LP: The Velvet Underground & Nico by the Velvet Underground (and Nico)
1978 Verve Records V6–5008 V6/5008
Favorite Track: Heroin
*Obviously, the Nico in this story is not the real Nico (who has been dead for 26 years now) but a nickname
The autumn air had a touch of frigid winter wind to it. I adjusted my coat lapels, put down my empty glass, and looked at the unfamiliar faces sitting at the table with me. I had seen many of their faces before: the round jovial face of a chanteuse, the unshaven, baggy-eyed Warhol model, the short haired girl whose voice always reminded me of Brooklyn even though I have never been there. We were laughing and the empties were stacking up. They had grew up together since high school. I was hoping my boyish face was betraying my old age. I stood up to buy another drink, opting to run up the stairs to the main bar counter. There I would meet Nico. Had I gone up those stairs to meet her without knowing it? Was it pure chance? Did she follow me up or had stayed rooted in spot waiting for my chance return?
I had ordered when I felt that invisible weight of somebody’s eyes upon me. I turned my head to the left, my eyes catching sight of a woman standing with her feet apart, grey tweed jacket thrown over a strapless dress the color of malachite. Her head was cocked to one side causing a strand of blond hair to fall in front of her smudged glasses. Her eyes looked at mine. My first impression was she had seen me before but I was not sure how or when. I turned my body toward her as I asked, “How is your night going?”
“It’s my birthday,” she said with the casualness of a movie star stating their profession.
“What would you like to drink?” and ordered her cocktail to be on my tab. (Funny how vivid this memory is, yet some small details have drained away like rainwater sinking into the sand.)
Nico introduced herself as a new graduate student in Classics. She didn’t have any friends in this area and she was at the bar with a male classmate with a rakish reputation. I wished her a wonderful night and walked back outside to join the table of strangers I was making friends with. I was whistling a Velvet Underground tune, but I won’t tell you which one.
The next time I met Nico was on the street and we exchanged numbers. It seemed as innocuous as it did naughty. I hadn’t been with a lover in a while and an organic intuition told me the same about her. When she walked into the coffeehouse a couple of days later, a femme fatale power strut with a slight clumsy gait to it (although the sidewalks in the Gaslight District are not known for their evenness), I understood we were going to be together. She knew when she offhandedly mentioned Stuart Gordon and I said Reanimator was one of my favorite movies. Food and drinks paid for, we walked the length of Ludlow sharing what we felt comfortable to share. I learned she had alienated herself from her classmate by getting drunk in front of them at the first social outing. I explained my friends and I were a riot of weirdness and depravity. She talked about how influential her former professor was in her current studies. I talked pipe dreams about Dostoevsky, Kafka, Robert Anton Wilson played upon my writing. The cloudless sky darkened into a royal purple.
We were hungry and ate at an Indian restaurant sharing some Saag Paneer. One of my deepest and most private of dreams was coming true: Nico was moving past platonic friendship with ease as if our bodies already had an unspoken agreement to intersect, overlap, divide. I drank deep the experience. Every color seemed more intense, the sound of our voices flowed along in symphonic harmonies, the wind was sharper. Standing in front of my apartment, I knew what intentions hid behind those clear glasses always stained with fingerprints. I chanced it. Told her I would call again. It seemed too soon.
In the next week, if we were the real Velvet Underground and Nico (would I be dangerous front man Lou Reed, the cool intellectual John Cale, versatile Sterling Morrison, or steady, dependable Moe Tucker, I guess she would have to decide) we were to record our first single “Sunday Morning”. A synergy between us intensified our bond, pushing and heightening itself well past normal experiences. She held my hand during neighborhood walks; I held her upright at the bar. At first with patience then with love, she attended Mystery Science Sundays with me; I awkwardly stood silent by her side at Grad parties. At night, we would make shadows across the television screen. She moved in her toothbrush.
We toured our inner psyches and pushed boundaries with our physical selves. Maybe alcohol was the most to blame for tensions creeping into our conversations, spoiling emotional connections, and anesthetizing romance. We rarely fought, a blessing really for both of us could be ornery. Occasionally, I touched a raw nerve or she supplied the snide commentary. For a long time, she had fought the label of couple even though nobody who knew us or saw us would claim otherwise. Then, at its rapidly deteriorating end, she clung to it like a buoy bobbing in a swirling ocean. Seeds had been sown and once I came to accept them, then I had to reap the consequences. I had never broken up with someone before and it is an experience I hope not to repeat often. Nico remained brave to the very end even as she fled in haste from my apartment. I watched her awkward gait I had come to secretly enjoy with a staleness in my mouth.
There is much more to this story–a whole complex history of ludicrous lore, intoxicating art, fuzzy feedback blowing out amps songs, 4thy of July and other parties, solitary nights wondering what the other was doing. But this is not the place for all of that. This is not a confessional or a casting of the stones. The real Nico only sang with the Velvet Underground for two years before leaving for her own solo career. This is an opening track, perhaps a slice of life, the beginning of sound to an album you buy at a record store for 5 dollars and carry with you for 8 years. Time and hindsight has contaminated some of the memories despite my urgency to represent them as precisely as possible. There is more to say, perhaps in the future I will, perhaps not. I just wanted to capture that special moment when the unexpected happened beneath the veneer of the mundane: an encounter at a bar acting like the first sentence of a book composed of so much vital life.
I am humming a different Velvet Underground song (or maybe the same) and still I am not telling.