Profiles in Outsider Music – Klaus Nomi

Klaus Nomi (born Klaus Sperber) was a war child born in Immenstadt, Bavaria in 1944. His early life was indeed a cabaret. In the 1960s, Klaus worked as an usher at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin where he sang for the other ushers and maintenance crew on stage in front of the fire curtain after performances. He also sang opera arias at the Berlin gay discothèque Kleist Casino.[4

He migrated to New York in the early 70’s and maintained body and soul as a pastry chef. His love of singing and opera was encoded in his DNA. He retained a voice coach while living in New York even though he had no particular plan or prospects. He prowled the gay nightspots in the East Village and rubbed shoulders with a rogues gallery of wannabe and soon-to-be celebrities of the emerging new wave of Punk.

Klaus Nomi was an outsider icon for the ages. He brought his love of opera and new music to New York as Glam was on the wane and Punk was entering its first trimester. David Bowie inhabited the role of extraterrestrial artiste and gay icon to perfection. But it was a construct soon abandoned. Klaus Nomi was the real deal. He was never of this world or of his time. Outsider musicians often inhabit the nether region between inspired ineptitude and fractured genius; Nomi’s uncommon musicality and otherworldly aspect shattered even those loose parameters.

Klaus was merely a bit player in the NY arts community until he hooked up with the silly and lighthearted “New Wave Vaudeville” review. Most contributors possessed far more enthusiasm and audacity than talent. Enter Klaus Nomi in full makeup and spacesuit. Armed with his formidable contra-tenor and falsetto voice, he stunned the audience into silence with a zero context version of “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart opens to your voice”) from Camille Saint-Saëns‘ opera Samson et Dalila. He then robotically receded to the rear of the stage and disappeared into a cloud of dry ice, white noise and hysterical adulation. A true extraterrestrial with a voice from heaven to match. A star was born.

Acolytes gathered around him, a band was formed, writers were commissioned, and gigs piled up. Such was his celebrity that a typical Nomi gig would see New Yorkers lining up around the block. Local TV News further heightened his profile. However, his Manhattan cache gave lie to the famous Sinatra lyric from New York, New York; “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”. Attempts to expand his audience beyond the confines of the Big Apple failed to move the needle. Then David Bowie came…

Bowie had a notoriously wide antennae when it came to new developments in art, fashion and music. The erstwhile starman caught wind of Nomi and invited him to sing backups for three songs on SNL for a national TV audience. The gig changed Nomi’s life overnight.

Nomi took note of the oversized, cartoonish tuxedo Bowie wore that night and had one custom designed for his stage act. It became his trademark along with a receding hairline that he repurposed into an exaggerated widow’s peak. An RCA recording contract soon followed as did label sponsored music videos that were awash with noir, alien mystique. A second album was recorded, and a European tour was in the works. All systems were go and the booster rockets were ready to engage. At this point, Nomi de-materialized, dying from AIDS in the year 1983 at the age of 39.

Nomi was among the first in the art community to fall from HIV/AIDS. He was afflicted so early in the epidemic, that he didn’t even know what malady he was suffering from until TV news detailed the symptoms of the new “gay plague”; sadly Nomi checked all the boxes. There was not yet a firm conclusion on how it was transmitted. As a consequence of the fear and ignorance associated with the new disease, Nomi died in hospital alone, abandoned by terrified friends who (today) would have gathered to share love, hugs and support.

Klaus Nomi streaked across the sky in the blink of an eye, and the dramatic trajectory he enjoyed in his short, sweet life can only be described as…operatic.