The day-to-day existence of Nico during her Manchester years resembled that of most heroin addicts: shooting up or trying to get gear to shoot up. She described herself as reclusive and lived in places with blood-splattered walls from syringe splats, which she shared with other local users and musicians including John Cooper Clarke. There were periods she would live off a diet purely of custard and would claim, with some pride, to go prolonged periods without bathing. Young feels that this period of perceived disintegration was not necessarily all sordid demise and the destruction of a talent but instead an extension of Nico’s redefined personality. She took pride in her greying hair, sagging skin and needle-marked arms because they were the antithesis to everything she had once been told she was wonderful for. “She seemed to be embracing the scars of time and addiction saying ‘this is who I am.”
As a result, in terms of writing and recording new music, the Manchester years were some of Nico’s least productive. But fast money was often required to pay for her heavy addiction, and a way to get that was by touring. Wise would organise shows in the UK, across Europe and even as far as Tokyo and America – something that could often prove problematic given the needs of Nico, as well as the needs of some of the other touring parties who had their own chemical needs and personality idiosyncrasies. Young remembers “a hopeless tour of the USA, playing clubs in the boiling heat of summer. No money. Nico withdrawing. Arguments and bickering, all in a car with the air conditioning switched off to save fuel.”
Both Young and Dowdall remember the repeating drawled line of “are we near the border yet?” coming from Nico when on tour and then a sort of pandemonium erupting: things being hidden and stashed, including in Nico’s underwear and in her anus. Young recalls even being given a handful of used syringes from her that he quickly had to throw out of the window into the nearby water before reaching border guards. “Her running out of smack at the wrong time – like before a gig – was always a big problem,” he recalls, “meaning one of us would have to go out and hustle for a connection on the street and inevitably get ripped off.”
On top of this, Nico and her manager had a volatile relationship on and off the road. Dowdall describes it as: “very complex and not entirely healthy, although both got a lot of positive things out of it.” Similarly, Young repeats this dysfunctional image. “Alan was a very intelligent guy,” he says. “He was also highly emotional. He developed a passion for Nico that was not reciprocated and this was a source of deep frustration for him. They had endless arguments. They lived by constantly tearing at each other like a crazed married couple. At the same time they were close friends. I would say that apart from Ari [Nico’s son] Alan was closest to Nico. I was never that close to her; my relationship was more professional. I realised early on that getting close to Nico meant sharing a propensity for addiction. Alan was a valium addict and his father had a chain of pharmacies. He understood the chemistry of need, he could facilitate. He responded to people who were ill, whether physically or psychologically. He went under the sobriquet of ‘Doctor’ and took damaged people into his care.”
Stella Grundy feels this dependency was a potentially damaging one at times. “As a child of the 1930s she did defer to men a lot,” she says, “allowing them to make decisions for her and not always the right ones. She would constantly be without enough money and of course heroin does not come for free. I actually think she just allowed people to control her like the drug. She was brave and talented and I believe lacked confidence and still felt she needed a man to help her when actually she didn’t. Her best work for me was her solo, playing the harmonium.”
Despite the savage addiction that controlled much of Nico’s existence, and the occasional shambolic and failing gigs in which her dark European music felt out of place with the shiny pop of the era, there were also moments of magic to be found. “She was actually really positive and encouraging to work with,” recalls Dowdall. “I remember playing with her and the mic was broken but Nico started to sing acoustically. Every hair on my body stood up. Her voice was huge and resonant with all the weight she carried. She also taught me instantly to deviate anything, she was a trooper – no mic, no problem.”
Nico and her band, the Faction, would make one last studio album, 1985’s ‘Camera Obscura’. The following year she made some significant changes in her life, as Young tells me: “In ’86 Alan persuaded Nico to go on the methadone programme, especially since her main reliable dealer had been busted and was in prison. I think this was a mistake. Methadone is a horrible drug, it zombifises people. I didn’t like what it was doing to her. I guess it made her easier to manage – no more running around to find a connection. Her health seemed to decline after that. We did a concert in Berlin at the Planetarium together and it was clear that she wasn’t well. She wanted to go to Ibiza to rest and review her life. I think she knew she was dying.” A short time later, in 1988, whilst in Ibiza, Nico did die, suffering a brain haemorrhage whilst out on a bicycle.
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