‘Nico: Underground’: A night with a doomed diva

Tammy Faye Starlite as Nico.

Tammy Faye Starlite as Nico in “Nico: Underground.”

“Is that my camera?” asks the platinum blonde, staring blankly at the ceiling. “No, Nico,” replies her interviewer. “This is radio.”

That exchange perfectly captures the fine line between comedy and tragedy tread by “Nico: Underground,” the often hilarious yet unflinchingly honest look at the famous Teutonic songstress, performed at WFMU-FM’s Monty Hall in Jersey City on Friday

Hoboken singer and actress Tammy Faye Starlite portrays Nico in the play, which re-creates a true-life interview in which the aging singer discussed her life, often nonplussing her interviewer by gazing emptily into space, rolling her eyes, or replying with bizarre non sequiturs. (Asked about her performances in a series of French art films, Nico replies, “That Liza Minnelli never shuts her mouth!”)

The show was tweaked for Monty Hall (named because it’s located on the first floor of WFMU’s studios on Montgomery Avenue), with WFMU deejay Chris T. acting as the interviewer, as if Nico were still alive and promoting a tour on the station. Starlite’s excellent band, fronted by her husband Keith Hartel on guitar and bass, shared the stage, performing the best-known songs from Nico’s discography between the interview segments.

Starlite plays Nico as a cross between a druggy space case and a haughty diva in the over-the-top style of Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.” With her long, straight blonde locks and a raccoon-like layer of black eye makeup, Starlite truly transforms herself into Nico, never more convincingly than when she’s crooning well-remembered tunes with Nico’s trademark accent: The Velvet Underground’s
“Femme Fatale,” David Bowie’s “Heroes,” Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and the Doors’ “The End” were just a few of the hits supposedly written for Nico, whose powers as a muse and seductress clearly outweighed her musical gifts.

Starlite makes no bones about the fact that this woman is a mess; Nico walks out on stage with only one leg of her jeans tucked into her knee-high boots, absently sucking the wrong end of a cigarette. At times, she seems thrilled to be allowed this chance to tell her story, but her mind – or what’s left of it – will just as quickly flip to contemptuous disdain for her interviewer. Chris T. as her interlocutor – his first time in the role – plays the straight man perfectly, at times framing his questions with the academic pomposity of James Lipton but frequently shaking his head despondently at Nico’s incomprehensible answers.

The real Nico, on the cover of her 1967 album, "Chelsea Girl."

The real Nico, on the cover of her 1967 album, “Chelsea Girl.”

This was a woman entirely without affect, who lived in her own universe; as she discusses her lovers and collaborators (including Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, John Cale, Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison and Jimmy Page), Starlite as Nico casually tosses off racist and anti-Semitic remarks, completely unaware they might offend. Starlite’s not above getting a cheap laugh; she practically disembowels musician Craig Hoek as he plays the flute part Nico reportedly hated on “Chelsea Girls.” But for every chortle, there’s a counterpoint moment when Nico’s blithe obtuseness and damaged psyche evoke pity and sadness.

The band seamlessly recreates every stage of Nico’s career, from her landmark songs with the Velvet Underground through her later solo work, which ranged from hard rock to cabaret jazz. Besides Hartel and Hoek, the band includes Ray Kubian on drums and percussion, Dave Dunton on piano and Richard Feridun on guitar. Starlite, under her real name T.D. Lang, spent four years fine-tuning the script, which she compiled from actual interviews and videos of Nico, as well as biographies and interviews with those who knew her.

If there’s anything off about the show, it’s simply that Starlite has a much fuller and more supple singing voice than Nico ever had. For anyone who’s never heard the original records, it’s difficult to comprehend just how unlikely and truly absurd Nico’s career was.

In 1971, rock critic Lester Bangs described Nico thusly: “Austere, elusive, a tall ghostly woman with an aura of utter loneliness and distance so stark and total it’s positively medieval, as if she belonged to this century only in having verbalized her sense of estrangement from it.” Tammy Faye Starlite brings that dichotomy to life, presenting a woman who collided with some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century but was seemingly unaware of any talent but her own.

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