Klaus Nomi was born 70 years ago today. A performer whose career may have reached its peak as a back-up singer/dancer/weird presence for one single show behind David Bowie, Nomi managed to stand out in a time and place that made a virtual 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 joke; 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.
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, and with an otherworldly stage presence of very few human facial expressions—except for an occasional joy-filled smirk—under heavy 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.
Born Klaus Sperber on January 24, 1944, 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 relocating to New York in 1972, he developed a stage persona so camp that it could only be taken in by believing it to be not camp at all, by believing that everything else aside, at least HE believed he was a disco Martian and a pop opera singer, and yet a “simple man.”
He came up with a name, Nomi, that sounded sci-fi-ish (Omni magazine was then popular) and was a pun, “know me.” At his 1978 debut, 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. And this was at a grimy downtown club that was not exactly a venue for opera. The New Wave patrons of now-legendary clubs like the Mudd Club and Max’s Kansas City grew to adore Nomi and his complete and joyous dedication to a muse that would lead a man to use his beautiful voice to render unique versions of pop hits like “Lightnin’ Strikes” and Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.”
By 1979, David Bowie had become aware of Nomi and hired him as a background, um, presence for Bowie’s appearance on Saturday Night Live. Nomi’s downtown fan base thought that he was about to be the first from that deep, downtown weird scene to break through to the big time; instead, not much. Two albums were recorded and released in France but they did not so much vanish from the American market as never appear here at all.
An excerpt from the David Bowie appearance on SNL:
He was one of the downtown NYC scene’s earliest AIDS casualties, when the disease was still being referred to in mass media as “gay cancer,” and then “gay-related immune disorder (GRID).” 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, even though it says it has; this is the one link to the documentary I could find. It is a very moving film biography about this unique life, told through the stories of those who were there.)
After his diagnosis, Nomi embarked on a final European tour, months before his death, one devoted to giving opera to rock 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 a final performance, a goodbye that he knew was a goodbye to performing and to life, he delivered this one heartbreaking, and utterly human, finally and simply human, rendition of “The Cold Song” from Henry Purcell’s opera, “King Arthur.”
“The Cold Song”:
As described in this 2011 blog on Open Culture‘s website, “Klaus Nomi, The Brilliant Performance of a Dying Man,” in the scene the “Cold Genius is awakened by Cupid and ordered to cover the landscape with ice and frost.”
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.