Well, I’m glad to hear you talk this way,
You know I’ve watched you riding every day
And something in me yearns to win
Such a cold and lonesome heroine.
And who are you? she sternly spoke
To the one beneath the smoke.
Why, I’m fire, he replied,
And I love your solitude, I love your pride.
Previously in the song Joan of Arc said ‘I’m tired of the war. I want the kind of work I had before.’.
I believe this refers to the way that Nico sings, with a world weary, matter of fact, and very beautiful voice.
Like many other great musicians at the time, Leonard Cohen was infatuated with her. In real life it is difficult to say the right thing at the right time. In the song he is able to imagine a conversation with Nico where he says exactly what he wants to say. He also flatters her in casting her as his mythical version of the historical Joan of Arc.
At age 15 Nico was working as a temp for the U.S. Air Force. A black American Sergeant raped her. She kept quiet about it, but he was found out and sent to court. She had to testify for the prosecution at his trial. He was sentenced to death and shot.
‘Not only does she have to carry the horror of the rape but the secret guilt of somehow being complicit, by her testimony, in his execution. Sex for Nico is irrevocably associated with punishment.’ – James Young in Songs They Don’t Play On the Radio
I think perhaps Leonard Cohen had heard of the trauma she had suffered. He related it to the suffering of Joan of Arc who was put on trial as well as being burnt alive.
I think he casts himself as Fire in the poem, because of the complications of desiring a woman who associates sex with punishment. It seems that he wants to seduce her. However he also fears that the experience, if he got that far, would be damaging or distance them. I think it is this conflict of deep drives – the drive to protect and love, versus the drive to seduce and possess, which inspired the song. Perhaps he hoped that by showing his recognition of her great suffering, and recognising her bravery he could help her heal. Nico remained deeply unimpressed by Leonard Cohen, but the song has inspired lots of other people.
Here is Nico speaking about her own work in 1985 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOeU-BF78gM
In the interview she recalls that was Jim Morrison who told her to write songs.
She appreciated his directness, and says brightly –
‘Sometimes somebody has to tell you what to do!’
Her father suffered brain damage, so perhaps she was seeking guidance to replace what she had lost.
At the very end of this interview she says she has just one regret –
‘That I was born a woman, instead of a man. That is my one regret.’
The historical Joan of Arc dressed as a man for practical reasons – to lead her troops into battle. Nico, the inspiration for Cohen’s mythical Joan of Arc, wishes she actually was a man, presumably so that she never had to suffer being sexually abused. She was always disconnected from the world, and perhaps she feels that this early trauma caused her to separate herself. She found her place in Andy Warhol’ inner circle, and was interested in the philosophical ideas being bounced around there. She comes across as someone who finds it easier to talk about ideas, than her own history. Here she is with her close friend Andy Warhol –