Today is the 79th birthday of the singer and performance artist Klaus Nomi. Rewatching his performance videos has reminded me of my original fascination with him. He was an original. He went against the grain, against convention, and that is what made him so very special. Some of his songs will pop up on my random shuffle and I pause and think about how exceptional he was. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Klaus Nomi
AKA: Klaus Sperber
DATE OF BIRTH: January 24, 1944
PLACE OF BIRTH: Bavarian Alps, Germany
DATE OF DEATH: August 6, 1983
PLACE OF DEATH: New York City
CAUSE OF DEATH: AIDS
REMAINS: Cremated (ashes scattered over New York City)
BEST KNOWN FOR: German countertenor noted for his wide vocal range and an unusual, otherworldly stage persona.
Klaus Nomi was born Klaus Sperber in Immenstadt, Bavaria, Germany on January 24, 1944. In the 1960s, he worked as an usher at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin where he sang for the other ushers and maintenance crew on stage in front of the fire curtain after performances. He also sang opera arias at the Berlin gay discothèque Kleist Casino.
Nomi moved to New York City in 1972. He began his involvement with the art scene based in the East Village. According to The Nomi Song, a documentary by Andrew Horn, Nomi took singing lessons and supported himself as a pastry chef.
In 1972, Nomi appeared in a satirical camp production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold at Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company as the Rheinmaidens and the Wood Bird. He came to the attention of New York City’s art scene in 1978 with his performance in “New Wave Vaudeville”, a four-night event MC’d by artist David McDermott. Dressed in a skin-tight spacesuit with a clear plastic cape, Nomi sang the aria Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix (“My heart opens to your voice”) from Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila. The performance ended with a chaotic crash of strobe lights, smoke bombs, and loud electronic sound effects as Nomi backed away into the smoke. Joey Arias recalled: “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.” After that performance Nomi was invited to perform at clubs all over New York City.
At the New Wave Vaudeville show Nomi met Kristian Hoffman, songwriter for the Mumps. Hoffman was a performer and MC in the second incarnation of New Wave Vaudeville and a close friend of Susan Hannaford and Tom Scully, who produced the show, and Ann Magnuson, who directed it. Anya Phillips, then manager of James Chance and the Contortions, suggested Nomi and Hoffman form a band. Hoffman became Nomi’s de facto musical director, assembling a band that included Page Wood from another New Wave vaudeville act, Come On, and Joe Katz, who was concurrently in The Student Teachers, the Accidents, and The Mumps.
Hoffman helped Nomi choose his pop covers, including the Lou Christie song Lightnin’ Strikes. Hoffman wrote several pop songs with which Nomi is closely identified: The Nomi Song, Total Eclipse, After The Fall, and Simple Man, the title song of Nomi’s second RCA French LP. This configuration of the Klaus Nomi band performed at Manhattan clubs, including several performances at Max’s Kansas City, Danceteria, and Hurrah.
Disagreements with the management Nomi engaged led to a dissolution of this band, and Nomi continued without them. In the late 1970s, while performing at Club 57, The Mudd Club, The Pyramid Club, and other venues, Nomi assembled various up-and-coming models, singers, artists, and musicians to perform live with him, including Joey Arias, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, John Sex, and Kenny Scharf. He also appeared on Manhattan Cable’s TV Party. David Bowie heard about Nomi’s performances in New York and soon met him and Arias at the Mudd Club. Bowie hired them as performers and backup singers for his appearance on Saturday Night Live on December 15, 1979. The band performed TVC 15, The Man Who Sold the World, and Boys Keep Swinging. During the performance of TVC 15, Nomi and Arias dragged around a large prop pink poodle with a television screen in its mouth. Nomi was so impressed with the plastic quasi-tuxedo suit that Bowie wore during The Man Who Sold the World that he commissioned one for himself. He wore the suit on the cover of his self-titled album, as well as during a number of his music videos. Nomi wore his variant of the outfit, in monochromatic black-and-white with spandex and makeup to match, until the last few months of his life. He released his second album, Simple Man, in November 1982.
Nomi also collaborated with producer Man Parrish, appearing on Parrish’s album Hip Hop Bee Bop as a backup vocalist on the track Six Simple Synthesizers.
He played a supporting role as a Nazi official in Anders Grafstrom’s 1980 underground film The Long Island Four.
The 1981 rock documentary film Urgh! A Music War features Nomi’s live performance of Total Eclipse. His performance of Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix was used for the closing credits.
In the last several months of his life, Nomi changed his focus to operatic pieces and adopted a Baroque era operatic outfit complete with full collar as his typical onstage attire. The collar helped cover the outbreaks of Kaposi’s sarcoma on his neck, one of the numerous AIDS-related diseases Nomi developed toward the end of his life.
Nomi died on August 6, 1983 at the Sloan Kettering Hospital Center in New York City, one of the first celebrities to die of complications from AIDS. His ashes were scattered over New York City.
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Urgh! A Music War (19-Nov-1981) · Himself
Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (1979)
Is the subject of documentaries:
The Nomi Song, 2004, DETAILS: dir. Andrew Horn