The singer we know as Nico already was an established model, actress, singer and social butterfly when she met the artist Andy Warhol in the mid-1960s. Warhol was the force behind The Velvet Underground & Nico, one of the greatest albums in rock ‘n’ roll history. Rolling Stone magazine would later name it No. 13 in its list of 500 greatest albums of all time.
No matter what you think of the Nico tracks on that record, no matter what her bandmates thought of her then—not much, apparently—the album would not be the same without her. The Velvet Underground had a great sound on their own, but Nico’s voice brought the dreamy, spooky strangeness that made that album truly distinctive.
Her voice was instant atmosphere. Consider the moment in Wes Anderson’s Royal Tennenbaums, when her version of “These Days” begins to play. It tells us more about the characters than their dialogue does. (Her “Fairest of the Seasons” also was in that movie; Jackson Browne wrote both of those tunes for her 1967 Chelsea Girl album.)
Nico became the epitome of a cosmopolitan pop artist, bouncing around Paris and New York, but she was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1938. Her name was Christa Päffgen, and—though she rarely if ever mentioned it in interviews over the years—she was born into the famous Cologne brewing family⏤Päffgen Kölsch⏤whose business there goes back to 1883. Founder Herman Päffgen was Nico’s great-grandfather.
Nico’s father was Wilhelm Päffgen, who might have been the black sheep of the family. According to one version of the story, the Catholic Päffgens thought Wilhelm’s Protestant wife Margarethe was after their money. They allegedly had the marriage annulled and pushed Wilhelm into the Nazi army. According to Richard Witts’ biography of the singer, a French sniper shot her father in the head in 1942. The wound was serious but did not kill him immediately.
The family rejection, if that’s how it happened, effectively left baby Christa and her mother to their own meager devices. Either way, Britain’s heavy bombardment of Cologne began in 1940, and Margarethe took her daughter to live in Lübbenau, Brandenburg, southeast of Berlin, where Christa’s grandfather was a signalman at the railway station. As the war concluded, the girl and her mother made their way into a Berlin that was almost totally destroyed.
Christa eventually became fascinated by fashion, and one day began dressing to the nines and hanging around the famous West Berlin department store, KaDeWe. Her scheme worked⏤the right people saw her and the door was opened to a successful modeling career. According to Witts, this was about the time that Christa tried to reach out to the Päffgen family in Cologne, but they allegedly turned her away. Afterward, she was less inclined to use or mention her birth name.
She met Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones in 1964, and later, Bob Dylan, who brought her along on tour in Europe. He wrote the song “I’ll Keep It with Mine” for her—or for Judy Collins, depending on which story you believe. Nico included her version of it on Chelsea Girl. It might have been Dylan who introduced her to Warhol. The rest is esoteric rock history.
In 1988, she died of a brain hemorrhage, suffered during a bike ride in Ibiza, Spain. Her grave can be found alongside her mother’s in the Grunewald cemetery of Berlin. Below the name of Margarethe Päffgen, who kept her married name, the headstone shows “NICO” in larger letters above her own birth name.
A footnote: In 2006, there was an effort to name a square in Cologne after Christa Päffgen. Civic leaders eventually rejected the idea, reasoning that Nico—with a long history of abusing drugs, famously heroin—was not the best of role models for today’s young people.
Nico, for her part, was said to be a beer drinker. According to one tale, she once told a fan, “I like to drink beer, because it brings me back to my origin.”