The transitional period between decades is always highly charged with the excitement of things to come, and nostalgia for an era coming to an end. The 1970’s had their final burst of energy with Punk rock, but by 1979, the New Wave was already upon us. Simmering beneath the deliberate crudeness, realism and rage of Punk was a brightly coloured, cosmetic, futuristic fantasy world. The movement’s forerunners were fans of British Glam rock, especially of David Bowie, and had an ironic affection for the danceability of Disco, hoping to replace it with a more whimsical, eccentric and sardonic genre. It was time for some fun. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was back in town!
New York City had a healthy club scene in 1979. CBGB still hosted local bands like Blondie, the Ramones and Talking Heads. Hurrah! was the New Wave dance spot. Danceteria and the Mudd Club hosted rock bands. Discos were booming. Studio 54 and Max’s Kansas City were still in business. Music was becoming more synthesized and Euro-flavored, ever since the Giorgio Moroder-produced Donna Summer hit, ‘I Feel Love’ (1977) inspired electronic experimentation within dance music. This was usually reserved for New Age or Jazz, but now dance music could be taken to the outer limits as well. This new sound was known in Europe as New Romantic. The dawn of MTV forced musicians to be more concerned with visual appearance. Heavy Metal became Hair Metal. Soon came the wrath of Madonna.
Meanwhile, a strange, brilliant futuristic fellow from a galaxy far, far away (Germany) had been living quietly in New York City since 1972, developing an act and a persona to complement his extraordinary singing talents. He transformed into Klaus Nomi, and his story is short, but sweet – and so was he! Had he lived a full life, the 80’s surely would have been more noteworthy. The musical climate was perfect for what he had to offer. Nomi could see the future clearly – in fact, he was already living in it. French TV Interview: It was said about you that you were either the 8th wonder of the world, or a tragic accident of the nature. What do you think of this definition? Klaus: ‘Oh it’s wonderful, it’s extraordinary. I hope it’s true!’
Soon our paths would cross. In 1978, I became a regular shopper at the trendy NYC fashion spot, Fiorucci where the Day-Glo colored clothing was made of leather, plastic, rubber and vinyl. Fiorucci was not just a store, but a whole new scene. They sold clothing by new cutting edge designers, and their own Fiorucci brand. Andy Warhol frequented the store, which also had all the latest fashion magazines. The newest, coolest music was always played there; Kraftwerk, The B-52’s, Blondie, Devo, Bowie, and they had lots of in-store dance parties.
I bought a new Fiorucci outfit each week, and my hair was purple (Manic Panic’s Crazy Color brand – Aubergine) with flaming pink streaks. A Fiorucci manager named Joey Arias (the now famous diva!) would outfit me in some fabulous clothes. Joey’s hair was a different florescent color each week. Once it was stenciled in a leopard print!
At Christmas time in 1979, Fiorucci was selling a postcard with a picture of a strange looking fellow, which read, “Klaus Nomi”. Thinking it meant ‘Merry Christmas’ in German, I bought the card. In December of 1979, I was in the TV studio for Bowie’s Saturday Night Live rehearsal. My friend’s dad (a VP at WNBC television) apologized for not getting us a seat inside the studio, but in the control room instead. This was even better, since it was right outside the dressing rooms!
The studio was buzzing with excitement. Jane Curtin and Larraine Newman were jumping around yelling, “Bowie is in the building!!” I suddenly recognized Joey from Fiorucci in the hallway. He excitedly explained that Bowie had asked him to sing back-up vocals on the show! Bowie stood with a weird little guy dressed in black, and introduced him to me as ‘Klaus Nomi’ (Joey Arias turned out to be a member of Nomi’s band). I was actually more excited to see my postcard photo come to life than to actually meet the legendary Bowie! I was enraptured by this precious creature, with his exquisite makeup, pointed hairstyle and German accent. Klaus smiled sweetly, kissed my hand, and his eyes twinkled. He wore the softest black leather elbow-length gloves – quite glamorous! I asked who did their fabulous makeup (the meticulous details were not visible on TV). They boasted that they’d done each other’s makeup, “Joey did mine and I did his, and we did David’s!” Boys will be girls!
First they performed ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. Joey and Klaus had to carry Bowie on-stage because his bizarre sculpted Dadaist costume encased his legs. Klaus and Joey sang backing vocals. You could hear Nomi’s authentic, immaculate countertenor quite clearly. It was a wondrous gift that would evoke emotion and astonishment in any listener. Back to the dressing room…
Bowie emerged for his second song – in a skirt (actually, a communist China airline stewardess style uniform) with hideous gray suede sling-back shoes. It was refreshing to see that Bowie was back to his old glam/drag tricks. The trio performed ‘TVC-15’ then rehearsed their ‘macho’ dance moves for “Boys Keep Swinging” in the hallway. For the broadcast, Bowie’s torso was replaced by a puppet’s body, using green-screen effects.
I accepted Mr. Nomi’s invitation to his next concert at Hurrah! and was honoured to see him perform many times thereafter. Each performance begat gasps and rapturous applause. Anyone could appreciate his pop-operatics. His songs were keyboard-laden with melodic guitar, and Nomi’s stunning vocals. The classical arias were captivating, especially with the freaky visual juxtaposition. This was something else completely – something special!
Klaus Sperber was born on January 24, 1944 in Immenstadt, Bavaria, Germany. As a teenager, Klaus worked as an usher at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin. He would climb onstage and serenade his co-workers after the shows. Klaus also sang operatic arias at a gay Berlin discothèque called Kleist Casino. His favourite singers were Elvis Presley and Maria Callas.
Klaus came to New York’s Greenwich Village from Germany in 1972 and became a pastry chef. His Lime Tart recipe is now legendary! However, he yearned to use his operatic voice in the pop/rock arena. He would pose in the window of Fiorucci as a mannequin for hours, never blinking his eyes once, and performed an in-store live concert. Klaus was an excellent mime and a rare talent. His range from baritone to soprano was beyond belief, coupled with his spiked blue-black hair and matching lipstick, white painted face and his twinkling eyes. In his white gloves, shiny monochromatic plastic space tuxedo, pointy elf boots and black spandex leotards (he must have frequented the most elegant space places!), Klaus resembled a real-life toy – a cross between Mickey Mouse and the Tin Man!
Klaus adopted the name ‘Nomi’ – an anagram of ‘Omni,’ a science-fiction magazine. “It could be any nation, because I see myself as universal, not as German, American, French or whatever you want, cause we are all on this planet, we’re all living on the earth.”
Nomi appeared in a satirical camp production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold with Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company in 1972. He played the Rheinmaiden and the Wood Bird.
Despite the freaky façade, Klaus was a really sweet, adorable guy, in love with life. He would kiss my cheek and leave a black lipstick print every time! You could see him walking down New York’s St. Mark’s Place in his fuzzy electric blue coat and full makeup in broad daylight.
His first appearance as ‘Klaus Nomi’ was in 1978 at Tom Scully and Susan Hannaford’s New Wave Vaudeville Show, directed by East Village legend Ann Magnuson. He was an overnight club sensation. One of Nomi’s earliest costumes worn at his debut featured a clear plastic cape, which was a vintage raincoat originally belonging to New York rocker Howie Pyro’s mother! Joey Arias soon introduced Klaus to the fashions of Thierry Mugler and Yamamoto. Joey remembers, “I still get goose pimples when I think about it… It was like he was from a different planet and his parents were calling him home. When the smoke cleared, he was gone.”
Nomi’s iconic space tuxedo was inspired by the one Bowie wore on SNL – based on a costume designed by Sonia Delaunay and worn by 1920s Dadaist artist Tristan Tzara – a hard plastic sculpture that completely encased his legs. Replicating Bowie’s outfit would cost $1,500, which Klaus, the pastry chef could not afford. However, the costumer was so moved by Nomi’s passion that he agreed to make him a triangular plastic tuxedo for much less. Nomi’s suit was made by the famous New York shop, Brooks Van Horn. Nomi’s ball gown/stockade was another masterpiece! Nomi’s monochrome outfits became infamous 30 years later – adapted by director Tim Burton for Johnny Depp’s look in the film Edward Scissorhands, used as the basis of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2009 couture runway show, and endlessly pillaged by Lady Gaga.
The TV appearance with Bowie secured a record deal with RCA records in 1980. Nomi’s debut album consisted of originals (penned by his brilliant new musical director, Kristian Hoffman of The Mumps) and covers of pop and opera classics by Lou Christie, Marlene Dietrich, Lesley Gore, and Harold Arlen’s ‘Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead’.
A European tour ensued. At a show at Le Palace in Paris, the entire fashion community showed up because they were intrigued by Nomi’s angular, polished and glossy look. Everybody who was anybody in Paris wanted to meet him. Nomi then recorded his second album Simple Man (1982), including two arias by 17th century composer Henry Purcell from the opera King Arthur.
The live shows were amazing; a sort of Kabuki-Cabaret, opening with Klaus emerging fresh from outer space in a cloud of smoke (dry ice actually, which would shower the audience with a cool heavenly mist). The band was hidden behind a curtain while Klaus and his mime troupe – Joey and a couple of exquisitely made-up Martian girls and boys – performed alien theatrics, churning out strangely yet accessible cover tunes; ‘I Feel Love’ (the Donna Summer hit), Lou Christie’s ‘Lightning Strikes’ and Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’. Nomi’s other songs (penned by Kristian Hoffman, with great contributions from Joey Arias and George Elliott) were melodic Euro-pop tunes with other-worldly lyrics about outer space, death and the distant future. The Nomi character and his evocative vocals brought warmth to the otherwise cold synthetic sound – Kraftwerk with personality. Klaus closed each show with the operatic aria ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (“My heart opens to your voice”) from “Samson et Dalila, astonishing the crowd every time.
Nomi’s performance at the disco Xenon on February 25, 1980 was simply magnificent. The oblivious dancing crowd was unaware there would be a show at all, and when their precious disco music suddenly stopped and the curtain rose on-stage, they hissed and booed. Klaus immediately entranced them with his sublime vocals and self-created illustrious character, transporting everyone to his planet. At the end of the forty-minute performance, he disappeared into the vaporous stratosphere from which he came. Everyone screamed for an encore! First there was the dead silence of disbelief, then bewildered cries of, “What was that?!” then a thunderous burst of wild applause.
Nomi performed a stunning two-night engagement at Hurrah! on March 18-19, 1980. Even the audience was quite glamourous! We all had a certain feeling that we had witnessed the beginning of something big.
Klaus last performed in New York at the Mudd Club in 1982 – out of costume, but still in full make-up. For his final, most intense and regal German TV performance of ‘Cold Song’ with a full orchestra, Klaus wore a stunning Baroque operatic outfit complete with a grand ruff collar. Then he suddenly disappeared from the scene. Klaus died of AIDS at age 39 on August 6, 1983. It’s tragic that it all started and ended so quickly. His ashes were scattered in New York City.
I will always remember his sincere, sweet smile and the sparkle in his eyes. He was so happy to finally be on the road to success. Klaus touched many people with his wonderful gift. His golden voice lives on.
Shortly before his death, Klaus was asked what project he would have most like to perform. He said, ‘Hänsel und Gretel’ (the opera by Engelbert Humperdinck). And which role? Klaus smiled, raised his hands in an operatic gesture, and said, “The Witch, of course!”
The wonderful Klaus Nomi is still admired by countless musicians, artists and designers worldwide, such as Morrissey (“Nomi sang like a man trapped in the body of a dead girl.”) who still plays Nomi recordings prior to his own gigs.
Za Bakdaz Klaus Nomi’s Unfinished Opera Heliocentric
by Madeline Bocaro
As one of the few lucky humans to have witnessed Nomi’s brief earthly visitation, it is with mixed feelings that I write. Arriving within a third-life of Haley’s comet – 25 years after his death – a new disc of unreleased Nomi product is a treasure, no matter what. Perhaps so many years without a new utterance from this astroNOMIcal being brings too many great expectations. Therefore, five words sum it up – is that all there is?
After recording only two studio albums for RCA in 1981 and 1982 and making a splash on the new wave scene with his extraordinary live shows, the strangely gifted, bizarre and alluring Nomi died in 1983. His early collaborators, George Elliott and Page Wood have resurrected some experimental demo tapes made in New York on home equipment in 1979, and assembled them into a gorgeous, artful package in dedication to their winged friend Klaus. The lengthy fictitious, nonsensical sleeve notes prove that they are indeed in their own galaxy, as was their other-worldly pal. However, it is presented as a new Nomi disc – his ‘unfinished opera’ – when it is in fact an Elliott/Wood production, sampling Nomi’s vocals.
The alien soundscapes of Za Bakdaz literally seem to frame the wailing of a sad, distant ghost. Fragments of precious operatic Nomi vocalizations (mostly phonetic, and therefore even more haunting) are interspersed with classical and spacey orchestrations. Nomi loved and merged retro and futuristic genres in his lifetime.
There are flourishes of brilliance, but not on every track. “Finale”, “Overture” and “Za Bakdaz” are basically the same piece of music, and the entire opus runs just over 30 minutes. Some of this material was released on the Za Bakdaz single in 1998, including Nomi’s flippant “Silent Night”.
When we find fault in this, we should ask, ‘Should these few precious Nomi gems have been left in a shoebox in the closet, or released for the world to hear?’ If this is truly all the vocal material Elliott and Wood had to work with, they certainly did the best they possibly could.
Nomi’s eyes welled up with sincerity during each live performance, and his pure emotion transcended on record. He would disappear in a mist of dry ice at the end of each spectacular performance, leaving his audience paralyzed with reverence. Klaus returns on this disc, ever so briefly, then quickly vaporizes into the ether – freezing again to death. But I have a strange feeling he’ll be back!
A “biographical musical fantasy” entitled You Don’t Nomi was written by French playwright Baptiste Delval. A play entitled Klaus Nomi – Angel of Suburbia by Sven Henriksen was staged (April, 2011) in Oslo, Norway. Nomi was played by countertenor/actor Oystein Elle.
KLAUS NOMI – COLLABORATIONS / TV/ FILMS / AFTERMATH
In the late 1970s while performing at various New York City clubs (Club 57, The Mudd Club, The Pyramid) Nomi assembled a group of up-and-coming models, singers, artists and musicians to perform live with him. They included Joey Arias, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, John Sex and Kenny Scharf. He also appeared on Manhattan Cable’s TV Party.
In 1980, Klaus played a supporting role as a Nazi official in Anders Grafstrom’s underground film The Long Island Four. The 1981 rock documentary film, Urgh! A Music War features Nomi’s live performance of ‘Total Eclipse’.
Art exhibits based on Nomi were held in San Francisco at the New Langton Arts gallery, and in Milan (Italy), entitled: Do You Nomi? In 2001 German band Rosenstolz, featuring alternative pop stars Marc Almond and Nina Hagen, covered ‘Total Eclipse’ for a maxi single CD release.
A cartoon version of Klaus Nomi appears in a 2-part episode of animated comedy/adventure TV series The Venture Bros. In Showdown at Cremation Creek (Part I), he appears as one of David Bowie’s bodyguard henchmen (with an animated Iggy Pop). “Klaus” attacks his opponents with ultra-high-pitched singing and the over-sized bow tie of his famous costume, spins and ejects as a battering weapon. In Showdown at Cremation Creek (Part II), ‘Klaus’ is killed after betraying Bowie (when he and Iggy Pop are called ‘stooges’ Klaus says “I wasn’t in the Stooges!”)
Nomi’s cover of Lesley Gore’s 1964 hit ‘You Don’t Own Me’ has been featured on the nationally broadcast radio show The Rush Limbaugh Show as the ‘Gay Update Theme.’
Nomi’s visual aesthetic has been an influence on women’s fashion designers such as Boudicca, Givenchy, and Paco Rabanne, and also men’s fashion designers such as Gareth Pugh and Bruno Pieters for Hugo Boss. Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2009 couture was influenced by Nomi. Gaultier used Nomi’s recording of ‘The Nomi Song’ in his runway show.
Two of Klaus Nomi’s costumes – donated by Joey Arias, are part of the Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990 exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Nomi’s costumes, and also video projections of him singing, are among 250 objects across all genres of art and design, revisiting a time when style was not just a ‘look’ but became an attitude. The exhibit runs from September 2011 through January 2012.
In 2013, Nomi collaborators Joey Arias and Kristian Hoffman united for a Klaus Tribute show, Lightning Strikes, which debuted in L.A., and toured to Portland, Salt Lake City, Seattle and New York. Their 2014 European tour coincided with what would have been Nomi’s 70th birthday.
Klaus Nomi 1981 / Simple Man 1982 / Encore 1983 / In Concert 1986 / Za Bakdaz 2007 (posthumous compilation of an unfinished opera)
‘You Don’t Own Me’ / ‘Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)’ (1981)
‘Nomi Song’ / ‘Cold Song’ (1982)
‘Lightning Strikes’ / ‘Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)’ (1982)
‘Simple Man’ / Death (1982)
‘Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ / ‘ICUROK’ (1982)
‘CUROK’ / ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ (Canadian 12″)
‘Za Bak Daz’ / ‘Silent Night’ (CD single, 1998)
‘After the Fall’
(Japan VHS): ‘Falling in Love Again’, ‘Lightning Strikes’, ‘Nomi Song’, ‘Simple Man’
Urgh! A Music War (1982) / The Long Island Four (1979) – Klaus sings ’Falling In Love Again’ in the night-club scene. (Now available on DVD) / Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (1979)