I keep remembering the weekend I spent shooting dope with Nico. Even 200+ pounds, with every last bit of health having long fled the pogrom of her junky mouth, leaving only corpse teeth and rotting stumps, Nico was still about eight feet of striking Teutonic Presence. Those cheekbones and that voice, almost sepulchral – both those bones and that voice would seize in your chest, catch you up like a sudden temperature drop.
Her caftan kept catching on her track mark scabs, which looked to me like sutures, stitched and black, and she kept a constant Budweiser in her enormous German paw. I found it baffling, upsetting even, that she would drink such a shitty American beer. I only drank Molsen at the time, typically purloined from whatever bar we were performing at. One can afford snobbery when one is a thief.
We were doing a Velvet Underground cover-band that night, opening for Nico. I “played” her, and sang “I’ll be your mirror” in sheer panic as my idol appeared to listen, with majestic tilt to her entire body. Afterwards she drawled “I haaate that song” to my apologetic (apoplectic) genuflection.
Several years before this zenith in my junked out rock-n-roll debacle, I had decided to at least physically emulate a Factory-era Nico. I loved the VU, but more specifically I was in awe of the boys in my life, all of who loved VU. At eighteen I’d cropped my unkempt seventies, no-frills, parted-down-the-middle hippie hair into sixties long, sharp bangs. I’d considered doing the whole white lipstick, white boots schtick; I couldn’t have come up with this on my own. At the urging of my boy friends I imagined morphing into this iconic, nearly abstract, monolith of all things powerful and female, German mystery, a ship’s prow, the seduction of Jim Morrison, Alain Delon, a nearly pedophilic relationship with a baby Jackson Browne. When it came to totemic femininity I had less than nothing, and so was eager to sell myself out to the wet dreams of (other) young men, men who evidently thought I could do a reasonable Nico.
But at the end of the day, I resented being told I looked like her, or like Chrissie Hynde whom I was now beginning to resemble with my black hair and bangs and excessive eyeliner. Truly I think I more closely resembled Robert Smith, but no-one said that to my face.
I cast about, sometimes frantically for a moment at least, for some model, some woman I might be. (My mother was about the least feminine woman I knew, occasionally needing Father’s aide to dress herself – she had an unfortunate predilection for vivid pinks and bright oranges.) My girlfriends seemed to have some birthright access to a sense of feminine style – even if it was androgynous they would rock that like Annie Lennox. There were hairstyles and skin care, boots and blouses; there was foundation and blush and powder and brow-liners, marching and replicating like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and there I was like Mickey, turning and double-taking and dropping things and tripping and falling, terrified I would get caught, be found out. Femininity was like an episode of Fear Factor, whereupon I was forced to endure powders and unguents, busy well-intentioned workwoman hands with sponges and brushes clogging every pore, blanketing my skin, my being, until I was choking, choking…
I managed. I found my niche. The eighties were a wonderful place to roam the labyrinth of Maybelline – makeup could be extreme, Kabuki, and men were wearing it too. You find your way, you make your peace, although when you’re a big dyke, gay men and pretty women feel obliged, eager even, to corner you into a makeover.
Like Nico, I eventually found my way to methadone. Unlike Nico, this enabled me to survive ten more years until I could start to find recovery. She died, I believe, after riding her bike on a beach, her body ill-equipped after years of destruction, to handle her new-found lust for life.
I’m lucky I got to be raised a woman, even though I feel like Mowgli in “The Jungle Book” sometimes: having learned the harsh and beautiful ways and laws of the natural world I now must walk amongst “civilized” men with little idea how to do so.
Having often felt I was doing a piss-poor job of being a woman, I now of course fear the same as a man. But this just makes me human, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s not your expression of gender that you “fail” at – maybe it’s being a parent, or a friend, or someone your age. These constructs are all just ideas – they’re not even real, and yet they sometimes trap me like that paralytic moment between dreams and awakening, where I panic because I can’t raise my eyelid and things are encroaching in the shadowy periphery, sleep threatening to gulp me down again.
But we will wake up; we always do right?