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 gift—a 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 Show—as his ever-evolving revue was known—formed 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 1979—lovingly restored by cohorts Page Wood and George Elliott—is a postcard from a distant land where kitsch and high art meet head-on.
In honor of Nomi’s 64th birthday—January 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 out—drinking 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-eyed—like 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 Adrian—he 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 life—it 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 fans—and 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 Fatherland—and 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 feels—it’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.
“Five years later, I saw Joey Arias in the film Mondo New York—I immediately fled to Manhattan in search of other signs of life. A year later, I was one of Joey’s support dancers in Klausferatu, in which Joey performed some of the songs from Za Bakdaz. At the time it felt very wild and redemptive. All things go in cycles, and sure enough, 10 years later a valiant but somewhat spotty biopic [The Nomi Song, CV Films, 2004] resurrected Klaus’s life and work, perhaps giving him more influence now than he had ever known in his lifetime.”
In which Nomi collaborator Page Wood disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum about American lives and second acts.
“These recordings exist because Klaus was frustrated at not being involved in the composition process. Kristian Hoffman and Manny Parrish [Nomi Show musicians and songwriters] both worked alone. They’d write something, demo it, and then hand Klaus the tape. But George and I treated these sessions more like a workshop. Klaus, Joey, and Tony Frere would come over and just do stuff. There were always two sides to Klaus: the baroque-classical Klaus and the streamlined, futuristic Klaus. And he was obsessed with the whole grand-opera-meets-Buck–Rogers thing. Za Bakdaz is his great space western. We were always making tapes and revising them with Klaus. We figured if we got anything out of the sessions we’d go and re-record them at a better studio. But that never happened.
“When Klaus died, we were all bitter and depressed. I got out of the music business completely and focused on graphics. When Andy Horn started work onThe Nomi Song, he asked me if there were any unreleased recordings. Well, I did have those old four-tracks—literally in a shoebox. . . . And I thought: I can revive those tapes. It was like they were frozen in a block of ice. We were mesmerized by what we got out of the tapes.”
“Who knows where it’ll go next? Back then, you had to have a major label—and nobody wanted Klaus because he was just too weird. Now anybody can release a record on the Internet, so we decided to do Za Bakdaz ourselves. We wanted to make it something people would want as an object, not just as a download. That’ll come later. We’ve always wanted to release the original demo tapes. They’re the crown jewels—they really define the punky sound of the live shows, but they have a murky legal history. Another
idea is a tribute with Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Morrissey. . . . We could revive the old show, or even stage the opera. Because Nomi isn’t dead—Klaus Sperber is dead. And I think he’d have loved the idea of this character going on.”