Rewind: Jorge Socarras on “You Forgot To Answer”

Posted: August 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

In discussion with Jorge Socarras about “You Forgot To Answer” by Nico, from the album “The End” (1974).

What makes this song so special for you? Are there personal experiences involved or is it more a decision of musical taste?

For me a song that is truly special effects a seamless conflation of aesthetic and subjective elements. The combination allows me, as listener, to at the same time admire and experience the song. We could say that it blurs the distinction between objective and subjective, balances the either/or of the question. This is precisely what I find so special about “You Forgot To Answer”.

Nico seemed to be very determined and uncompromising with what she wanted to do as an artist. How would you place this song in her musical history?

I see this song as representing the pinnacle of her musical achievement. The artistic promise that she showed on “Chelsea Girl” and “The Velvet Underground with Nico” is at “The End” stage fully realized. Not to say that these early achievements aren’t beautiful and worthwhile – on the contrary. But her artistry is most unmistakably individuated and formidable on “The End” album, especially in “You Forgot To Answer”. That uncompromising quality you mention is so articulated and refined in this song that one could almost interpret it as a refutal of her earlier, more celebrity-identified persona (or personas). John Cale, of course, played no small part in Nico’s coming to artistic maturation. Their creative relationship was so evidently mutually inspiring – she playing muse, he Svengali. She was the ideal songstress and he the ideal arranger for the quite serious music they envisioned.

Apparently Nico wrote this song about her former lover Jim Morrison. Do you think this fact distracts from its impact?

Myself, I never knew the biographical details of most of Nico’s music until long after I had cultivated my appreciation of it, and I’ve long avoided researching anything specific about the Morrison connection to “You Forgot To Answer” because while it may lend a certain cache to the song, and might perhaps enrich the biographical-psychological understanding of the artist’s intent, I don’t believe it necessarily enhances the artistry of the song itself, or the existential experiencing of it.

The production of the song still sounds very contemporary but how did it compare to other music of that time when it was originally released?

“You Forgot To Answer” sounds as contemporary now as it did 35 years ago, and I dare say it will sound as contemporary in another 35 years. But contemporary in this sense does not necessarily align the song with most of the music at the time it was recorded, or even now. Herein lies the brilliance of the arrangement. There are four distinctive parts in the arrangement: piano, guitar, synthesizer, and of course voice. John Cale’s piano is as unabashedly romantic as a Chopin or Beethoven sonata. Phil Manzanera’s guitar part is classically Spanish, and Eno’s synthesizer sounds are deliberately dissonant, anti-classical – the stuff of a science-fiction soundtrack. Nico, singing in a style akin to the German art song, bridges and makes a cohesive whole of all the parts. The overall effect is classical in the sense of being removed from any particular identifiable period. There is certainly nothing identifiably rock and roll or very New Wave about the song – apart perhaps from its poetic sense of alienation, a quality which Nico voices with supreme elegance. It’s a quality that singers such as Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya evoked to less extreme in their own unique styles. Theirs was a more wry detachment; Nico takes detachment all the way – past the point of no return. Her voice is poised beyond hope or despair – it asks nothing, expects nothing – only that one listen.

Do you think Nico is still an important influence for other singers?

While she isn’t normally categorized as a new wave singer, Nico’s vocal style – her low range, flat pitch, and deadpan delivery – were, I believe, influences on many singers of the genre, most notably Siouxsie Sioux, and others in turn, such as Poly Styrene, who affected (or merely affirmed) a flat singing style, a stylistic trait that became readily, if at times unconsciously, identified with much New Wave music. Nico’s influence certainly wasn’t limited to female singers, David Sylvian being a striking example. Her own voice was so androgynous – even more so than Dietrich’s – a significant factor in its haunting allure. I certainly hear her influence in some of my songs both with Indoor Life and Catholic.

Nico led quite a cosmopolitan life, but in her music she maintained this Teutonic stature. Do you place her in a German musical tradition?

Without delving into a thesis of potentially biographical dimension, I would venture that Nico’s Teutonic and/or Germanic style is an overlapping of personal and collective history. She was a child of World War II, lost her father to the War. Here the stage is set for profound grief and mourning. It is not uncommon for artists as they mature to draw on their collective cultural roots for expressive modes. Nico seemed to reach back into Germanic musical tradition for a suitable means of expressing her and her generation’s emotions of suffering and loss. Her signature propensity for singing consistently flat, and her deeply resonant delivery serve to enhance a sense of spiritual estrangement. In this sense she is very much in the German Romantic and expressionist traditions as well – hers could be the spirit voice of Büchner! While much of the material she chose to sing had dark emotional shadings, she could also bring out these colorations in a popular romantic ballad like “My Funny Valentine”, which she renders with a sadness no other singer had ever quite given it.

Why do you think a lot of her music was so decidedly dark and haunting?

I think part of her uncompromising fearlessness as an artist was to deconstruct her own earlier persona as beauty queen, model, Fellini and Warhol star, etc., that is to say, to destroy the image of herself as an object of beauty. She did so by swinging to the far extreme, both in her music, and by physically ravaging herself. Nico insisted on being heard as she needed to be – not as others deemed. This became her artistic struggle and her literal undoing. “You Forgot To Answer” exemplifies this perfectly in its tone and its lyrics. It is the epitome (or nadir) of her dark and haunted vision. It might well be about the last time she saw Jim Morrison, but metaphorically at least, if not fundamentally, I think it is as much about saying goodbye to herself as she once was –sung as much from her own grave as across to his.

You once mentioned to me that you met Nico in person. Was she like you expected her to be?

I met her in personal circumstances that I rather not go into in great detail [laughs]. Suffice to say they involved drugs and a boa constrictor. I actually behaved much more in accordance with my expectations of her than she did. This is to say I acted freakishly, while she was actually fun, and laughed a good deal. Oh, that laugh of hers – like a ghostly Santa Claus!

If Nico would have lived for longer, what would have her career developed to?

This is of course the one-million-dollar prize question. And here I return to “You Forgot To Answer” as an indication of what she was capable of: songs that are timeless – musically, poetically, and existentially. I think her standing as an artist might have risen above that of a cult figure, even though of course she already is a Teutonic goddess.

Sounds Like Me 08/09

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