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Niconomicon: A Conversation With Lutz Graf-Ulbrich

Interview by JJ Brine and Cat Marnell.

Nico and Lutz Graf-Ulbrich backstage in 1974 (Polaroid).

Lutz Graf-Ulbrich is a prolific German musician with a varied discography spanning several decades. He’s been a member of many groups, from the 70s art rock band Ash Ra Tempel to his current folk ensemble, 17 Hippies. What might be most intriguing to rock historians, though, is his long relationship with Nico, which he recently documented in his book, In The Shadow Of The Moon Goddess.

If The Velvet Underground was the first “alternative” rock band, Nico—the Andy Warhol Superstar and original art house chanteuse most famous for her contributions to 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, the band’s debut—was the first alternative to alternative music. Warhol essentially imposed the German supermodel on the band, as though she were an art installation. The result, arguably, was the advent of contemporary pop culture.

The solo careers of Lou Reed and John Cale bore traces of their roots in the avant garde, whereas Nico’s musical sensibility seemed to have no roots at all. Rather, it was the zeitgeist that had its roots in her, ones that are still growing. She was not simply the first goth girl, but the first goth (the first use of the term “gothic” in the rock press as a musical descriptive came from Rolling Stone in 1971, in reference to Nico). She was “the most beautiful woman in the world,” whom the Ibizan authorities would not allow out of her home unveiled, for fear that her beauty would cause civil unrest. She was a tabloid fixture who had given birth out of wedlock to the son of the most famous man in France, actor Alain Delon; the model turned actress turned singer who, by Andy Warhol’s reckoning, seemed to change careers whenever something was beginning to really go well for her; the woman whose only regret was to have been born a woman instead of a man; the interdimensional songwriter who taught herself how to play the harmonium and channeled a mystical operatic alien civilization that peaked in its apparent nuclear winter; and the junkie with the lowest female voice this side of everyone.

This past summer, I met Lutz and his wife Daniela at a cafe in Berlin, along with my friend Cat Marnell, a former beauty editor and the author, earlier this year, of the amphetamine-addled memoir, How To Murder Your Life. Considering Nico’s unapologetic, perennial drug use, and the media’s determination to cast her persona in a Warholian mold—something critics have tried to do to my own work as an artist—Cat and I were perfectly placed for this assignment.

—JJ Brine

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JJ BRINE: How did you meet Nico?

LUTZ GRAF-ULBRICH: We met in 1972 in Paris because we had the same manager. He promoted a concert in Paris and I was playing with a hard rock band called “Agitation Free” in Berlin. Nico was playing there too. That’s when I first saw her. Nobody knew who she really was. There was a strange aura, and lots of rumors, and nobody knew what to make of all that. Before we met she was already a mysterious thing. When she performed it was really strange, with her harmonium and the way she sang. The audience was very enthusiastic. I was stunned. And of course we talked. As we had the same manager, we met a few times. There was a party held by our manager and she took me aside. She saw my record cover and she said it was strange and frightening. Her aura and personality were just so strong that I felt like a little boy. I was 22 and she was 36.

JB: How did your love affair begin?

LG: In ’74 my band split up in June or July. I stayed in France because I loved the people and I wanted to live there as a solo musician. We met again at a musical festival we were both playing at. I was backstage with a band called “Creme Delirium” and I drank some tea, and I remembered that this band puts acid in their tea. It wasn’t normal, I felt intoxicated. I closed my eyes and played the guitar. When I opened my eyes Nico was there. I was on the acid level, and Nico was always sort of over the moon. It was a very good time. After our concerts Nico asked me where I was staying. I didn’t have a hotel and she invited me, she bought me a room. I went to her room and said bye and she said, “Oh no, you’re not getting away.” She was naked on the bed and she was very good looking. I was too shy, I went back to my own room. We sat together on the train to Paris and I played her all of my songs and the whole thing started.

CAT MARNELL: What were you guys wearing at this time?

LG: Nico was wearing a red cloak like a curtain. I was probably wearing a leather jacket.

JB: Were you a fan of hers before you two met?

LG: Of course I had known the Velvet Underground, but only some songs. I hadn’t really connected her history. I only knew a photo of her but I had forgotten about it. One day when we were together she showed me a German fashion magazine, Twen, and it all hit me. Maybe when I was sixteen I had seen this cover.

JB: How was it to be in a relationship with Nico?

LG: Nico generally liked philosophers and drug dealers and gangsters and anything like this. I was an exception to this. She didn’t hold hands in public. She called me her “German friend.” There was one time that she did give me a huge compliment. She did say in public that I was the best lover she ever had. But Nico had many lovers in her life. She could be jealous when provoked. One day she walked into “our” New York restaurant close to the Chelsea Hotel and saw me with the model Angeline, a friend of Nico’s whom she had introduced to me. Nico was very angry and she left.

JB: You and Nico remained close friends even after your love affair ended. But how did that breakup come to pass?

LG: One day we were both in her room and she wanted to be alone but I wouldn’t leave the room. So she threw an iron at me and I went for her and we fought. That was 1979.

JB: Was Nico proud of her body of work? Did she feel that she was a great artist—the greatest?

LG: Of course. I think she found herself underestimated, which was true. A lot of people say, oh yeah, she can’t sing and all that. Of course sometimes when you hear live recordings the tone was sort of off, but at the same time she was such a fantastic singer. When you listen to a song like Tananore, it’s really difficult to sing! She had such a powerful voice. Nico’s body of work was the greatest contribution to music. That’s what makes her so fascinating. The way she was composing and writing songs. There’s nobody who can really explain her music. So dark and poetic. And the combination with her voice. People talk about All Tomorrow’s Parties and Femme Fatale, but of course Nico was more than that. She thought she deserved a better audience, she should’ve sang in an opera hall and all that. But instead she was playing to this young punk audience.

JB: Do you think Nico was thinking of herself as a celebrity—as a star? Was she consistently aware of this?

LG: She was always aware and thinking of things in this way. Nico was a star and everybody knew it.

Lutz and his wife Daniela Graf-Ulbrich in Berlin (2017).

CM: What kind of scent did Nico have? What was her favorite perfume?

LG: Well, Nico did not like bathing much. She hated water, like a cat she didn’t like to get wet. But she wasn’t stinky, and I do remember her fragrance. It was Chanel. That was her favorite.

CM: Did Nico ever exercise?

LG: One time in Los Angeles, at a friend’s place, I saw her in a bathing suit and I said wow! That was the maximum.

JJ BRINE: What was her attitude toward Andy Warhol? Did she speak of him often? Did they keep in touch over the years?

LG: Andy Warhol I met for like 15 minutes in Paris, actually. Nico had her money stolen and we went to see Andy and she said, “Oh Andy, can you give me some money?” And he gave it to her. He was very generous.

[Warhol recalled this incident in a diary entry from 27 May 1977: “Nico was there with a young kid with a big bulge in his pants, she asked Bob to photograph him. Bob already had. Nico looked older and fatter and sadder. She was crying, she said, because of the beauty of the show. I wanted to give her some money but not directly so I signed a 500-franc note ($100) and handed it to her, and she got even more sentimental and said, “I must frame this, can you give me another one, unsigned, to spend?”]

JB: What do you think of the narrative presented in the documentary Nico Icon about Nico wanting to lose her good looks so as to be taken more seriously as an artist? Do you think this is in any way reductive or misleading?

LG: I don’t know what to say. I know that Paul Morrissey said that.

DANIELA GRAF-ULBRICH: I asked you the same question a few years ago and you told me she was always putting on makeup and that she was very concerned with her appearance. And that she used that as an excuse, like she didn’t want to be beautiful anymore so she gave it away.

LG: It’s true. She could be insecure. When we were living at The Chelsea at one point she had put on a lot of weight. And she didn’t like that.

JB: How do you think Nico wished to portray herself?

LG: More than anything, Nico wanted mystery. And to provide this air of mystery, Nico sometimes lied. Often, in fact. I mean, what happened to her father in WWII, or saying her grandfather was a Whirling Dervish or something, he wasn’t Turkish. Acting lessons with Marilyn Monroe, meetings with Ernest Hemingway, et cetera. She was also very self-absorbed, narcissistic. For instance, she was convinced that right before he died, Jim Morrison came back to Paris just for Nico. I’m not sure that it’s true.

JB: What do you think Nico was most proud of?

LG: Her artistry. She knew that there was nobody else like her, not anywhere. Also, she would always say in interviews that she was most proud to be the mother of her son, Ari [the result of an affair with Alain Delon, who refused to recognize his paternity].

CM: Were there some things about Nico that you came to understand as you got to know her, related to her addiction?

LG: It began when I met her. She was smoking heroin. I didn’t want to take it. But when you’re in love with a person, you want to get on their wavelength. And Nico was so hard to follow as a person, even though we were really close. I could never tell what she was thinking. When she was taking heroin she went even further away. After awhile I gave in to her. I only took it for about a year and a half, maybe in 74 and by 76 I was done. I think Nico thought she was productive! I remember she once said, “I wrote already three albums with a lot of songs. That’s enough, what more do people want?” I think she was lazy actually. She was not productive. She was sitting hallucinating. She wasn’t working on songs all the time. There were two concerts in a month or something. She would rehearse right before a concert or a few notes occasionally.

JB: Did Nico have any phobias?

LG: The sun. And that was what killed her in the end.

JB: I know that you arranged Nico’s last concert, Fata Morgana, where she performed a set of completely new material—hinting at what her next album would have been like, with her alone on her harmonium. Was that the last time you saw her before her death?

LG: Well, she slept at my place after the concert. The next day we talked and she was staying at my place, she was sick of hotels, and I took her to the airport. She was angry at the airport staff because they charged something for her harmonium and she had been told she wouldn’t have to pay but it turned out she did. I remember the woman telling me at customs, you should take care of this woman because she won’t last much longer like this. And then of course six weeks later she died.

JB: Can you tell us more about the circumstances leading up to her death?

LG: I remember she invited me to stay with her in Ibiza, telling me she was going with Ari for three months to write songs or write a book, and I wasn’t sure because she was smoking so much hash, and at that time I didn’t want to do that. But then I had this answering machine message from Ari that said, “It’s so nice, come to Ibiza with us!” And so I bought this ticket the next day. The same day I bought the ticket, I got the news she had died.

JB: If you could say one thing to Nico today, one last thing, what would it be?

LG: I would tell her how grateful I am to have had the luck and fortune to meet her, I still don’t know why she chose me to be with her. That was the great gift in my life.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWERS

JJ Brine is the creator, owner, and artist behind the Vector Gallery installation project, which also encompasses its own religious movement, a governing body of Ministers for a self-proclaimed sovereign, Vectorian State, and even its own singular Vectorian time zone. Often called the founder of the PostHuman Art movement and the Andy Warhol of our time, you can follow “The Crown Prince of Hell” straight to heaven at jjbrine.com, or Twitter and Instagram (@jjbrine).

Cat Marnell is the author of How To Murder Your Life (2017)a memoir centered on her experiences with the revolving door of drug addiction and drug rehab by way of high fashion offices like Condé Nast, Nylon, and XOJane. Previously, she wrote a column for VICE Magazine titled “Amphetamine Logic.” You can keep up with Cat’s wizardly ways on Twitter and Instagram (@cat_marnell).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 5th, 2017.