The Marble Index
02. Lawns Of Dawns 3:12
03. No One Is There 3:36
04. Ari's Song 3:20
05. Facing The Wind 4:52
06. Julius Caesar (Memento Hodie) 4:57
07. Frozen Warnings 4:00
08. Evening Of Light 5:33
09. Roses In The Snow 4:06
10. Nibelungen 2:44
Nico: Vocals, Harmonium,
John Cale: Viola, Piano, Bass, Electric Guitar, Glockenspiel, Bells, Harmonica, Brass
Nico had made her recording debut in 1965 with the single "I'm Not Sayin'"; at Andy Warhol's suggestion she joined The Velvet Underground as a chanteuse, and sang three tracks on their 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico. Nico and the group were regulars at the Factory. However, Lou Reed was reluctant to include her in the band. This, coupled with her desire to be a soloist, made Nico leave the group as casually as she had joined. The band members continued to accompany her as she performed on her own and played on her 1967 solo debut, Chelsea Girl. The folk-pop album included songs by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and Jackson Browne (with whom Nico had a brief affair).
Although Chelsea Girl is well-regarded by music critics, Nico was dissatisfied with it: "The first time I heard the album, I cried. I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away." Jim Morrison, whom Nico later called "[her] soul brother", encouraged her to write her own songs; this was "a key breakthrough for [her]". They were together in California in July and August 1967, often driving into the desert and experimenting with peyote. Morrison, who encouraged Nico to write down her dreams, read Mary Shelley, William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to her. He recorded his chemical visions and dreams, using the material for his songs as he imagined the opium-addicted Coleridge had worked. In 1986 Nico said, "He taught me to write songs. I never thought that I could ... He really inspired me a lot. It was like looking in a mirror then." She began writing her own material and performing it to an intimate audience at Steve Paul's club, the Scene. Nico composed her music on a harmonium bought, according to Richard Witts, from a San Francisco hippie; manager Danny Fields recalled, "I think Leonard Cohen may have given it to her, or had something to do with her getting it." With that instrument, "she discovered not only her own artistic voice but a whole new realm of sound." The droning pump organ became her trademark.
The Marble Index was produced during a little-studied period of Nico's life. For The Quietus's Matthew Lindsay, "the liminal drift of these years only emphasizes the music's amorphous moorings and lack of precedent." Nico approached Danny Fields around the summer of 1968 with the desire to make an album and prove herself artistically. Resentful of her beauty, she radically changed her image – dyeing her hair red and wearing black clothes in an effort to distance herself from what had made her a popular fashion model. John Cale said, "She hated the idea of being blonde and beautiful, and in some ways she hated being a woman, because she figured all her beauty had brought her was grief ... So The Marble Index was an opportunity for her to prove she was a serious artist, not just this kind of blonde bombshell." Nico already had the title for the album in mind from The Prelude, William Wordsworth's magnum opus; in it, he contemplates a statue of Isaac Newton "with his prism and silent face / The marble index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone." Asked about the significance of this Wordsworth quote, Nico replied: "I sometimes find a little of my own poetry in other poets, yes. Incidentally, or accidentally."
Fields relayed Nico's request to Jac Holzman, head of Elektra Records; she then went to Holzman's Broadway office with her harmonium and performed for him. Despite the challenging nature of Nico's music, Holzman agreed to release her album and assigned Frazier Mohawk to produce it, despite Nico and John Cale's desire to work together. He gave her a budget of $10,000 (equivalent to $70,000 in 2017), with a four-day recording schedule at a studio on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. Fields contacted Cale, who was the album's de facto producer after Mohawk gave him free rein. According to Mohawk, he spent most of the sessions using heroin with Nico. Her drug use is cited as influencing the album's sound; Simon Reynolds wrote, "While it may be a reductive interpretation to regard The Marble Index as the ultimate heroin album, its hunger for narcosis, its frigid expanses, recalls William Burroughs's description of the junkie's quest for a metabolic 'Absolute Zero'.
During the sessions, Nico and Cale "fought at every opportunity" with the singer "being in pain" while recording the album. Nico and Cale worked on one song at a time, mixing the album as they went, with her voice and harmonium the starting points for each track. Cale said about the recording process,
The harmonium was out of tune with everything. It wasn't even in tune with itself. She insisted on playing it on everything so we had to figure out ways to separate her voice from it as much as possible and then find instrumental voices that would be compatible with the harmonium track ... As an arranger you're usually trying to take the songs and put a structure on them, but what I thought was valuable was when you took the centre out of the track and worked around the central core of the tonality and changes. That left you with a sort of floating free-form tapestry behind what she was doing, which is when things became more abstract.
He also said, "I was pretty much left alone for two days, and I let [Nico] in at the end. I played her [the album] song by song, and she'd burst into tears. 'Oh! It's so beautiful!', 'Oh, it's so beautiful!' You know, this is the same stuff that people tell me, 'Oh! It's so suicidal!'" The original release of The Marble Index included eight of 12 songs Nico recorded. "Roses in the Snow", "Nibelungen", "Sagen die Gelehrten" and "Reve Reveiller" were left off the album. The finished album was barely 30 minutes long, which "was as much apparently as Frazier Mohawk, mixing and sequencing it, could stand without starting to feel suicidal".
The Marble Index's avant-garde style distanced Nico from rock and pop. When an interviewer pointed out the contrast between Chelsea Girl and The Marble Index, Nico said that the latter was "not supposed to be noise, because most pop music to me is noise, alright?" According to John Cale, the album "makes more sense in terms of advancing the modern European classical tradition than it does as folk or rock music". With Nico's compositions based around one or two chords, Cale decided to avoid drone and raga (Eastern music common on the West Coast at the time) in favor of a European classical approach in his arrangements. The resulting sound has been compared with Germanic folk music, Gregorian chant, medieval music such as madrigals, European avant-garde, Romanticism, and the music of Richard Wagner.
Peter Buckley noted Nico's use of psychedelic drugs during the Summer of Love as an influence on the album's music, and Jim DeRogatis described it as "minimalist bad-trip psychedelia". Frieze called The Marble Index the "bridge between the New York Minimalists of the late 1960s and Brian Eno's ambient records of the late 1970s". Simon Reynolds has identified the album as "the rock precedent for isolationism", a term coined by critic Kevin Martin to describe "a loose network of disenchanted refugees from rock and experimental musicians" that originated the genre known as dark ambient. Isolationism, Reynolds writes, "breaks with all of ambient's feel-good premises", and "evokes an uneasy silence: the uncanny calm before catastrophe, the deathly quiet of aftermath." He listed Aphex Twin (particularly his 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II), Seefeel, David Toop and Max Eastley, among others, as exponents of this style.
According to Uncut, The Marble Index is "one of that rare breed of recordings which, the better part of four decades later, still has no adequate comparison, existing in a genre all its own". The album is considered a proto-goth record. André Escarameia felt the album "anticipated gothic rock by more than a decade due to [its] ethereally darker [ambience] and disturbing sonority." Its soundscape has been described as "bleak", "chilly", "harrowing", and "everything from the sound of someone rapping on a coffin lid to that of being buried alive". In her 1969 Rolling Stone review, Anne Marie Micklo described it as "mood music, with an obscure and elusive text recited over it". Regarding the record's sonority, British author Simon Goddard wrote, "it was on [The Marble Index] that the real sound of Nico was unleashed: a bleak pumping misery which would define her music for the last two decades of her life."
Nico's lyrics have been described as "mythological and surrealist". According to Spin, "for lyrical inspiration, Nico looked to the Romantic poets and peyote, passions shared with Jim Morrison." Stephen Davis wrote that the album's lyrics stem from the collaboration between Nico and Morrison, and his influence can be seen in song titles such as "Lawn of Dawns", "Frozen Warnings" and "Evening of Light". Morrison offered Nico a model for her writings by showing her how he worked on his poems, indicated by her use of internal rhymes. According to Peter Hogan, some of her lyrics "show a marked debt to Sylvia Plath and to William Blake" and a search for artistic legitimacy. Other critics have found Nico's lyrics to be intriguing. For example, Richie Unterberger wrote: "Nico intones lyrics that don't quite express specific feelings but convey a state of uneasy restlessness."
The album begins with a gentle piano-and-glockenspiel instrumental before segueing into "Lawn of Dawns", which introduces Nico's harmonium "of undulating motion weaving against her voice". The song is engulfed in "weird clattering and tintinnabulating", while a "dark twangy guitar ... stumbles to a subdued halt in [its] final seconds". It features what may be Nico's first lyrics, inspired by her peyote visions with Jim Morrison: "He blesses you, he blesses me/The day the night caresses,/Caresses you, caresses me,/Can you follow me?/I cannot understand the way I feel/Until I rest on lawns of dawns—/Can you follow me?" Nico explained the peyote-induced experience which inspired the lyrics: "The light of the dawn was a very deep green and I believed I was upside down and the sky was the desert which had become a garden and then the ocean. I do not swim and I was frightened when it was water and more resolved when it was land. I felt embraced by the sky-garden." The lyrics of the next song, "No One Is There", have been described as "in all probability influenced by Jim Morrison" ("Some are calling/Some are sad/Some are calling mad") and are sung over Cale's classical quartet of violas darting in and out of her unusual vocal tempo. "Ari's Song" was dedicated to Nico's young son, Christian Aaron "Ari" Boulogne, her only child with French actor Alain Delon, and has been called "the least-comforting lullaby ever recorded". It begins with the harmonium's clipped, whistling tones as she sings softly, "Sail away/Sail away my little boy". "Facing the Wind" is supported by "Cale-banged piano clusters, scraping of percussion or walls and off-beat tympani"; Nico's voice sounds filtered (possibly through a Leslie speaker), with the "somnambulistic toiling" of her pipe organ accompanied by viola and strident piano.
Side two opens with "Julius Caesar (Memento Hodié)", which lyrically explores myths and gods. It features Nico's low, droning harmonium accompanied by Cale's viola. On "Frozen Warnings", Cale's arrangement harmonically blends with the pipe organ. It is considered Nico's signature song from her collaboration with Cale; Nina Antonia wrote: "Of all the strange and wracked numbers on the record, 'Frozen Warnings' is quintessential Nico; lyrics that convey a sorrowful atmosphere and little comfort in the melody." The album's dreamlike quality end with its last song, "Evening of Light", which has been described as "frighteningly quiet and hypnotizing". Nico sings "Midnight winds are landing at the end of time", with harpsichord and Cale's staccato viola building until the latter gains ground and sways with the tympani's "roar and clatter". The 1991 reissue of The Marble Index also includes the outtakes "Roses in the Snow" and "Nibelungen". In the latter, Nico's vocals are unaccompanied. The full version (with instrumental accompaniment) was included in the 2007 compilation The Frozen Borderline – 1968–1970; according to Dave Thompson of AllMusic, "It rises to equal any of Nico's subsequent performances or compositions."
When he heard The Marble Index, Jac Holzman decided that "there was no question of not releasing it" despite its lack of commercial appeal; Holzman saw it as a work of art, rather than a product. The album was released in November 1968 with little promotion. A music video for "Evening of Light", featuring Iggy Pop and the other Stooges, was shot by art collector François de Menil in 1969. He has described the clip as "a sort of pre-MTV promotional item for [The Marble Index]. An early pop promo." De Menil was interested in shooting a short film with the singer, and she agreed with the condition that they would film it in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Pop's hometown, and that he would be featured in it. Dave Thompson described the clip as follows: "It was shot in a cornfield behind [Pop's house], barren and stubbly in the late winter chill, Nico in white and windswept, Pop in whiteface, manic and agitated, caressing and crushing the mannequin parts that littered the field, while a wooden cross is raised before them and set ablaze as night falls." Elektra Records—who had not agreed to finance the project—rejected the music video, as did "any other media outlets that de Menil approached".
The Marble Index "failed to challenge the supremacy of Nashville Skyline, From Elvis in Memphis, Abbey Road and Diana Ross & the Supremes Join the Temptations on the album charts of 1969". Although Holzman was pleased with the album, Nico's longevity with the label was unlikely; he was increasingly concerned with her heroin use and she had a difficult, irresponsible attitude. Nico left the United States before she was officially released from Elektra, after a violent incident in a New York City bar. Biographers refer to her leaving the U.S. as an exile; Nico said, "When you live in a dangerous place, you also become increasingly dangerous. You might just wind up in jail." In London she recorded two more albums with Cale in the same vein: Desertshore (1970) and The End... (1974), now considered parts of a trilogy.
Although The Marble Index was generally unnoticed when it was released, it was praised by the countercultural East Village Other and International Times; however, most critics found "her desolate soundscapes inaccessible." Anne Marie Micklo of Rolling Stone gave the album a positive review, calling side two "a really worthwhile venture into musical infinity". A cult following emerged around it, which included music journalist Lester Bangs, who wrote in a 1978 article entitled "Your Shadow Is Scared of You: An Attempt Not to Be Frightened by Nico": "The Marble Index is the greatest piece of 'avant-garde classical', 'serious' music of the last half of the 20th century so far." Although Bangs praised the album, he also wrote that it "scared the shit out of [him]" and described the listening experience as "self-torture".
The album has had "a slow progress to critical darlinghood"; for the most part, audiences have remained nonplussed. According to Simon Goddard, most critics regard it as "[Nico's] defining avant-garde masterpiece". The Rolling Stone Album Guide considers The Marble Index the point in Nico's discography where "the difficult listening starts", and the album is "pretty amazing for it". Anthony Carew of About.com called it "a suite of rootless songs written with little precedent" and "an astonishing haunting, the work of a woman who, even whilst alive, seemed a lot like a ghost". Anthony Thornton of NME called it an "artistic triumph": "Bleak but beautiful, this album remains the most fitting embodiment of her doomed glamour." According to Spin, "Few records, before or since, have sounded lonelier, spookier, or more desolate". Trouser Press described it as "one of the scariest records ever made"
Nico's music is indescribable. Various adjectives can be bandied around - claustrophobic, eerie, strange, uncompromising, gothic. But none of them encapsulates the wildness and intrigue that surrounds her often electrifying, atmospheric albums.
The Marble Index is her entry into the avant-garde music scene. She had debuted in the music world in the mid-1960s with a dual career - that of the classy, elegant, Teutonic beauty for a stand-alone single, "I'm Not Sayin'," in 1965, and her solo debut Chelsea Girl, as well as the mysterious, enigmatic ice queen as the face of The Velvet Underground.
Nico's transformation between those years and The Marble Index is a surprise. She had shown no real sign of being anything but another Warhol muse, a mysterious European model and chanteuse, an odd yet remarkable stage and screen presence. With this album, she enticed listeners into her gothic, icy sound world.
The quaint elegant acoustic atmosphere on Chelsea Girl has been completely abandoned for a collection of thought fragments, wispy melodies, and intonations of death, fear, and destruction. It's a disturbing and often confrontational listening experience, but the oddly bewitching beauty of Nico's songs offers a small light in the bleak glacial world enveloping them.
Perhaps a clue is on the front cover, Nico's famous blonde locks dyed black, and no sign of the obvious classical beauty of before. She still looks beautiful, with her high cheekbones and pale skin, but it's not a warm, radiating beauty. It's unconventional - and that is most definitely reflected in the music.
Multi-instrumentalist John Cale is Nico's main collaborator, arranging the songs and playing a variety of strange, quirky instruments to support Nico's deep brooding vocals and off-kilter harmonium accompaniment. The presence of the wheezing Indian harmonium as the foundation for the songs lends The Marble Index an even more disturbing and unconventional quality. As Cale noted, no other instruments were in tune with the harmonium so he set about creating a world where the instruments were juxtaposed to create the unnerving effects.
The album begins with the haunting "Prelude," a bewitching minute-long introduction into the claustrophobic, bleak sound world that ensues with "Lawns of Dawns," where Nico showcases her vastly improved vocals. On her own material, her voice sounds strangely beautiful and commanding, in comparison to some of her less satisfying previous performances.
"No One Is There" is a song of stark beauty, with Nico's deep voice singing a bewitching melody over the top of Cale's mournful viola. The wheezing "Ari's Song" is a sad ode to her young son, with a funereal melody. The crashing "Facing the Wind" is quite simply one of the most frightening and disturbing songs committed to 'popular music' tape, with Cale's arrangement expertly adding to the drama and intensity of Nico's relatively simple yet disturbing composition.
"Julius Caesar (Memento Hodie)" is one of the album's best showcases for Nico's voice and harmonium work, while "Frozen Warnings" is one of the few compositions to feature a somewhat optimistic, comparatively light melody. All changes with the closing "Evening of Light," perhaps the album's most beautiful and intense composition, marrying all of the elements explored already on the record into a claustrophobic, bewildering hymn.
Lyrically, Nico is rarely clear in the messages she tries to get across, but especially for a woman for whom English is not at all a mother tongue she has a command of the poetics of the language, and her imagery is often quite fantastical. But what one can deduce from the album is that she sings of the darker side of life; this is not an album to be played for an uplifting experience.
The Marble Index stands as one of the most important albums in the rock era. With her new dark image, Nico influenced a legion of gothic musicians but did not resort to thrashing guitars and thick, theatrical make-up to scare her audiences. Indeed, the music does that for itself. It's a stark, icy album, with moments of immense and unexpected beauty. Nico's voice is stronger than her previous work would have you believe, and though her songs are simple they are transformed into disturbing hymns and requiems by John Cale's arrangements and instrumental skill. The Marble Index is a timeless album. Listening to it, you would not easily guess that it was recorded in 1968. The sounds are as clear and pristine and electrifying today as they were decades ago, and this remains one of the most uncompromising albums ever to get a major label release. Likewise, Nico's songs have a medieval quality to them, and one can envisage her sitting alone in a cathedral centuries ago pounding out these intense declarations. It's not an easy listening experience, but that was never the intention. The Marble Index will still sound timeless and intense in centuries to come.