Leonard Cohen’s Recommendation To Nico
While there is no public proclamation by Nico analogous to Leonard Cohen’s Prince of Asturias Awards Speech, in which he tells the “story of how I got my song,” expressing his gratitude to his guitar teacher for playing a key role n that process, that acknowledges Cohen’s contribution to Nico’s music, the Canadian singer-songwriter did make a specific recommendation that significantly influenced the sound of the Andy Warhol superstar once known as Christa Päffgen.
That suggestion is described in this excerpt from an album review of Nico – Frozen Borderline 1968-1970 by Andy Gill (Uncut, publication date not given):
Part of the inspiration for the album [The Marble Index] came from another ex-lover, Leonard Cohen, who encouraged Nico to take up the harmonium, the pedal-powered keyboard instrument whose wheezing drones would subsequently underpin all her future work, and which furnished a suitably haunting, miasmic base for her own compositions.
Brian Dillon, writing in Nico (Frieze,Issue 107, May 2007), elaborates:
The genius of these albums [The Marble Index (1968) and Desertshore (1970)] consists in Nico’s having found a sonic palette that very nearly replicates the voice, an instrumental mirror for her stentorian vowels and long, lifeless sibilants. On the advice of Leonard Cohen (who knew a thing or two about playing to one’s weaknesses), Nico had taken up the harmonium: it wheezes and yawns in perfect consort with her desiccated vocals. It’s that sound, allied with a certain limited array of lyrical tropes, that has given The Marble Index, in particular, a reputation as one of the bleakest records ever made.
Nico And Her Harmonium
Wikipedia provides a helpful summary and photos of the instrument:
A harmonium is a free-standing keyboard instrument similar to a reed organ. Sound is produced by air being blown through sets of free reeds, resulting in a sound similar to that of an accordion. The air is usually supplied by bellows operated by the foot, hand, or knees.
In North America, the most common pedal-pumped free-reed keyboard instrument is known as the “American reed organ”, (or “parlor organ”, “pump organ”, “cabinet organ”, “cottage organ”, etc.) and along with the earlier melodeon, is operated by a suction bellows where air is sucked through the reeds to produce the sound. A reed organ with a pressure bellows that pushes the air through the reeds is referred to as a “harmonium”. In much of Europe, the term harmonium is used to describe all pedal-pumped keyboard free-reed instruments, making no distinction whether it has a pressure or suction bellows. In India, the term generally refers to a hand-pumped instrument.
Nico played a portable, hand-operated Indian version.
Nico’s harmonium was fittingly customized; note the bottle at the foot of the instrument in the photo on the right.
Leonard Cohen Protects Nico From Injury
Regardless of ones valuation of the impact of the harmonium on Nico’s musical oeuvre, Leonard Cohen did at least prevent possible harm to her. In Nico’s show at the Free University in Berlin, she made the mistake of singing Deutschland über Alles, causing a riot. Fortunately, her harmonium shielded her against the hailstorm of beer bottles.1 If Cohen had instead recommended she play, for example, a piccolo, musical history might have been forever altered.
Video: Nico On Harmonium Live 1987
Other Posts Featuring Nico
Leonard Cohen recounts a long list of unrequited efforts to court Nico; the concluding lines of two of the stories he tells about attempting to woo her are telling:
Nico hauled off and hit me so hard it lifted me clean off the bed.2
Nico eventually told me, “Look, I like young boys. You’re just too old for me.”3
More about their connection can be found at
- Ambushed In New York, Leonard Cohen Meets Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, & Aryan Ice Queen Nico
- Leonard Cohen, Gerard Malanga’s Poem, And The Andy Warhol Scene
- That Leonard Cohen Article With His Romanian Girlfriend Michelle In The Opening Photo
Credit Due Department: Photo atop post found at Graham-Russell Blog. Photo featuring bottle-equipped harmonium by Serge Dumonteil. Found at StevieDixon.com. The photo to the left of the Serge Dumonteil photo is from Wikipedia._____________________
- Nico: The End by James Young (Overlook, 1st edition September 1, 1993) [↩]
- See That Leonard Cohen Article With His Romanian Girlfriend Michelle In The Opening Photo [↩]
- See Ambushed In New York, Leonard Cohen Meets Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, & Aryan Ice Queen Nico [↩]