13. On Interpretation

‘These Days’ – Nico


In Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the music scene of the 60s is reimagined through a distorting lens. Here’s a throwaway line about Simon and Garfunkel:

To listen to Carly Simon sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is to understand how much Guinevere Garfunkel brought to the table in that partnership.

Aside from its cheeky grandstanding – swapping Carly for Paul; turning the pair into a female duo – the main point stands: it’s too easy to fall for the cult of the singer-songwriter, to overlook what the specialist singer can bring. Nico’s ravishing chamber-folk classic These Days is a case in point. The guitarist on this recording is Jackson Browne, the song’s teenage composer. But in Rushdie’s formulation, we only have to listen to Browne’s own version to understand what Nico brings to the table.

Ignoring the differences in arrangement, the contrast in vocal delivery couldn’t be starker. Browne’s, unfortunately, reeks of smugness, the self-satisfaction of a songwriter who knows he’s penned a nifty set of lyrics: there’s no interpretation. In Browne’s hands that final line – “Don’t confront me with my failures. / I had not forgotten them” – is insufferable, the sound of someone who simply doesn’t believe in these failures in the first place. As if to drive the matter home, the song is so pleased with itself at this point that it refuses to end, launching into another vast slide guitar solo. Actually, let’s not ignore the arrangements. Midpaced, with its tinkling piano, those guitar solos, its predictable third-above harmonies, Browne’s is an off-the-shelf formula: it’s shorthand for pretty-boy resignation – an Athena poster of James Dean gazing sorrowfully into the distance. I’ve mentioned it before, with Mississippi John Hurt’s Stack O’Lee Blues or Brel’s La Mort, but I like it when songs aren’t so literal in their connection between subject matter and arrangement.

Which brings us back to Nico. Like some of the other tracks on Chelsea Girl, there’s a pleasing tension in the string arrangements: intrinsically gothic, yet surprisingly jaunty. But of course it’s Nico’s voice that really matters. When Browne’s lyrics slip into whimsy  (“These days I sit on cornerstones / And count the time in quarter tones”), Nico’s tone – mournful, flat – can cover it up; when the lyrics are at their best – when they keep it simple – Nico’s interpretation is devastating: just take those gaps at the end of each verse – “all the times I had … the chance to”.

There’s no need to pretend that Nico was a wonderful human being. One doesn’t have to look hard to find stories of her racism, her anti-semitism, of her introducing her son to heroin. But, unlike Browne, when she sings “Please don’t confront me with my failures”, these are failures we can believe in, the sound of old Europe in all its ravaged, vampiric monstrousness. That’s what Nico brings to the table.

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