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Klaus Keeps Swinging: the story of when Nomi met Bowie

“Nomi sang like a man trapped in the body of a dead girl.”

Morrissey, 2003

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. 

Pop illuminati 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. Famously, David Bowie certainly based his entire career doing just that, so when the Thin White Dame appeared out of another universe to appear on the 15 December 1979 episode of Saturday Night Live he would be what’s euphemistically termed as between personae. 

Bowie loved to startle, to surprise. In fact, he stunned his American audience with a trident approach, with three of the most extraordinary get ups he’d ever clambered into before or since. Outlandish costumes were already nothing new in pop music by ’79, but viewers couldn’t have failed 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. Looks like that singer from Bauhaus in drag.”—was hitting notes not commonly heard in pop music; an operatic deep space warble that would evoke emotion and astonishment in any listener. Even Bowie appears to react at odd intervals to the inexplicable siren-like call emanating from behind him. Middle America must have been delighted.

When Bowie died in January 2016, SNL rebroadcast one of the songs from that appearance, a commanding and incredibly rare outing (pre-1995 at least) for The Man Who Sold The World, in which Bowie sings in a Dada-pastiched plastic tuxedo so rigid that the kabuki’d Klaus Nomi and his co-backup, Joey Arias, were tasked, delicious theatrical effect noted, in carrying the quixotic artist onstage. Now that’s how to make an entrance. SNL’s Fred Armisen introduced the clip:

“When I was in high school and living in Long Island, I stayed up to see David Bowie play on Saturday Night Live. And watching him was, for me, a life-changing experience. He had these back-up singers that were like choir singers from the future, and a toy poodle with a TV monitor in his mouth. David Bowie transformed whatever space he was in, whatever medium he was using, and that night for me, he transformed live television.”

Sonia Delaunay’s Le Cœur à gaz (1923)

Bowie’s androgynous costume, created in collaboration with Mark Ravitz (set designer of the Dame’s Diamond Dogs and Serious Moonlight tours) was a unisex amalgam of Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire and a monochromatic classic designed by Sonia Delaunay, who had died just ten days before. What a tribute.

An exemplary example of orphism, Delaunay’s creation was famously worn by the Dadaist Tristan Tzara (in the photograph below, as seen in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s David Bowie Is exhibition) during a 1923 performance of Le Cœur à gaz (The Gas Heart), a key moment in the Dada movement. The performance ended in a riot led by André Breton, the future founder of the Surrealist cause célèbre. Bowie, in full swinging mode, substituted the stripy pants for a more a restrictive column-shaped skirt.

Dada Bowie Is

The screening was a ‘gift’ from NBC because no official recording of the complete show has ever been available online, as the company is as legally rigid as the Dame’s sculpted costume was. Depending on who you talk to, either Nomi was so enamoured with the geometric plastic suit that he wore a similar his triangular tuxedo for the remainder of his career, or, via Bauhaus rather than Dada, he was wearing long before he met David Bowie. Whatever the chronology, the pinafore costume 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.

Freak or unique, in New Wave-era New York City Klaus Nomi managed to stand out in a time and place that made rather a fetish of indiosyncracy. His performance as a singer/dancer/weird presence for that one single show behind Bowie 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.

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 Bowie’s surrealist set. 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 in the early ’80s but both were released to obscurity and sank from there. He died in 1983, one of the earliest AIDS casualties.

Nomi was Bowie’s senior by three years and two weeks, being born Klaus Sperber in the Bavarian town of Immenstadt im Allgäu on 24 January 1944; when Germany, Europe and much of the world was suffering the horrors of Hitler and Nazi tyranny. 

He claimed to have been a professionally trained opera singer, but in reality Klaus had been a pastry chef and professional usher whose stage experience was limited to entertaining his fellow ushers and stagehands at the Deutsche Oper Berlin opera house after hours.

Dreaming he was the bastard love child of Elvis Presley and Maria Callas Klaus’s 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. With many more countertenor parts available after his death, even in opera Nomi was ahead of his time.

After he moved to New York in 1972, he struggled to find an audience until he developed a stage persona so camply theatrical 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.”

He came up with a name, Nomi, that both sounded sci-fi-ish (Omni magazine was popular) and was at the same time a pun, “know me.” Debuting at 1978’s New York Vaudeville, a four-night event at 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 MC 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 austere outlandish opera.

He delivered New Wave pop with a futuristic 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 space 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.

The partying 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 chart 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 and attracted downtown crowds that rivalled Blondie’s.

Nomi, together with wide-mouthed dancer cohort 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 he produced, or where, large crowds followed. Pop was becoming more synthesized and Euro-flavoured, ever since Giorgio Moroder’s peerless productions for Donna Summer inspired electronic experimentation within dance music.

With his gloved fingers on the pulse, Klaus even had a go at I Feel Love.

New York City had a healthy club scene in 1979. CBGB still hosted local bands like Blondie, the Ramones and Talking Heads. Hurrah! was the New Wave dance spot. Danceteria and the Mudd Club hosted rock bands. Discoteques were booming. Studio 54 and Max’s Kansas City were still in business.
In many ways, NYC had become the centre of the music world, with disco, post-punk rock and hip-hop all blossoming as the city’s infrastructure collapsed. It was no surprise that Bowie, the grand Dame of cultural appropriators, returned to the city forthwith, setting up home in the city for the first time.
Swapping his apartment in Berlin—the city where he was based for his triumphant trilogy of albums with Brian Eno which are the lodestone of his creativity—for a ‘Chelsea loft’ in the same West 26th Street brownstone building as his band lynchpin Carlos Alomar, Bowie hung out with Blondie’s Jimmy Destri, renewed his love of cocaine and often struggled to pay the rent.

Showing that he still had an eye on the city’s underground, the artist in residence hired the pair as not merely backup singers but full participants in his decade-closing showstopper. In 2016, Arias recalled the initial meeting at the Mudd Club for

“So there we were, late one night/early one morning in 1979—Klaus Nomi, myself, and a Russian hit man I’d befriended—when someone said, “Won’t you say hello to David?” It turned out the David was David Bowie, and before you knew it, he and Klaus were jamming away like old friends. Long story short, they started meeting and planning—it was this project, and then it was that — and then one day Klaus came to me and said they’d decided to perform on Saturday Night Live—and they wanted me to join them.

Life is a pop of the telly

“Bowie was amazing—cool, no bullshit, super engaging, interested to know who we were. He told us he had three ideas for costumes: One was going to be this Bauhaus outfit [MWSTW]; the next was going to be a Chinese airline stewardess with a pink poodle [TVC 15]; and the third one was going to be puppets [Boys Keep Swinging].

“He gave us a few thousand dollars to buy outfits, which was like $10,000 at the time, and we found these Thierry Mugler outfits for sale at Henri Bendel—like, $100 each. When the saleswoman brought it out, Klaus just grabbed it from her hands and ran into the dressing room. It was very much a “this is it” moment.

“The night of the performance, the vibe was so intense it felt like all of New York was standing still. It was the end of the ’70s, and it was a moment that was so far ahead of its time that nothing will ever match up to it because there’s only one Bowie, there’s only one Joey, and there’s only one Klaus. We didn’t have to do anything but be ourselves that night. People still come up to me on tour and say, ‘You changed my life.’”

Somewhat regrettably, and with his typical mercurial magpie approach, Bowie wasn’t necessarily thinking there might be a future in the collaboration. He just wanted to give the telly audience a taste of something he had been enjoying on the downtown club scene. Nomi’s downtown fan base thought that he was about to be the first figure from that cult world to break through to the big time; instead, not much came of it. Still, in all three songs one can see Nomi’s briefly joyous smirk flicker across his features. He actually was human.

In 1981 and 1982, Nomi recorded two albums that were released by RCA in France, despite his vocal coach, Ira Siff, previously warning Nomi that he could not make a career out of being a countertenor. Successfully blending baroque pop and opera, one highlight was Death, an aria from Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas.

Siff recalls, “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…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!”

After his AIDS diagnosis, Klaus embarked on a final European tour, months before his death, one devoted to giving opera to rock festival audiences while wearing a bizarre 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 at Eberhard Schoener’s Classic Rock Night in Munich (December 1982, above), Nomi delivered one heartbreaking and utterly human rendition of The Cold Song, Henry Purcell’s aria of the Cold Genius from the opera, King Arthur. It was a goodbye that he knew was a goodbye to performing and to life.

Klaus struggles to maintain in its tremendously difficult but requisite vocal control: “I can scarcely move or draw my breath,” the space face sings, and he stumbles back: “Let me, let me, let me freeze again to death.” Amazingly, Nomi’s studio rendition had been picked by Morrissey as the entrance music for The Smiths’ debut concert in Manchester just four months earlier.

As this new mystery disease, AIDS was so new that none of his friends felt brave enough to visit Klaus in hospital, according to their own recollections in a biographical film released in 2004, The Nomi Song. It’s 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 him in the hospital (lest we forget, this was a time when it was thought the unexplained illness may be contagious), but they each appear retrospectively saddened by the fact that they didn’t get to say their goodbyes.

Nomi was one of the downtown NYC scene’s earliest AIDS casualties, when the virus 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 on 6 August 1983*, just two days after Jobriath, another Morrissey fave, became the first internationally known recording artist to die from the illness. At the time, Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour was criss-crossing between the US and Canada, though his erstwhile colleague, caught up in the ‘big time’ wasn’t to learn of his death for several months.

Writer Rupert Smith pronounced Nomi “largely forgotten” in a 1994 issue of Attitude magazine, and made a case for renewed attention. “Nomi,” wrote Smith, “remains rock music’s queerest exponent, who outshone the many acts following in his wake.”

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. To paraphrase Death (another Purcell interpretation from 1982’s Simple Man), remember him but don’t forget his fate.

Heaven must love him.

Steve Pafford

1979 also saw Bowie give a couple of notable TV performances to Kenny Everett’s Television Show, which you can discover here

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