressing-gowns, three pairs of socks and a night-cap. Layers, that’s what keeps you warm. Layers and a copy of Nico’s THE MARBLE INDEX. I’d scored it earlier that month from Dave at Liverpool’s Backtrax store for £2.50, and had to avoid the store thereafter once he’d found out how badly he’d underpriced it. I’d been a fan of Nico since the big hoo-ha that had surrounded the JUNE 1ST 1974 album/concert starring Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico and Eno, but (in those pre-reissue days) this particular LP was the grail, talked of in hushed tones by Velvets fans and owned only by thirty or less overly hairy hippy chicks who’d spent the free-sex days of the late ‘60s alone with their cats and Dion Fortune books. Was there ever an album like THE MARBLE INDEX released before or after? Why, what an absurd question… of course not. The moment I’d popped it on to the record player, any possibilities of a so-called real world had retreated so far away from our flat that even our ever-complaining landlady had not thought that the strange emanations coming yet again from the young punk couple’s room could actually have been music related. With no drums nor percussion, and precious little guitar, our pious landlady probably thought I’d been temporarily saved by some religious cult. Besides, on THE MARBLE INDEX, however eloquent Cale’s orchestrations may be, the mere presence of Nico’s voice guarantees that we are led out of the so-called real world far out of the city across uninhabited Scandinavian wastes1. Frame it within an environment informed entirely by John Cale’s damaged La Monte Youngian viola drones, his stentorian piano hammering, his Edgar Froese-like early T. Dream looped guitar phrases and his LORCA-like overly-recorded low end e. piano and you have a recipe for instant connection with the Gates of Hel (one ‘l’ – the North Myths’ variety). Furthermore, even without Cale’s contributions, THE MARBLE INDEX’s harmonium drones alone separated the record from every other LP released by a so-called rock’n’roll company, with the possible exception of Ivor Cutler’s mid-70s Virgin releases (which emitted a similarly disturbing religious Gothick charm despite their being marketed as being humourous). More out of time even than the Stooges themselves, Nico chose to name her second LP after a quote from a poem about the genius of Sir Isaac Newton by Northern England’s then-unfashionable mystical bard William Wordsworth:

“Where the statue stood of Newton,
With his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind forever,
Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone.”

As those who’ve lived in thrall of THE MARBLE INDEX’s singular genius will happily attest, no one – not even Nico herself – again reached the unfathomable and Nornlike depths that this artist formerly known as Christa Päffgen dredged up on her most soul-searching and heart-rending of records. Why, its magnificent follow-up DESERTSHORE sounds positively extrovert in comparison, coming over like the abandoned soundtrack to some lost D.W. Griffiths movie about the refusenik pharaoh Akhenaten. And even twenty-nine long years after scoring my own vinyl copy, even after having played it to death on an array of equally-battered hairdryer-sized buzz boxes in homes throughout England, still this record retains precisely the same level of mystery as it did on that cold, nay freezing, February day in 1978 when I first laid the needle upon it. Indeed, as I write this review in the (ironically bright sunshine) of late winter 007, I’ve insisted on listening to that original red Elektra label copy scored so long ago, and placed it upon the most portable and singular turntable affair located in our rock-gear-infested house. Nico’s harmonium playing on THE MARBLE INDEX was the reason I bought my own harmonium three months later, for £30 paid over six months in instalments of £5, writing grave elegies like The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘The Great Dominions’, ‘The Culture Bunker’, ‘You Disappear from View’, ‘Window Shopping for a New Crown of Thorns’, ‘Screaming Secrets’ and ‘Passionate Friend’, most of which would, in the studio, become superficially transformed into upbeat anthems, but whose underlying themes reeked of desperation, artistic doubt and loss. So why is this review so interwoven with my own personal experiences? With regard to my own relationship with THE MARBLE INDEX, there’s not a moment, an instant, a flicker of its bizarre Gothic Underworldly timelessness that does not/has not/will not continue to reduce me not only to tears, but to an amphibian wreck upon my own psychic ocean floor, because its drones, its dreams, its fantastic Germanic heroinism reveals Nico to have been far far beyond any archetype we have before experienced. And in as deeply patriarchal and homosocial an environment as rock criticism, it’s essential for someone as free of that bullshit as myself to come out fighting and raging and say… nope, Nico was not just the singer of three songs on the first Velvets LP, she was not just the lucky lover of Iggy Pop, Jackson Browne and Jim Morrison, she was way beyond all of that, a law unto herself, a Goddess, a Muse yes but also a lawmaker and a priestess. Just as the Jews symbolise the adventure into Monotheism yet were in reality a pursued and persecuted tribe of itinerant ex-slaves barely equipped to deal with such a ridiculously portentous conceit as Moses’ Akhenaten-informed concept of Jehovah, so Nico’s THE MARBLE INDEX was (despite being the summum bonum, the shit, the absolute zenith of all the artistic achievements made through the tryst between John Cage’s post-war musical experiment with super Zen and Andy Warhol’s obsession with the Jaynetts’ ‘Sally Go Round The Roses’) still an unfathomably unlikely candidate for such a title considering that its composer – barely one year before – had been unfairly written off as no more than a pretty-faced figurehead or passenger aboard her beautiful though over-produced debut CHELSEA GIRL, with its myriad contributions from superstar songwriters Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Jackson Browne and Tim Hardin. The Los Angeles Times review best captured its glorious failure: “It is a wanly beautiful collection of nice songs by great writers. It would be better if the songs were great and the writers nice.” For Nico herself, that debut LP had been a disaster (‘I cried when I heard the album’2), impossible to perform in concert, even if she had wished to do so, which she didn’t. Verve’s staff producer Tom Wilson had over-orchestrated the simple guitar songs and daubed flute willy nilly wherever he’d found a space (‘I cried because of the flute… There should be a button on record players; a “No Flute” button’3). Ousted from the Velvets and considered a royal pain-in-the-ass, she decamped to California briefly and met Jim Morrison, who saw her for what she really was, and pretty soon Nico realised that she must demand of herself what she saw in Jim and what Jimbo saw in her, saying later:

‘I thought of Jim Morrison as my brother… he is my soul brother. We exchanged blood. I carry his blood inside me… We had spiritual journeys together… We went into the desert and took drugs.’

Early days at Warhol's factory.

And so, from her musical beginnings within the supposed superficiality of Andy Warhol’s Factory4, the newly artistic Nico returned to New York from LA as a heavyweight artist replete with new harmonium chops whose drones were destined, nay cosmically designed to drive every future roommate to the edge of distraction. To the New York scene she’d so recently left, she must have appeared to have re-emerged as complete and fully-formed as Athena bursting forth from the head of Zeus, indeed just her rejection of stylish clothes in favour of monkish coveralls appalled the effete Warholians. Furthermore, that male rock’n’roll writers instantly looked to credit John Cale, Leonard Cohen, or absolutely anybody but Nico herself for this outrageously accelerated learning curve is highly understandable, but it is to Nico herself that the real glory must go. For even despite her soul brother J. Morrison’s recognition of her inner mounting flame, there never was any great patriarch to watch over La Paffgen – already ten years into her modelling career and used to having things done for her – as she contemplated how on earth to ease egression into the troubling and easily-capsized world of the itinerant, self-contained artist, as she carefully chose the correct instrument on which to write songs before finally buying that first harmonium from a San Francisco hippie in 1968, chosen because of its portability, its religious-sounding drones, its acoustic nature and (ultimately) because it meant ‘I do not have to rely on guitarists, who are unreliable people to work with’5. I’m sure almost no one in the world would have considered Nico to have been a pragmatic artist, but so she was, pedalling her beloved harmonium on stages across Europe and America, self-reliant and proud of it, pedalling out songs in a warm heroin-induced blanket in umpteen freezing candle-lit squats throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, ironically still pedalling when she died of a heart attack taking exercise on her pushbike in 1988.

The Recording of THE MARBLE INDEX

And so it was that, for her second album release, Nico took just one song (the enormously long ‘It was a Pleasure Then’) from her debut LP and built her future sound upon the interwoven drones of that sole track which had, somewhat righteously, burst into life from Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison’s sterling decision to jam over one of Nico’s own melodies. After the poor sales of her debut got her dropped from Verve Records, Nico was picked up by Elektra at the behest of Danny Fields, who persuaded Elektra boss Jac Holzman to put up the money for THE MARBLE INDEX. However, although it’s funny and seems nowadays vaguely criminal that John Cale was not credited as producer for this masterpiece, it’s fair to accept that the Elektra boss was rightly wary of two such East Coast crazies putting together a record, and was determined to bring them into his own orbit out in California, at least to be able to bring some kind of psychological proximity to bear upon them. That Holzman insisted on a producer like Frazier Mohawk, whom everyone involved with the LP has subsequently claimed had doodley squat to do with achieving its overall sound, may have been a clueless decision but I sincerely doubt it. For the simple truth of rock’n’roll is that a producer often achieves great results just by knowing enough to keep out the fucking way. To his credit, once Mohawk saw the empathy between Nico and Cale, he confidently chose to stand to one side and let them hammer though it all, later commenting that he and engineer John Haeny ‘just stood back and tried to document this wonderful little event as best we could’2. Moreover, we must also remember that John Cale was, at this time, no more than an ousted member of a failed rock’n’roll band, troubled, lacking in self-confidence and desperate to have a career in record production. Indeed, Cale himself saw this record as an important apprenticeship, a chance to shine in front of the hip dollar-wielders of the day, and its recording was what won him the production of the Stooges’ debut. Combining Nico’s new harmonium songs with Cale’s huge experience in the avant-garde field of John Cage and La Monte Young proved to be the kind of high artistic one-off success that happens only every few decades. On paper, THE MARBLE INDEX should have been arch and intolerable, with a former model singing songs in a foreign language to an ad-hoc backing of a one-man chamber orchestra. The truth was, however, nothing less than stunningly great. From the first moment of ‘Prelude’, with its bells, celeste and jazzy belltone guitars, THE MARBLE INDEX captures our hearts, as its weird mix of the atonal, the traditional, the novel, the folksong, the hymnal, the classical; everything collides to create in the listener the kind of disorientating and visionary dream state barely hinted at by 99% of so-called psychedelic records. Barely fifty seconds later, Nico is weaving her spells as the bizarre back-and-forth of ‘Lawns of Dawns’ edges into view, as she sings over harmonium and guitars:

‘Can you follow me?
Can you follow my distresses?
My caresses, fiery guesses?
Swim and sink into early morning messes.’

With the music gently, inexorably sawing through our melted plastic brains, Nico’s words appear at first to be vehicles for her voice and its sheer joy at being allowed to play with sounds and simple melody, no more than that. Yet, as we see with her phrase ‘early morning messes’, she dared to use words and phrases that only the most confident of artists would use (‘Janitor of Lunacy’ surely being her ultimate example). In truth, those words set up such a host of powerful dream images that the intoxicated listener clues into them as though they were part of some religious text; perhaps they are. ‘Lawns of Dawns’ is as lyrically unreachable but as poetically truthful as ’96 Tears’ and musically comparable only to the most out-there moments of Tim Buckley’s LORCA. Can you follow me? Yes, I think we can, but we don’t know why we are doing so.

‘He blesses you, he blesses me,
The day the night caresses,
Caresses you, caresses me,
Can you follow me?

Verse two commences with the incredible words: ‘Dawn, your guise has filled my nights with fear’, and the listener begins to see each lyric as the closing of one door and the opening of another, like death and life, night and day are constantly startling each other awake as this foreign, nay, alien priestess brings us closer and closer to the meaning of our own language by using it as pure sound. By the time ‘No One is There’ begins, we are captivated, slaves to this new world that Nico and Cale have created for us, as a string section heralds Nico’s description of yet another bizarre half-world happening:

‘I crossed from behind my window screen,
Nina’s is dancing down the scene in a crucial parody,
Nina’s is dancing down the scene,
He is calling and throwing his arms up in the air,
And no one is there.’

This is the world of dreams that Westerners have, for too long, been taught to ignore. Indeed, the early twentieth-century mystic and psychologist George Gurdjieff fought against sleep as though it were the greatest evil ever. And yet, as Nico’s powerful dream imagery reveals, the dream state is often as real as any waking world could possibly be. Indeed, if we are created to spend around a quarter of our lives asleep, is it not churlish of us to resent those hours spent in the land of Nod? Next, ‘Ari’s Song’ begins with the reedy pipes of Nico’s harmonium, as she once again embarks on as timeless a melody and refrain as even the hoariest folkie could summon up:

‘Sail away, sail away my little boy
Let the wind fill your heart with light and joy
Sail away my little boy

Let the rain wash away your cloudy days
Sail away into a dream
Let the wind send you a fantasy
Of the ancient silver sea.’

Now, she breaks the theme and makes her case for the dream state in the extraordinary middle-8: ‘ Now you see that only dreams can send you where you want to be’, and we can begin to reflect on this sad seeress whose last decades were spent scoring heroin in a cosmically daft cycle of narcotic dreams and physical pain. And yet the desperate truth is that no transcendental art can be made without those willing to walk at the edges on our behalf. As the great Hunter S. Thompson commented: ‘The edge? The only ones who know where it is are those who’ve gone over it.’ Side One closes with the kind of insane reckless piano that John Cale applied to his Terry Riley collaboration CHURCH OF ANTHRAX and not much else. Indeed, there’s not much in the whole of rock’n’roll’s canon of work that transcends ‘Facing The Wind’ for pure raw ritual sacrifice. Over a recurring harmonium drone, Cale’s mythical piano beast climbs out of its nest, baring its 88 black-and-white ivory teeth, and slowly slitheringly descends the Tree of Life as Nico, apparently chained to some unknown sacrificial altar, calls out:

‘It's holding me against my will and doesn't leave me still,
Amazons are riding out to find a meaning for the name,
My name in the rain - my spinning on my Name in the rain, in the rain

When did it begin? when did it begin?
Why am I not facing the wind?
My mother and my brother
Are facing the wind.
Why are they facing the wind?
Why are they facing the wind?

Side Two begins with the pastoral sounds of ‘Julius Caesar (Memento Hodié)’, in which Cale’s violas spiral and weave in and out of one of Nico’s most traditional, almost barrel organ-styled drones, over which she tells two tales simultaneously; Adam and Eve’s apple conjoin with the betrayal of Julius Caesar:

‘Amidst water lily fields white and green grows a tree,
And from the tree hang apples… not for you to eat.’

With its melancholy refrain of ‘Mirth, birth, reverie’, this song subtitled ‘Memento Hodié’ (In the Present Time), Nico brings to the present the power of ancient times with her wonderful line: ‘Beneath the heaving sea where statues and pillars and stone altars rest for all these aching bones to guide us far from energy.’ Then we are confronted with the most beautiful song that Nico ever recorded, ‘Frozen Warnings’ on which, John Cale’s years of John Cagean meditations were finally compressed into one perfect five minutes of pure Henry Flynt rural drone, as Nico tells her exquisite autobiographical tale of the friar hermit:

‘Friar hermit stumbles over the cloudy borderline,
Frozen warnings close to mine close to the frozen borderline,
Frozen warnings close to mine,
Close to the frozen borderline.’

When she sings of the ‘railroad station tracks’, the listener is immediately transported to some freezing frontier town in the Yukon, the parallel iron tracks creating an apparently arbitrary territorial break across the previously untamed landmass, as Cale’s tumultuous and cyclical guitar spits out like some over-caffeined back porch mandolinist aping Henry Flynt’s transcendental hillbilly utterings. The album then concludes with the cataclysms of ‘Evening of Light’, a song about a song, a song about HER song, describing in detail what is going on in this particular song. ‘Midnight winds are landing at the edge of time’, she intones, and could any lyric be more all-encompassing than that simple statement? As Cale’s cosmic shower of mandolins throw out shards of light to which he responds with angular overdubbed viola, Nico repeats the phrase: ‘Mandolins are ringing to his viol singing’. Gradually, over Nico’s child-like repeated melodies, Cale’s orchestration builds into a shed-building competition as he saws through a succession of violas with cartoon intensity, their gut strings transformed into an indignant and bucking pack-mule that finally submits to the cruel load of blankets that the mischevious Cale expects him to carry. The album grinds to its shattering conclusion in a Blakean sky of cosmic reverb and shuddering, juddering seismic plate-shifting.

Like Elvis, Nico sometimes drove the tour bus for the Velvet Underground.

‘My life follows me around’ (Nico)

For most of her old friends from the Warhol scene, CHELSEA GIRL was Nico’s only real solo record because it saw her successfully playing the role in which they’d always known her. The beautiful ‘50s model that La Päffgen had once been had easily adjusted to the superstar ideal. But on THE MARBLE INDEX, Nico became herself for the first time, declaring to her former manager (and manager of The Factory) Paul Morrissey: ‘I don’t want to be beautiful anymore.’ However, just as her obsession with dawn, doorways, borders and shorelines shows, Nico was the true female shaman of her time, a priestess of the doorway no less that mythic Ireland’s Bridgit herself: the troubled gatekeeper whose art straddled language barriers through sheer will power, straddled wide cultural barriers from the shallowness of fashion to the highest most redemptive art, a woman whose life wires were so un-insulated that she turned to heroin because it ‘made my good thoughts run slower and my bad thoughts go away.’ John Cale has commented about how her lack of regular timekeeping made her tambourine impossible to follow during Velvets shows and her lack of respect for musical rhythm so important to the artistic success of THE MARBLE INDEX. Once, during the album’s recording, when she’d showed up hours late on three consecutive days, Cale asked her what her problem with time was. She replied: ‘When I was working in The Actors’ Studio, Elia Kazan told me to do things in my own time. I took him at his word.’ In this corporate world with its increasingly Romanized scheduling, we can only be thankful for Nico’s singular attitude to time keeping. Throw away your time-pieces and embrace THE MARBLE INDEX.

  1. I’m sure Lou Reed dumped Nico not just because he wanted the glory of singing his own songs, but because The Velvet Underground was a determinedly urban sound, as evidenced by his dumping hillbilly drone violinist Henry Flynt as a temporary replacement when John Cale was out of town.
  2. NICO page 174, Richard Witts (Virgin Books 1993) Perhaps this Nico re-birth will justify the reprint of the wonderful biography that my old friend Richard Witts published on Virgin Books back in 1993CE.
  3. IBID, page 174
  4. Although Nico made her musical name while on the Warhol scene, Andy had picked her up after hearing her Immdiate Records single ‘I’m Not Saying’, produced the previous year, 1965, by Jimmy Page and Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham.
  5. IBID page 194, Richard Witts (Virgin Books 1993)
  6. Sleevenotes from THE FROZEN BORDERLINE (Rhino Records 2007)