Nico: Songs they don’t play on the radio

James Young

I remember reading a book about the hemispheres of the brain in which it tried to explain why people recall disasters more vividly than triumphs. Imagine, it said, skiing down a slope. When it’s going well, you’re basically acting and reacting intuitively, using the non-analytical responsiveness of the right brain—going with the flow. Your memories of this are fragments blended together by a general feeling of exhilaration. But as soon as you put a foot wrong and crash (more often than not because you’re left brain has intruded with a bit of inappropriate self-consciousness), your awareness suddenly becomes governed by the precise, slightly ‘removed’ clarity of the left brain. You recall every detail, even the texture of the bark on the tree you’re heading towards.

Perhaps this is why true accounts and autobiographies are often interesting in direct proportion to the amount of disaster and catastrophe they describe. People remember these events vividly, making for better yarns.

But what if, going back to the skiing example, you crashed into a few trees on the way down, and eventually, cursing under your breath, you gave up, dejectedly walking the final stretches? Although this book is from another person’s perspective, it basically relates the period of Nico’s life that corresponds to such a prolonged, often tedious calamity. James Young, recruited into playing keyboards in Nico’s backing band by an old school friend, manages to vividly portray the last decade of Nico’s life through sensitive, sentiment-free observations of the minutiae of life in a dead-end rock band. The stubborn, introverted singer is presented, her many warts and all, in ways that both undermine and underline her popular (?!) image.

She’s first and foremost a junkie, with all the narrow-mindedness and lack of dignity this entails. As soon as she gets a video player, she watches endless cut-ups of open heart surgery and Apocalypse Now. She knows no jokes. Yet in reading this literate, precisely but warmly observed account, you follow Young in developing a fondness for Nico that comes from day-to-day familiarity. Her final years, marked by a curious surge of optimism (she began writing her autobiography) and a pointless death, are made all the more poignant by this cumulative endearment.

Besides the expected lyrical disaster, the book is often hilarious. There really aren’t that many great accounts of almost unheard-of tours by almost-famous has-beens (or “famous, not popular” as a Japanese promoter put it). Combined with the distance of time we now have from it—and of course the distance of it all happening to someone else—this diary of near-unmitigated squalor and constant mishaps is often farcically comic.

Young’s intent may be somewhat cynical, but this is a great little anti-tribute to a fascinating (and, now, more human) icon of romantic doom.

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