Kristian Hoffman, for East Village Eye

book_yellow.gifSteven Hager, Art After Midnight : The East Village Scène 1986 St. Martin's Press, Excepts

book_yellow.gifRupert Smith, from Attitude, Vol, 1Number 3, July 1994, London, England

 

 Klaus Nomi, by Kristian Hoffman, for East Village Eye

 

Klaus Nomi appeared on the NYC scene suddenly, leaping from his spectacular debut at the New Wave Vaudeville show (where the astounded audience had to be told repeatedly that the voice was truly live) to spearhead a futurist movement of militantly fashionable avant-misfits before and beyond any new romantic notions occurred to Spandau Ballet and after Bowie abandoned the future as an archaic concept.

 

Klaus was a face - elfin and painted as a Kabuki robot. He was a style - a medieval interpretation of the 21st century via Berlin 1929. He was a voice, almost inhuman in range, from operatic soprano to Prussian general. He was a master performer - a master of theatrical gesture. Above all he was a visionary. He said the future is based on the needs of the artist, deciding how to live and living that way every minute. Klaus, the man from the future, lived that way in the present, and held out his hand saying,

"Come with me. You can do it too."

 

His vision was naive, quaint, almost foolish, but forceful in its purity and innocence. Even at his most wildly ridiculous ("Lightning Strikes") or quaveringly sublime (Purcell's "Death") there was an acknowledgment of impending apocalypse that lent it conviction. For Klaus, apocalypse was a metaphor for purification, and as the oddball optimist surrounded by cynical detachment and resignation, he dared to believe in a better world.

 

Klaus rose quickly, independent of the critical machine. He was never "cool," and was resented by some who thought Fame should have hipper tastes.

 

 

He gained a following in New York and used it as a springboard to even greater success in Europe. He dearly loved New York, felt it was his true home, and was distressed that he couldn't work here more. He requested that his remains stay here despite family ties in Germany.

He did not end life at the end of his career, but in the middle of it. His biggest accomplishments were ahead of him. He was on the verge of Canadian and American deals, and was full of ideas and plans, positive and humorous. He was tortured by impossible and endless management complications and a disease whose myth exploded through thoughtless babble and media saturation until the only sensible solution was to move far away.

His was always a message of great instinctive hope.

 

 

Steven Hager, Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene1986 St. Martin's Press, excerpts

 

Chap. 2, New Wave Vaudeville

 

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"Toward the end of the show, the lights dimmed and the room was filled with a thundering musical ovation. The curtains opened and the spotlight fell on a strange, unearthly presence wearing a black gown, clear plastic cape, and white gloves. As the orchestral refrain from Saint-Saens' 'Samson And Delila' was played, this strange Weimar version of Mickey Mouse began singing in an angelic voice. "I still get goose pimples when I think about it," remembers Joey Arias, who was in the audience that night. "Everyone became completely quite until it was over." The act was billed "Nomi by Klaus," but the man's real name was

Klaus Sperber and he was McDermott's only true competion as star of the show.

After Sperber finished the aria, smoke bombs where lighted, strobe lights began to flash, and the sound of a spaceship launching was played at an ear-shattering volume. Sperber bowed and stepped backward. The crowd stood and screamed for an encore, but Sperber just kept backing up into the cloud of smoke. "It was like he was from a different planet and his parents where calling him home," says Arias. "When the smoke cleared, he was gone."

An only child who was raised by a single mother in the German Alps, Sperber worked as an usher at the Berlin Opera in the late sixties, where he'd entertained the maintenance crew with his Maria Callas imitations. He had a stiking puppet like face, with a high forehead and sharply pointed nose. He heightened these features by plucking his eyebrows, wearing dark lipstick, and combing his hair into a crown with three points. He moved into an apartment on St. Mark's Place in 1972 and appeared in a camp production of Das Rheingold with Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theater Company.

A self-taught chef as well as a self-taught singer, Sperber took a job as a pastry chef at the World Trade Center and later formed a freelance baking company with Katy Kattleman. "I met Klaus at an Uptown disco," says Kattleman. "He was wearing a beret and a woman's jacket from the forties. I'd never seen anyone quite like him. He was so shy and quite. We both had two different lives: a straight day job and a real nutty night life. We Started going to Max's and CBGB together."

Magnusen lured Sperber into New Wave Vaudeville after hearing him sing on the way home from Max's one night. Sperber was friends with a young dancer named Adrian Richards, who had perfected a mimelike robot dance. Orignally scheduled to perform with Sperber, Richards backed out at the last minute, leaving only the name he'd invented for the act, an anagram of his favorite magazine, OMNI. Later on, Sperber took the name Nomi for himself.

In two short years, Nomi went from his position as a poor pastry chef to become New York's leading New Wave performer. He created a cabaret style that is still being imitated today and assembled a group of promising young artists and performers around him, a list that at various times included Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Jean-Micheal Basquiat, John McLaughlin, and Joey Arias. (It was during a period of rampant promiscuity that Arias renamed McLaughlin "John Sex.")

(about three paragraphs deleted about Kenny Scharf's arrival from the west coast)

Scharf was friendly, handsome, and incredibly naive. Having recently arrived from the University of California at Santa Barbara (where he'd studied art for one year), he was studying illustration at SVA and was obsessed with television, Pop Art, and outer space. He talked insessantly about his favorite TV show, "The Jetsons." He had also invented his own religion in which he worshiped the element hydrogen as god. Nomi was impressed with Scharf's paintings, particularly with a large one of a Cadillac flying through space. "You and I are working on the same thing," he told the young artist.

"I could tell Kenny was baffled by Klaus," recalls Arias. "We were getting really stoned and Kenny said: 'I want to be like you guys.' So we gave him a Nomi hairdo, with triangle ears and a triangle back. We took photographs of it and Kenny was so excited. He felt like a Nomi person. I put on shoulder pads under my shirt and Kenny put on a space helmet.

Klaus thought it was great. He wanted us to be in his next show."

The next scheduled performance was a Max's Kansas City, where Nomi had been invited to open for the Contortions. Arias and Scharf appeared as go-go dancers. "We painted our faces green," says Arias. "We were completely puffed up with green helmets and shoulder pads. Klaus sang, 'The Twist', 'Falling In Love Again', and his aria. I was into the robot dance, while Kenny was more into just go-going. People went completely crazy over the act."

Arias introduced Scharf to the managers at Fiorruci, who organized an exhibit titled Fiorruci Celebrates the New Wave, which combined an art show by Scharf with a performance by Nomi. Scharf created a series of paintings detailing the misadventures of a jet-set woman of the future named estelle. The next to last painting showed estelle seated seated inside a spaceship, loking at a TV set that showed the earth exploding from a nuclear bomb. "She looked really pleased because she was the only survivor," recalls Scharf.

#Photo by George Dubose

 

"Around this time Klaus and I decided we were the future," says Arias. "We formed the Nomi family. We lived as if we were on the spac shuttle. We ate little bits of food- space food."

 

The lifestyle added alot to the shows, which where becoming an increasingly stylized mixture of New Wave, Kabuki, and Bauhaus. Scharf's dancing no longer fit in with the style and he was booted out of the group.

One night at the Mudd Club, Nomi met his idol, David Bowie. After discovering that they had mutal friends in Germany, Bowie invited Nomi and Arias to appear with him on "Saturday Night Live.

" Soon afterward, Nomi signed a record deal with RCA.

 

"Then Klaus and I had a falling out," says Arias. "I was writing songs on my own and Klaus got pissed about that. He said,'You're starting to do your own thing and I think you should move out.'" As his self-importance increased, Nomi beganing alienating many of his former friends. He dissolved his group and hired a professional band to back him.

His first album was released in 1981, and it sold poorly.

 

Chap. 6, "Fun Gallery"

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Unfortunately, in 1982, another plague appeared, one even more deadly than heroin. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, had been spreading anonymously for several years, primarily through the gay population. The disease was barely identified when Klaus Nomi was diagnosed and hospitalized.

"They made me wear a plastic bag when I visited him," recalls Arias. "I wasn't allowed to touch him. After a few weeks, he seemed to get better. He was strong enough to walk around. So he left the hospital and went home. His manager was making him sign all these papers, like we'll give you $ 500 if you sign your life away one more time. He developed kaposis [lesions associated with Kaposi's sarcoma, a rare skin cancer linked with AIDS] and started taking Interferon. That messed him up real bad. He had dots all over his body and his eyes became purple slits. It was like someone was destoying him. He used to make fun of it. He'd say 'Just call me dotty Nomi.' Then he got real weak and was rushed back to the hospital. He couldn't eat for days because he had cancer in his stomach. Herpes popped out all over his body. He turned into a monster. It hurt me so much to see him.

I talked to him on the night of August 5th. He said, 'Joey, what am I going to do? They don't want me in the hospital anymore.  They pulled all the plugs. I have to stop all this stuff because I'm not getting any better.' I had this dream of Klaus getting strong and singing again-only he's be a little deformed, so he'd have to stay behind a screen or something.  'You'll be the phantom of the opera,' I told him. 'We'll do shows together again.' 'Yeah, maybe,' he said. But Klaus died in his sleep  that night."

In retrospect, it's unfortunate that Nomi's career began before the rise of MTV. At the time of his death, he was just getting established in Europe and the the help of MTV videos, he certainly could have pushed into the American market. His first album contained an interesting mix of sixties pop, opera, and ethereal space music, but it fell between so many stylistic cracks that it had difficulty finding an audience. (A year after Nomi's death, however, Malcolm McLaren succcessfully released a dance rock version of an aria from Madam Butterfly.)

#Photo promo de Klaus prise à NYC.   

 

 

 

Rupert Smith, 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."

 

'Total Eclipse', Kristian hoffman, performed by Klaus Nomi


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