Today is the birthday of Christa Päffgen, better-known to the world as Nico, and it’s also the birthday of someone I knew once upon a time, and that confluence is interesting, to me anyway, because it gives me the opportunity to post about a Jackson Browne song that was first recorded by Nico for the Chelsea Girls album, released in Nico’s birthday month. Browne was featured earlier this month for his birthday, and he plays guitar on today's song—this song that was used so tellingly in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), one of my favorite films this century.
“These Days,” in Browne’s version from For Everyman (1973), accosted me one glum late fall—1978 to be exact. I well recall how apropos were the lines “I’ve been out walking / I don’t do too much talking / These days,” mooning around the autumnal suburban lanes, lanes that, it seemed, I might never get shut of, lanes already steeped in the heavy heart of every mooning walk I’d taken throughout my teens. And the song was perfect for that mood, which it articulates so well: “I had a lover / I don’t think I’ll risk another / These days.” Grandiose, when you’re 19, but that’s how it feels.
Because it is always a risk, the merging of lovers, or at least it is for a super-sensitive guy like Jackson Browne, who dated Nico for a time. It’d be different if one were just looking for a companion at the table and in the bed, but there’s always so much that might be revealed, especially if you make any kind of effort, on those pillows or across that table. Risk exposure, risk being misunderstood. Risk caring, even.
It’s a melancholy song, and it’s surprising to hear Nico singing it like she means it. Nico? She always looks like some Teutonic ice queen—though I suppose one could also say she looks like a heroine under a spell. That voice of minimal inflection makes us feel that feeling is waning. “These days I seem to think a lot / About the things that I forgot to do / And all the times I had the chance to.” Just listen to how she delivers those last four words. Digs you right into a pit. And try to ignore Tom Wilson’s string arrangement, though it’s not so cloying as it might be. Still, this song should be Browne’s guitar and maybe some Cale viola. That would sell it.
And there’s something to that idea of being afraid to live the life made in song. I give Browne a lot of credit for that line—because it’s saying that what you say in song is more than what you can live up to, at times. Art outruns us. We linger, languish behind. And that concluding line: “Please don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them” makes you feel this couldn’t get any more bathetic. Though Nico seems to smile slightly as she sings it, as if the memory of how she has failed maybe makes her laugh at herself a bit. And that’s welcome, as the song is so fraught with a worried mind, an inner landscape desolate and weary.
In Tenenbaums, the song plays as Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow, sullenly wistful) reunites with her brother-by-adoption Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson, almost catatonic) as Anderson uses his characteristic slow motion to make the scene suddenly inhabit, quite lyrically, the ache and nostalgia of the song, no doubt because the big line (even though we don’t hear it onscreen)—“It’s just that I’ve been losing, sooooooo lonnnng”—sums up Richie’s current state, ever since Margot’s marriage.
Nico, who I did see perform in 1979 (she died in 1988), was a bit scary, in my view, and she became more so as she went on. She went from looking like the accursed heroine to the witch casting the spell, so that there was something tragic about her, as though she were forever part of some twilight kingdom, or a netherworld, some place where they only come out at night. On today’s song there is warmth though, thanks mainly to the flair in Browne’s guitar, shading Nico’s leaden vocal with softness, fondness.
Only yesterday I mentioned that there are ghosts one doesn’t bother to revive any more, using Bob Mould’s idea that “the ones who said you’re great will find another way.” Those you thought the world of, too, will be “over” and you’ll move on. Though you might carry that weight a long time.
And I wonder if I’ll see another highway