In the early 80s, operatic singer Klaus Nomi was at the crest of New York’s club scene. However, his untimely death from Aids in 1983 cut him off in his prime, before the world truly had the chance to appreciate his vibrant and bizarre performance art.
It probably makes sense to begin with someone who witnessed it because it has to be one of those definitive “you had to be there’ moments. For an all too brief time at the dawn of the 1980s, a peculiar phenomenon had New York under its spell. At its focal point was a small thin man who would stand in a pool of light, clad in anything from a painted wooden ballgown on wheels to a cellophane cape which twinkled under the half light or to an outsized, triangular tuxedo made from vinyl by Bowie’s American tailor. And out of this figure’s mouth, came the blistering sound of a soprano or a short-circuited tenor backed by synths and ambient noise to deliver, quite perfectly, anything from a mockery of the disco hit “I Feel Love (I Feel Sick) to an aria from Samson and Delilah to “Ding Dong (the Witch is Dead)” from The Wizard of Oz.
The audience had to be reminded that this extraordinary voice was not recorded. Despite its artificiality, lip-synching was not part of the act: the Indian demigod arm choreography, the twirling hypnotic umbrellas, the robot dancers and smoke bombs were just the unreal accoutrements. The head and the voice were the one constant: lips painted black and brows plucked into a Dietrich-style glamour gone wrong, the hair wrenched up into three peaks above a white, elfin face. As Alan Platt described for 80s cut magazine Adix: It would take many visits to the downtown venues on the punk, circuit to grasp how utterly bizarre is the sight of hundreds of snotty little drunks standing around in silence listening to this classic piece of High Romance delivered by someone from last week’s Star Trek. It’s the skill of the illusionist. Hypnotism by pure weirdness, out-bluffing their sense of the bizarre, and yet singing so beautifully with the recorded sound of a 50-piece orchestra swelling around the room, few are not moved by the pure musical experience. It’s Nomi’s big coup. Set them up with weirdness, knock them down with art.”
These epic performances began in New York’s East Village where an old Polish wedding hall had been converted into the New Wave Vaudeville theatre. When everyone else was having a joke and throwing together the most obscenely bad taste acts they could possibly conceive, it was pretty clear from the start that something much more important was going on in Nomi’s performances. Like everything else, it was thrown together from clip lights, grease paint, plastic wrap, bed sheets, tat and bric-a-brac, but Nomi’s sense of theatrical illusion transcended what might otherwise have been just high-jinks camp. His influences were as stark as they were wide-ranging, from Bauhaus expressionism and comic books to 50s sci-fi films. His name was an anagram of the sci-fi magazine OMNI, and the idea that he was an alien who had “descended from outer space to save the human race” was central to Nomi’s persona. He would arrive at shows, perform and then leave immediately, maintaining the allure of a visitor arriving and disappearing into outer space. He had arrived in America an outsider; he left America with the memory of the bizarre.
Born Klaus Sperber in 1944, Nomi grew up in the Bavarian Alps, the only child of a single mother. His peculiar blend of pop, rock and opera can be traced back to his childhood when he stole money from his mother to buy Elvis’s King Creole, only for his mother to discover the album, march with it back to the shop and exchange it for a Maria Callas record. Both equally pleased the young Klaus. After studying at the Berlin Music School and working for some years as an usher at the Opera House, Klaus emigrated to New York in 1972 where for five years, he had a succession of badly paid jobs, before eventually honing quite a talent as a pastry chef and hosting a small cookery slot on a cable network. He developed the tenor and soprano ranges of his voice with vocal coach Ira Siff and in 1977, he appeared in Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company Wagner offshoot.
This, along with his electric stage performances led to his appearance in Anders Grafstom’s influential underground film The Long Island Four which caught the attention of David Bowie whom Nomi subsequently met at one of his New York gigs. An invitation to appear with Bowie on Saturday Night Live in December 1979 followed, with Nomi performing as a backing dancer trundling about a stuffed poodle on wheels and singing the accompaniment on The Man Who Sold The World. Such was the pull of Bowie at the time, that fame seemed certain as Nomi’s gigs in New York and across America gained momentum and a dedicated following. Nomi’s own backing acts included such New Wave luminaries as Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joey Arias and, as legend has it, Madonna. His stark fashion sense and his fusion of peculiarly eclectic music almost made it inevitable that the French would adore him. And they duly obliged, his records selling out within days of issue.
But there was a darker, personal side to Nomi’s early isolation in America and it seems that his astonishing creativity was in part compensatory for an intense inner loneliness. Without long-term lovers or boyfriends, Nomi sought sexual companionship in the most hazardous places, eventually contracting an illness so rare at the time that it was unidentified. The last track on his last album contains Dido’s death aria from Dido and Aeneas, “Remember me, but ah, forget my fate” but a few years ago, RCA’s London press office could provide no more information about their star than that he was one of the first celebrity casualties of the Aids virus. At the beginning of 1983, Nomi began to look very ill.
Joey Arias, a close friend since the opening of the New Wave Vaudeville, described the sad deterioration in his health: “He was always thin but I remember him walking into a party looking like a skeleton. He was complaining of flu and exhaustion and the doctors couldn’t diagnose what was wrong with him. Later, he had breathing difficulties, collapsed and was taken to hospital. He’d sit in his apartment watching videos and looking at photos of himself, saying ‘look at this, this is what I did – now it’s all gone.’ He went on a macrobiotic diet, which puffed him up like a rat, but nothing helped.” Klaus died that August, at the height of his success, and just before the boom in music television which might have made his idiosyncratic synth-drenched avant-garde opera-pop a worldwide force to be reckoned with.
Today, as in the early 80s, Nomi’s fame is celebrated among small collectives of music lovers who go wild over him. JP Bommel, head of RCA in France said on first hearing Klaus’ work: “We listened to that tape and we were all looking at each other, you know, thinking ‘this is wild, we had never heard anything like it. The record company didn’t have a clue.” The success he achieved in France wasn’t “the media machine working, it was not the star system. It was just a bunch of music lovers who pulled out all the stops and made it happen.” Once a music lover falls under Nomi’s spell, the results may be radical. Another fan – the artist Pat Keck – built a life-size fully articulated doll of Klaus out of wood which was laid out on a sarcophagus. decorated with lyrics from the The Cold Song. If a pedal was pushed, Nomi would rise eerily from the dead, jerking his body to one side, moving his arms. It’s a pattern mirrored by his posthumous reputation – he rises slowly, gaining a steady momentum and, suddenly, when a receptive soul is introduced to him, they jerk about, tell all their friends and another Klaus colony springs into being.
Nomi’s resurrection began when his contribution to the cult bad taste new wave classic rock documentary Urgh! A Music War – a live performance of his song Total Eclipse – became essential underground viewing during the late 80s. At the beginning of the 90s, flyers began appearing once more, all over the East Village, showing Nomi with captions reading “Do You Nomi?” and “Never Mind the Bollocks, here’s Klaus.” Website paying homage to Nomi began to spring up, his albums were re-released, the new interest in him culminating in The Nomi Song, a documentary by Andrew Horn, which is becoming somewhat of a cult classic itself. Now, closet Nomi fans are emerging and in the strangest places. He has his own corner of MySpace, where musicians as diverse as Italian lounge acts, New York indie bands, New Waves acts and countless electronic outfits, hip hop kids and ukulele players all testify to his enduring influence on the underground scene, his angular originality transcending all traditional boundaries.
Morrissey plays Nomi songs before his gigs and made Nomi’s Death the concluding track to his Under the Influence compilation and Antony and the Johnsons are also acknowledged devotees. The effect of Nomi’s music, Antony explains, lies in not just the strange fusion of pop and opera, the weird disco component or the high camp artistry “but in the other element – the almost apocalyptic element. It was like he was able to predict the future” which, it seems likely, is precisely how a man who claimed to have “descended from outer space to save the human race” would have liked to be remembered: ahead of his time, and relished after.
Dazed & Confused, November 2007