Leonard Cohen Recommends Harmonium, Helps Nico Get Her Song


Nico performs at the Rameau Room in Lyon – Dec 1973. Note the bottle at the foot of the instrument. Photo ©StevieDixon

Leonard Cohen’s Recommendation To Nico

While there is no public proclamation by Nico analogous to Leonard Cohen’s Prince of Asturias Awards Speech, in which he tells the “story of how I got my song” and expresses his gratitude to the guitar teacher who played a key role in that process, that acknowledges Cohen’s contribution to Nico’s music, the Canadian singer-songwriter did make a specific recommendation that significantly influenced the sound of the Andy Warhol superstar once known as Christa Päffgen.

Part of the inspiration for the album [The Marble Index] came from another ex-lover, Leonard Cohen, who encouraged Nico to take up the harmonium, the pedal-powered keyboard instrument whose wheezing drones would subsequently underpin all her future work, and which furnished a suitably haunting, miasmic base for her own compositions. Nico – Frozen Borderline 1968-1970 by Andy Gill. Uncut, Feb 13, 2007))

Brian Dillon, writing in Nico (Frieze,Issue 107, May 2007), elaborates:

The genius of these albums [The Marble Index (1968) and Desertshore (1970)] consists in Nico’s having found a sonic palette that very nearly replicates the voice, an instrumental mirror for her stentorian vowels and long, lifeless sibilants. On the advice of Leonard Cohen (who knew a thing or two about playing to one’s weaknesses), Nico had taken up the harmonium: it wheezes and yawns in perfect consort with her desiccated vocals. It’s that sound, allied with a certain limited array of lyrical tropes, that has given The Marble Index, in particular, a reputation as one of the bleakest records ever made.

Harmonium: Musical Instrument & Protective Shield

nicoharm7Regardless of ones valuation of the impact of the harmonium on Nico’s musical oeuvre, Leonard Cohen did at least prevent possible harm to her. In Nico’s show at the Free University in Berlin, she made the mistake of singing Deutschland über Alles, causing a riot. Fortunately, her harmonium shielded her against the fusillade of beer bottles.1 If Cohen had instead recommended she play, for example, a piccolo, musical history might have been forever altered.

Video: Nico On Harmonium Live 1987

Nico’s Harmonium

Wikipedia provides a helpful summary and photos of the instrument:

Western Foot-pumped Harmonium

Western Foot-pumped Harmonium

A harmonium is a free-standing keyboard instrument similar to a reed organ. Sound is produced by air being blown through sets of free reeds, resulting in a sound similar to that of an accordion. The air is usually supplied by bellows operated by the foot, hand, or knees. In North America, the most common pedal-pumped free-reed keyboard instrument is known as the “American reed organ”, (or “parlor organ”, “pump organ”, “cabinet organ”, “cottage organ”, etc.) and along with the earlier melodeon, is operated by a suction bellows where air is sucked through the reeds to produce the sound. A reed organ with a pressure bellows that pushes the air through the reeds is referred to as a “harmonium”. In much of Europe, the term harmonium is used to describe all pedal-pumped keyboard free-reed instruments, making no distinction whether it has a pressure or suction bellows. In India, the term generally refers to a hand-pumped instrument.

Nico played a portable, hand-operated Indian version.


Hand-pumped harmonium

Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post is ©StevieDixon and was found at StevieDixon.com.  The second photo of Nico  is by TimDuncan (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.  Photo of foot-pumped harmonium taken by de:User:Bodoklecksel.: CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons. Photo of hand-pumped harmonium by K4ffyOwn work, CC0, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons. Originally posted Mar 2, 2012 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric


  1. Nico: The End by James Young (Overlook, 1st edition September 1, 1993) []

2 Replies to “Leonard Cohen Recommends Harmonium, Helps Nico Get Her Song”

    1. pablaki

      i´m very sorry for nico, but i think she has been born to close to the nazi time, impressive woman, but at least i can feel a dark and deep ambivalence in her voice… leonard´s voice is also somehow dark, but with a lot of hope and loveliness.
      any way thank you allan for the in credible passion you put in leonard s work and your open heart to share it with us
      best regards