When Nomi Met Bowie

December 15, 1979. For Klaus Nomi, his performance as a singer/dancer/weird presence for one single show behind David Bowie that night on Saturday Night Live seemed to be an indication that he was on the right path and he was headed to glory; instead, it was the high-water mark of his brief career.

When Bowie died in January 2016, SNL broadcast one of the songs from that appearance, a performance of “The Man Who Sold the World,” in which Bowie sings in a plastic tuxedo so rigid that Nomi and his co-backup, Joey Arias, were tasked with carrying Bowie to and from his place at the mic. (It was a gift from SNL because no complete, legal, clip of any of the three songs has been available online, as NBC is as legally rigid as Bowie’s tuxedo’s fabric was.) Nomi was so enamored with the plastic suit that he wore a similar one as his costume for the remainder of his career, but his tux was one Nomi could walk in but not sit in or bow to an audience while wearing, which made his own appearances in it similarly awkward.

Here is “The Man Who Sold the World” from that 1979 appearance (SNL/NBC already deleted the official clip; here is one I found):

 
Extraordinary costumes were already nothing new in pop music by 1979, but audiences had to notice that one of Bowie’s backup singers—that one! Him! In the black dress and the widow’s peak and kabuki white makeup—was hitting notes not commonly heard in pop music. Even Bowie appears to react at moments to the beautiful voice emanating from behind him.

Klaus Nomi felt like he was on his way ever upward that night, but we are instead looking at Nomi’s one career peak when we watch the three songs Bowie performed. After that night, neither Bowie nor any other big-name performer asked for more from Klaus Nomi; they had seen and loved precisely all that he had already given. With more ambition than hope, purely for the love of singing, Nomi recorded a couple albums after 1980 but both were released to obscurity and sank from there. He died in 1983, one of the earliest AIDS casualties.

Slowly, over the last decade, Nomi’s part in music history has been assessed anew as people have started to recall him—his appearance, his voice, an attempt to erase any personality that instead became his personality—like something they thought they dreamed about rather than really heard and saw.

* * * *
Klaus Nomi was born 73 years ago today, January 24, 1944. He managed to stand out in a time and place that made rather a fetish of uniqueness: New Wave-era New York City.

Many actors and performers attempt to find their voice or vision in a performance that resides in the very process of erasing the self, even the idea of a self. Some comedians who build a stage persona in this territory will even flirt with the idea of not being “in” on their own jokes; they have brilliant moments but tend to have brief careers. Singers and pop stars find it easier to latch onto a persona for an album or concert tour or two, then drop that for an entirely new one a few years later. Bowie certainly did that, and he was in between personae in December 1979.

Nomi might have become one of those performers, picking up and discarding personalities, but as it turned out, he only had the one opportunity at a unique persona, at fame, at his career. Dead of AIDS by 1983, he made the most of that one chance during his few years in the spotlight.

He delivered New Wave pop with a operatic countertenor voice, which carried him beyond Roy Orbison into an ethereal contralto, often a falsetto, and with an otherworldly stage presence of very few human facial expressions—except for an occasional joy-filled smirk—under white makeup, a plastic tuxedo, robot dance moves, and dry ice-filled stage shows. Nomi appeared to want the world to think he was a wind-up doll from space. At times, he seemed to think he was a wind-up doll from space.

Born Klaus Sperber in Immenstadt, Germany, he claimed to have been a professionally trained opera singer, but really he had been a professional usher whose stage experience was limited to entertaining his fellow ushers and stagehands at a West Berlin opera house after hours. His voice was largely self-trained, and when he could afford lessons, he would connect with a professional singer. He insisted on training as a falsetto, which some teachers tried to coach him away from. Even in opera, Nomi was ahead of his time: there are more countertenor parts now.

After he moved to New York in 1972, he struggled to find an audience until he developed a stage persona so camp that audiences could only accept it by choosing to believe that it was not camp at all, by believing that, everything else aside, at least the guy on stage believed he was in fact a disco alien who happened to also be a pop opera singer, and yet was a “simple man.”

“Simple Man”:

 
He came up with a name, Nomi, that both sounded sci-fi-ish (Omni magazine was then popular) and was at the same time a pun, “know me.” At his 1978 debut, in an Ann Magnuson-organized “vaudeville” at the Irving Plaza, he wore a clear plastic cape over a spacesuit, entered through a cloud of dry ice, sang a Saint-Saens aria, and exited through another cloud of dry ice without saying a word or gesturing. It was necessary for the emcee to inform the crowd that what they had witnessed was not a lip-synching act like Andy Kaufman’s. He repeated the act in other venues, in the now-legendary grimy downtown clubs like the Mudd Club and Max’s Kansas City that were not exactly venues for opera.

“I might as well look as alien as possible because it reinforces a point I am making. My whole thing is that I approach everything as an absolute outsider. It’s the only way I can break so many rules. Remember, my background is totally strange—German classical opera. So I was uncertain about coming from that to rock. It was just as shocking for me to sing opera in a falsetto soprano in Germany. It was another rule I was breaking. You just didn’t do that. And I am helped by the fact that pop and rock, which you would think has no rules at all, is really just as conservative as classical music. So what I do is doubly shocking. The difference is that punk audiences admire that I can shock them. Nothing is sacred to me. Who is making the rules anyhow?”—Klaus Nomi

The New Wave patrons grew to adore Nomi and his complete dedication to a bizarro muse that would lead a man to employ his beautiful voice in the service of unique versions of pop hits like “Lightnin’ Strikes” and Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” while dressed like an alien. He did not speak between songs. He did not explain that he was an alien. He just sang the songs in his operatic voice. He attracted downtown crowds that rivaled Blondie’s and Talking Heads’.

He attracted David Bowie’s attention. Nomi and dancer Joey Arias had been creating theatrical events, including live-action clothing store windows, that had one thing in common: big Manhattan crowds. No matter what they produced, or where, large crowds followed. Bowie hired the two as not merely backup singers but full participants in his stage act, but only for the Saturday Night Live appearance. For “TVC-15,” Bowie wore a woman’s business dress and Arias and Nomi struggled with a dog doll that was supposed to have a functioning TV in its mouth. “The Man Who Sold the World” is above. And for “Boys Keep Swinging,” Bowie rendered himself a puppet who is having difficulty keeping himself in his pants. In all three songs, one can see Nomi’s briefly joyous smirk flicker across his features. He actually was human.

Bowie never said that there might be a future in the work. He just wanted to give the SNL audience a taste of something he had been enjoying in the downtown club scene. Nomi’s downtown fan base thought that he was about to be the first figure from that world to break through to the big time; instead, not much came of it.

Nomi recorded two albums that were released in France but they did not so much vanish from the American market as never appear here at all, not until long after he was gone.

He was one of the downtown NYC scene’s earliest AIDS casualties, when the disease was still being referred to in the mass media (on those few occasions when it was mentioned at all) as “gay cancer,” and then, “gay-related immune disorder (GRID).” He died in 1983. The disease was so new that none of his friends felt brave enough to visit him in hospital, according to their own recollections in a biographical film released in 2004, The Nomi Song. (The movie’s website no longer has a live link to stream the film. It is a moving film biography about this unique life, told through the stories of those who were there.) In the film, his friends each give well-worn justifications for not visiting Nomi in the hospital, but they each appear retrospectively saddened by the fact that they did not visit him.

After his diagnosis, Nomi embarked on a final European tour, months before his death, one devoted to giving opera to rock festival audiences while wearing a Baroque doll’s costume with a full ruffled collar to cover the Kaposi’s sarcomas that were beginning to appear on his neck. At his final performance, a goodbye that he knew was a goodbye to performing and to life, he delivered one heartbreaking, and utterly human, finally and simply human, rendition of “The Cold Song” from Henry Purcell’s opera, King Arthur.

The lyric is in English. Any performance of it requires strength, as the character, the “Cold Genius,” is “awakened by Cupid and ordered to cover the landscape with ice and frost,” so he coughs out the lines breath by breath. It is a sad yet life-affirming moment from Nomi, his last one on a stage.

The text of the aria is:

What power art thou, who from below
Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow?
See’est thou not how stiff and wondrous old,
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I can scarcely move or draw my breath?
Let me, let me freeze again to death.

 
That appearance in 1983 provided Klaus Nomi with a performing triumph that eluded him since his nights at the Mudd Club and his one national moment with David Bowie on a Saturday night just three years earlier.

* * * *
This first appeared in 2014. Every few months, someone uploads the documentary I mentioned above, The Nomi Song, on YouTube and it vanishes. “Vanished” is its status in January 2017.

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