The Quiet Power of Nico’s ‘These Days’

Christa Päffgen, “Nico”

There are some songs that are enigmas of time, as if they have been stitched into the framework of the human condition — or contrarily, if they have always existed in the winds and meadows, or looming on lonely city streets, waiting to be heard. Nico’s These Days, written by a 16 year-old Jackson Browne and first recorded by Nico on her 1967 album Chelsea Girl, is one of these timeless gems. The song was a perfect fit for the model-turned-singer Nico, who, like the song, was something of a mysterious and haunting paramour herself. “I’ve been out walking…,” the song begins, in Nico’s signature deep, velvety drawl. In fact, Nico was always “out walking,” as she lived a bohemian lifestyle in which she took her restless soul wherever she wanted, whenever she wanted, almost like a “gypsy,” as her son Ari states in the 1995 documentary Nico Icon by Susanne Ofteringer. She famously reinvented herself from the blonde bombshell of her modeling days — the Nico of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s Neo-Realism film, La Dolce Vita (1960) — to an enigmatic, shadowy figure devoted solely to her music, a Nico who dressed all in black whose music video for “Evening of Light” with Iggy Pop featured a burning cross in the night in 1969, as seen in Nico Icon. Nico, or Christa Päffgen, “the singer, songwriter, actress, model, Ur-Goth, certified harmonium genius, muse, junkie, and constant source of fascination… haunts the present in much the same way as she haunted the 1960’s — if you search hard enough, she appears everywhere you look. She alone is the connective tissue between many otherwise disparate worlds: Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Jim Morrison, Fellini and Warhol, Pink Floyd and Brian Eno” (Hough). Her ability to embrace her creative persona and float amongst the outskirts of society as a deeply personal, original, and elusive artist is something that has not really been seen before or since in the music industry.

The power of These Days is that it captures Nico’s counteractive duality of nonchalance and seriousness, a duality not uncommon in the alternative, underground, and punk scenes throughout the late twentieth century. In the last stanza of the song, the lines “These days, these days/These days I sit on corner stones/And count the time in quarter tones to ten/Please don’t confront me with my failure/I had not forgotten them,” perfectly alludes to the sullenness that Nico, as well as many other people who feel like outcasts for any reason, feel and their constant introspective thoughts on themselves and their place in the world. Nico sought more than just being a beautiful model, which is why she ditched her cool blonde hair and sultry looks for a more authentic version of herself. With this, she was no longer tied to her beauty, and thus could no longer be objectified by men. Nico was free to be herself and create music. However, she began to suffer from addiction, and spent 25 years of her life dependent on heroin. Eventually, though she managed to quit heroin in the last few years of her life, she died from a hemorrhage at age 49. Though there are highs and lows of every life, hers was one filled with much sorrow and loneliness, and was greatly dysfunctional at times. The lines from These Days, “These days I seem to think a lot/About the things that I forgot to do/And all the times I had the chance to” might relate perfectly to the lives and deaths of other creative geniuses like Nico, such a Jim Morrison, who was her lover, collaborator, and friend. People like Nico and Morrison lived on the outskirts society and embraced their outsider status, for better or for worse. They challenged the status quo by simply being themselves. Though with this kind of lifestyle, their lives were unfortunately often wild, sullen, and short.

A still from Wes Anderson’s ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ (2001), in the famous scene where ‘These Days’ is played
Cat Power is one of many musicians who have covered Nico’s iconic song

This is where the quiet, haunting beauty of These Days feels so relevant, and continues to be a source of inspiration for musicians, filmmakers, and artists. Many artists who record These Days do not change much about Nico’s original delivery of Jackson Browne’s lines. Indeed, artists like “St. Vincent, Everything But the Girl, Tom Rush, Kathryn Williams, Elliot Smith and The Tallest Man on Earth have all performed it without departing too far from Nico’s template” (Hann). Wes Anderson used the song in a pivotal moment in his 2001 film, The Royal Tenenbaums when Richie meets his adoptive sister Margot, who is also his forbidden true love, at a bus station. Most recently on January 14th of this year, the alternative singer Cat Power released her own version of Nico’s These Days on an album that also included covers of songs by Lana Del Ray, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Billie Holiday, Frank Ocean, and more. Without a doubt, the relevancy of These Days remains strong. This is because people continue to be fascinated by the song’s quiet reflection on a life gone by, and all the heavy thinking that comes with lost time. People, though they try, cannot defeat the passing of time and the regret that comes with it. They also cannot defeat death. As Nico’s former manager Alan Wise recounts in Nico Icon, she was very interested in death and decay. Nico was bored of life, and instead looked to death with intrigue as well as for inspiration. Wise says that this made Nico admirable, as she was always searching for something, never content with how things were. All of this uncertainty, sadness, loneliness, and frustration is tied up into the quiet melody that is These Days, and it is what attracts contemporary artists who admire Nico’s sorrowful voice and the song’s ability to reveal the hidden sorrows and anxieties of time and place. When the song plays, it is alive — soft, intense, reflective, beautiful, and fleeting — until it is gone, much too soon, just like Nico herself.

Notes

Hann, Michael. “These Days — a song of regret and remembrance written by the 16-year-old Jackson Browne.” Financial Times, Feb. 10, 2020, https://ig.ft.com/life-of-a-song/these-days.html. Accessed March 13, 2022.

Hough, Billy. “Nico: There She Goes Again, a Meditation on Death, Beauty and Artistry.” Please Kill Me, Oct. 24, 2019, https://pleasekillme.com/nico-primer/. Accessed March 13, 2022.

Ofteringer, Susanne. “Nico Icon.” YouTube, uploaded by BlisterKitten, Feb. 26, 2014,

https://youtu.be/R1vkiQdEU7M.

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