Nico was a compelling, grim and somewhat scary performer at Manhattan clubs in the late 1970s. I remember sitting on a wooden floor of a now-defunct club as the celebrated Andy Warhol protégé sat in the center of the room fervently pressing on the keys of her harmonium.
It was something right out of a sci-fi flick — the funeral-parlor drone of the harmonium accompanying Nico’s creepy monotone as she sang “Janitor of Lunacy,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and Jim Morrison’s “The End.”
Those memories — but without the harmonium — flooded back Thursday night at Pangea in Manhattan’s East Village. Backed by a crackerjack three-piece band, Tammy Lang, known on stage as Tammy Faye Starlite, performed It Was A Pleasure Then, a 50th anniversary celebration of Nico’s Chelsea Girl album.
The New York Times best described Starlite last year: a “blond cherry-lipped alt-cabaret singer, scabrous satirist and celebrity impersonator” who “has the bounce and vivacity of a high school cheerleader and the political sensibility of a radical left-wing journalist.”
Starlite’s performance was brilliant at Pangea, where she will be performing It Was A Pleasure Then through May 11. Her German-accented singing and biting comments between songs captured the essence of Nico, and, with stellar accompaniment by violinist Eszter Balint, electric guitarist Richard Feridun, and acoustic guitarist Keith Hartel, the performance was far superior musically to Nico solo with her harmonium. And, unlike Nico’s gigs, after which I and others exited with a what-the-fuck-was-that feeling and a huge dose of sadness and depression, Starlite’s show was uplifting and hilarious.
As Nico, Starlite made sarcastic comments that were quite funny about Lou Reed and John Cale, who played on Chelsea Girl, and a host of others, including Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Donald Trump, and Kellyanne Conway. Reed and Cale were the founding fathers of the Velvet Underground, whose revolutionary first album in 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico, has long been hailed as a rock-and-roll-meets-avant-garde masterpiece.
Though Starlite’s performance upstaged many of Nico’s past shows, it should not be forgotten that Chelsea Girl also was a highly acclaimed record in pop music history. The 1967 album included songs by Dylan and Tim Hardin and three songs by Jackson Browne, who, as a teenager, had a celebrated affair with Nico and was in one of her early bands. During the recording of the album, Nico reportedly battled with Reed, Cale, and others about the final product, but the album’s folky, spooky, Baroque sound was a winning combination.
Nico, whose real name was Christa Päffgen, got her first brush with stardom as a European supermodel and then landed a minor role in a Fellini film, La Dolce Vita. She cut a single with the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones and Jimmy Page before he formed Led Zeppelin. She moved to New York, where Warhol placed her in the Velvet Underground, and she sang lead on three songs on the band’s debut album.
Starlite explains how she first began paying tribute to, and impersonating, Nico, several years ago.
“I'd been doing my right-wing, conservative, evangelical country-singer character, Tammy Faye Starlite, for many years, but she seemed to be winding down a bit — probably Obama's fault. I was trying to think of something new, and I remembered how much I loved Nico. I'd been listening to an interview she did in Melbourne in 1986. Her responses to the questions were beautiful non sequiturs, and I thought it would make a great template for a script, especially because they spoke about almost every song I would want to do in a show. So I decided to use the interview as a base, added other quotes of hers and made some up. I think I thought of her initially, because, in a strange way, she's similar to Tammy Faye. She tended to say things others might deem inappropriate, and inappropriate is my favorite adjective.”
Her past Nico performances, during 2010-2014, were different than her current run.
“It’s the entire Chelsea Girl album in order, and there isn't another character. In my previous show, Nico: Underground, there was the interviewer character, so Nico could be more reactive and not necessarily generate the action. And that show was scripted. This one isn’t. I'll just talk as Nico, which may or may not work, but life isn't scripted — unless it is. That's for the Kantians to figure out.”
Starlite, who lives with Hartel, her second husband, in Hoboken, New Jersey, first learned about Nico in her teens.
“When I was 17, I read the book Edie and became fascinated with all things Warhol. I bought the Velvet Underground & Nico on cassette, and I loved it. I loved Lou Reed’s lyrics, but it was Nico's voice that enchanted me most — the depth, both sonically and emotionally, and the seeming lack of affect that cloaked a multitude of mysteries. I bought one of those ROIR live bootlegs of a Nico show, and, as soon as I heard her version of ‘Heroes,’ I was head-over-heroine in adoration. I think it's the way she pronounced dolphins. It was more dawlphins. Fantastic and magical.”
Starlite never attended a Nico concert but saw her perform on video during the later years of her life. In 1988, Nico died at age 49 from a cerebral hemorrhage after reportedly suffering a heart attack while riding a bicycle and striking her head.
Nico was “mesmerizing” in videos, Starlite says. “She was simultaneously in control and in her own preternatural sphere.”
I mention to Starlite that when I and others spoke to Nico after her shows she would sit on stairway steps and talk to anyone who desired. She seemed to be in her own distant world. She also seemed to be in another distant world when she played the harmonium and sang.
“She did seem distant but not in a careless or dismissive way,” Starlite says about the videos she watched. “She seemed revenant or engaged in some form of reverie, perhaps communing with entities privy only to her, consciously or unconsciously. Not there but extremely present. Apparently, she was very fond of the dialectic.”
Besides Nico, Starlite has performed in the past as Marianne Faithfull at Pangea, Joe’s Pub, and Lincoln Center in New York and McCabe’s in Santa Monica, California.
Nico and Faithfull are similar women “who began as muses and chanteuses and then wrote their own songs that defined them by their own standards,” Starlite says. “They’re both beautiful with unique, deep voices full of gravitas, elegance and truth — no preconceived sentiment, nothing false or precious. Both struggled with themselves, it seems, or with something unknown, but, regardless of their histories and romances with famous men, both are genuinely sui generis artists.”
Starlite grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and graduated from New York University with a degree in creative writing. She was a member of bands that covered the songs of Blondie, the New York Dolls, and the Rolling Stones.
When she was little, she sang along while listening to Judy Garland records and Broadway cast albums. Later, she sang along to the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack and albums by Blondie, the Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Diamanda Galas, the Judds, Martina McBride, Carlene Carter, and the Runaways.
“I wanted to be all those women, and I couldn't, but I could pretend,” Starlite says. “I love to pretend. It's a lovely word, isn't it?”
Starlite says her love for the Rolling Stones’ music led her to Parsons, an original member of the Flying Burrito Brothers.
“I wanted to learn about everyone who influenced them and were bright satellites in their orbit,” she says. “I read that Gram Parsons began to hang out with them in about 1969. The Flying Burrito Brothers played at Altamont (the Altamont Free Speedway Festival in December 1969), which I can only imagine was Keith's (Keith Richards) idea, and Gram was a huge influence on their subsequent country sound. I bought his live album (Live 1973), and I fell in love with his voice, particularly on ‘Streets of Baltimore,’ which also kickstarted my reverence for Harlan Howard.”
Parsons has been recognized as one of the founding fathers of country rock. So what does Starlite think about some music writers calling her “a smart-aleck country diva?”
“I'll take it!” she exclaims.
Starlite says the best concert she ever attended as a spectator was played by the Who at New York’s Shea Stadium in October 1982.
“I was young,” she says. “It was raining lightly, and the concert was full of light, amazement, and possibility. It felt decadent, which was so glamorous to me. And I had no sense of irony or judgment. I just focused on Roger's (Roger Daltrey's) sky-colored eyes. Everything was new — even my sweater.”
After Starlite’s current run as Nico at Pangea, what's next for her career?
“Oh, my god, I wish I knew!”