The Nomi Song

Our week of documentaries concludes with a film I’ve been meaning to watch for ages now, and one which neatly ties up some of the themes and people and places we’ve encountered already. We’re looking at Andrew Horn’s The Nomi Song (2004), which profiles the extra-terrestrial aura, unearthly talent, profound surface and superficial depths of singer Klaus Nomi.

Born Klaus Sperber in 1944, Nomi worked as an usher in Berlin‘s Deutsche Oper before moving to New York in the early 1970s. It took some time until his unclassifiable act found a space to unfold. As with Leigh Bowery later, he offered a sort of performance art which sprang from underground clubs, visually informed by Bowie’s alien panto schtick which had also inspired Jobriath.

From the beginning, Nomi focussed obsessively on the look of his stage show, even in the tiniest venues, working in the same field of stylised, androgynous disaffection which inspired the 1982 movie Liquid Sky. He exemplified the anomie, alienation and detachment of New Wave, its angular aesthetic as well as its heavy-handed irony (looking utterly bizarre while singing about being “a simple man”, for instance). On the other hand Nomi was, as one interviewee notes, “a freak among the freaks”. What he offered was not spiky, spirited and amateurish but controlled, thought-out and rehearsed.

And then he opened his mouth.

Not only was there almost no precedent in pop music for Nomi’s brand of falsetto voice, it was also dormant in the classical environment which first inspired it, this being some years before the phenomenal gifts of countertenor Andreas Scholl, among others, repopularised Baroque castrati roles. The film vividly recreates the shock of Nomi’s celestial otherness and sheer talent penetrating the affectless cynicism of his peers.

But while Nomi’s accomplishments were undeniable, his career was haphazard, and each triumph was rapidly pursued by a setback. Singing with David Bowie on Saturday Night Live and then opening for Twisted Sister; carefully refining a kind of synthetic operatic sound only to be paired with unsympathetic studio musicians; breaking through in Europe while his record company failed to build on his high profile elsewhere.

And then just as it looked like Nomi’s astral arias might find their place in the world, he came down with what was then still being referred to ominously as “the gay plague”. Klaus Nomi died of AIDS-related illness in 1983, just three days after Jobriath met the same fate.

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10 comments

  1. Great, again : ) I especially like his “Cold Song” from Purcell’s “King Arthur”.

  2. Alex M.

    This is not for this post, but you might like to look up Otto Wacker:

    “… Otto Wacker, a gay dancer turned art dealer, who in 1925 produced a cache of 33 previously unknown Van Goghs. The paintings—of characteristic late subjects ranging from wheat fields to a “Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear”—were of variable quality, and their provenance was dubious. (Wacker claimed that he had been hired to represent an unnamed Russian collector who had taken the works to imperial Russia early in the century and recently smuggled them out of the Soviet Union.) Yet he convinced the leading experts—including Meier-Graefe and Jacob-Baart de la Faille, the Dutch scholar editing the first Van Gogh catalogue raisonné—and began selling the paintings to dealers like Cassirer, who placed them in the top private collections.

    Only when a 1928 exhibition placed Wacker Van Goghs next to the real thing did misgivings surface. A fraud case slowly got under way, and, in 1932, Wacker was found guilty after a sensational trial that featured paintings in the courtroom and conflicting expert testimony. Despite having no particular expertise in Postimpressionism, Ludwig Justi, the ambitious director of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, told the court that the Wacker paintings were “as false as any pictures can possibly be” and ridiculed the scholars who authenticated them. For their part, the Van Gogh specialists confusingly claimed, in contrast to the court’s own findings, that some were real and some were fake.”

    I found it here:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304050304577375720924086302.html

  3. A good friend who has lived in NYC quite a bit longer than me used to see Nomi around our neighborhood a lot, and reports that when out with his band they’d walk single-file down the sidewalk.

    • What a wonderful image! You just don’t get that kind of attention to detail any more. Also, I imagine Nomi’s shoulders made it hard to walk alongside him.

  4. -I held my breath through most of that aria (from Orfeo ed Euridice? I’m no opera expert, though I wish I were) Klaus sung early on. Stunning.

    -I don’t remember where, but recently I found a link to this article about Fiorucci: http://books.google.com/books?id=YOMCAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA67&dq=sixties+flash+on+59th+street&hl=en&ei=4TshTfmsK4G0lQeKhty8DA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=sixties%20flash%20on%2059th%20street&f=false The “place for looking and being looked at” could describe any Manhattan street in the ’70s/early ’80s, it seems, but that Fiorucci paid people to put themselves on display is heartening.

    -Klaus Nomi, pastry chef?! He did have a methodical demeanor suitable to baking… I’m walking away from this documentary both sad and hungry. Confusing, but somehow appropriate.

    • ‘Che faró senza Euridice’ – Andreas Scholl (possibly my favourite singer in the world) does a great version of it. Hunting around the other day I also found him doing ‘Cold Song‘ at the Deutsche Oper (i.e. where Nomi worked as an usher), and Nomi himself doing this by the dear recently departed (I think it’s in Italian but I can’t really make it out). And that article about Fiorucci makes me think how good a KN cover of ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer’ would have been.

  5. Pingback: My heart opens to your voice | Strange Flowers

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