Remembering Klaus Nomi on Film
By Steven Rosen
From Los Angeles Times
Feb. 3, 2005
The artist Kenny Scharf was listening to “Jonesy’s Jukebox” on Indie 103.1 FM recently when he heard a Klaus Nomi song – a version of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” He was startled.
“That was the first time I ever heard Klaus Nomi on the radio,” he says during a phone call.
And it took him back. East Village – late 1970s, during New York’s celebrated New Wave era of creative activity. Scharf was attracting attention as a fashionable young painter; Nomi was applying his ethereal falsetto-based countertenor voice to both arias and old pop hits. When he performed in clubs, he dressed like a high-fashion space alien who had fallen to earth to study Kabuki. Their apartments shared a courtyard and Scharf could hear Nomi practice. They became friends.
“His voice was otherworldly – you couldn’t believe the sound,” recalls Scharf, now living in L.A., his hometown. “And in combination with the way he looked, he was captivating. In our circle, he was a superstar. And we all wanted him to have mass success, but I guess he was too bizarre for the masses. But maybe if he hadn’t gotten sick and died, he would have crossed over.”
The short, strange career of this unusual singer is the subject of Andrew Horn’s new documentary, “The Nomi Song,” opening Feb. 4 at the NuArt Theatre. It primarily covers the years between his startling 1978 New York club debut – which was captured on film – and his death from AIDS in 1983 at age 39.
During that time, he had fallings-out with old friends and collaborators as he tried for mainstream success. He never had an album officially released in the U.S., but became popular in France, his native Germany and among New York club goers. (There have been posthumous U.S. releases of his European-released discs.)
Nomi’s high-concept stage show and theatrical look were striking. Among his favorite costumes was a triangular vinyl tuxedo that conjured images of an Expressionist penguin. His sharply angular hair seemed designed by a landscape architect. Combined with wide lost-child eyes and decorous facial makeup, he had a hypnotic effect on his audiences.
And his voice was siren-like when tackling the art songs he loved like Saint-Saens’ “Mon Coeur” aria from "Samson and Delilah” and Henry Purcell’s solemn “The Cold Song.” His music director Kristian Hoffman wrote some rock songs for him, too, as well as helping him and his band choose melodramatic oldies like Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes.”
As the Berlin-based Horn explains during a recent Los Angeles visit, Nomi’s show was meant not as camp but as a legitimate part of New York’s varied pop/rock scene of the time. While the Ramones chose punk, for instance, he chose opera. “He was against the anti-professionalism of punk,” Horn says. “He was a guy with a superbly trained voice not trying to be raw. He was trying to make an operatic spectacle within the means he had.”
Born Klaus Sperber in Germany to a single mother during World War II, Nomi studied music as a teen, idolized Maria Callas, and worked as an usher at Berlin’s Deutsche Opera. He moved to New York in the early 1970s, first finding work as a pastry chef.
“The Nomi Song’s” two German producers, Thomas Mertens and Annette Pisacane, had made “Nico Icon” about another German-born singer who became a tragic cult figure in New York rock circles. They approached Horn, a Manhattanite who had been living in Berlin since 1989. In 1997, he had co-directed “East Side Story,” on the history of Soviet and Eastern European movie musicals.
By chance, Horn had known Sperber in New York before he adopted his “Klaus Nomi” persona. (The name is an anagram of his favorite magazine, Omni.) “I’d see him around the East Village and my impression was he was an opera singer, or wanted to be one,” Horn says. “And one day I met him and he said he wanted to become a rock ‘n’ roll singer and have a band and work with synthesizers. I found that really bizarre – like Pavarotti doing the Beatles.”
“The Nomi Song’s” footage of the performer’s debut at New Wave Vaudeville Night at the Irving Plaza nightclub still packs a wallop. After smoke bombs and light flashes, he slowly emerges on stage in exotic costume and amid robotic movements sings “Mon Coeur.” A career was launched – or so it seemed.
Ann Magnuson, now a Los Angeles-based actress and performance artist, was the director of that variety show and still gets a shiver describing the scene. “At first, there was a lot of cheering because there were smoke bombs going off,” she says in a phone interview. “And then when he started singing the aria, people became silent. The beauty of it transcended everything. It was completely out of nowhere, as if the mothership had landed. There was stillness – shock.”
While Nomi’s act was based on being a make-believe alien, he became an all-too-real societal outsider once he became sick with AIDS. The film reveals that many of his acquaintances were afraid to visit. Hoffman, now an L.A.-based singer-songwriter, was one of those who avoided Nomi at the end.
“The movie made me feel better about the guilt I’ve carried around for 30 years,” he says via phone. “I remember he called me from the hospital and said, ‘I have that AIDS.’ He wasn’t even sure what it was. There was a climate of fear at the time. We didn’t know if it was airborne, so it was self-preservation. For years I didn’t know how to relate to myself for being so fearful. Now I know I wasn’t alone.”