John Cale Restores Nico’s Musical Legacy in All-Star Tribute

[Ed. note: In honor of John Cale’s mini-residency at BAM this week — including an all-star tribute to Nico on Wednesday and performances of his 1973 solo album, Paris 1919 on Friday and Saturday Flavorwire New York has embarked upon a week-long celebration of all things Velvet Underground.]

With all the tribute albums and concerts (and art shows and dance parties, etc.) on offer these days, it’s easy forget that they can be more than just shallow attempts on the part of their organizers to cash in on a name more famous than their own. Last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the consistently thoughtful, uncompromising John Cale reminded me. Not only did he amass an appropriate and diverse set of musicians for Life Along the Borderline: A Tribute to Nico, but his clear-eyed and unsentimental celebration of his one-time Velvet Underground bandmate did what any worthwhile tribute should do — broadened and deepened our understanding of its subject.

John Cale. Photo credit: Stephanie Berger. All rights reserved

The first program of Cale’s three-night mini-residency at BAM, Life Along the Borderline presented a selection of Nico’s songs, interpreted by such diverse artists as Kim Gordon, Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs, Sharon Van Etten, Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, Meshell Ndegeocello, Alison Mosshart of The Kills, and Peaches, among others. And that, thankfully, was all it did. An antidote to the traditional soppy paeans to artists who died young, the tribute featured no speechifying, no personal reminiscences from those who knew her or babbling about her influence from those who didn’t. Cale — who sat in on keyboard for almost every song, and sang a few himself — wisely trusted that Nico’s music alone would be enough.

Alison Mosshart. Photo credit: Stephanie Berger. All rights reserved

The song selection was pleasantly idiosyncratic, ignoring Nico’s work with the Velvet Underground and early solo touchstones like “Chelsea Girls” and the Bob Dylan-penned “I’ll Keep It With Mine” in favor of deeper and stranger material from 1969’s The Marble Index and 1970’s Desertshore. Some participants thoroughly reinterpreted her songs; Yeasayer transformed somber, incantatory “Janitor of Lunacy” into a wall of Eastern psychedelia, while Mosshart injected rock-star charisma into “Tananore” and “Fearfully in Danger.” But the most powerful performances of the evening drew out and embodied some distinct aspect of Nico, each helping to assemble a prismatic portrait of her music, voice, and image.

Meshell Ndegeocello. Photo credit: Stephanie Berger. All rights reserved

It was dusky-voiced Van Etten whose delivery most resembled Nico’s heavy, lethargic drawl, while Joan as Police Woman dredged up the wells of emotion hiding in plain sight, behind the German accent. Merritt got at her theatrical gloom. Dulli, true to form, accessed her darkness. Ndeogeocello captured the melancholy ache that pervaded both her songs and her life. Gordon (whose icy glamor seems descended, at least in part, from Nico’s) and Bill Nace, her new bandmate in Body/Head, took “It Was a Pleasure Then” to its logical extreme, deconstructing it as a noise collage. And Peaches, raised in Germany, performed “Mutterlein” and “Abschied,” inflecting each with an almost Weimar cabaret-style drama that distinguished Nico from so many American singer-songwriters of her generation.

Peaches. Photo credit: Stephanie Berger. All rights reserved

Like so many beautiful women of the Warhol ’60s, Nico seems more famous these days for her Tumblr-ready face and tragic life story than for the art she made. With Life Along the Borderline, her old friend John Cale forced her music to center stage, and reminded us of her true legacy.