By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
In 1983, when Klaus Nomi died of "gay cancer," the underground punk-opera singer was mostly unknown beyond his small circle of friends and fans. It's a familiar story about a guy who moves to New York to become a star and doesn't, quite. An immigrant from Immenstadt, Germany, Nomi (né Sperber) was queer in multiple senses of the word and stood well apart from his fellow East Village bohos. And he possessed an undeniable gifta voice that surged up from a husky Weimar croon into the falsetto stratosphere. Operatic countertenors, though, were hopelessly déclassé. His professional options were few.
But with the DIY spirit of the times, he created his own scene. In his brief career, Nomi carried the flag for freaks of many stripes, with retro-futurist performances that featured his androgynous, Sturm und Drang vocals backed by a New Wave ensemble that artfully mangled '60s Brill Building standards, classical arias, and quirky originals. At its best, the Nomi Showas his ever-evolving revue was knownformed a conceptual bridge between novelty acts such as Tiny Tim and establishment titans like AC/DC and Queen; its fast-forward mix of gender politics and pop smarts prefigured the vocal hijinks of Bronski Beat and the Tiger Lillies and informed the works of Morrissey, Antony & the Johnsons, and Kiki & Herb, among others. The Nomi Show was camp without being condescending and insider without being obnoxious. It was endlessly engaging. And then it was over.
While Nomi's two studio albums for RCA (Klaus Nomi, 1981; Simple Man, 1982) do reflect some of his otherworldly glamour, too often his astonishing vocals are lost amid formulaic backing tracks; the few extant live recordings and videos are far better, despite an often primitive sound. But Za Bakdaz, just out on Heliocentric, reveals Nomi in a different light. Part experiment in playful terror, part rough draft of his unfinished glossolalic opera, this suite of home-studio recordings circa 1979lovingly restored by cohorts Page Wood and George Elliottis a postcard from a distant land where kitsch and high art meet head-on.
In honor of Nomi's 64th birthdayJanuary 24, a feast he shares with the 18th-century Italian castrato Farinelli we present a dramatic reading of the life, death, and rebirth of a persona who was both of his time and timeless.
In which Joey Arias, renowned vocalist and executor of the Nomi estate, gives the backstory.
"It was 1975. I was crossing Broadway and 10th with my friend Katy Kattleman, and she introduced us. He was Klaus Sperber then, opera singer and pastry chef. He was wearing chinos, a button-down, and those aviator glasses. He had a little fin on top; it wasn't the full Nomi hair yet. We started hanging outdrinking coffee and baking cookies, talking about music and art. I'd play jazz and rock records and he'd play opera. We were best friends. He was so much fun . . . so sexy and smart. And very open-eyedlike a child, though he was 10 years older than me. Some people thought he was too 'out there.' "
"I was always a fashion hound and was really into Thierry Mugler and Yamamoto. I introduced Klaus to all that. He'd done Das Rheingold with Charles Ludlam. And Boy Adrianhe wanted to be a robot, and Klaus was just in love with that. Then punk happened: It was black lipstick and nail polish . . . I mean, everyone contributed, but Klaus was the art director of his lifeit all came from him.
"We had to come up with a name for him for the New Wave Vaudeville show [in 1978]. 'Nomi' is from that sci-fi magazine Omni. Then we did Saturday Night Live with Bowie in '79. It was such a high. He said to us: 'After this, your lives are going to change.' Klaus and I were the first to blow out of the Club 57 scene and make it big. Everything was skyrocketing, everyone we knew was famous: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Ann Magnuson"
"After he passed, it was like the floor fell out from underneath us all. When Page decided to release Za Bakdaz, I thought it would be great for the fansand a sort of closure for everyone. When we were working on the songs at Page's loft back then, just fucking around, Klaus heard these wild backing tracks and said, 'I know what I must do.' He locked into the music and started singing. Everyone was just gagging because Klaus was channeling this dream of the Fatherlandand I don't mean Nazi Germany, I mean another world. . . ."
Wherein Antony Hegarty, swooning frontman of Antony & the Johnsons, ponders Za Bakdaz and Nomi's legacy.
"I love how private Za Bakdaz feelsit's his own fantastical world, sketches of his dreams where phonetic languages and strange signs abound. Klaus's version of 'The Cold Song' and 'Samson and Delilah' were anthems for me as a child in 1985, and I remember hearing how he was one of the first artists to die of AIDS. At the time it seemed like a scourge right out of the Old Testament, so his stature was very mythical to me.