The Frozen Borderline
By Wy Dot Com
The Frozen Borderline is a reissue of two of Nico’s most famous albums: The Marble Index, from 1968, and Desertshore, 1970, and remastered
What you get are, for Marble Index, the eight tracks, plus four outtakes, and then seven alternate versions; for Desertshore the eight tracks, and also six demos
Do we come to this record out of whimsical historical interest? Or is it in a search for authenticity: a unique voice, a unique vision, the experience of the times?
What we get in each case is something altogether unexpected. There are seemingly simple tunes, songs, where she accompanies herself on a harmonium. They have an ethereal quality, a Bergmaesque atmosphere. Existential expressionism. The effect could be studiedly avant gardish. The singing could remind you of a sketch by the singing divas ‘Fascinating Aida’ when taking off heavily teutonic, neureasthenic singers, from Marlene Dietrich to Cabaret singers.
But fellow Velvet Underground member John Cale orchestrates throughout; he ups the ante, and what he produces takes the records into altogether stranger places, at once more substantial, and also more disturbing.
Simple tunes, songs sung from a limited plangent chromatic palette. But the way Cale’s music plays underneath, its phrasings taking the top chords and inducting them into its own compulsive patterns, is what really lifts the recordings. There are broken bars, unfinished phrases. In Frozen Warnings and Evening of Light he takes you further and further out into strange territories.
So, is Cale a Svengali figure, like Warhol and Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground days? Is Nico a manipulated chanteuse, a creation of demonic male power? Did Bob Dylan write Visions of Johanna for her? Was it `Leonard Cohen introduced her to the harmonium?
Her angst is passive, she is not an aggressive musician; her lyrics do not take on the power-play of psychic misalignment. They express it; and that in its way can be just as effective.
Underneath her life at this period was heroin.
And so do these records just chart the damage that drugs do? Are they just…. Because we now know enough about drugs, heroin in particular, to know they are not facilitators of creativity. Drugs are the new insanity, romantic emblems of the freedom of imagination. Their reality, as with insanity, is the very opposite of romantic, or creatively imaginative. And heroin, drugs, are not conducive to authenticity; their landscape is derivative, they use the imaginative resources already inherent, they are not taken elsewhere by it. And that is what we look for.
Born in 1938 in Germany, her father dying in a concentration camp, she was brought up solely by her mother. Finishing school, enrolled at secretarial college; her mother arranged modelling opportunities for her.
What followed was a cameo role in La Dolce Vita, much film work. A meeting with Brian Jones of the Stones helped her move into circles she wanted more: opportunities for singing: New York, Greenwich Village when it was hopping. And then Warhol, arch manipulator.
And running, always running, as she admitted herself: never the same record label twice…. In a country split between occupying troops and defeated population, a girl must behave impeccably. But the psychological damage of that defeat pulls towards psychic disturbance. And also in the mix is a pull towards power, the victors. We only have to read Boll to feel the tone. (Christa Wolf is another matter, what happened in the East was altogether too weird.) Try Ingeborg Bachmann. The suicidal edge. The ‘Marble Index’ is “an artefact, not a commodity… you can’t sell suicide.”: John Cale.
But the crucial point is it is the combination of Nico’s ‘sound’ and Cale’s orchestrations, that make this special. Seperately they could not work. I remember seeing Nico as part of the Confessions of Dr Dream tour by Kevin Ayres and other luminaries, in 1974. She sang accompanied only by harmonium. Without the orchestrations the songs lack their particular, peculiar magic.
The outtakes on Marble Index are wonderful, deeply satisfying. Why, then, were they outtakes? It was thought the eight tracks were strong enough meat for any commercial venture. They had enough variation and depth to represent the venture. The outtakes were thought just too strong; maybe because two, Sagan Die Gelehrton, and Reve Reveiller are in German.
On Desertshore the sound is altogether more fuller, Cale brings in a delightful melodious piano piece on The Falconer, before becoming an electronic cello drone, resolving once again to piano. The songs are at their best when Cale takes us through the rigorous sonic landscapes. The meeting of Nico’s lyrics, tone and Cale’s responses, produce something truly unique.
And the other crucial point is that although heroin was behind Nico's making of these albums, John Cale did not use it. And Cale was the chief mover.