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The major opera houses never called. So Klaus Sperber decided that he wasn't getting anywhere being Klaus Sperber. He needed a new identity and a new act, one that would amaze and stun audiences almost to the point of mass hypnosis, so out with the trash went the unassuming German immigrant struggling to make it on his own in New York City. And in came Klaus Nomi, a stylish alien being with a drop-dead falsetto singing a Weimer-style cabaret version of new wave pop. Nobody quite knew what to make of him then and more than 20 years after his death, they still don't.
In the late 1970s auditions were being held for a new wave vaudeville show in the East Village, a surreal setting that would prove perfect for Klaus Nomi's introduction to the world. Flyers asking for Egyptian slaves, Nazi's and other assorted oddballs posted all around the artsy enclave invited the fringe elements of Manhattan culture to audition. None, however, had the commanding stage presence of Nomi, whose remarkable transformation made everyone stand up and take notice. When he took the stage, Nomi walked out in kabuki makeup that made his sharp facial features even more pronounced. His movements were mechanical and his outfit was a clear plastic costume with webbed wings like a bat. All of sudden, a mesmerizing aria escaped from his mouth and the crowd went silent in awe of his soaring falsetto. "All these young rock 'n rollers, who were pretty cynical, would become like statues," said Ann Magnuson, a pixie-like performance artist who helped organize the shows. Was he an alien or an angel?
That's what Andrew Horn's compelling new documentary, The Nomi Song, intends to find out. A seamless, engrossing narrative told by the people who knew him best, The Nomi Song offers a penetrating look into the life of a uniquely talented and creative performance artist who took New York's new wave underground by storm before having his career terminated by AIDS. Through a myriad of interviews with friends, relatives and others in Nomi's orbit, Horn washes off the face paint and shows Nomi to be a man of fascinating contradictions.
Off stage, Nomi was a lonely, desperate character who cruised New York's gay scene and often had unprotected sex with the men he picked up. Promiscuity was his downfall, but it would be presumptuous to assume Nomi as being predatory. Sperber, whom everyone came to know as Nomi, was after something more meaningful: a relationship that would last, even true love. He just didn't know where to look for it or how to find it, and in that way, he truly was an alien, a lost soul unable to get back home, trapped in a world he couldn't communicate with, except through song.
Behind the facade was a sweet innocence and bizarre creativity that drew people to Sperber. This was a man who baked pies for his friends and staged goofy alien role-playing games with them. Together, they formed this fantasy world of space creatures called Nomis, which Sperber would base his act on.
As a child, Klaus showed a flair for the dramatic, putting on shows and singing for his aunt. Interestingly, Horn creates this paper diorama of her house and shows a cutout picture of her as she talks lovingly in German about her sensitive nephew's upbringing. But of all the stories about Sperber, the most touching comes from a journalist who one time watched Sperber's interaction with a child at one of his shows. Full of wonder and unafraid of his strange appearance, the little girl went up to asked him if he was from outer space. He replied that he was, and proceeded to sit down with her and tell her all about what life on other planets was like.
Real life was something altogether different. The fame he'd sought was always just out of reach. You might remember Nomi from the classic 1979 episode of Saturday Night Live where Nomi and a partner performed as backup singers and dancers for David Bowie. A space oddity that even Bowie couldn't have dreamed up, Nomi's captivating presence was at once both alluring and disquieting. Even Bowie seemed taken aback by Nomi's stark expression and sharp, angled movements. Wearing a one-piece uniform that looked like something out of Star Trek, Klaus' dramatic vocals simply overpowered Bowie's.
It seemed like Klaus was on his way. There was talk of going out on tour with Bowie. At the very least, his solo career would surely take off. But it didn't. Undaunted, Klaus kept perfecting his stage show, making it a more visual experience. The costumes became more elaborate and less spartan, and the songs took shape and became richer, making a public spectacle of those weird impulses and urges that we'd all rather keep private.
Word got around. Lines of people would form at the gate to get into his shows. But that was in New York City. Outside of the Big Apple, Klaus' show wasn't always welcomed with open arms. Once, Klaus and his new wave backing band opened for, of all people, Twisted Sister at a metal club in New Jersey. It was a disaster. The crowd turned violent, but Klaus didn't deviate from the script. He was there to perform his show his way and if they didn't like it, tough. He barely escaped with his life.
There were other bad decisions. And those who gave Klaus the misguided advice that stalled his ascent cop to it in The Nomi Song. Say what you will about them, at least they were trying to do something original and confrontational. That takes guts. So does performing while AIDS ravages your already frail body.
Back then, nobody even knew what to call it. The more ignorant and fearful among us called it the "gay cancer." Being all too human, Sperber caught it. A confidant of Sperber's remembered the moment when Sperber realized he had it. While watching a TV news report on this deadly new disease that had no cure, he looked at the lesions that were forming on his body and he could no longer deny his fate. Still, he carried on. Racked with pain, Klaus delivered the performance of a lifetime, a haunting rendition of "The Cold Song" while backed by a full orchestra. Not long after, he died.
Most of his friends didn't go to see him in the hospital or attend his funeral - some because they feared catching AIDS, others just couldn't stand to see him waste away. Then there were some who felt he betrayed them, or that they'd done Klaus harm, and attempting any sort of reconciliation as he lay dying was something that would sap the strength he needed to live. There's remorse and regret in their voices, as well as an overwhelming admiration, and Horn wrings all of it out of them to make one of the most moving documentaries in recent memory. Forgive the chronological way the story is told. It works, in part because to those of us who've given up trying to be unique, Nomi's life of nonconformity doesn't make sense and we need to be guided through it to come to some sort of understanding. It's the best way for Horn to peel away the disguise and explore in deep detail the layers of Klaus Nomi's personality and motivation. This is a tragic story of a man's thwarted ambitions and his desperate, futile search for a connection, but it's also strangely heroic. One friend said of Nomi that, "He was on this adventure ... and then he died."
Some were lucky enough to have joined him, if only for a brief time. SEE ALSO: www.nomisongdvd.com
SEE ALSO: www.palmpictures.com
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.
See other articles by Peter Lindblad.
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