Klaus Nomi -- from ATTITUDE

from ATTITUDE, vol 1 Number 3, July 1994, London, England

Klaus Nomi

Like a shooting star, he exploded into the world then fell from the heavens after a glittering, all-too-brief career. Now largely forgotten, Nomi remains rock music's queerest exponent, who outshone the many acts following in his wake.

text - RUPERT SMITH

ONE NIGHT IN 1980, during an otherwise routine episode of BBC2's The Old Grey Whistle Test, a strange vision was beamed into British living rooms. A stark, angular figure -- heavily made up, his hair teased into three points and wearing a high-fashion Blake's 7-style outfit - was dancing robotically in front of a nondescript band. Then he opened his mouth, singing in a heavy German accent about nuclear mutants. When the chorus came, he lifted his arms to heaven and soared into an ear-splitting operatic soprano. The song was called Total Eclipse, and the singer was Klaus Nomi.

Nomi was even more exciting than that first glimpse suggested. German by birth, he had moved to New York to become a star of the burgeoning new-wave performance scene of the late Seventies. There he'd also worked with David Bowie and secured a recording contract with RCA Records who put out his first, self-titled album in 1981.

It was extraordinary: light-weight pop ditties were followed by droning ambient tracks, outrageous cover versions (Lou Christie's Lightning Strikes, Chubby Checker's The Twist), the melodramatic Total Eclipse and, as the climax, a wildly histrionic rendition of a Saint-Saens aria. Nomi's soprano swooped through each song, his precise German enunciation jarring in the rock setting. The outstanding track, Cold Song, lifted from Purcell's King Arthur, brought opera and pomp-rock into bizarre collision, beautiful and hilarious.

Nomi's whole stage act was built around the idea that he was an alien dropped down from a more glamorous galaxy to do earth-pop. In fact, his real life story was only marginally less peculiar. As young Klaus Sperber, he had worked front-of-house at the Berlin Opera in the late Sixties, and would entertain colleagues with his renditions of the great arias as they swept up after performances. (Later, Nomi would tell the press that he had "worked at the Berlin Opera".) He moved to New York in 1972 and became a fixture in the East Village, where he got a job as a pastry chef and pondered his artistic future.

In 1976, Sperber went to visit voice coach Ira Siff, now better known as Vera Galupe-Borszch, prima donna of drag divas La Gran Scena Opera Company. "I'd seen him around opera events in New York that only die-hard opera queens would go to," recalls Siff. "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!"

The East Village was overrun with talented eccentrics about to break out into punk stardom, and Sperber fitted in perfectly. Gravitating towards like-minded souls, he played a Rhine maiden in Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company production Der Ring Gott Farblonjef (1977), a comic reworking of Wagner's Ring cycle that he would perform after shifts at the restaurant. Stalking the streets with his hair slicked back to accentuate his angular features, wearing a woman's tailored grey jacket and slacks, he made a profound impression on performance artist Joey Arias, then working as a publicist for the Fiorucci boutique.

"He was introduced to me by the designer Katy K," says Arias. "She became Klaus' friend, collaborator and eventually executor. She told me she'd met this chef opera singer who had a great look and had been in shows, and when we finally met we hit it off and hung out together."

By 1978, Sperber was plotting his own debut on the New York art scene. With his dancer friend Boy Adrian, he had been devouring science magazines like OMNI, reading cyber-punk sci-fi and pushing his already striking look to more garish extremes. When they saw an ad in the press calling for acts to appear in a 'new wave vaudeville show', they decided this was their chance. Under the name 'NOMI', an anagram of their favourite magazine title, Klaus and Adrian prepared their number.

New Wave Vaudeville ran for four nights at Irving Plaza, a disused club on l5th Street. Organised by the artist David McDermott, the show featured over thirty acts including Man Parrish, Lance Loud, a stripper and a singing dog. Towards the end of the evening, McDermott announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to hear is not a recording! This is real!" The lights went down, thunderous music began and Klaus stepped onto the stage wearing a space suit, his hair sculpted into a point. While Adrian performed his robot dance, Klaus sang Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix from Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila. The performance finished with bombs and strobes as Klaus backed off the stage, disappearing into the smoke.

NOMI was a smash, and Klaus was immediately invited to perform the act at clubs all over town, including the hyper-hip Mudd Club. He asked Joey Arias to join the act, and together they recruited another member to the Nomi family, painter Kenny Scharf, who was already painting his science-fiction canvases. "We went over to Kenny's house and did a photo session with space helmets and shoulder pads, pretending we were the space police," says Arias. "Kenny was completely turned on by Klaus' image, and he was eager to become part of what we were doing."

When Nomi was booked to play at rock club and Warhol watering-hole Max's Kansas City, he included Arias and Scharf in the chorus line.

"Klaus had a lot more confidence by now," says Arias, "and the act became much bigger. He did eight songs. He had me and Kenny with our faces painted blue and huge shoulder pads, looking like football players from outer space, and he had taken his own appearance even further. It made quite an impact."

Nomi became a focus for other new-wave hopefuls: at various times the 'family' of dancers and backing singers included Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and even Madonna.

Nomi was a star in New York. After a performance at the Mudd Club, he discovered that David Bowie had been in the audience, and managed to bypass Bowie's security staff to effect an introduction. Bowie had just released the Lodger album, was emerging from his Berlin phase and was attracted by Nomi's Bauhaus appearance. The two got talking about mutual acquaintances in Berlin, and Bowie asked Nomi to appear with him on Saturday Night Live in December 1979. Nomi and Arias performed as Bowie's backing singers/dancers for three songs (The Man Who Sold the World, TVC15 and Boys Keep Swinging), while Bowie himself whisked through costume changes including a Chinese airline stewardess' outfit.

Such was Bowie's influence at the time that Nomi soon found himself in the studios recording his first album for RCA. In 1980 and 1981 he was whisked round the world on a tour, made videos and promptly returned to the studio for his second album, Simple Man (1982). European audiences took Nomi to their bosoms, and RCA France began to plough a lot of money into their new star. The original Nomi family had split up: Arias and Scharf and the rest of the New York crowd were now kept at a distance while Nomi worked with session musicians and hired dancers.

But if he was moving away from his roots, his music remained truly eccentric. Simple Man pushed the Nomi style even further, managing to segue the Sorceress' song from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas into Ding Dong (the Witch is Dead) from The Wizard of Oz. The final track, Dido's death aria from Dido and Aeneas, is Nomi's finest moment. Straining heroically to reach the high notes, he sings the Iyric 'Remember me, but ah forget my fate' in a way that defies belief.

That song, the last track on his last album, was soon to take on a sad, ironic immediacy. Returning to New York at the beginning of 1983, Nomi shocked old friends with his appearance. "He was always thin," says Arias. "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 and collapsed, and he was taken into hospital."

The doctors discovered that Nomi's immune system had collapsed, and also found a rare form of skin cancer, Kaposi's Sarcoma, breaking out on his body. The condition was not yet known as AIDS.

Throughout 1983, Nomi's health declined. "He'd sit in his apartment watching videos and photos of himself, saying 'Look at this, this is what I did - now it's all gone' ," says Arias. "He went on a macrobiotic diet. He went on Interferon, which puffed him up like a rat, but nothing helped."

In the summer he went back to hospital and faced the fact that the doctors were powerless to help him.

"He began to look like a monster: his eyes were just purple slits, he was covered in spots and his body was totally wasted," says Arias. "I had a dream that he'd recover his strength and go back on stage, but that he'd have to veil himself like the Phantom of the Opera. He laughed, he liked that idea, and he actually seemed to be getting better for a while. That was on a Friday night. I was going to go and see him again on the Saturday morning, but they called me and told me that Klaus had passed away in the night."

Nomi was one of the first public figures to die from AIDS, and his death brought the health crisis to a wider public. His career was terminated with much of the promise unfulfilled; now he is barely remembered. The albums are available on CD, there are three promotional videos, some paintings by admirers, and a few clips of Nomi's hilarious appearances on cable TV demonstrating his skill as a pastry chef.

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 mrew 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.

Klaus Nomi may now be little more than a footnote in the rock history books, but during his brief, glorious career he realised a vision of fabulous comic absurdity that still managed to be deeply moving. The manner of his death may have eclipsed his achievements (RCA's London press office could provide no more information than that "he was one of the first people to die of AIDS"). But for those with a taste for the ridiculous, Klaus Nomi outshines the hordes of over-made-up Eighties acts who followed in his wake. Track down the albums and marvel at the queerest thing ever to step onto the rock stage.

"He was a very sweet man, very sincere and shy," says Ira Siff. "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."

Klaus Nomi pictures from Attitude

Three decades in the life of Nomi:
Klaus Sperber as a teenager
in Essen in the Sixties. Moving to
New York from Berlin in the early
Seventies, he reinvented himself
and adopted the alien alias Nomi.


Klaus with friend at the Hamptons in the summer of 1981


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