Klaus Sperber (January 24, 1944 – August 6, 1983), better known as Klaus Nomi, was a German countertenor noted for his wide vocal range and an unusual, otherworldly stage persona. Nomi was known […]" />

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by Horror Sleaze Trash on September 23, 2010

Klaus Sperber (January 24, 1944 – August 6, 1983), better known as Klaus Nomi, was a German countertenor noted for his wide vocal range and an unusual, otherworldly stage persona.

Nomi was known for his bizarrely theatrical live performances, heavy make-up, unusual costumes, and a highly stylized signature hairdo which flaunted a receding hairline. His songs were equally unusual, ranging from synthesizer-laden interpretations of classical music opera to covers of 1960s pop standards like Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” and Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes”. He is perhaps best remembered in the US as being one of David Bowie’s backing singers during a 1979 performance on Saturday Night Live.

Nomi died in 1983 at the age of 39 as a result of complications from AIDS.

Klaus Nomi was born Klaus Sperber in Immenstadt, Bavaria, Germany on January 24, 1944. In his youth in the 1960s, he worked as an usher at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin where he would sing on stage in front of the fire curtain after the shows for the other ushers and maintenance crew. Around that time he also sang operatic arias at a Berlin gay discothèque called Kleist Casino. Nomi moved from Germany to New York City in 1972. He began his involvement with the art scene based in the East Village. According to a documentary film made by Andrew Horn, Nomi took singing lessons and supported himself working as a pastry chef.

Nomi appeared in a satirical camp production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold with Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company in 1972 as the Rheinmaiden and the Wood Bird. Nomi first 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 skin-tight spacesuit with clear plastic cape, Klaus sang the aria Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix (“My heart opens to your voice”) from Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1877 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 recalls, “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.” The reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that he was invited to perform at clubs all over New York City. At the New Wave Vaudeville show Klaus 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 in the Contortions, suggested Klaus and Kristian form a band. Hoffman became Klaus’ 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 Klaus choose his pop covers, including the Lou Christie song “Lightning Strikes.” Hoffman wrote several pop songs with which Klaus is closely identified: “The Nomi Song”, “Total Eclipse”, “After The Fall”, and “Simple Man”, the title song of Nomi’s second RCA France LP. This configuration of the Klaus Nomi band performed at clubs all over Manhattan, including several performances at Max’s Kansas City, Danceteria and Hurrah. Disagreements with the management Klaus ultimately engaged led to a dissolution of this particular band, and Klaus continued on without them.

In the late 1970s while performing at Club 57, The Mudd Club, The Pyramid Club, etc. Nomi assembled a group of up-and-coming models, singers, artists, and musicians to perform live with him, which at times included Joey Arias, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, John Sex and Kenny Scharf. He also appeared on Manhattan Cable’s TV Party. Nomi backing up David Bowie performing “The Man Who Sold the World”, on Saturday Night Live

David Bowie heard about Nomi’s performances in New York, and soon after met him and Joey Arias at the Mudd Club. Bowie hired them as performers and back-up singers for his appearance on Saturday Night Live which aired 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 to be made for himself. Nomi can be seen wearing 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, up until the last few months of his life, when he, now mostly focusing on operatic pieces and increasingly ill with AIDS-related illnesses (including Kaposi’s sarcoma), wore a Baroque era operatic outfit complete with full collar.

Nomi also collaborated with producer Man Parrish. He appeared on Parrish’s album Hip Hop Bee Bop as backing 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. 666 Fifth Avenue was listed as the contact address in the liner notes of Nomi’s 1981 self-titled record.

Nomi died early morning on August 6, 1983 at the Sloan Kettering Hospital Center in New York City, one of the first celebrities to die of an illness complicated by AIDS. His ashes were scattered over New York City. Filmmakers such as Andrew Horn and writers such as Jim Fouratt consider Nomi an important part of the 1980s East Village scene, which was a hotbed of development for punk rock, music, the visual arts, and the avant-garde. Although Nomi’s work had not yet met with national commercial success at the time of his death, he garnered a cult following, mainly in New York and in France. Andrew Horn’s 2004 feature documentary about Nomi’s life, The Nomi Song, which was released by Palm Pictures, helped spur renewed interest in the singer, including an art exhibit in San Francisco at the New Langton Arts gallery and one in Milan (Italy) at the Res Pira Lab (subsequently moved to Berlin’s Strychnin Gallery), entitled: Do You Nomi? New music pieces inspired by the German singer were commissioned by the gallery to a variety of up and coming European musicians, among these the singer who is considered by many Nomi’s heir: Ernesto Tomasini. In 2001 German band Rosenstolz, featuring alternative pop stars Marc Almond and Nina Hagen, covered “Total Eclipse” for a maxi single CD release.

British pop icon Morrissey used the song Wayward Sisters as an introduction prior to appearing on stage to begin a concert for his Kill Uncle tour. He used the song After the Fall for the same purpose during his 2007 American tour. Morrissey included Nomi’s song Death in his compilation of influential songs titled Under the Influence, having in 1984 selected it as the last track for his appearance on the BBC radio show ‘My Top 10’. Morrissey also chose Nomi’s version of Schumann’s “Der Nussbaum” (“the Walnut Tree”) as one his chosen tracks on BBC Radio 4’s “Desert Island Discs” in November 2009. On television, a fictionalized version of Klaus Nomi appears in a two-part episode of animated comedy/adventure series The Venture Bros. In “Showdown at Cremation Creek (Part I)”, he appears as one of David Bowie’s bodyguard henchmen (alongside an animated Iggy Pop, another Bowie collaborator). (In the cartoon, Bowie is himself the sovereign of the Guild of Calamitous Intent.) “Klaus” attacks his opponents with ultra-high-pitched singing and the over-sized bow tie of his famous costume, spun and ejected as a battering weapon. In “Showdown at Cremation Creek (Part II)”, “Klaus” seems to have been killed after betraying Bowie in order to become a henchman of a villain known as The Phantom Limb.

Nomi’s over-the-top cover of Lesley Gore’s 1964 hit “You Don’t Own Me” has been featured on the nationally broadcast The Rush Limbaugh Show as the “Gay Update Theme.” Nomi does not change the gender of the song, singing, “Don’t say I can’t play with other… BOYS!” Nomi’s visual aesthetic has been noted as an influence on women’s fashion such as Boudicca, Givenchy, and Paco Rabanne, as well as men’s fashion designers such as Gareth Pugh and Bruno Pieters for Hugo Boss. Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2009 couture was influenced by Nomi and he used Nomi’s recording of Nomi Song in his runway show. A “biographical musical fantasy” titled You Don’t Nomi is currently being written by French playwright Baptiste Delval with no information about when it should hit the stage.

Discography

Albums

  • * Klaus Nomi 1981
  • * Simple Man 1982
  • * Encore 1983
  • * In Concert 1986
  • * Za Bakdaz 2007 (posthumous compilation of an “unfinished opera”)

Singles

  • * “You Don’t Own Me” / “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)” (1981)
  • * “Nomi Song” / “Cold Song” (1982)
  • * “Lightnin’ Strikes” / “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)” (1982)
  • * “Simple Man” / “Death” (1982)
  • * “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” / “ICUROK” (1982)
  • * “ICUROK” / “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” (Canadian 12″)
  • * “Za Bak Daz” / “Silent Night” (CD single, 1998)
  • * “After the Fall”

Music videos

  • * “Simple Man” (Directed and Edited by John Zieman)
  • * “Lightning Strikes”
  • * “Nomi Song”
  • * “After the Fall”
  • * “Falling in Love Again”
  • * “The Cold Song” (from Henry Purcell’s 1691 opera “King Arthur”)

Movie appearances

  • * Urgh! A Music War (1982)
  • * Long Island Four (1979)
  • * Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (1979)

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