You Don't Nomi
Or⁠—It’s So Sim­ple!

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!

⁠…schwu­lenkre­b­s.

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.

⁠…so un­re­al.

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 bak­er?

  • ⁠…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.