Village Vanguard: A Wistful Celebration of an Era-Defining Diva

Framed with bits of It Came From Outer Space (1953), Andrew Horn's portrait of Klaus Nomi (1944-83) takes for granted the notion of this no-wave performance artist as an inexplicable alien.

Nomi's white pancake makeup, black bee-stung lips, alarmingly sculpted coiffure, and severely, albeit hilariously, geometric outfits suggested a constructivist Pierrot or a Weimar android or perhaps an imploded, one-person version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A trained countertenor, the German-born Nomi sang pop songs as if they were grand opera. His affect, however, was blatantly artificial. Smiling sweetly, Nomi widened his eyes and cocked his head, emphasizing his performance with the herky-jerky movements of an enchanted marionette. His was a persona that astonished Club 57 hipsters and ordinary citizens alike. Spotting this uniquely stylized creature on the street, one scene survivor recalls, "People said 'What is that?'—not 'Who is that?' "

Horn's previous documentary, East Side Story, an essay on Communist musicals, was itself a sort of musical, and The Nomi Song is correspondingly generous with Nomi performances—including his trademark covers of material originally made famous by Lou Christie and Marlene Dietrich. Horn several times repeats the ecstatic purity of Nomi's 1978 star-is-born debut, when he stunned the downtown audience that had filled Irving Plaza for Ann Magnuson's "new wave vaudeville" show with his falsetto aria. The Nomi Song is better at evoking a particular bohemia than at getting inside its subject's head. (This humanoid music box was, somebody says, "one of the loneliest persons on earth.")

Still, although more wistful than campy, The Nomi Song is not without a certain showbiz drama, supplied mainly by the story of the star's not quite making it. Nomi appeared with David Bowie on Saturday Night Live in late 1979 and, soon after, opened (disastrously) for Twisted Sister in New Jersey. The artist returned to Europe, where—fronting a more commercial band—he enjoyed wider success, if only briefly. As much as anyone in the early '80s, Nomi was ready-made for MTV crossover. But as an early AIDS casualty, he would be part of another, less fortunate vanguard.

Nomi's particular retro-futurist post-punk synthesis, cartoonish cabaret persona, homemade special effects, high-pop aspirations, and tantalizing near success made him a legendary figure—if not an icon—of downtown bohemia. He has a corner spot in the performance component of the New Museum's current "East Village USA" show, but that scarcely does him justice. Made with considerable wit and style, Horn's thoughtful celebration of the era and its most uncanny diva could function as the show's supplement.

 
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