A little-known fact: Jackson Browne was once a member of the Velvet Underground.
Not really. But not far off. I have a correspondent in Tokyo, a magazine editor, who tells me that the current crop of young people in Japan is sometimes called the “Reissued-CD Generation.” This makes me very uncomfortable. Perhaps because of my own experience as a teenager in the 1960s, I am quite attached to the idea of young people creating and listening to rock music for and by their peers and contemporaries. And in San Diego anyway, this is happening in a wonderfully hearty and healthy fashion. You know this if you tried to shove your way into the “benefit for free records” held recently on the UCSD campus featuring Aminor Forest, Staccato Reads, and Three Mile Pilot, or any number of equivalent shows at the Casbah or SOMA or Bodie’s. Young ears know what speaks to them, which is something (an immediacy, a kind of telepathy, a constant reinvention of language) I’ve always liked about rock and roll.
But this is anyway an essay by a nonteenager about a reissued CD, kind of obscure, joyful to listen to in its own right, and also a fascinating locus of semi-famous or legendary figures from the rock world in 1967: the first solo album by Nico, called Chelsea Girl. It spoke to me then (even though Nico was five, or maybe ten, years older than I was) to some extent, but I always thought (influenced by the point of view of fellow Velvets fans, probably) that it had been spoiled by the strings the producer added onto it. A few years ago I pulled it out, wanting to hear one or two of these songs again, and discovered how wrong I’d been.
The strings are a delight. The album is marvelous — such great songs, such seemingly different dispositions pulled together into such a consistent, unique, articulate world view by the power of the performance, the strength of the artist’s personality. A secret classic. A triumph.
One woman and all those men, and it seems as though every commentator I’ve read has missed the point, which is that the woman is totally in charge. She dominates them all, as she should, because it’s her album. The men may think, and the commentators seem to believe that what entrances them is her beauty and her cool, romantic air of mystery. But in fact the beauty and the air are themselves the result of what really entrances, which is her self-confident sense of what she’s doing: her artistic vision.
She takes, for example, Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” and the song is his no longer — in fact, when he finally recorded it, six years later, I was disappointed — he failed to capture the extraordinary magic that she imbued the song with. Perhaps the song had gotten old for him. But Nico’s perfect recording of it never will.
Clinton Heylin, in his essential pre-punk history, From the Velvets to the Voidoids, says, “The first Nico solo album, recorded between the first two Velvets albums, could easily have been an alternative Velvet Underground and Nico.” (V.U.’s first album, prominent on the “greatest discs of all time” lists of both critics and musicians in the ’80s and ’90s; Nico was forced out or quit the band before the second album.) Heylin cites the five (of ten) songs written by members of the Velvets (Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison), and the musical accompaniment they provide, notes that two of the songs had been previously recorded (unissued) by the V.U. and another evolved from a standard improvisation piece from their live shows, and concludes that Chelsea Girl could as well be called Nico and the Velvet Underground. I concur — it’s closer to being part of the essential Velvet oeuvre than any other non-Velvet record, including those made by Reed or Cale, especially because these are the only available recordings of all five of these songs, and they are arguably prime examples of the Velvets’ skewed genius — confounding examples, because ultimately they are under the direction not of Lou or John, but of Nico, the odd girl out.
I was really pissed off at the way Oliver Stone portrayed Nico in his movie The Doors . Stone, wouldn’tcha know, turns her into a pathetic bimbo. Easy enough to do with a heroin user and a woman with a definite penchant for attractive and visible males (she bore actor Alain Delon’s son before she even met any of these rock and rollers) — but the Oliver Stones of this world and their male rock-critic equivalents, all nominally feminists, never give Hendrix or Lennon or JFK the same treatment. Women as angels or whores, same old story. But I digress: Jackson Browne.
Jackson Browne was 18, a kid from Orange County visiting New York City, drawn to the Dom on St. Marks Place because his hero Tim Buckley (also from Orange County) was playing there, doing a set of his own and also backing resident chanteuse Nico (she played in the downstairs bar when she and the Velvets weren’t playing the big room upstairs or some out-of-town engagement). And, well, to make a long story short, young Jackson ended up accompanying Nico on guitar at the Dom for several months (Tim Hardin, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Rambling Jack Elliott had also had the same job, as had a tape-recording of Reed and Cale, but none for more than a day or two at a time) and living with her in her apartment on West 81st and Columbus.
He also wrote three of the ten songs on Chelsea Girl and played guitar behind her on most of the songs. So you see, if Chelsea Girl is almost a great lost Velvet Underground album (and it is, it is), Jackson Browne is almost a great lost Velvet member, even if Jonathan Richman would have been more appreciative of the honor.
But the music. It starts memorably, beautifully, unforgettably, as a great single or album must, and what it starts with is 15 seconds of solo guitar strumming by Jackson Browne. This sets the mood, a mood of great confidence, quietude, and grace. The guitar all but disappears at the 15th second, as the voice and then the strings come in, and guitar is then felt rather than heard throughout most of the album, but it’s always there, with a matter-of-factness that matches Nico’s vocal presence, and a subtle warmth (and sweetness, even) that seems to contradict it. And then the first words: “Now that it’s time...”