Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Klaus Nomi: An Icon for the Outcasts and Unrepentant Abnormals Like Me

Klaus Nomi image from Wikimedia Commons. Might have been seen as nose art on the original spaceship that carried him here from Planet Nomi.

I recently watched a documentary entitled The Nomi Song about a famous (albeit in a niche market) New Wave singer from the late ‘70s and ‘80s. His name was Klaus Nomi, and he was from outer space. That sounds outlandish, but, in a way, I believe he truly was an alien, for there was no one like him, before or since. He was an operatic countertenor—that is, he sang in an expanded range that included notes commonly reserved for female singers. “Countertenor” is a somewhat archaic term reserved for early operatic music, and indeed, our alien Nomi sang not only modern pop standards but also hauntingly beautiful arias such as Purcell’s death aria from "Dido and Aeneas." He expressed a desire to sing with the Metropolitan Opera, while he took gigs as a bizarre kinetic mannequin at Fiorucci’s department store  in New York City and also had a day job as a pastry chef. In fact, his lime tart recipe has a cult following of its own.

But the really compelling part of the Klaus Nomi phenomenon is not how he carved a niche in New York counterculture as a unique voice of the New Wave but how truly otherworldly he seemed, even when the mask fell. Nomi, whose regular human last name had been Sperber, presented himself as a doll-like plastic spaceman in a shiny sharp-angled tuxedo from a  cabaret-soaked Weimar version of the future, but the camera would seem to catch momentary transitions from space creature Nomi to regular guy Klaus Sperber. His ingenuous smile and somewhat nervous chuckle as he promises a “sweet/sour lemon tart” bespeaks a man who is not quite certain how to act like a human—as if he really is from outer space, the planet Nomi, as he claimed.

It is his inability to come across as human and his visible discomfiture that seems to be most endearing, as I can relate to being socially at sea in most situations. Klaus Nomi might have been a mask, a way of dealing with reality, but in a way, it was the highest truth for a man who lived as an alien—a German in New York, plunged into the East Village wave of musical experimentation that brought so many bizarre and creative bands to prominence. 

He was a serious artist in a transcendent way, though. His early years were spent as an usher at the Deutsche Oper, where he sang before the curtain after the main shows. He was the Old World and the New Wave thrown together, mixed with the apt metaphor of the Man from Space, the true outsider.  He sang arias to small packed rooms of 20-something partiers of the type I remember from my days as a DJ at a small college radio station. I can’t imagine what I would have done if someone like Klaus Nomi had joined the beer-soaked, guitar slapping wisecrackers of the crowd pleasers along the downtown bars in Auburn Alabama. But alas, we were not blessed with a visit from aliens, unless you count Man Or Astroman? (Come to think of it, they were probably from outer space, but I could never locate their mothership.)

There are simply no more words with which I can describe this freak of nature. His life was like the subject of a tragic opera: a meteoric rise, a loss of control of his future as he was taken up by record company stooges who made an even more plastic “brand” out of him, and his crash and burn demise only a few short years later, as he became one of the very first celebrities to die of AIDS, which was just emerging as a worldwide threat when it took his life in 1983. It was so terrifying in its lethality and novelty that his friends were afraid to visit him, being frightened they might catch what was being referred to at the time as the “gay cancer.” Even today, there are scores of admirers who claim that Klaus Nomi did not die, but he merely returned to his own galaxy. It is a comforting thought for us surviving outcast types who look to role models outside the norm. Who better to represent the fringe than a gay opera singing pastry chef from outer space? Cheers, y'all, and, as Jack Horkheimer always said, "Keep looking up!"

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My Own Personal 9.0 Quake and Tsunami: Life After Losing My Stepmother

The world looks different now...

Do you ever feel like your life is a series of clashing tectonic plates, and the only time anything ever happens is when there’s a devastating earthquake? That is how my life for the last week or so has been. First, a 8.0 on the Richter scale: my stepmother suddenly on death’s door in Florida. I book a flight to see her, because my brother says she won’t last more than a few days.

The next morning, after rescuing the victims of the “quake,” i.e., booking a flight, rental car, packing, calling everyone in the family twice, etc., my brother calls again and tells me my stepmother is dead. No chance to see her now. I unbook the flight, car, call everyone, wait to hear about funeral arrangements, etc.. The aftershocks are drawn out, because arrangements are being made far away from here. I wait in my cluttered living room and resolve to clean up to take my mind off things.

The weekend is one long depressive episode of epic proportions, as I talk to everyone and relive the harrowing events at second hand several times over. The only times that tears flow are the times I am alone, staring at the computer screen, trying to write about it. Then, I have time to think. It is times like this that make me want to be somewhere else, doing anything else but this.

Luckily, I live in a hoarder’s hell, and if I don’t maintain it with constant diligence, it becomes indistinguishable from a high-end garbage dump mixed with a flea market. So there’s always a task that needs doing, like, yesterday or last week. The only problem is that now I have no motivation and no energy to do any of it. The best thing for me would be a good, hard workout. I manage to get a pale imitation of a workout on Saturday, dragging myself for ¼ mile of laps in the pool before my fatigue and restlessness combine to pull me out into a dreadful hot tub cooldown, followed by a quick, uncomfortable shower. Funny how normally pleasant things are hard to enjoy when one of your most beloved family members is suddenly dead. Well, no, it’s not funny, but hopefully you know what I mean.

So Monday, I have an appointment to get lidocaine shot into my sciatica in yet another attempt to stop the downward slide of chronic back and hip pain that has beset me for so many years it’s like a bad Star Trek franchise. Pain Clinic XII: The Needle, or something banal like that. Well, the in-laws finally consent to drive me to the appointment after making me wait until the morning of the appointment to tell me yea or nay, as if they want to drive home the point that they have complete power over my mobility (which they do, since I’m carless and stuck 20 miles from town). I ask for the kindness of being allowed a swim/workout during the trip, and I am refused, but I have to take the scraps I’m given. At least I’ll be able to get to the doctor to get my hip injection.

So I resolve to ask again for Tuesday; perhaps someone will take pity on me. But no, no one is going to town on Tuesday, so I am stuck here with my grief and a beautiful day outside. Oh yes, and add to that an admonition to “take it easy” on the hip, i.e., keep ice and heat alternating on it and don’t do anything like digging up the garden bed or playing a lot outside. Luckily, the hoarder’s hell beckons and all that. But all this is terribly depressing.

Enter Wednesday, where I now lie here anticipating rain and possible flooding, putting off the inevitable chores by writing about how miserable my situation is. Anyway, I’ve realized that I’m terrible about updating my blog, so maybe this is just filler. But in reality, I’ve written several attempts at a blog entry already, and I have this fear of exposing them to the world. This, my most conversational attempt, might be my frightened eyes peering around the vast psychological wall of exposure that is a public blog. I’ll have to work on this, of course. But thanks for having the patience to read what is probably a painful bit of business, a snippet of my life that will hopefully give a glimpse into some sort of truth. 

My stepmother's funeral is this coming Saturday, and I am sending card, donation, a short letter, and all my love. But I've chosen to remain here, as I can't face the entire debacle again in person. I'm all worn out...hopefully my next entry will be more cheerful. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Watching Ryuhei Matsuda Cry and What Thoughts Arose Thereby...

Yesterday, I decided to liven up my chores by loading a bit of fluff on hulu.com for background noise.  I wanted something in modern Japanese, so I could enjoy the intonations and inflections and see if I could pick out words and phrases here and there.  The movie I settled on was called “Love Collage,” or “Renai  Shashin” (Japanese title). I picked it more or less at random.  It started as a fluffy romance, with two actors I recognized from other shows. Ryoko Hirosue, the elfish actress who played Ryoma Sakamoto’s first love in Ryomaden was the girl lead, and Ryuhei Matsuda, who portrayed the freakish homosexual Shinsengumi recruit in “Gohatto” (US title “Taboo”) played the boy lead.

 I managed to wash dishes through the exposition of their relationship building and destruction (thankfully), but I sat down, exhausted after many chores and got interested about the time Matsuda followed a letter from Hirosue from Tokyo to New York, looking for her. Lots of dangerous gangsta stereotypes appeared, and his ghetto savior was a gay man who had a thing for Kimutaku (Takuya Kimura—just what New York needs: a gay SMAP-head). It evolved into an episodic but suggestive nightmare romp for Matsuda through NYC, where he finally learned that Hirosue had been murdered by a woman who had befriended her and then scammed him when he showed up.

Anyway, the morgue scene, wherein Matsuda cries over the dead Ryoko Hirosue brought a thought to mind that had no completion or even a real focus beyond an understanding of how we are worn down in life. It is a credit to Matsuda’s acting that he brought this thought to my mind at that moment. The idea: “These are the things that fill our lives.” The imprint of his loss of a girl he loved and lost hammered the signature of suffering that is just one of myriad ways a human animal can experience wear. It made me remember the expressionless face of Matsuda’s Kano Sozaburo as he killed his many Shinsengumi lovers and how this sort of wear is a dangerous ugliness of character that required that he be executed. The symbolic scene wherein  the cherry sapling was felled was the most memorable moment in that film, a  recognition of the effect physical beauty can have on our capacity to judge true beauty, the kind that transcends the mere visual.

In “Love Collage,” Matsuda is few years older and there is a subtle maturation to his features. Whereas the young creep in “Gohatto” was deemed beautiful as an object, I found him repulsive and freakish.  A few more years and a more empathetic countenance made Matsuda more attractive, the moment of suffering yet more still, because it gave him some depth to go with the plastic bishounen exterior.

I think back to reading Heinlein’s  Stranger in a Strange Land and how the secretaries who have learned the Martian way from Valentine Michael Smith marvel at the beauty of the lined, old face of their boss, Jubal Harshaw, because of the wear and the many shocks his flesh has undergone and weathered successfully. His aged appearance makes him beautiful for this reason. This goes beyond the object beauty represented by Ryuhei Matsuda’s  beautiful boy in “Gohatto.”
Photo adapted from Wikimedia commons. user: Dd-b http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RAHeinlein.autographing.Midamericon.ddb-371-14-750px.jpg

I suppose beauty lives in the combination of a physicality that pleases a particular observer and a deeper character-driven beauty.  It is always nice when the two combine. Somehow, fellows like Toshiro Mifune seemed to embody that Heinleinian fine wine quality in a cinematic sense. He was a dashing and handsome fellow in his young badass days, but he wears that history with a mantle of maturity well in his older countenance too. And he’s one of the few men whose strong handsome features allowed him to look really good with a shaved head. He also escaped the “seedy look” that besets many older men.  The fact that he attacked his roles with his entire soul and being added a certain depth to the outward beauty we see onscreen; this character enrichment is essential to the totality that proclaims a person to be “beautiful.” If Mifune had been merely an adequate actor, he would be nowhere near as beautiful.

But back to the idea sparked by Ryuhei Matsuda’s crying fit: the idea that we are an amalgam of our experiences is not a new one. It is an old concept. It is behind the marks of honor signified by the Heidelberg Dueling Scar or perhaps more fittingly for Matsuda, the character-defining eyepatch worn by Sengoku warlord Date Masamune, who Matsuda portrayed in the 2009 Taiga drama “Tenchijin.” According to Samurai Wiki, “In his youth, Masamune had suffered a bout with small pox that caused an infection in his right eye-which he plucked out himself. Combined with his early aggressive and unstable demeanor, Masamune would earn the tag 'One-eyed Dragon'.” The visual cue of the eyepatch made him more iconic and terrifying in combination with his personality .

The one-eyed general’s outward appearance becomes tied to his inner character traits and thus his “beauty” is made of legend, story and the transformation of physical traits. The “eye of the beholder” has swollen to encompass the whole of historical literature, and thus the beauty of Masamune and, by extension, of Matsuda who portrayed him, is amplified and given a deeper meaning than the one-dimensional plastic bishounen where he began. And this traveled path is a battle scar in itself. Forgive the rambling, not-quite-to-the-point nature of this blog post. After all, I have been shamefully neglecting the blog for a long time now, and I had to push myself to put something up here—anything. I hope it at least made a little sense to someone!