Tammy Faye Starlite puts on an epic NoHo show as late singer in ‘Nico-Underground’

Tammy Faye Starlite with handwritten notes from Nico
Tammy Faye Starlite surrounded by Nico’s hand written lyrics and memorabilia from a private collection
Photo by Bob Krasner

If you know who Nico is and haven’t seen Tammy Faye Starlite’s performance in her original theatrical production “Nico-Underground,” you have two chances to check out her epic performance this month at Joe’s Pub, at the Public Theater in NoHo.

If you’re a neophyte (Nico-phyte, maybe?) you won’t get a better introduction to the enigma that was Nico, who Richard Goldstein once described as “half goddess, half icicle.”

Starlite, also known as Tammy Lang, had been performing as her TFS character for a while, achieving downtown notoriety as a sometimes politically incorrect country singer who produced such would-be hits as “God Has Lodged a Tenant in My Uterus.” Her husband/musician Keith Hartel suggested that she write something based on Nico, the former model/actress who was foisted on the Velvet Underground as a singer for their first album by Andy Warhol. 

“I was listening to a 1986 interview that she did in Melbourne and it was fascinating — he tried so hard to keep the interview on track and she kept derailing it,” Starlite explains. “Yet they were also talking about all the songs that I would want to do in a show. Her own songs were brilliant, but it’s a lot for people who aren’t going for full-court depression.”

In addition to the droning cadence of her original songs, the German chanteuse had built up a repertoire of tunes by Lou Reed (from the VU days), Jackson Browne, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and The Doors, among others.

Starlite has smartly chosen the best of those for the concert portion of the show, which alternates with vignettes from the aforementioned interview. Both the singing and speaking voices of Nico are perfectly rendered, even though the lines are not all exactly verbatim.

“About 50% is made up,” she admits. She also grabbed quotes from books by James Young and Richard Witts, while adding her own spin. “I heightened Nico’s racism and added a few more things to be provocative and cheeky. You want to show all sides of this person. And accuracy might be overrated!”

Tammy Faye Starlite approximating Nico’s stare into the abyss at Joe’s Pub
Jeff Ward played the part of the interviewer dealing with Nico’s stream of non-sequiturs
Tammy Faye Starlite in the guise of Nico at Joe’s Pub

Starlite has been working on the show since 2010, but she’s been imitating Nico since she first heard her as a teenager. The show, directed by Michael Schiralli, features Jeff Ward as the interviewer and a very talented group of musicians that includes Hartel, Richard Feridun, Craig Hoek, Ron Metz, David Nagler and Eszter Balint, who is currently developing her own musical production entitled “I Hate Memory,” based on her own life, which gives her some perspective on Starlite’s methods. 

Balint muses on the difference between her work and the Nico play, noting that, “One thing I think we share is that we both have this rigorous devotion to the essence of the piece; in my case, it’s the essence of the mood and vibe and core story of the piece — in hers it is the essence of the character. We both immerse ourselves into our particular “worlds” with equal zeal, but while Tammy relies on her band and musicians  I feel like she might be more loose with everyone because the focus is 99% on the persona she presents.” 

That persona is laced with humor, elevating an evening that could have easily been a downer as her subject spent much of her life as an addict and died tragically in a bicycle accident at age 49.

“I think what fueled the need for drugs was the emptiness and a sadness that she was either born with or had through the circumstances of her life,” Starlite muses.

“I really don’t like this thing where everybody has to be lifted up, to be perfect, to be a hero,” Starlite adds. “The beauty of humanity is that we have things that we say or think that is wrong. I like theater that shows that, because you have a flash of recognition, maybe you can have your own bad thoughts.” 

Nico had some issues with the flute, played by Craig Hoek
Tammy Faye Starlite took on the personas of Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Patti Smith at Pangea in 2022, accompanied by Richard Feridun (L) and Barry Reynolds
Tammy Faye Starlite as Marianne Faithfull at Pangea in 2023, accompanied by Barry Reynolds

While Starlite has spent time studying Nico’s mannerisms as well as her voice — which has resulted in an uncanny recreation — she has also spent some quality time ruminating on her essence. “I read her diaries periodically”, she says. “Sometimes it’s surreal, sometimes it’s funny, you feel like you can relax with her, which is an odd thing because I don’t think she was very relaxing. There’s something in her that speaks to the freak in all of us and the specific individuality that we all have. There was something uniquely profound and comforting about her”.

“As much as she dismissed commerciality, I think that she would have relished a little more appreciation. She wasn’t appreciated enough in her time”, Starlite concludes. 

“Nico-Underground” is an excellent step in that direction.

Show info is at  https://publictheater.org/productions/joes-pub/2023/t/tammy-faye-starlite

Follow her on Instagram at @tammyfayestarlite.