If you’ve ever wondered what would be the best music to listen to at three in the morning with a toothache that can’t quite be killed by hydrocodone, I would recommend Nico’s 1969 album The Marble Index. Although it is grotesquely inappropriate for a beautiful Easter Sunday, today’s song, Frozen Warnings, comes from that album.
Nico had an incredibly charmed career. She was a model at 13, had a bit part in La Dolce Vita, was the subject of a song by Bob Dylan (“I’ll Keep it With Mine”), and had affairs with Dylan, Jim Morrison, and about a half-dozen other rock stars. Her fame will probably always rest on her striking beauty and the three songs she sang on the first Velvet Underground album. She merited an entry in The Rock Snob’s Dictionary published in 2005 by David Kamp and Steven Daly, which describes her thus:
Compellingly doomed German-born model (née Christa Päffgen) whose severe cheekbones, six-foot height, and natural state of nihilistic ennui inspired Andy Warhol to graft her to the Velvet Underground as a “chanteuse.” Though she sang only “three lonely songs,” as she put it, on the Velvets’ debut album, her thudding, off-key readings nonetheless winning in a spooky, Weimarish way, and the two melancholy albums she recorded after leaving the group, Chelsea Girl and The Marble Index, became Snob causes célèbres even before Nico’s suitably tragic death in a bicycle accident in 1988.
Elsewhere I described the sound of the first Velvet Underground album as that of “an iceberg on fire”. Well, it was Nico that provided most of the ice on that album. While The Velvet Underground and Nico was still a rock and roll album despite all its avant-garde touches, Nico never did rock all that well, and with The Marble Index she returns to her Teutonic roots (one a cappella song, included in the CD re-release, is called “Nibelungen”). “Melancholy” scarcely suffices to describe it. It seems more to come from a place above all emotion. If the world does end in ice, this album will provide the soundtrack. Rock critic Lester Bangs confessed to being frightened by it, but still pronounced it, “the greatest piece of ‘avant-garde classical’ [an oxymoron I hate, by the way, but that is neither here nor there] ‘serious’ music of the last half of the 20th century so far.” Well, I don’t quite know about that. But I agree with this description:
There are no cheap thrills . . . no commercials for sadomasochism, bisexuality, or hard drugs dashed off for a ravenous but vicarious audience- rather, it stares for a relatively short time that might just seem eternity to you into the heart of darkness, eyes wide-open, unflinching, and gives its own heart to what it finds there, and then tells you how that feels, letting you draw your own value-judgments.
Well, I don’t know about the last part about giving “its own heart”, either. This music is much too cold for a heart, but it nonetheless entrancing. The title comes from Wordsworth’s Prelude:
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.
What a wonderfully Apollonian phrase, “the marble index”. Mind, not heart, marking and indexing rather than feeling and empathizing, remote and forbidding, giving out “Frozen Warnings”. But Spengler, in Der Untergang des Abendlandes (usually translated as The Decline of the West), distinguishes sharply between the Apollonian and Faustian characteristics, and this music has much of the latter in it.
Germanic gods and heroes are surrounded by this rebuffing immensity and enigmatic gloom. They are steeped in music and in night . . .
So too with the singer of The Marble Index. Faust is all soul, and Apollo all body, because “Night eliminates body, day soul”. Perhaps this is brooding Faust describing what he sees when placed on the cold and airy heights of Olympus.