I never thought Nico would make me feel 14 again.
That's exactly what happened last week when I caught Tammy Lang's performance of Chelsea Madchen, a fabulous show in which she eerily reincarnates the late singer and Warhol superstar Nico, who, with the Velvet Underground, made some of the greatest music of the '60s.
I was blessed to be 14 when the Beatles broke, so I appreciate music critic Steve Hochman's insight that, "The real legacy (of the Beatles) is that many of us were so deeply impacted by the music when we first heard it that we've been on a lifelong quest to have that experience again and again."
It's impossible to fully recapture the magic of a life-changing musical experience. But Lang, at times looking and sounding more Nico-ish than Nico herself, was a revelation as she and her wonderful band assayed Velvets classics "Femme Fatale," "All Tomorrow's Parties" and "I'll Be Your Mirror," along with "Chelsea Girls" from Nico's second solo album. (Of course, the gloriously decadent Velvets, whose record sales were literally off the charts [and not in a good way], were a nihilistic counterpoint to the joyous chart domination of the Beatles.)
Chelsea Madchen also tells a hilarious story. Lang, heretofore best known as the sacrilegious evangelical country thrush Tammy Faye Starlite, nails the mid-'80s Nico, utterly bored by a series of inane questions from an earnest but clueless Aussie radio journalist. Using dialogue from the actual Nico's interview with an actual Aussie journalist along with other documented comments, Lang/Nico ignores the hapless fellow's questions in favor of awkward silences, narcissistic non sequiturs, and deadpan insults to the geniuses who helped her along.
Lou Reed, writer of all the aforementioned songs, was, she scoffs in a pitch-perfect German-accented droll, "A usurper of souls, like a cat." Chet Baker was an inspiration "when he had teeth." And Wordsworth -- whose phrase "Marble Index" Nico appropriated for her second solo album -- is just another acolyte who steals her poetry.
A side-splitting set piece is built around the real Nico's rant against the flute part in "Chelsea Girls": "The first time I heard the album, I cried, and it was all because of the flute." As Lang sings verse after verse, she first destroys the flutist's flute, then strips the enterprising musician of an endless succession of flute-like music makers. Just when Nico feels flute-free, the guy commences whistling.
In character to the end, Tammy, exits abruptly -- without ever acknowledging her band, which included Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello and the Attractions on drums and Lisa Germano on violin -- after a stirring version of Reed's "Waiting for the Man." (She also sang "The End," but not at the end). The silence that substituted for an encore was exactly what Nico would have wanted.
A couple of years after the heyday of the Beatles and the Velvets, then rock critic Jon Landau famously praised an unknown rocker from South Jersey, saying, "I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." What's not as well known are Landau's previous words, "I saw my rock and roll past flash before my eyes." Chelsea Madchen offers a flash of rock and roll's past, present and future to Nico/Velvets fans as well as newcomers to the music.
After three nights at the Bootleg Theater in Silverlake, Lang and Chelsea Madchen were off to Palm Springs. Future dates TBA -- let's hope some enterprising producer grabs it for an extended run. I'd see it again in a heartbeat.
For a less linear take on Chelsea Madchen, see the blog by my femme fatale, Wendy, elsewhere on this site.
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