If you wandered into the Bootleg Theater in Silverlake last Thursday night just before 9, you would have seen about 50 mostly middle-aged people sitting at scratched-up bar tables laughing and drinking, interrupted suddenly by six musicians, also mainly middle-aged, who joked as they entered the room, stepped onto a crowded old stage, and set up and tuned their instruments.
They started playing some of the tightest blues/rock music I've heard in years. A few minutes later, another guy unassumingly made his way to a barstool, where he began to read something.
Then a 5'5"ish woman in her 30s whose most prominent feature was straight mid-shoulder length platinum hair and bangs that crashed into her black fake eyelashes, walked on stage without introduction and without acknowledging in any way either the band or the guy on the stool. Her face expressionless, she stood next to him, stared straight through the audience and began singing something like "Everybody Knows" in an imperious, deep, sharply enunciated, German accented voice.
I'd first heard her at a friend's annual music biz party last August. My fiancé Michael, also a music guy, told me she was channeling Nico. My blank look prompted him to explain that the real Nico sang with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground back in the '60s, a bit before my time and beyond my then Midwest sensibilities.
But that hardly mattered because she and the virtuoso guitarist accompanying her were so talented and entertaining, I didn't need to know the deeper context. That night we learned she'd be performing in February again, and resolved to catch her act..
Onstage at the Bootleg after she sang another song, the guy on the stool said with an Aussie accent, "thank you Nico! That was great!" He pulled out a vinyl album cover and asked her questions about the record, the recording sessions, her dalliances with Reed, Bob Dylan, David Bowie et al, in an ever-more enthusiastic, smarmy tone. Sometimes she answered in lascivious detail, sometimes she glared at him, or ranted about "too much flute (stretching out the uuuu)," or wandered off on a tangent about some seemingly random subject. Once she really did wander off, eventually commandeering the keyboards where she sat and worked out the music for a mysterious number, singing just loud enough for us to have to strain to hear her.
The musicians -- besides the guitarist -- were a keyboardist, wind (flute, piccolo, recorder, sax, some kind of whistle, kazoo?) player, a drummer, violinist and bassist. I figured they had to be top studio vets. They seamlessly accompanied Nico and when she allowed solos, each was spectacular. At one point, we heard symphonic violin; almost the next second, it felt like we were dancing to a Cajun fiddler at a crawdad fry.
Everyone the obsequious Aussie asked about and every song Nico sang that I recognized, hailed from the '60s and '70s. Even when she seemed to refer to a very current phenomenon, she was playing us. Nico was appearing back then, whenever that was.
So where/when were we? What was the Aussie doing on the concert stage? Why did he seem to be interviewing her, and why holding/referring only to vinyl record covers? The primary clue was a postcard inviting people to "Chelsea Madchen." I decided I must be in a time warp, a delightful, slightly heartbreaking return trip to high school and college, where the only requirement is being sufficiently vertical to make it to 8 a.m. English Lit.
Nico (a.k.a. Tammy Lang) is not scheduled to perform in LA again soon. But I hope everyone who saw her the night I did or the two nights following, or in New York or Palm Springs, was so bewitched that the only way to avert a riot is to get her back on stage.
For a more factual, less fanciful explication of Chelsea Madchen, read Michael's take elsewhere on this site.