Life Along the Borderline - A Tribute to Nico
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- John Cale »
When it comes to the Velvets, I've always wanted someone to ask me: "Cale or Reed?" so I can say "Nico". Nico never reported back from slumming it in the demi-monde, and never claimed to be writing rock's answer to the Great American Novel; she amplified her nightmares of post-war Germany and invented worlds of her own. John Cale's line-up for tonight runs the risk of parading celebrity junkies to fetishize Nico-the-necrophiliac-fantasy icon, but maybe it does take heroin-survivors (…more charitably) to unpack Nico's extended metaphors, and her cryptic intentions: late-1960s NYC as the last days of Rome; the stars of the present as cold stone monuments in The Valley of the Kings.
The famous quote about The Marble Index goes: "it's only half an hour long, because any longer, and we'd have wanted to slit our wrists." Unsurprisingly, Cale eases us in with an MOR version of 'Frozen Morning' – the string section provides those familiar drones, bold enough to fill the hall, but as a foundation for a light groove; the 'frozen borderline', it seems, has relocated to Texas. Like Cale's version of 'Heartbreak Hotel' at Nico's last gig, the reading doesn't match the lyric, and the result is to neutralize the sentiment. Cale's a versatile collaborator, but his settings for "melancholic" and "Stygian" are several notches above most artists' settings for "laidback" and "bucolic". What's particularly un-rock'n'roll about this is it doesn't even offend.
The same, however, cannot be said for Pete Murphy** from Bauhaus. In the half-darkness, Murphy enters, tossing over-sized confetti onto the band-members. His Rammstein-style reading of 'Mutterlein' is excruciating and does as much for cultural relations as Basil Fawlty. The music, meanwhile, is a schmaltzy minor-key blues-rock with onanistic guitar. Sure, Nico's often claimed as the archetypal Goth, but this makes most sense when you consider her innovative proto-industrial instrumentation, and immersion in Romantic poetry; the fact she slept with Brian Jones does not make a Stones pastiche an appropriate tribute.
Nick Franglen, however, is the first to really enhance our understanding of Nico, instead of sanitizing a sound that's implicitly flawed, for being re-arranged. In the course of one song, the grand piano and clarinet bring out the classical prettiness of which Nico was more than capable – and then explode into a pandemonium of squeals, hammering and clattering, that constitute a total assault on the senses. Nico described Eno's contribution to The End (1974) as "bomb-noises" and this sounds like a rocket-attack. Thumb's up boys – no critical execution for you…
Immediately after, Cale returns to the piano, with a smiley Lisa Gerrard for a straight version of 'The Falconer' if-Nico-had-still-been-alive-and-healthy-to-play-the-RFH-in-her-60s. You know what? She'd have been magnificent. We'd have packed in, with or without the cult-figures. Next up: the Fiery Furnaces; admittedly, a band whose reputation as re-interpreters mystifies me (it's not hard to re-interpret 'Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Dah' now, is it?). Nonetheless, Nico interspersed her own intricate compositions with weird choppy little dittys, and the Siblings Friedberger make for a change of mood, even if it means squandering Nico's desolate vision of the end of time in 'Evening of Light' by making it into something so frivolous.
The highlight of the show, without question, is Liz Green. Taking on 'Ari's Song' (with its refrain "sail away, my little boy"), hers is the only performance that absolutely catches the mood of the original. It's haunted, it's harrowing, it's a trip in which you see your own death from a hundred angles. True, these are all meant to be re-interpretations, but when you hear something this close, you realize that remit's a potential cop-out, rather than necessarily being a challenge.
It’s as if these artists secretly prefer the Nico of Chelsea Girl. Take Mark Linkous – looking suave in his Reservoir Dogs outfit, and cowboy hat – if anyone knows how to set Romantic poetry to fragile music, it's him; plus, there are echoes of Nico's story in his own: 4 albums in 13 years due to heroin; temporary brain-death; depression. Thing is: he doesn't want to raise those ghosts, and he's earned the right not to. His arrangement resembles 1980s Pink Floyd, with female backing-vocalists & "seagull" guitar, and this is the point I realize darkness is a young man's (or woman's) game. Still, Mark Lanegan can Bring the Evil. With his cavernous voice he more than does justice to 'Roses in the Snow', and recalls Nick Cave's epic cover of 'All Tomorrow's Parties'.
The effort put into this tribute is stunning, the RFH looks splendid, but the best thing it does is to remind you how reluctant most people are to touch what's at the core of Nico
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