It was well past midnight, too late for me. I was struggling to keep my eyes open, but I couldn’t let it go, I couldn’t close the laptop and just go to bed, not without knowing for sure.
Of course, in my mind I did know for sure. I knew perfectly well. It had always been one of my strongest memories of my early twenties. The story was my party piece when conversation lagged, my go-to name-drop when people were boring me. Except now, with there being no evidence on the internet, I was begining to doubt it even happened.
It was in 1985, was it? or maybe 1986…
The posters advertising the gig had been plain and photocopied, black words on a white A4 sheet. “Nico” they read, then in brackets “(of the Velvet Underground)”. There was the day, the time, the venue and the price – a straight flat fiver in cash. No promoters name, no funding acknowledgement. As I push deep into the memory it seems to become implausible, unsteadily unreal. The posters had been scattered around town, stuck to lamp-posts, like a flyer about a stolen bike, or an ad for knocked off garden furniture, a scam or a hoax. A world before social media. Who can say now what’s real and what was not.
It was summer, all the other students had gone home, but I stayed on in my bedsit. Living alone, on the dole, I guess I liked the solitude. So, I went to the gig by myself, which of course means there’s no one to check with, nobody to confirm that Nico had played the little rundown provincial town in that wet and lonely summer. The internet will not confirm my memory, I search and search, but I find no reference to it among Nico’s online setlist and gig archives. My reality is turning to fiction.
At the door I paid my cash fiver, there was no receipt, no ticket, no souvenirs, just an inky stamp on the back of my left hand. I followed a dark corridor down to a tiny windowless rehearsal studio, tucked away beneath a theatre.
Working lights, dim, the stage area filled half the space of the room, an Harmonium pretty much in the middle of the room, behind it to the left a piano, and a collection of percussion, gongs and a variety of drums crowded to the right.
The audience, of maybe 30 people, sat on the uncarpeted floor, buzzing for an Exploding Plastic Inevitable. I felt them double take as the three piece shuffled on stage. A question rippled through the watchers “Which one is Lou Reed?” None of them I remember thinking out loud. I felt the punters groan collectively as the band rolled into Janitor of Lunacy. A catatonic harmomium drone, scattered striken percussion, sparse percussive piano. And then her voice. Her voice, gravelly deep and funereal, without hope, perfected. I wallowed deep in thick sonic delirium, it was all quite special to me.
Some people left, head shaking bitterly. Nico had waited too long before placating them with All Tomorow’s Parties. The journalists had already left, heading for a bar, by the time Nico gave them a single Velvet’s number. The song wasn’t instantly recognisable except for her plangent growlling voice. I thought it was beautiful, like the best sort of cover version. Different, better than before.
When the last song came round, she said “This is for my friend, Jim Morrison” and slipped into The End. Stripped bare of The Doors cocky swagger Nico’s trembling trio of finality dirged me out into the cool dark night. It was an experience to remember, and I remembered it, I relished it. But the cyber world does not.
And today there is no evidence that it ever happened, google can’t look that far back, there is no indellible facebook page about it, no twitter memory that old, no instagram to prove it real. But it did happen, I was there and I know it happened.
I found one photograph in an image search that tugged my memory, that reminded me of a part of the story I had forgotten. The photo of Nico dressed entirely in black, a pudgy middle-aged woman, hunched forward, staring down at her feet, her motorcycle boots wilting unbuckled, stilled in time. Exactly how I seen her before the show, in a tiny scrubby playground behind the venue, where I stopped to smoke a cigarette. As I sat she caught my eye with her pacing, boots flapping, she circled the seesaw, stopped short of the swings, then slumped herself onto the bench opposite me, just like the internet photo. I don’t think she even registered me there. I wanted, I wanted to run over to her, embrace her, fawn over her, beg her to bless me, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. She’d have despised me, I am sure, she’d have sneered at my fangirl superficiality. I don’t know, it’s hard being young and desperate to be cool. In anycase, she was obviously waiting for the man, the moment had passed. I finished my cigarette just as a shoddy dead-eyed street junkie sloped into view, he circled the seesaw and sidled to her bench.
And I left, Eulogy For Lenny Bruce singing in my head: “And why after every last shot was there always another”