The Marble Index

Released 1969 on Elektra
The Seth Man, December 2001ce
“‘I was pretty much left alone for two days,’ commented Cale, ‘and I let her [Nico] in at the end. I played her it [“The Marble Index”] song by song, and she’d burst into tears. ‘Oh! It’s so beautiful!’, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful!’ You know, this is the same stuff that people tell me, ‘Oh! It’s so suicidal!’” -“Nico: The Life And Lies Of An Icon” by Richard Witts (1993, Virgin Books)

At first, I could never QUITE comprehend what exactly Nico was trying to do vocally the first time I heard her sing on “The Velvet Underground With Nico.” As much as I had immaturely deduced her voice to be low and flat to the point of a deadly monotone foghorn, I was entranced by the visual influence of her photos on the sleeve and gatefold of that infamous record that portrayed her as excessively attractive and altogether the distant, Teutonic ice queen from whose cheekbones fell a decidedly large pair of eyes, permanently pouting lips and flaxen hair to form a face so profoundly stark and beautiful it was beyond comprehension. Especially the photograph in the gatefold where, posed alongside John Cale and looking every inch a cruel blonde princess with little regard for insolence, her stern and arrogant beauty seemed to hold silent and unspoken punishments to all who dare cast their eyes in her direction.

As you can tell from the above, it is nearly impossible to discuss Nico without mention of her legendary beauty, one that was the very definition of the word ‘uncanny’ -- “exciting wonder and fear; inexplicable; strange.” For Nico WAS strange: a platinum blonde who dyed her hair strawberry blonde for Jim Morrison (and after his death, a permanent black), a German woman whose entire name was a Greek male surname and in essence, a girl who never had the chance to grow up hiding inside and behind the beauty of a stunning woman.

Nico’s singing is about as stark and beautiful as her face, and equally as aloof and enigmatic. Her albums waft into rooms like a series of dim, ghostly ballets or small nightmares that implode in your head and catch light in shattered fragments of wounded, European tempos which limp and sway to and fro around her strident and deeply enunciated voice which reiterate dramas from her memories -- Whether her mind roaming between the reality of her childhood in Germany during the forties and fifties and the fantasies she continually wove regarding her Russian ancestry while for most of the time, it seems that Nico had already took the advice of her one-time paramour Lou Reed and had already wrapped her troubles in dreams.

“The Marble Index” is a very unique album and is perhaps Nico’s greatest moment. It was certainly one of John Cale’s. Despite the fact Frazier Mohawk was named as producer, it was John Cale’s deft orchestrations that arranged and marshaled Nico’s voice and simple, non-electric Indian harmonium drones into a modal, Central European rendezvous of gothic hypnosis against her oblique lyrics’ terrifying acts of autosuggestion. Cale’s arrangement and production work created a field of vision either coaxing, others soothing and at times directly in contrast to Nico’s blindly stark songwriting. The songs swell like the tides, guided by lunar pulses rather than by any logical rhythm as they exist on a brutal, unforgiving plain of their own as they rock lullabies for forgotten dolls.

Cale thoughtfully blunts the opening of the album with a brief and gentle glockenspiel and piano instrumental, “Prelude” which cuts off and into “Lawn Of Dawns” with Nico’s harmonium of undulating motion weaving against her voice. “No One Is There” follows as a classical quartet of violas by Cale flurries here and there over lyrics in all probability influenced by Jim Morrison as she details in her low, controlled tones “Some are calling/Some are sad/Some are calling mad” as lush violas dart in and out austerely more in presence than definition as they accurately fit into Nico’s strange vocal tempo with perfect restraint and hold. “Ari’s Song” opens with gently pressed harmonium keys that emit clipped and whistling tones like the buzzing of locusts in tall reeds, now parting for Nico’s soft intonations as she sets her only child adrift in a little basket upon the gentle currents of a river. Nico reiterates a simple “Sail away/Sail away my little boy” as a somber farewell to her young son Ari (then currently in the custody of his father, the French actor Alain Delon.)

The terminally weird “Facing The Wind” follows, shored up by Cale-banged piano clusters, scraping of percussion or walls and off-beat tympani as Nico’s voice re-enters filtered through a Leslie speaker cabinet or window length gauze curtains or both. The harmonium pumping continues its windy somnambulistic toiling, fettered by the creaking of metal viola gears and Cale’s exhaustively strident piano banging out repetition through change as all Nico can ask is “When did it begin...why are they facing the wind?” while all I can ask is: ‘Is this territory The Velvet Underground would have been mapping out had they retained both of their European members?’

Side two opens with “Julius Caesar (Memento Hodie),” exhibiting Nico’s harmonium against a pale gallery of myth and gods as Cale’s viola needles into the low and massed drones of harmonium clusters. But on “Frozen Warnings” Cale shifts into a more harmonic mode to blend with Nico’s harmonium, creating a beautiful dream of the past within the slightly shifting and cracking crusts of his minimalistic viola. But if the whole album is a series of dreams, then the final song “Evening Of Light” is the absolute end of all dreams and into a frighteningly quiet and hypnotising End Of It All. The returning line “Midnight winds are landing at the end of time” continues its cycle as soon a circular building between a delayed pair of harpsichords and Cale’s short, staccato viola runs little by little to threaten the piece’s sanity at every point. Gradually, the viola starts to rear its head, gaining ground and sawing back and forth as and expansive field of wheat swaying wildly to the ensuing storm, its clouds growing black with rage as masses of tympani roar and clatter as more distant explosions than percussion. A final hammer blow to the head with repeated delay of the viola and...It’s over. Farewell.