07
Aug
14

‘Today I introduced Terry Gross to (the real) Klaus Nomi’

The album cover of Klaus Nomi’s 1981 self-titled debut album.

Last week, a colleague posted the following to Facebook:

Today I introduced Terry Gross to (the real) Klaus Nomi by sharing this video.

She says “(the real) Klaus Nomi” because her cat is named Klaus Nomi. (Not, I quickly regretted asking, “Claws Nomi”?)

But that Facebook post is amazing for two reasons. First, Terry Gross has interviewed so many people, it seems impossible that, in all that studio time, not even a passing reference to Klaus Nomi came up. Not only that, but she’s from New York City, and she was like 30 years old when Klaus Nomi was at his peak.

Second — Klaus Nomi. I mean look at him. This is the video my colleague Christine shared:

Quickly, for those who don’t know: Klaus Nomi, born Klaus Sperber, was a classically influenced countertenor from Germany who emigrated to New York in the 70s and became a New Wave performer in the East Village. His contemporaries were Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Ann Magnuson, Joey Arias, Man Parrish. He performed backup for David Bowie on Saturday Night Live. Sold countless records in Europe. And he died in 1983 of, what else?, complications from AIDS, then yet unnamed.

Christine walked up to me later in the day to report that only two people in the building besides her seemed to know anything about him: me and reporter Maiken Scott.

“Of course,” she said. “The lesbian, the gay and the German.”

I’m glad I knew who he was. And a little embarrassed it took me so long to find out about him. It’s almost embarrassing to write this, because there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said better a hundred times already and by so many others. My only solace is that I was not told that he was important; I figured it out on my own.

I first heard his name spoken on a podcast called “Throwing Shade” about two years ago. I didn’t even know what the hosts had said. They were comparing someone’s singing voice to his, I think. A totally off-hand remark.

I was like: “What was that? What is that word they’re saying?” Klaus Nomi? What’s that?

I looked it up, and my mind was blown. He’s a Wikipedia rabbit hole. And there are tons of YouTube videos.

I don’t know anything about this stuff. I know New Wave was more than men with eyeliner, lipstick, and guitars, but I have no connection to, or any real understanding of, that period of New York’s avant garde. I’m a touch too young to have witnessed it, and by the time I lived there, New York had been scrubbed a different color. All that’s left is fairy tale and legend.

At first, all I knew about it came from Madonna, and the reporters who interviewed her, in the countless biographies and magazine articles I was obsessed with in the ’90s. The scene when she first came to New York in the late ’70s: Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, The Mudd Club — by the time I was paying attention, any connection she still had was as faint as the echo you’d hear after snapping off the record player halfway through “Everybody.”

It’s cliché and unimaginative to describe Nomi as something from outer space — but he truly was … not from around here. That compulsion to inhabit a character so fiercely and completely and to perform at all costs, to crave an audience, is something I have never been able to understand. It’s as if Nomi was a retreat from the world for Sperber.

And I can’t say that I would have liked his performance had I been old enough to see it — or even that I like it now as an adult. But it is utterly captivating to me. I can’t help but bend the knee to his creativity and commitment. And there can be no question of Nomi’s true and singular talent. His influence is obvious in today’s pop music and art.

As some have written about it, his story is one of sadness and loneliness. Others have a slightly more uplifting outlook. But whichever way you slice it, he never achieved the fame or happiness he sought. Even at his peak, he was barely more than a novelty act to anyone but the most plugged-in New Wave fans, i.e., most of the country. He hit the charts in Europe, but he was still working to pay the rent in New York. And then he was erased by a disease — at age 39 — that had the world so terrified that not even any of his closest friends and colleagues came to see him on his deathbed.

The thing I remember most when I first went spelunking through Wikipedia was how mad it made me — these artists and luminaries and influencers who died of AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s. How different would the world be if they had lived — Haring, Basquiat, Mapplethorpe, Vito Russo, and who knows how many others who hadn’t even gotten that far yet? What further influence would they have had? Or was it the brief spark of their lives that makes them so compelling to us?

A documentary about him, “The Nomi Song,” was released in 2004. Thankfully it’s been made available online.

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