Coco Chanel famously said once, ‘Elegance is refusal’ – a comment that reflected her belief that to be truly elegant you needed to remove an item, a piece of jewellery, perhaps, before going out in public. But this notion also reflects something of the Parisian psychic milieu Chanel came to represent where notions of control and self-control are enacted daily, and come to filter your consciousness of what is valuable and important. To be elegant is to be under-stated; to refuse (excess).
I always think of this comment when listening to Nico’ s cover of the Bob Dylan song, ‘I’ll keep it with mine’ – but this quality of refusal is, I’d suggest, something that more broadly defines her as a performer and artist. It’s impossible to under-estimate the pressure the former model and Fellini film-star, Nico would have been under to use her beauty to promote her art, to make herself accessible and how this pressure might have flowed on to the creation of her music.
But if you watch films of Nico from the 60s, she is nonchalant and absent, almost. She is not playing the game, perhaps she doesn’t even notice that ‘the game’ is there.
There is always something challenging about Nico’s music, some thought behind it. Such intellectual foundations can make her music 'difficult' and rarely easy listening, but her music always, always carries the imprint of her character: it’s unmistakably her. I admire Nico’s insistence that we hear her music, as she wanted it, on her terms. The irony, of course, is that during post production for Chelsea Girl the excessive and corny string and flute overdubs were added by the album producer and arranger, without her consultation or agreement.
In 1981, as Nico said in relation to the album:
My description above makes Nico seem rather fierce – words I would prefer to use regarding her are austere, or serious – but what transforms this song is an unexpected softness that comes through, alongside a naïve simplicity. Such qualities are not often associated with Nico, or her oeuvre (understatement alert).
This naivete comes partly from the lyrics especially the verse that has the children’s nursery rhyme aspect: ‘The train leaves at half past ten/But it'll be back tomorrow same time again.
The conductor, he's weary,/Still stuck on the line.’
I have no idea what that means, or why it was included as it has no apparent connection with the rest of the song, but I like it. Similarly, I have spent a long time thinking about the lines ...
‘If I say I'm not loving you for what you are
But for what you're not.'
trying to understand what it means; to love someone for what they are not? How would that work, in practice? Would it mean loving something that only ever exists in the abstract, as an abstraction, in that it is not linked to the person who exists?
The surprising feeling, I mentioned comes through the way Nico sings this song, the way she softens certain words, most notably I, as in ‘but if I can save you any time’ and later at around 1’52, when she sings the same line it’s the same effect, she really sounds sincere here. This feeling also comes through in the eccentric phrasing at the end of the lines where it becomes all loose (will help yo-ou; some people are ve-ery ki-ind etc).
I also love the way Nico sings one of the greatest lines in any 60s song ever: ‘I can't help it if you might think I am odd’. She sings it in such a serious way it always makes me smile. She is so resolutely not wanting us to think she is trying to win us over here, but this refusal makes her seem even more charming.
Overall the effect is that Nico is stating the song, not singing it. She is not trying to convince us, or the subject of her attentions and this kind of non-performance is what I like about it most. Unlike Janis Joplin entreating and beseeching, or French stars, such as Françoise Hardy playing the coquette, with their soft-lilting little-girl voices and demeanour, Nico’s presence is her true gift. She says simply: here I am, this is me. For me this is true.
Not everyone has the same point of view, of course, there are lots of negative comments about Nico under her videos, most of them making churlish comments about her voice, being out of tune or whatever it might be. But again, if we accept her as an artist with all her talents and limitations, such comments are a bit off-mark, as it is the imperfection that makes her seem authentic. All of this reminds me of the Japanese appreciation of ceramics that were broken, or somehow damaged:
Kintsugi (金継ぎ?, きんつぎ, "golden joinery"), also known as Kintsukuroi (金繕い?, きんつくろい, "golden repair"), is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e technique. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.
“Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated... a kind of physical expssion of the spirit of mushin....Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. ...The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identiﬁcation with, [things] outside oneself.”
— Christy Bartlett, Flickwerk: The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics
(This song always makes me think of an Australian song by Paul Kelly ‘You can put your shoes under my bed’ which while not of the same ilk, I mean it is much simpler - it is a rather basic pop-song in many respects - has a similar feel about it for me. Perhaps this association comes through the delivery or the short sentences, I’m not sure. Yes, I know the sound of this song is a bit ‘dated’ and the saxophone is a bit, well … not my kind of thing, but still, it is moving. Now being so far away from Australia and for so long, I often find myself listening to music like this; music that is far from impressive in terms of my reputation as someone with the hardcore/discerning tastes of someone who writes about music, let’s say.
But the direct simplicity of this music offers me comfort. This music reminds me of houses dark, with no light in the middle of a summer’s day; wooden floorboards shining almost in the half-light, and me lying there as a small child feeling the cool against my bare legs, always so amazed at the impression of endlessness and space all around me, waiting for my name to be called, so that I might rejoin the others).