“The Marble Index” by Nico - album review

features in: Album Chart of 1968Album Chart of the Decade: 1960s

TJR says

The sound of desolation row this may well be, but it’s a compelling, beautiful work of art nonetheless. In 1968, the nomadic chanteuse had found her way to L.A., and, from out of nowhere, had taken to writing her own poetry and had acquired a harmonium – this strange-tasting cocktail would mark her signature sound for the rest of her career. Nico’s medieval motifs, foretold in 1966 with her contribution to those VU singles, are explored and fully realised here on “The Marble Index”, the first time she has been granted the freedom of expression that she has been craving. For the first time, these are all her own compositions, albeit partly influenced by her encouraging “soul brother” Jim Morrison. She is out to make a serious artistic statement, evidenced immediately with the very title of the record, taken from Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”, a century and a half old: “with his prism and silent face / The marble index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”

In September ’68, the very same month that John Cale was ousted from the Velvet Underground, the classically trained adventurer set to work on his next project without skipping a heartbeat, having been invited to fly out West to produce Nico’s second solo album. Here we have the ostracized Europeans together; both having been cast adrift from the Velvet Underground. As a result, “The Marble Index”, perhaps the purest bohemian sound of the 60s, dares to go where Lou Reed could not; back in time, way back, where the ghosts of Budapest and Zagreb death-waltz amongst the plague victims. John Cale comes across as a dream producer for an artist. He recognised that it was impossible, counter-productive even, to push Nico down any particular path. He rolled as long as it took for the poetry to flow, and let Nico’s beat-up, out of tune harmonium find its own unique voice. He instinctively knew just when to add the faintest touch of viola, and when to step up the aggression. They needed each other and really had to trust each other to get the end result which was achieved – Nico was still haunted by, what she perceived to be, a studio betrayal on her preceding “Chelsea Girls” LP, unrepresentative of her vision. This time around, she needn’t have worried.

Talking about the final arrangements, John Cale revealed: “I was pretty much left alone for two days, and I let her in at the end. I played her it song by song, and she burst into tears. ‘Oh! It’s so beautiful!’, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful!’ You know, this is the same stuff that people tell me, ‘Oh! It’s so suicidal!’” I feel her joy right there. “I’d be disappointed if anyone who listened to The Marble Index properly only heard the dismay” says Cale. “For me, it has a thrill about it. There is something going on that’s inexplicable. You never know what’s coming next. ‘Evening Of Light’ is thrilling, majestic in a way. It has the grandiosity of Carl Orff. The Marble Index makes more sense in terms of advancing the modern European classical tradition than it does as folk or rock music.” No-one can take it away from Nico and John – they worked great together, a wholly unique concoction, each with vital roles to play.

In her personal life, Nico’s heroin use was making things difficult for herself and those around her. A great poignancy surrounds “Ari’s Song”, the song she wrote for her only son, Christian, who had recently been placed in the custody of his Dad, French actor Alain Delon. As she sets him adrift in a little basket she moans: “Sail away, sail away my little boy, let the wind fill your heart with light and joy, sail away my little boy” It’s been described as “the least comforting lullaby ever recorded” and, whilst there may some degree of humorous truth in that, Nico is as honest and true as ever. I almost get the sense that she envisaged this as a final farewell, a postcard from the future. Those who would condemn Nico as heartless would do well to pay closer attention – she was a troubled soul. A drunken altercation in which she stabbed a woman with a wine glass, led to her having to flee America for her own safety. “It was typical” says Cale of her flight into European exile. “She’d get somewhere she always thought she wanted to be and the next thing you knew she’d be somewhere else. That was Nico all over.”

The Jukebox Rebel

A1 [01:00] 5.5.png Nico - Prelude (Christa Päffgen) Contemporary Classical
A2 [03:11] 6.6.png Nico - Lawns Of Dawns (Christa Päffgen) Avant-Garde
A3 [03:37] 8.2.png Nico - No-One Is There (Christa Päffgen) Contemporary Classical
A4 [03:21] 5.2.png Nico - Ari’s Song (Christa Päffgen) Avant-Garde
A5 [04:55] 9.3.png Nico - Facing The Wind (Christa Päffgen) Avant-Garde
B1 [05:02] 6.4.png Nico - Julius Caesar (Memento Hodie) (Christa Päffgen) Avant-Garde
B2 [04:02] 7.5.png Nico - Frozen Warnings (Christa Päffgen) Avant-Garde
B3 [05:40] 10.0.png Nico - Evening Of Light (Christa Päffgen) Avant-Garde

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