As part of my sit-back-and-recuperate weekend, last night I dug out a DVD I’d picked up some time back, Andrew Horn‘s The Nomi Song, a documentary about that very singular character Klaus Nomi. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it — more on that in a sec — but it was the first time I’d watched the DVD, which I had picked up last year in the Tower Records collapse (and say what you want about how things are forever changed and the music industry is going down in flames and so forth, frankly as a chance to catch up on a lot of different things for cheap and easy it was a running Christmas for about two months).
I honestly don’t remember when I first heard about Nomi — certainly there wasn’t anything like coverage or attention paid to him via mainstream TV or the like out on the West Coast during his first burst of cult fame at the turn of the seventies, and at nine years old anyway I suspect my parents would have gone out of their way to make sure I didn’t find out, if only to avoid awkward questions (“So why does that man have black lipstick on, mom?”). But somewhere during the 1980s he filtered in to me as a face and figure, someone who was part of the general signifiers of whatever could be called New Wave and its endless derivations and reductions throughout that decade. In this he was a bit like, say, my seeing a classmate in upstate New York at middle school wearing a homemade Sex Pistols T-shirt — it was something I knew about tangentially, but with no real specifics, sense of place, anything.
Probably the first time I heard Nomi was the mid-nineties — I was spending a lot of time at a friend’s apartment after class, as we were KUCI types, and other KUCI folks often dropped by, while we got to know the rest of the apartment dwellers as well. Most of them were (and still are) computer folks, and there was a general 80s appreciation shared by most — and keep in mind this was, again, 1995 or so, so whatever neo-New Wave/postpunk wave was forming in the far distance was well away from us. One of the apartment folks, Ken, a very bluff and sarcastic character who shared my scabrous sense of humor — at one point we concocted a response game to Magic: The Gathering called Christ: The Execution, though we figured this wasn’t going to be easily marketable — was a Nomi fan, it turned out, though he seemed to be one for the sheer ridiculousness of it all, rather than taking him at face value. I could be wrong, I should note, but that was the tenor of things.
Some years later I stumbled across Encore, the French compilation album rush-released after Nomi’s untimely death, but I didn’t really fully get under Nomi’s spell until Eclipsed, a 1999 compilation on the handy Razor and Tie label, which provided the handiest gateway into what was going on yet. At the same time, as my AMG review of the compilation says, there’s a sense that Nomi is slightly let down by many of the arrangements, that he’s stuck with some fairly pedestrian musical performances even though the songs are often spectacular, both the covers and the originals. Also, while the disc features a few of his iconic photos and images, it still didn’t fully click — which in ways was a bit odd, because for all his distinctiveness he still fit in perfectly with a larger glam-and-after musical tradition I was already happily allied with, from David Bowie’s syntheses to Freddie Mercury’s indulgences to Siouxsie’s cool anger to Marc Almond’s desperation. And after all, anyone who loves Sparks and the Associates like I do should be falling head over heels. As time went on I also discovered some true hyperfanatics for him, notably LA’s own Lenora Claire, who is truly fabulous and very cool, so check her out.
The key to the puzzle was the film, which Eclipsed had mentioned in its liner notes as undergoing filming. The whole story behind that is rather involved, and it’s best if you read his own account elsewhere; in the meantime I’d seen Horn’s brilliant East Side Story and without immediately recalling his planned Nomi effort knew I wanted to see more. A couple of years back I was hanging around with my friend Arthur up in LA, who’s a friend of nearly three decades standing with Kristian Hoffman, Nomi collaborator and amazing character in his own right. Hoffman played a central role in the film as a key interviewee, and he had lent Arthur a videotape of the film temporarily — it had been either mostly or totally finished at this point — which gave me a chance to see about half of it (I forget why I couldn’t see it all — probably had to catch a train or something). It primed me for the debut LA showing the following year at the Nuart, where Hoffman and Ann Magnuson, another Nomi friend and contemporary who helped give him his first break, were the featured guests.
It’s a sharp film in its own right, in its assembly of archival footage, interviews in front of staged settings that don’t pretend to be anything else, sculptures and art pieces featuring Nomi, much more besides. But since Nomi got a chance to live again through the visual medium — something that in the pre-YouTube age would be fairly hard to capture unless you were part of whatever tape/file-trading networking served the hardcore fanbase — all of a sudden he stopped being a frozen figure and wide-eyed mannequin. His robot moves were all intentional, his presentation in the earliest clips a perfect example of a meeting between his own impulses and those of his collaborators, musical and artistic. If the basic model was ultimately obvious — Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, alien starman from the sky among these creatures called humans — then Nomi’s spin on it was the first fully successful derivation of that in artistic terms, even more so than Gary Numan’s near contemporaneous success drawing on similar roots.
At the same time, Klaus Sperber, the ‘real’ Nomi, the frail German dreamer from a loving family who sought to pursue his muse and supported himself in New York with his skills as a pastry chef, was portrayed in terms both affectionate and sometimes critical — a good portrait of how people are seen by each other, not in terms of perfection or approbation on all levels, but more mixed. This said the sense is that Nomi was well-liked by many and loved by a closer core, though ultimately was a lonely figure — something one can sense as his story progresses from being part of a core ensemble backing him and staging his shows to being a separate star in his own right, but isolated in videos without other performers around, ultimately finally appearing some months before his death in a cavernous arena in Germany delivering a stellar version of Henry Purcell‘s “The Cold Song,” one of his standards from the start. His delivery is breathtaking, the full orchestral backing a marvelous validation of his talents, but the robot pose fails him at points, a visible weakness where once he had perfect control, while his skin seems tautly pulled over his face, the makeup a necessary mask, as his voice falls short of breath at points. Given his tragic death and its circumstances, this was a public manifestation of the eventual end — and it makes the clip, included in full on the DVD, both compelling and uncomfortable viewing.
It’s rare to say that a film is the best way to remember a musician, especially in the rock era — the fetishization is best given to the recordings, the bootlegs, the demos. But The Nomi Song fills that role and then some, and serves as a salutory reminder that ‘art’ as such does not dwell in simple terms of one genre or another, one medium or another. Nomi embraced many things at once and created his own style and aesthetic out of it, and who knows where he might have gone in the future — but what is left behind still works so well.
And since we are in the YouTube era, a few choices to sample his work:
- “Total Eclipse” from Urgh! A Music War — for a lot of people this is how Nomi was best remembered, but as the film makes clear, the backing musicians and dancers were last-minute additions after Nomi’s manager cleared out the original crew. As a result, Nomi’s great performance is let down by everyone else on stage — perhaps a metaphor for most of his recordings!
- “The Man Who Sold the World” — this is the other legendary performance that most knew Nomi for at the time, backing David Bowie on a 1979 Saturday Night Live episode. The fellow in red is Joey Arias, Nomi’s own muse and the most notable absence in the film, though he apparently provided background research material and the like.
- “Lightning Strikes” — the Lou Christie golden oldie that gave a chance for Nomi to show his range very readily. Christie himself became a huge fan and there’s a brief bonus interview from him on the film’s DVD worth watching.
- “The Nomi Song” — this is a rehearsal performance from the club Xenon in Nomi’s first flush of New York success, as featured in the film itself.
- “Simple Man” — one of Nomi’s last official videos, very much of its time but still of interest.
- “The Cold Song” — this is the same performance as I describe above. Stellar, sorrowful. Nothing more need be said.