|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!"