“A Man Without Makeup Is Like A Cake Without Icing”.
It’s dangerous to call an artist an ‘original’ when as Shakespeare said, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ and even more dangerous to apply that term to pop music and pop culture, especially these days, when the blandest of the bland are being lauded as heroes, icons, and other superlatives. It seemed easier in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, when music was still searching out its limits and when eccentrics and outrageousness were valued as long as the music and talent matched the image.
Klaus Nomi was possibly as near to an original in that world as you could get. You may not have heard of him but that is partly because he died early of AIDS and partly because the man was consistently hidden behind the persona. However, there are Klaus Nomis living amongst us today; in the emo culture, the few remaining punks and New Romantics, the goths, cirque du soleil, fashion catwalks, kabuki theatre and performance street art.
When he was famous in the 70’s and 80’s, it was because he was different; original. Nobody is ‘different’ today like Klaus Nomi was ‘different’ then; maybe Gaga comes close and vocally, Antony Hegarty and the Johnsons. He belonged to a group of slightly other-worldly people who were immensely influential on the fringes of what was hip and cool. He didn’t fit the archetypical pop star image and, even amongst people like Bowie and other new wave, slightly androgynous stars, he was even more different, odd and out there. Think Tilda Swinton meets Avatar, meets Maria Callas, meets the MC from ‘Cabaret’.
“I come as the wicked witch from the Baroque era”. Nomi
So what and who was Klaus Nomi and why was he so well-regarded by his peers and his fans?
First of all, he was a counter-tenor. For those who aren’t sure what that is; it’s a male singer with a range comparable to a female contralto, mezzo-soprano or soprano. He had a very fine high voice, possibly more at home in an opera house than a gay club but in his case, he adapted it to deliver all sorts of musical performances from 60’s pop, through 80’s synth, to Purcell and other composers.
He was also an out and out avant-garde performer who always delivered bizarre visual and highly theatrical stage sets. Always made up and always in costume, he made a point of highlighting his receding hairline with hair creations that would make a punk blush with shame. He must have drawn on a myriad of references but in the end created a persona that was uniquely his. He was one of those artists whose silhouette alone would bring instant recognition. People used the term ‘retro-futuristic’ to describe his shows because they could see the historical references but because they were blended with a sort of sci-fi theme, they were also progressive.
“I go on stage and people like what I look like; as soon as I’m outside I feel like I have to hide, because people laugh at me, because of the way I look. Now, I use this look, it works for me, I even exaggerate it. I used to hide my large forehead, but now I’m selling it.”
He emerged at a time when New York punk bohemia was flourishing at the end of the 70’s and beginning of the 80’s and instead of coming over as weird and too OTT, he fitted right in with the artistic experimentation of the scene. His audiences thought he was from another universe and it has to be said, he thought that too but nobody survives in that world without talent and his talent lay in a combination of singing and performance that mesmerized people into believing they were seeing something special.
His live shows were his forte. A little man who you’d probably pass on the street without a second look; he would transform himself into a sort of kabuki cabaret performer whose character and voice would create an atmosphere which the audience would be sucked into. Using clouds of dry ice, he’d emerge on stage accompanied by some Martian mime girls, with the band still hidden behind a backdrop and wallop the audience with well-known hits such as ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’, Lou Christie’s ‘Lightning Strikes’, ‘The Twist’ and even Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’. Totally incongruous and yet utterly convincing. When at the end of the show, he’d delivered and aria from ‘Samson and Delilah’ the audience left wondering what the hell they’d just seen but knowing they’d witnessed something totally unique.
From Berlin to New York
For the fact fanatics; Klaus Nomi was born as Klaus Sperber in Bavaria, Germany, in 1944 at the end of the 2nd World War. During the 1960s, he worked as a theatre usher at the Deutsche Opera in Berlin, where he practised his vocal range on cast and crew after the main performances. He even took his arias and sang them at the Kleist Casino, which was a well-known Berlin gay club but his dream of becoming a serious opera singer was rejected enough times to make him need a change of scene.
In 1972, he moved to New York City. No mean feat when you think about it but he must have felt restricted even in Berlin and wanted to move to somewhere where he would be among like-minded thinkers.
New York was the place to be for avant-garde artists and he quickly immersed himself in the East Village culture. According to a 2004 documentary (‘The Nomi Song’) he supported himself by working as a pastry chef and even took singing lessons to expand his repertoire. Like so many people at this time, it was a question of being in the right place at the right time; talent wasn’t enough. Nomi took his opportunities, looked around him and saw what he needed to do. In an era where ‘out there’ was everywhere, he needed to be further out there than everybody else; only then could he properly showcase his talent.
It must have been frustrating. He was a true counter-tenor and was infatuated with opera singers, especially the likes of Maria Callas but he realised that he wasn’t going to make it in the opera world and like all true chameleons changed his colours to suit his surroundings. Grotty jobs were a means to an end but if that’s what it took, he did it and maybe it toughened him up enough to cope with the cut throat world of bohemian New York. He even posed as a shop window dummy at Fiorucci’s for hours on end without blinking – whatever it took!
In 1976 he met voice coach Ira Siff. Now Ira Siff was a larger than life character herself. She was a queen bee (stage name: Vera Galupe-Borszch) among the drag divas at La Gran Scena Opera Company and a perfect source of advice for the young Klaus Sperber.
“I'd seen him around opera events in New York that only die-hard opera queens would go to. He came to me for advice on what to do with his voice, because he had a beautiful lyric tenor but could also sing falsetto. At that time, there was no interest in men singing in high voices; the countertenor revival hadn't begun, and it was long before La Gran Scena. So I advised him to concentrate on his tenor and forget the soprano, because no one would take him seriously. Fortunately, he didn't listen to my advice...He was a very sweet man, very sincere and shy, he's the only person who ever made sense out of crossing opera with pop, who understood both styles and made them work together. He took his voice to places and people who had never heard that sound before."
He wasn’t only meeting the right people but he was hitting the right moment in time. The Punk era had lost its crudeness and rough edges and merged into new Wave and New Romanticism. David Bowie was leading the underground and Disco was sweeping the charts but either way, glam was in and the more outrageous the act and the costumes the better. 1975 saw ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ become the biggest cult movie of the age and Klaus Nomi felt right at home.
The East Village was swarming with creative people. It was the time of Blondie, The Ramones and Talking Heads and the big European stars also gravitated to the New York scene. Disco began to fade; it was time for avant-garde acts to breakthrough and looking back, that energy has never happened since. Gaga doesn’t even come close.
By 1979, Klaus Nomi had more or less completed his act and his on-stage persona. Along with dancer boyfriend Boy Adrian, he had used sci-fi influences from pulp mags to refine his already striking look and when they saw an ad calling for acts to appear in a so-called 'new wave vaudeville show', they took their chance and under the name ‘Nomi’ made their bid for attention in a crowded scene.
New Wave Vaudeville was a four night a week feature at the Irving Plaza and had over 30 acts of varying quality and concepts. It was run by the artist David Mc Dermott, who at the end of the evening introduced Klaus Nomi with the following words:"Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to hear is not a recording! This is real!" Nomi then made his entrance dressed as a sort of spaceman with his hair swept up to a point. He then performed an aria from Samson and Delilah and disappeared accompanied by bombs and smoke. He was an instant hit and as a result was invited to appear at the hippest venues all over town. With friends Joey Arias and painter Kenny Scharf, plus sundry others, the act was developed to become a must-see among the arty set. Because of the variety of music he presented plus the performance artists that made it a show, the man with the bug-eyed stare, black-lipped Pagliacci pout and a wardrobe that seemed straight out of camp, cult sci-fi movies was a hit. Klaus Nomi was the name on everybody’s lips.
The Bowie Factor
The danger was that he would be seen as a novelty show and maybe even a one-note performer and quickly disappear once the novelty wore off. However, once again, meeting the right person at the right time took his status to another level. After a Mudd club performance, Nomi heard that David Bowie was in the audience. You don’t miss chances like this and by cleverly slipping past Bowie’s entourage, he got a meeting with one of the giant names of the day and someone he felt was definitely in tune with what he had to offer. Bowie was attracted by Nomi’s Bauhaus image and they were able to share gossip about mutual friends in Berlin. This led to Bowie inviting him to appear on Saturday Night Live in December 1979.
Bowie sang ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and Nomi sang ‘Oh no, not me’ back. It was a momentous performance and many thought Nomi outshone Bowie on stage but although it’s not clear why, this didn’t lead to the elevation to mega stardom that Nomi probably expected or at least hoped for.
“It was like New York was standing still,” Joey Arias later wrote of the career-making performance. However, slowly but surely, he slipped to the fringes of Bowie’s entourage and eventually fell away. Whatever Bowie had seen in Nomi, he chose not to follow up on it and although there was no evident falling-out, there was no further professional contact. However, Saturday Night Live was a chance-in-a-million, publicity opportunity which brought him much more attention and although the hoped for boost in his career didn’t come, it didn’t suffer either. He was in the right circles, with talked about performances and albums with backing singers ranging from Keith Haring, Jean Paul Basquiat to even Madonna and was firmly established in the alternative art scene of the time. It all looked good and it was a question of where his talent and imagination could lead him next.
Performance artist as he was, he still had needs and although Klaus Nomi couldn’t easily seek out sex without publicity, Klaus Sperber could. His friends talk about his prowling the piers of the Hudson River in search of sex with truck drivers and other casual contacts. It’s the loneliness of fame thing again. After all, the fully made-up and costumed creature that was his stage presence wasn’t the most obvious sex contact for most people. He had an image and a reputation to protect but sexual needs to fulfil. It’s a combination that has brought the downfall of many a celebrity.
Eventually, he succumbed to HIV but at a time when the virus was just beginning its rapid spread through the gay scene.
Even when Kaposi’s sarcoma began to invade his body and neck, he put on the make-up and costumes to cover it up and went on performing. If ever there was a case of irony it was here. His persona demanded concealment and disguise anyway but now he needed it to be able to go on. During a performance of Purcell’s aria of the Cold Genius from King Arthur, he sings “I can scarcely move or draw my breath,” before stumbling and crying out “Let me, let me, let me freeze again to death.” How poignant must that have seemed to those who knew there was something wrong and to Nomi himself!
However, despite increasing weakness and ill-health curtailing his potential, the rent still had to be paid. He took whatever gigs he could, however difficult and demeaning. It must have been tortuous to suddenly find your body letting you down when there was a promise of so much more. He ended up in hospital with the lesions spreading even further and by that time, the news of the new ‘gay disease’ was on everybody’s lips. It was terrifying to all concerned.
"The party was over," Kenny Scharf recalled, looking back on those last, pre-AIDS days of uninhibited sex. Man Parish, a friend of Nomi’s added, “A lot of people took off. They didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know how to deal with it…Is this something I could catch? Does he have typhoid or the plague? You hear rumours. You heard stuff in the underground. No one knew what was going on.”
Of course it’s easy to look back in hindsight. We know now what happened and why and what the outcomes were but at the time it was chaos in the New York pop culture scene. Unfortunately, Klaus Nomi became a victim of that terror and lack of knowledge. He lay in the Manhattan’s Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, reduced by Kaposi’s and the weakness and pain of AIDS and nobody turned up to visit him. They were all too scared. He was one of the first celebrities to die of the disease and tragically was one of the first to be shunned and ignored by those who knew him.
He died alone in 1983 at the age of 39! It’s easy to judge in 2013 and point the finger at the moral ineptitude of his circle and surely some people had more backbone than to leave the man to die alone but at that moment in time, different forces were at work; it was a time of personal fear and loathing and that’s just the way it was. A few years later it would probably have been a different story but you were really unlucky if you had AIDS in New York City in 1983 – even the name didn’t yet exist.
There was a certain irony in the weirdness of his funeral.
“The funeral arrangements went off in bizarre style. At the memorial service, an unknown woman in a black cape ran screaming down the aisle and threw herself on Klaus' casket. During the eulogy, a storm broke out and contributed loud claps of thunder in suitably Wagnerian manner. At a retrospective exhibition that followed soon after, rabid fans from Paris stole everything that wasn't nailed down.” Source here.
As I said at the beginning, artists like Klaus Nomi don’t turn up every year. His full potential was never realised but as with so many HIV icons, the manner of his death almost enhanced the way he lived and performed.
Like James Dean, there was never any guarantee that he wouldn’t have faded away into the lists of promising performers who never quite became great. However, there is surely enough evidence to suggest that Nomi was an original with an immense talent and imagination, who may well have emerged as one of the great trend setters of his time. AIDS cut that short but his claim to fame shouldn’t be based on the fact that he was the first ‘celebrity’ to die of AIDS – he was surely much more than that.
The following YouTube clips will give you a flavour of the man and his style and it may well be worth seeking out the 2004, documentary film about his life: ‘The Nomi Song’.
“It was a curious story up to the point when it became unbearable.” Klaus Nomi
The Brilliant Performance of a Dying Man