“The Chelsea was like a dollhouse in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe” – Patti Smith in her book “Just Kids”.
Opened in 1884, this red brick landmark in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, became home to many of the twentieth century’s most innovative thinkers, writers, musicians and artists.
Among many others, The Chelsea was the place chosen by writers like Jack Keruouac, William Burroughs, Dylan Thomas, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan, who all lived and wrote there. The history of the Chelsea is something we’ll come back to another day. Along with the occupants listed above, those whose names are the most easy to recognise, or look good in the tourist brochure, two of the most extraordinary and interesting residents are often left off the list. Patti Smith and Nico.
From the early 1970s, Patti and her then lover Robert Mapplethorpe lived at the Chelsea, photographing, writing and painting, and in the evenings they would frequent shows at both Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs. Smith was yet to make a record, she was primarily a poet, but it was during this period that she had started to experiment with performance, and her place on the spectrum which ranges from spoken word to all out rocker.
Nico’s modelling career began in 1954 when she was just 16 years old. Magazine features for Vogue, Elle and other major fashion magazines led her into film work including with Fellini (La Dolce Vita) and Serge Gainsbourg with whom she recorded the title track of the French film Striptease in 1963.
Moving to New York City in the mid 1960s, as a model and an actress she kept company with people like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. By the mid 1960s Nico had started working with Andy Warhol, appearing in the film “Chelsea Girls”, and contributing three vocal tracks on the now classic album “The Velvet Underground and Nico”. She wrote, acted, filmed and lived at the Chelsea Hotel.
By 1974 Nico had stopped dyeing her hair blonde and took to dressing mostly in black. This was to be her look from now on.
“I had met Patti in New York, when she was a young poet on the scene. She was a female Leonard Cohen, when she moved from writing to singing, and I liked her because she was thin but strong”.
Patti’s exposure to Nico’s trademark monotone melancholia, both in her singing, her looks and her harmonium playing, might have played a not insignificant part in opening her eyes and ears to the possibilities of combining both the sung and spoken word in performance.
The two became Chelsea friends, each influencing the other despite coming from opposite ends of their respective career trajectories. While Nico was struggling without a record deal and with serious addiction and financial issues, Patti was on the up.
“Patti was very kind to me. Early in 1978 my harmonium was stolen from me. I was without any money and now I couldn’t even earn a living playing without my organ. A friend of mine saw one with green bellows in an obscure shop, the only one in Paris. Patti bought it for me. I was so happy and ashamed. I said, “I’ll give you back the money when I get it”, but she insisted the organ was a present and I should forget about the money. I cried. I was ashamed she saw me without money.” – Nico
Until recently, Patti has been noticably tight lipped about Nico, and their friendship. Even in her books, like “Just Kids”, there is no mention of the darkly dour, nomadic spirited German, no myth busting accounts of jolly evenings in, roaming the corridors of the Chelsea, or even hints at the conversations they might have had.
However, in 2016, Patti announced the release of “Killer Road”, a whole multimedia tribute album to her old Chelsea friend, the title of which references the road in Ibiza where Nico tragically died while bike riding in 1988. With a narrative that includes Smith readings of Nico’s own poems and lyrics, and music by the Soundwalk Collective.
“…when I was young, I had no ambition to be a singer – I was simply trying to deliver my poetry – as [Nico] did – in a unique way.” – Patti Smith
The harmonium played on the album is Nico’s, the same one Patti had bought for her from the Paris pawn shop in 1978.
Directed and edited by Barbara Klein. Killer Road is a sound exploration of the tragic death of Nico, Velvet Underground vocalist and 60s icon, while riding her bike on the island of Ibiza in the summer of 1988. A hypnotic meditation on the idea of perpetual motion and the cycle of life and death, the composition features Patti Smith lending her unique voice to the last poems written by the artist. Soundwalk Collective uses a travel log of field recordings and samples of Nico’s signature instrument, the harmonium, to create a magnetic soundscape.