John Cale and others remember the fraught creation of Nico's masterpiece
“Danny Fields had been very close to the Warhol crowd and had introduced Jim Morrison into that circle and he came to me and said, ‘I think you should listen to Nico,’” Holzman recalls.
“Everybody knew who Nico was because of the Andy Warhol connection, of course. Warhol was a puppet master and Nico was one of the puppets who decided to break the strings. She wasn’t taken very seriously as far as I know as part of his ménage and I sensed she may be at something of a loose end. I had heard Chelsea Girl, her first album. It had a certain charm, but was very conventional. For me, that was a problem. I like to make records that shake things up and I thought Chelsea Girl was a very passive listening experience. This was an old voice singing young songs and although she did ‘These Days’ wonderfully well, I felt the uniqueness of her voice had been undervalued. I wanted to hear what more of what she had.
“So she came in, she brought her harmonium and just played. That’s how it happened. I listened to about seven tracks and I found it challenging. I didn’t think if we went ahead and made an album it was going to sell a lot of copies. I didn’t think it was going to sell at all. But I thought it would be worth making. Elektra was doing so well at the time that we were able to take risks and experiment. That’s what I did, took chances. People think record companies are only in it for the money. And yes, in order to keep doing what we were doing we had to make money. But it’s how you spend your money that’s important.”
“She came to Jac’s office on Broadway, overlooking Central Park, took out her harmonium and sang her songs, these weird songs with weird words and strange melodies that went nowhere… Jac listens and when she’s finished, he just says, ‘Fine. Let’s make an album.’”
Was Fields surprised?
“No. You kind of knew who the artistic aristocrats of the time were. And I was sure Jac would recognise Nico was part of that aristocracy. It wasn’t like I’d found her selling matches on the subway. She’d been in La Dolce Vita. She’d been on a record with Jimmy Page, produced by Andrew Loog Oldham. She’d been in The Velvet Underground. She didn’t come unannounced. But no-one could have been prepared for what she did that day in Jac’s office. The nerve of that, to sit there and play that stuff no-one had heard was amazing. Jac realised this was someone who was going to make jaws drop wherever she went.”
Holzman signed off on a budget of $10,000 with a recording schedule of four days in LA. Fields and Nico had wanted John Cale to produce the album, but Holzman nominated Frazier Mohawk, one of his in-house engineers.
“The only thing I knew about Frazier Mohawk was that he’d been a fire-eater in a circus,” Cale recalls. “But he was fine, pretty sharp and responsive to what we were doing. He usually left me alone to get on with it.”
Cale chuckles, the only word for it, when he’s told that Mohawk later said he’d spent most of the sessions getting high with Nico.
“That’s funny. I wouldn’t have known that because I was so busy. At least he kept her occupied.”
How much of an impediment was her heroin use?
“Well,” he says. “It’s never easy when someone’s using like that. You have to find the right tempo for doing things because they’re working under the clock that heroin puts you on. You know in four hours or whatever things are going to get uncomfortable and will get increasingly uncomfortable until they get fixed up. But you know that going in and just get on with things.”
They worked on a song at a time, finishing one track before moving on to the next, mixing the album as they went. They always started with Nico’s voice and the harmonium that she evidently had to play while singing.
“That was a problem right there,” says Cale. “The harmonium was out of tune with everything. It wasn’t even in tune with itself. She insisted on playing it on everything so we had to figure out ways to separate her voice from it as much as possible and then find instrumental voices that would be compatible with the harmonium track. We went in every day and did a lot of overdubbing after we’d recorded her. Some of the songs sounded fine for strings, so we’d do multiple viola parts, like a string quartet. Some of the songs were so short and so precise there was no room for embellishment. You just put a viola around them and that was it. Others needed a little more deliberation and pointing. For the more aggressive songs, the arrangements needed to be subtle but threatening at the same time. As an arranger you’re usually trying to take the songs and put a structure on them, but what I thought was valuable was when you took the centre out of the track and worked around the central core of the tonality and changes. That left you with a sort of floating free-form tapestry behind what she was doing, which is when things became more abstract.
“Most of the songs were based around one or two chords and my instinct was to keep the album away from drone and raga. It could easily have fallen into that very Eastern thing and she would have enjoyed that, I think. But I didn’t want to go that way. The West Coast was full of music like that.
“You couldn’t coach a performance out of her,” Cale says of the sessions. “She could only do things her way. It was more about getting her comfortable. That was the most important thing. She was sometimes baffled by what was going on and upset by it and made insecure by it. She’d never been in this situation before and wasn’t familiar with the recording process. She would just get lost, and this happened on every album we made together. She would lose track of where we were and if we spent any time trying to improve the balance between tracks she wouldn’t understand what we were doing and get bored and become convinced we were ruining it. She was a woman of few words but she could lay into you pretty effectively if she thought you were letting her down in some way or betraying her sensibilities. I think it was a good thing we only had four days to do the whole thing. It happened so fast, before she could blink the record was done.”