‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ was a Christmas classic for more than half a century until people suddenly began to worry that it was about yuletide date rape. ‘It was because of the video Tom Jones and I made,’ says Cerys Matthews, in her smoky Welsh lilt. She recorded a cover with Jones in 1999. The video showed the craggy old Welsh crooner slip something in her drink that turns Cerys into a high camp vamp. ‘The song is really innocent and beautiful and fun — it’s got a huge heap of humour and wit and I love it. That song is not our enemy. That woman is a strong woman. She’s there because she wants to be! It’s cold outside. They’re making love. Come on!’
I bought this book because it is one of those books forced on you by the bookshop. You know the books I mean. This one became a No5 Sunday Times bestseller after being on sale for three days. The cover spoke to me. ‘How to Fail’, it said, and I thought, ‘Yes. Always sacked. Ever dumped. Writing stuff I’m not even paid to whilst very clearly drunk – finally here’s the book for me. Surely it will have some galvanising tips…’ So I rushed home and read each page – with mounting bewilderment:
If Elizabeth Day knows the first thing about failure, I am going to have to kill myself.
These days, it’s not just superhero movies that spawn franchises. How to Fail is the book based on the phenomenally popular podcast. (You can also go on the tour and buy the t-shirt.) When the first episode went live, Day recalls, ‘it attracted thousands of listeners overnight. The second saw it catapult to number three in the iTunes chart… By the end of eight episodes, I had somehow accumulated 200,000 listeners and a book deal.’ Every week, she interviews a famous person who – on this evidence – has never failed at anything, either.
Bestselling author Jessie Burton confesses:
‘When The Miniaturist [her first novel] was hugely successful, the biggest success I’ve ever had, it was almost too much. “Well, I’ve tried to write a book and, oh, it’s an international bestseller.” What now? Who am I’
Bestselling author Sebastian Faulks laments of his time at Cambridge University:
‘I thought perhaps I ought to get a first… I was just confused… I wouldn’t say I have got over it really.’
Actress Nicole Kidman admits that ‘instead of rejoicing’ when she won an Oscar, ‘she felt flat and disillusioned’.
While poor Phoebe Waller-Bridge reveals ‘wretchedly’ that she no longer has ‘an alabaster forehead’ and ‘struggled to get the parts she wanted at RADA and felt so broken down by her tutors that she lost confidence and spent much of her twenties failing at auditions or being typecast as the posh, hot girl until she began writing her own material’.
David Baddiel failed to score a goal for Comic Relief and so on and so on and so on until – finally – someone flashes a bit of backbone, admitting, yes, she had failed but overcame the ordeal:
‘When [Gina Miller] took the government to court over Brexit, she simply didn’t have time for a bikini wax or a pedicure – and she was fine with that.’
The theory behind all this cunningly disguised boasting is that it will be helpful to us – the fast failing masses. ’When you hear a successful person – someone who, from afar, might seem to have everything – be open about their failures, it is inclusive, not exclusive’, Day explains.
‘Maybe so, maybe so’, I muttered, while trying not to throw myself out of the window, ‘if your notion of “failure” consists of walking around with an unkempt undercarriage and 10 toenails-worth of chipped nail polish, this book must be a very great comfort.’
For the rest of us (who fear that we really are, in various senses too sad to rehearse, big fat fucking failures) the experience is much like thinking you can rid yourself of violent back pain by paying someone to pummel it out of you, only to lie there feeling a thousand times worse and struggling not to scream. Perhaps this book is intended to help us let go of all our pent-up feelings of failure by fully immersing us in the fact that, no matter how hard we try in life, we are none of us, ever, going to get to be Elizabeth Day. So why bother trying at all?
But this is not an opinion that has been expressed – anywhere – in the ecstatic reviews, and I did start to worry that my perspective might be tarnished by psychotic jealousy. So I did what I always do when no one agrees with me about the books that strike me as over-hyped: I looked at the one- and two-star reviews on Amazon.
‘I don’t think I’ve read about so many achievements – professional, academic, sexual and social’, says one woman, who spends a lot of time apologising for her point of view which she knows to be wrong. ‘Nearly every page there’s a reminder of one or more triumphs, including how well Day did at Cambridge, how many amazing and utterly devoted friends she has (many of them celebrities), how well her career as a journalist has gone, how short her periods of singledom have been (two months only until the age of 36…), how admired her novels are and how easy it was to get freelance work once she’d left the Observer… it can certainly (unintentionally, I’m sure) make readers feel inadequate – I ended up in tears and had to be comforted by my partner at one point, as I felt that I’d clearly failed in various aspects of life.’
For me, there were several passages that really took a plate of biscuits. Such as the chapter ‘How to Fail to be Gwyneth Paltrow’ in which Day steam-cleans her vagina.
Or the blow-by-blow account of the (only) time she failed her driving test:
‘The examiner turned to me, unclicked her seatbelt and uttered the words “I regret to inform you…” as if she were a telegram boy delivering news of a dead soldier on the Western Front.’
Or the point at which she goes to a public school in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, insists on speaking in a cut-glass English accent and discovers (‘shatteringly’) that a boy in her year ‘doesn’t fancy’ her because ‘she’s English’:
‘He wasn’t even a particularly attractive specimen. I didn’t fancy him because he had a ruddy complexion and always smelled vaguely of uncooked sausages. Still, his rejection cut me to the core.’
Or the time she gets 47 per cent in a Chemistry exam:
‘A shame so acute it haunts me still, three decades later.’
She begins sentences with lines such as:
‘I have often been asked at literary festivals…’
‘I thought that if I put enough time in, worked hard, did my best and if my parents threw money at any given problem, success would automatically follow…’
[Spoiler alert: it does.]
There’s also a chapter on ‘Failing at Sport’:
‘I flounder sweatily at the other end of the court missing every single shot and then being forced to pick up the balls like some humiliated dog collecting sticks thrown by a sadistic owner…’
‘I just wasn’t very good at tennis… I wasn’t even properly bad. Instead, I was just mediocre, which was almost worse.’
It is hard to choose the custard cream, but for me, I think, it’s when Day opines that her new (amazingly amazing) boyfriend has called her ‘big’. Now Elizabeth, as she frequently reminds us, is very, very tall. Whereas I am knee-high to a garden gnome. So I did think the boyfriend meant ‘big’ like in the film Big in which Tom Hanks stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries. But then I’m always kinder to men than the bastards deserve, so I would have got on board with Day’s interpretation…
‘I couldn’t let go of the “big” comment, of the idea that he might think of me as some lumbering, flubbery creature who could barely roll out of bed owing to the gargantuan weight of her thighs or the unappealing broadness of her shoulders.’
…had she not followed up, mere paragraphs later, with:
‘I was once scouted by Select as a teenager and had a brief stint as a model when I was at university.’
(In her You magazine column, she still looks like a supermodel.)
Amid all this, there are also very moving passages in which I felt desperately sorry for her. IVF treatment doesn’t work, she suffers a miscarriage and a broken marriage. And though these are misfortunes, not failures, I would have continued feeling desperately sorry for Day if she had said that – deep down – she felt this all so keenly. But she soon insists that none of this is failure at all, blames the fact that she’d temporarily thought so on ‘society’, and I reverted to wondering why in hell she’s produced a whole book on failure when she has never, in any meaningful way, ever failed at anything at all.
But then, it’s part of a trend. There used to be a vogue for misery memoirs – now we have middle-class memoirs. According to the Sutton Trust’s report on the elite in 2019, 13 per cent of people who work in publishing are working class. Judging by the sheer number of books like Day’s, I can’t help but suspect that very few of the remaining 87 per cent even went to state school – like 93 per cent of the rest of us.
‘I wouldn’t have the published books, the journalism awards, the joy of seeing my name in print without a borderline-obsessive work ethic fuelled by outsidership. And maybe I wouldn’t have such a wonderful circle of dear friends’, Day concludes.
‘Outsidership’? One howls at the moon. ‘You’re the emblem of the all-conquering English public-school system in spoken word poetry.’
So if you’ve googled how to cope with failure and have ended up here, here’s my advice on how to overcome the odds you face. Look to those who experienced failure in the past, who can tell you what it means. Then repeat to yourself:
‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
‘Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never…’ – no matter how unequal you feel.
Emily Hill is author of the short story collection Bad Romance, published by Unbound.
At primary school, we were shown an educational video about children who strayed on to a farm and ended up hideously maimed in an industrial mangle and suffocated to death in a grain silo. Artistically, it wasn’t worth a damn, but I still can’t see a ploughed field without shuddering.
It’s taken me a week to puzzle out why everyone else loves Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary, awarding it five stars and heralding it as some sort of masterwork, when it reminds me of that farm-safety video. I think perhaps the film’s best use is as a teaching tool for visiting policemen, traipsing round high schools, trying to scare kids off drink and drugs.
And I can see why Mitch Winehouse is so upset about it: Amy is not a film about his late daughter’s life, her transcendent voice, or the appalling brilliance of her songwriting; it is a long, laborious – at times, even dull – inquest into her death. It sets out to show us the ‘real Amy’ and ends up illustrating the cautionary tale of a girl who wanders into fame and ends up hideously maimed, by the men who surround her, and put to death by a toxic blend of success and her own excess.
Before seeing Amy, I didn’t think it would be possible to be unmoved by a film about her. I booked a seat in a cinema on the hottest day of the year, sat alone, an aisle to myself, mascara-free, ready to howl for an hour solid, at having to witness the death of the greatest talent yet produced by 1983 – a woman far more courageous than I’ve ever managed to be. I thought it was going to tell me all the things I didn’t know and wanted to – such as where in hell did she get that attitude and what was that voice? I thought it would tell me how she wrote those soul-sick, lust-drenched, spectacularly defiant songs which preserve – so exactly – what it feels like to be a woman on fire, in love, hopeless love, with entirely the wrong man. Instead, the film almost seems to denigrate her life, reducing it to a pathetic rampage, the moral of the story very clear: that it is far better to be, like the rest of us, healthy eaters, modest drinkers, sensible lovers, unoriginal thinkers, than to gorge and binge and worship and write.
Amy is such an incomplete film you could miss the most basic facts about her, like the fact she had an older brother, who introduced her to jazz and the blues, which I just learned from a much more interesting documentary about her on BBC iPlayer. It never mentions the fact she went to stage school, which seems – to me at least – to contradict the idea that she never, ever, in the slightest bit wanted to be famous. Most brilliant musicians, and, come to think of it, most bad musicians, want as many people as possible to hear their music, or so I thought, before I saw Amy.
The question it concentrates on, to the exclusion of anything else, is: ‘At what point could Amy have been saved?’ It’s a non sequitur – because she wasn’t – but, according to her first manager, a man who seems most interested in slagging off her second manager, it was just before the genesis of her second record, when he drove young Winehouse into the middle of nowhere and told her she needed to ‘go to rehab’ because she was drinking too much. He explains – rather smugly, to my ear – that if her father had supported the idea then Winehouse may never have written that record at all, ‘My daddy thinks I’m fine’, but she could be alive today. The fact that he has so little appreciation of the genius of what she did with Back To Black, on which the song ‘Rehab’ appears, suggests to me she knew what she was doing switching managers.
Amy Winehouse lived – at a frantic pace and with great gusto – for her music, throwing herself into life, recklessly plunging into experience and emotion. Kapadia portrays her as the victim of uncurbed urges, while I see her as the heroine who transcended them. Her life was a tragedy in the true meaning of the word – a woman brought to ruin by the flaws which made her self. ‘Love’, she wrote and smouldered-sang on ‘Love is a losing game’, ‘is a fate resigned / Over futile odds / And laughed at by the gods’. I wonder: had she been offered the choice – like Achilles at the gates of Troy – between living to a ripe old age without ever meeting her Blake Incarcerated, or transforming what ensued into a work of art that sizzled and burned, which will be played – like the records of Billie Holliday and Edith Piaf – to console girls not even born yet, who have fallen into a hopeless state, and feel desperate and ashamed of it… would she have chosen to do it all again? Or would she have preferred to pour out her gift, to a lone audience of one, a therapist sitting in a chair, at a rehabilitation centre? Don’t get me wrong, I wish she had never died, but had emerged from the blackness, to spend a lifetime plump and happy and singing the blues for fun. But if you offered me that choice, between contributing something great or living until I’m 80, I’d have been lying in a grave for the last four years with a very good grace.
It’s not that Kapadia is incapable of telling a story like this. In Senna, he took a man I’d never heard of, who was vital to a sport I couldn’t care less about, and made me feel like I was personally undergoing a bereavement just watching him drive so recklessly you knew he’d crash and die. Kapadia took a totally pointless activity – racing round and round a track as fast as possible – and made it seem like the way Senna understood it: as noble and integral to the human race. Part of the sadness, the cathartic experience, of watching Senna was that you knew just by looking at him that if Ayrton Senna had been given the chance to live again, he would have spent all his time figuring out how to drive even faster.
But Amy is so focused on laying bare the agonies of drug addiction that it doesn’t bother explaining that the demons which ate her up also made her great. There are millions of drug addicts alive today who you could make this sort of film about – you don’t have to be winning Grammy awards, packing out stadiums, or having 10,000 flashbulbs going off in your face for this to happen to you. And Kapadia never pauses to wonder whether Mitch Winehouse, and everyone else close to her, didn’t step in to ‘save’ her because her death was an unfortunate accident. Debbie Harry turned 70 last week, having spent years frying her innards in heroin with Blondie’s Chris Stein. Marianne Faithfull, whose voice only seems to improve with cigarettes, had drug problems so terrible she unravelled into homelessness, with no one caring for her at all. In the early scenes of Amy, Winehouse is portrayed as ballsy and headstrong. Watching her face crinkle with disgust as an interviewer compares her to Dido, or hearing her describe how she ‘hates’ the man who put ‘fake strings’ on her debut album Frank, you can’t imagine her doing anything she didn’t want to. She is arrogant, in the very best sense, full of cleverness and cutting wit.
It also seems a bit much for Kapadia to shovel blame on to everyone – from her fans upwards – for exploiting Winehouse, when he is making a film that does exactly that. For we are treated to exhaustive images of her harrowed, emaciated face, without ever revisiting her most blistering performances, or letting us hear – in decent dollops – that voice of hers, so rich I could sit here all year and still fail to describe it. It doesn’t suggest how she put together that unique image: of a chanteuse in cinched-in skirts, with tattooed arms and ‘Blake’s’ hoisted boobs, eyes triple the size of any other girl’s, with great dark swoops of eyeliner, and that neverending mass of backcombed hair, which wobbled slightly as she sang, like a towering black jelly. It does not dwell on that mouth, those teeth, as they devour one microphone after another. Halfway through, her voice melts to nothing – it’s like making a film about Paul Gascoigne and leaving out the goals.
Whether we live for two-and-a-half decades or the full 10, we are none of us on this Earth for very long, and this film cannot convince me that Winehouse didn’t make better use of her time than most. The songs she wrote mean something to girls in a way that Rihanna’s latest riff – on being defrauded by her accountant – never will. So I hope Mitch Winehouse makes good his threat and starts work on his own documentary. For I was in love like she was, once, and ‘Wake up alone’ is what captures it. ‘Love is a losing game’ is a poem at its simplest and most beautiful. There is a truth to her that most stars lack. Reading her lines over, I can’t think even Blake Incarcerated can have been quite the devil he is painted here, since he proved so useful as a muse.
Throughout, Amy plays various voicemails Winehouse left, to those she loved who did not pick up the phone. In one she declares: ‘It’s your favourite Jewish girl, apart from your mum… The burning love I have for you will not be dampened… I don’t care if you never answer the phone. I will love you until the day my heart fails and I fall down dead in the road.’ Yes, there is a recklessness to that, which could have been carefully plucked out of her, with prescription drugs and talking therapy. But to take all that love and pour it into Back To Black… is there not something brave in that, and at least a little bit wonderful? Everything that happened to Amy afterwards was bad and brutal and awful, but that act of defiant love and creation – the ability to make something good from something bad – represents, to me, the greatest triumph of the human spirit I’ve found outside of books. Not a waste or a shame, or life at its most bathetic; a life truly lived.
It is hard to pinpoint when, exactly, Brexit ceased to be regarded as a public vote that it was their duty to implement and became an excuse for politicians to star in a political soap opera in which their egos run wild. But for those of us who tuned in, last night provided peak drama. There Anna Soubry sat, complete with anguished expression, trembling blonde tresses and lashings of mascara, confiding in us all her hitherto hidden and frustrated feelings for Chuka Umunna.
It was all “very sad”, she told ITV, “because [Chuka]… to me he was absolutely the future for our country.” And yet it there were three parties in their political marriage: the ones they left because they simply had to be together, and those scheming whores, the Lib Dems.
Never, since Princess Diana, has a woman been more cruelly used. Or so Anna Soubry would have us believe. Chuka-the-cad – has left her broken-hearted. “For me it personally hurt, it really did hurt,” she confessed to Martin Bashir. I’m sorry, I mean ITV News Correspondent Paul Brand.
“He was a major part of why I left the Tory party. To start something new with him as the leader… I genuinely believe that Chuka Umunna should be prime minister of our country.”
Unless Chuka is installed in Number 10 by military coup, the prospect seems unlikely. It is hard to imagine that anyone would actually vote for a politician with so little backbone that he’s changed parties three times this year and – as Soubry points out – didn’t even have the guts to lead a party created in his own image which – very nearly – bears his own name (CHUK). Quite why she wants him to be Prime Minister is unclear – except that they both want to remain in the EU and he’s got a stellar track record of overturning democratic votes – in Streatham anyway.
Both stood for parliament under a party manifesto that was committed to respecting the results of the 2016 referendum and both are now standing up for their own interests instead. As baffled as many Telegraph readers may be that Soubry campaigns for Remain when her constituents voted Leave, those who elected her – whether they read the Telegraph or not – must be completely incredulous.
Soubry has represented Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire since 2010. She was re-elected as a Conservative MP in the 2017 election when her majority was cut to just 800 votes over Labour. That she’s not putting it to the people again is strange since she seems to consider margins of more than a million indecisive. Plus she’s such a fan of re-running votes… It’s perplexing.
‘Behind every successful man,’ the cliché runs, ‘there is a strong woman.’ So as Boris Johnson romps his way towards No 10, it’s perhaps not surprising that the character of his girlfriend is under intense scrutiny. But while our putative PM refuses to answer questions about his “loved ones” – while destroying their sofas with perfect impunity – it’s rather shocking to see how Carrie Symonds’ private life is being pulled apart publicly.
According to a succession of recent ‘scoops’ – or vicious personal attacks – depending on how you look at them – the 31-year-old was sacked from her last job because she was bad at it, ran up vast taxi bills and blamed them on her staff, while leaking stories damaging to Theresa May.
One suspects Carrie’s true offences might be rather different in nature: that all she’s really guilty of is using her considerable communications expertise to tame her lover’s penchant for saying stuff that lands him in lots of trouble, and forcing him to get a more Prime Ministerial haircut.
Woman to woman, it’s all pretty sickening reading – especially as friends of Miss Symonds’ say the real reason she lost her job as director of communications for the Conservative Party was “for taking time off last year to campaign against the decision to grant early parole to black cab rapist John Worboys”, by whom she was drugged when she was just 19.
It’s also queasy-making because tarnishing the reputation of whoever a powerful man is sleeping with has been going on for so many centuries you might hope it would have stopped in the 21st. You only have to flick through I, Claudius to see that Ancient Rome was governed by many honourable, principled emperors – and their witch wives. Take Augustus’ Livia – “a curse to the state and a blight on the house of the Caesars” according to Tacitus – accused of everything up to and including poisoning half her relatives.
Scarred by online dating, one Parisian woman created her own app. Now she’s bringing it here. Britain needs to change its dating culture, she explains
When I ask Clémentine Lalande why she wants to Frenchify the British dating scene she laughs. Although she admires how “relaxed and practical” we are compared with other nationalities, she says: “I do think this is also sometimes a pity to be so down-to-earth. I would love to bring to the British scene something that has a little bit more magic and a little bit more sparkle and shine to it.”
Sitting in a corner of a south London pub, Lalande, with her blunt Amélie-style fringe and chic black Vanessa Bruno dress, rushes on: “My French friends tell me stories all the time about how British guys bring them to date in the supermarket or just to drink beer, or sometimes just to have dinner with the room-mate. I mean . . . French daters take a little bit more time to make a date unique and romantic!”
Lalande, who grew up in Toulouse and lives in Paris, is an expert on the subject having launched her dating app, Pickable, on both sides of the Channel in November. It has a million active users, of whom 200,000 live in the UK. For reasons personal and professional, she has spent years studying every app on the market and “gathering all these crazy and painful experiences of thousands of women like me who had the impression of being the last piece of meat on a butcher’s stand…’
Emily Hill, 35, is dating Roy, 42. She lives in Battersea, South London. She says:
‘Sex is like money,’ John Updike once said, ‘only too much is enough.’ So pity the poor people — like little old me — who, as this survey shows, find themselves utterly poverty-stricken when it comes to getting any at all.
I’ve spent the better part of this week reclining on a sunlounger half-naked in the Maldives, in a resort seemingly custom-built for amorous encounters, seething with frustration.
I came here with the sexiest man I’ve met in two decades, my new boyfriend, Roy, expecting near constant romance.
But instead he’s spent 50 per cent of his time asleep in the sunshine, 30 per cent glued to his phone or tablet and nearly all the rest indulging in relaxing baths. Not to mention the excruciating evening when he made me watch Manchester United draw 1-1 with Huddersfield Town.
I’ve tried to entice him, even getting into a scented bubble bath with him. (‘Wow!’ he exclaimed, ‘your bottom is so sunburned.’)
He only got worked up once, while trying to get his Apple hub to link to the TV so he could watch the last episode of Line Of Duty.
It’s all come as something of a shock. Certainly, ten years ago, when I was in my mid-20s, all the men I met seemed to be only after one thing. Which was depressing sometimes, but at least dependable. So what is to blame for this sad state of shenanigans?
My verdict is that men are all too busy staring at their smartphones, tablets and laptops to take an interest in the fairer sex.
Far more so than women, in my experience, men tend to consider their gadgets integral to everyday life, finding meaning and purpose in the apps that let them watch shows, message their mates and even deliver an extra frisson to their favourite sports by letting them place real-time bets with the swipe of a hand.
Sadly, the evidence suggests that men like Roy now find such diversions more stimulating than, say, my company.
‘There is a great deal of competition that a sexual relationship has to face,’ postulated Professor Kaye Wellings, who led the research. ‘In the digital age, there are more diversionary stimuli that can take up your spare time… smartphones, Netflix and social media are all likely distractions that may prevent intimacy.’
Essentially, instead of treating us as sex objects, British blokes really do want to ‘Netflix and chill’. This 2019 equivalent of ‘do you want to come in for coffee?’ should be a euphemism for sex, sex and more sex.
Unfortunately, Roy has taken it at face value. To him ‘Netflix and chill’ means: ‘Let’s sit on the sofa and watch the whole of Abducted In Plain Sight.’
Still, I know I am tremendously lucky to have him lying next to me — whether he’s tangling me up in the throes of passion or not.
Most of my beautiful, clever and sexy friends aren’t getting any romance at all, because the men they connect with on apps would rather scroll endlessly through other women’s profiles — or use their iPhones for WhatsApp chats with the lads — than ask them out on dates.
A friend of a friend recently messaged 50 men on the dating app Bumble, and not one could be bothered to write back.
As a nation, it seems, we’re getting much of our sex vicariously — through shows such as Sex Education.
One solution — perhaps — would be for Netflix to formulate a dating app of its own. It could pair up people according to their viewing preferences, and then strategically conk out just before bedtime.
For now, though, my plan is to slip into my negligee, chuck the remote in the plunge pool and sabotage the wifi connection.
The things we do for love, eh?
Emily Hill is the author of Bad Romance (Unbound, £12.99)
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.
On Wednesday 24th April 2019, I will be speaking (Bad Romance-related) themes at the Tortoise ThinkIn in London alongside editor Merope Mills and bestselling author Nir Eyal. Limited tickets are still available on Eventbrite!