Who are you, Klaus Sperber?
There’s an answer to that.
You are Klaus Nomi. But what else?
Those slightly-oversized white gloves, Mickey Mouse variants. Forehead in a state of almost-constant compress. Hairline forced to recede, three separate haircuts operating in parallel. Whitened face. Blackened lips, pursed when not opened. Plastic-playing-card costume. This is the image of Klaus that has entered the popular zone while the rest has gone to fade (the queerness and the willful transgression made cute or erased)—is this who you are, Klaus? Do I deserve to know?
I’ll move on.
Klaus Nomi is a Queer Icon in his own mold. He was an Other, one of the ultimate Others. His image has become semi-iconic, but as an individual and as an artist he remains misinterpreted.
He was not trying to be weird for the sake of being weird, whatever weird means in this or any other context—a friend of his once referred to him as the “freak among the freaks,” someone whose otherness was essentially unforced, who even removed of makeup and plastic would remain striking. He once observed in an interview that kids would laugh at him for his otherly looks growing up—that fear of verbal mockery over appearance transplanted itself to fear of physical violence over sexuality in time. Rather than creating some sense of Otherness from the ground up, he built a natural extension to who he already was. In other words, he was queer and he was Queer. The Nomi work borrows from avant-garde theatre, opera (in costumes and stylings), underground mores—but these only served to heighten or exaggerate what was already apparent. No matter how “of-its-time” his environs seem in surviving footage, his commitment is absolute. Total.
In his lifetime he recorded two albums. He rarely allowed himself to be seen without some kind of costume. He appeared as a backing singer on Saturday Night Live for an artist he exceeded and who inspired him to acquire his most persistent look (plastic Tzara oversize like a Playing Card King, or rather Queen, beautiful). He had a voice, a singing voice, that was totally unique and of itself—his voice still exists in that Nina Simone space where no one can imitate it. He was artistically driven and understood totally what to do with his image. He contracted what was only known as the “gay disease” years before other queers in his scene and elsewhere. He died with doctors unsure of what he had died of. The Tragic Narrative of his death has overcome his artistry in the eyes of many, or has cross-contaminated with the artistry to an extreme degree even when there is no association. This is an abject unfairness. The “lifestyle,” the “recklessness,” the open Otherness and blatant gayness—all of this is cheerfully allowed to overcome the artistry and the individual. This is a disgrace but it still goes on.
Klaus was one of the first.
This is not an invitation to mourn. That doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t fair to mourn someone so alive.
Love / Is just a simple thought.
Simple Man, 1982. The second, final album.
Its title song was written by Kristian Hoffman. His and Klaus’ relationship was complicated and sometimes strained, but he held an understanding of how to mold underground pop mores to Klaus’ own methods of delivery and artistic approach—giving Klaus open space to explore, providing him with lyrics only he could do justice, with jokes that were only funny from out of his mouth. Even the title is changed completely through Klaus’ voice—tzsim-pull maenn. Klaus saying “I’m a simple man” is like when Russell Mael declares with great confidence that “the song will fade out” over-and-over-and-over-&c. at the end of “I Predict.” The song just stops, and Klaus isn’t simple.
The song has a video of somewhat mysterious background—it’s homemade, featuring peers and Queers from the underground. Its wider availability extends to grainy streaming.
So it goes:
Klaus walks down some stairs in tall trenchcoat, matching fedora, dark glasses, carrying briefcase—walks in an upright, studied way. His face is still whitened, his lips still black. His appearance is a contradiction—he wears clothing designed to shield the wearer whilst remaining constantly noticeable. Two queens in leather, makeup, hats, watch him go past under their brims before nodding to follow. It’s like the opening of some parodic Queer espionage picture. Interspersed is Klaus in the above gear (minus glasses), unblinkingly delivering the lyrics in beautiful staccato whilst wearing some kind of knowing half-smile. Occasionally he’s wearing schoolboy attire instead.
Then. We’re at a cruising place, this is unmistakeable. Two immaculate Queers, high cheekbones high haircuts, denim jeans and the usual jackets. Then there’s Klaus himself. Decked up in cowboy wear, but still with his vinyl-shade puckered-up lips and lightened (though not whitened) skin, he looks like a simultaneous parody and evolution of the Village People aesthetic. Here is an indefinable tribe: Klaus’ own. And in his shades, he looks almost afraid of the sun, as though longing to return to his darkened stage in a NY basement somewhere—there is a discomfort in his YMCA-ish movements both real and feigned. His hand gestures, his automaton arms.
Then. The third element is some kind of Happening Party, waiters all white-faced and Klaus now fully in the plastic suit (with associated haircut). He mingles awkwardly, uncomfortably stealing a kiss from a laughing woman. He’s feigning normality, it would seem—but, of course, just look at him. The entire film is suffused with a kind of playful melancholy, as in every environment he is placed Klaus looks out-of-place. His face in the last section is strange, too—gone is the knowingness, replaced instead by a thousand-mile stare, hands in some kind of prayer-mode.
And so here is Klaus. He who even among queens looks queer. He was queer and he was Queer. He was placed in both spaces, and it was in those spaces he created himself in full. In an artistic sense.
You don’t know me.
Nomi’s birthplace was Immenstadt im Allgäu. Back then he was still Sperber. He worked as an usher at the opera and sang at a gay discotheque. He wanted to sing opera, but was fascinated with the alternative pop drifting from the Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika—he chose to sing both in the end, embracing kitsch and transformative neo-operatic styles in his later work. After moving to New York he became a pastry chef, performing at night with painted face. He met his most longstanding collaborators (people with complicated memories) after appearing at an underground revue (filled mostly with dicking around) in a cloud of smoke, performing a Saint-Saëns in a voice like no other before disappearing again and leaving a permanent indent in the minds of everyone in the room.
This is all Wikipedia-article stuff, itself borrowed from a perfectly good documentary, but context is important to establish, especially in light of the above observations on his artistic image. Klaus did not come from nowhere. Though people enjoy calling him an ”alien” (in a certain tone of voice, often), he had origins on this earth. He had human interests. These origins, these fascinations, they shaped Klaus Sperber and Klaus Nomi both. His starting ground has significance. In the opera, flamboyance is accepted to a point—in his new Amerikan environs he could develop this further.
Though he rejected that kind of irony that fuels a lot of camp. He took this approach seriously. The surviving performances on film are arch, yes, but only he was in on his own joke, which was anything but a joke. People wrote songs for him and he covered the songs of others, yet he was somehow always able to drag such material into his own space where he could not be followed. You get the sense that only he knew what was going on. Total image control.
Aside—“You Don’t Own Me.”
Lesley Gore liked women. “You Don’t Own Me” was recorded when she was seventeen, and she recorded it with a level of self-knowledge and quiet irony that transported it beyond what its songwriters had in mind. She sings about “other boys” with the same level of archness that Klaus approached Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes” with. Two homos singing about being hetero. Klaus Nomi covering Lesley Gore. A Queer honoring a Queer. A point of solidarity that remains undeniable. A whole grouping of people only know Klaus because the perpetually-enraged puritan Rush Limbaugh uses his cover of the Gore song in sections talking about “the gays”—Limbaugh has since advertised Klaus’ CDs on his website, apparently, as though that somehow makes up for using one of Klaus’ songs as a sick joke at the expense of his community. What charity!
Klaus cruised down the tracks. Like most in his moment, safe sex was not a general consideration—he apparently seemed to think paracetamol would do the job alright. It did not. People close to him warned that he should take better care of his health, but it seems such calls went unheeded. He wanted liberty, his own. And there seemed little to be afraid of.
We all know where the story is going. It’s emerging, this predictable and ugly presence. The virus in the system, the killing of the flame, we all know where this story is going. The Prior Walters are emerging from the wings. We all know where this story is going.
Something seemed to change sometime after 1980. A New Disease appeared, and Nomi caught it. Earlier, or at least visibly earlier, than others. This disease did not have a name. Doctors were working from nothing if they were working on it at all. This disease did not have a name. The rumor was that only men-who-screwed-men were catching it—it was the Gay Disease. The Schwulenkrebs. Or, to give it a more official-sounding name, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). Evangelicals leapt upon it as the Reaping Wind. Reaganites sharpened their knives.
And Nomi caught it.
I have observed that Nomi was always made acutely aware of his own otherness in most every capacity. Many in his circle had been through the same, or similar. So the sense of liberty in certain spaces of pre-gentrification pre-HIV NYC was hypnotic, to Klaus and others. The debauchery, the glorious excess, it was a statement of intent. Klaus himself was a dedicated cruiser, whilst struggling with romantic connection. A kind of resistance. Larry Kramer would later observe the fatigue such a hypersexed environment could bring, how romance could dissipate, how health was disregarded in the name of pleasure. Can we blame them? Heterosoc certainly enjoyed doing so. Still does. This was all the freedom there was. There had ever been. But after the party came the GRID.
And Nomi caught it.
People became afraid to touch Klaus. Even other queers. Especially other queers. His disease was a mystery, a point of fear—the underground of the underground began to spread rumors. People stopped kissing him, hugging him, even standing close to him. And he understood, according to people’s regretful testimony—he understood, he nodded, he accepted that he was now having people eyeball and turn away from him in a manner that was not a product of artistic intent. His immune system had collapsed. This was seen as inexplicable—this mystery disease’s symptoms were still unknown. His skin was now riddled with Kaposi’s sarcoma—initially-painless skin lesions that can grow to cause agony in the mouth and internal organs. Such lesions are now known in These Days of Miracle and Wonder to be a sign of developed, unchecked HIV infection. Credit to the doctors: they did the best they could, considering the dearth of information on the schwulenkrebs. He was cared for in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (where else to put him?), and it was there that he died.
Despite the preponderance of wistful internet communiqués that wonder about how sad and lonely his passing must have been (see any collection of comments, often crassly shoehorning the lyrics to the joyously introspective “Nomi Song” in there somehow), we really know nothing about his last hours. We know his friends, so frightened and confused, didn’t come to visit him. We know he called many people, including those he had alienated—he was afraid. And his friends did not come. Based on prior evidence, Klaus did not reproach them. And can we judge them? Fear is a corrosive force. He was afraid, he did not know what was happening to him. They were afraid, they did not know what was happening to him. So it went.
In one of his last performances caught on film, Klaus is wearing neo-Tudor wear with ruff to match. It’s generally known now that the change in costume was influenced by the fact that the ruff could conceal the Kaposi’s sarcoma on his neck. One of his renditions is of Henry Purcell’s “Cold Song,” as he arranged it for his first album.
The song was written for Purcell’s Arthurian opera, for a character named Cold Genius. Cold Genius is a bass role. This was Purcell’s specification. Klaus could sing bass—the opening bars of “Nomi Song” prove this. He chose not to sing bass. He chose to sing how he sung. An aria for bass transformed to an impossibly high register and improved in the process.
These final performances have formed part of the Tragic Narrative, Klaus’ hands shaking as his voice remains peerless. People tend to gravitate towards his performance of the “Cold Song” to support this narrative, and it makes sense why they would. The morbidity of the lyrics combined with clear physical degeneration and knowledge of the lesions behind the costume—the fascination with the wasting of an Icon is powered easily. But beyond such strange (even queer) fascinations lies the true poignancy, that a man losing himself in the physical sense remained unbowed in the other—that artistic integrity and the ability to transgress shines through the makeup. A few years ago people liked to pretend the man he sang backing to invented the death piece, or perhaps they just forgot: Klaus didn’t need a death piece, every song of his was a gesture of defiance, an explosion, something that is so immediately there when there and is felt absent when absent.
To me, “After the Fall” stands out most of all in amongst this final footage. My favorite of his songs, the best thing Hoffman (his reluctant interpreter) ever wrote. A sequel to “Total Eclipse” (the song you know if you know about Nomi), it continues with that song’s narrative of Mutually Assured Destruction and finds beautiful hope in the whole thing. Klaus tells the “lonely mutants” to “hold on,” because “After the fall / we’ll be… born again.”
“Hold on,” he sings: “Hold on / Tomorrow will be there.”
Its style is consistent with the underground pop kitsch his backing band excelled in, but it holds in its delivery the emotional capacity of the opera rearrangements. There’s the same sly humor, but it moves. A kind of genuine irony surrounds much of Klaus’ pop—a sarcasm fueled by real emotion. Marlene Dietrich singing about being fed up with men before romantically dying in the arms of Jimmy Stewart, &c. “After the Fall” is the most genuine of all.
Again—it is not designed to be a statement, because no statement needed making. Klaus was his own statement.
This final-recording is pared-back, accommodating the singer. His hands shake, he stands in the same spot, there are none of the hand gestures, there is none of the proto-vogueing. It is just Klaus, and Klaus’ voice. And it is a beautiful thing, it is defiance, it is art.
But I’m telling you, hold on / Hold on / Tomorrow will be there.
Was Klaus Nomi…
…a queer revolutionary?
…a kitsch superstar?
…a neo-operatic pioneer?
…a performance artwork in real time?
…a tragic figure?
He was all but the last—one of the great visual queers, a plastic-suited artistic touchstone.
The point of all this is neither to historicize nor to mourn, but to reopen Klaus in all his queer distinctiveness. His image has become a curiosity, a 3am trip to the weird side of the internet (often whilst on some substance). But Klaus was an artist, who made art; and he was a queer artist, whose art was fueled by queerness. Art that was both a product of its time and something that exists beyond time. The voice cannot be dated, and even production methods take a backseat to that borderline note-defying sound. Klaus was his voice, defying as he did explanation and/or precedent. Capturing as he did attention in the immediate sense as something that seemed new, wild. He was an embodiment of queerness in its ceaseless newness, in its endless subversion of the basic forms presented as normal. He existed as a defiant self, a One as an Other. Voice and person, floating above structure. He was Marlene Dietrich, he was Klaatu, he was born with the gift of a golden voice, he was Nomi. And we know him now.
The author would like to thank his sister, L., for valuable input; and Klaus Nomi, of course.