You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike review – the biography of Nico

A not always flattering portrait of the enigmatic Velvet Underground singer’s troubled life and legacy

In 1966, the artist Andy Warhol was booked to appear at the annual banquet for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry. Rather than give a speech, he brought along the Velvet Underground, the house band at his Factory studio, to perform instead. The evening marked the German model Nico’s first appearance with the band, which also comprised Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker. As diners tucked into their main course, “the Velvets started to blast, and Nico started to wail”, recalled Warhol in his book POPism. Factory gadabouts Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Malanga climbed on to the stage and danced with bullwhips, while two film-makers rushed into the room wielding bright lights and Super 8 cameras and began loudly interrogating startled attendees about their sex lives. The next day, the event – more art prank than performance – was written up in the papers, with the headline in the New York Herald Tribune declaring: “Shock Treatment for Psychiatrists.”

It was a pivotal night for Nico, whose presence and distinctive deep alto would raise the profile of the Velvet Underground and inject their shows with an otherworldly, melancholy glamour. It also forms a significant moment in You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone, the cultural historian Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s account of the life of Christa Päffgen (she adopted the name Nico in her late teens). Before joining the Velvet Underground, Nico had spent more than a decade working as a model and sometime actor – she appeared in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita after the director spotted her standing on the set and offered her a role on the spot. But while she enjoyed the lifestyle modelling afforded her, she objected to being intellectually patronised or regarded as a blank canvas, and was uncertain about the path her life should take. Though not all the members of the Velvet Underground were thrilled at her joining – Reed didn’t want her singing all his songs; Warhol said he wouldn’t manage them without her – she felt at home among artists and avant-garde musicians, and her year-long spell with the band launched a career that would occupy her until her death at 49 following a bicycle accident.

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