When Klaus Nomi died on August 06, 1983 he died alone. Although the German-born performance artist had risen to the top of New York’s art set, and had been celebrated by the likes of David Bowie, no one came to visit him the final week of his life at Manhattan’s Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. They were all scared.
“A lot of people took off. They didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know how to deal with it,” friend Man Parrish told documentary filmmaker Andrew Horn in his 2004 film Nomi Song. “Is this something I could catch? Does he have typhoid or the plague? You hear rumors. You heard stuff in the underground. No one knew what was going on.”
What was going on was the first beachhead of the AIDS epidemic. It was so new, that it hadn’t yet been given a name – other than “gay cancer.” It wasn’t that there was misinformation out there. There was no information. Klaus Nomi had become one of the first celebrities to die of the disease and no one even knew what was going on.
“I remember seeing him at dinner and usually I’d go over and give Klaus a hug, and give him a European kiss on each cheek,” band member Page Wood recalled in the film. “And, I was just afraid to. I didn’t know if this was contagious…I sort of went up to him and I hesitated, and he just put his hand on my chest and said ‘It’s alright, don’t worry about it,’ which made me start to tear up and I think that was the last time that I saw him.”
Klaus Nomi had been born in Germany in 1944 as Klaus Sperber where, according to him, he was torn between his love of opera and his love of pop music. Immigrating to New York in 1972, Nomi supported himself as a pastry chef and eventually worked his way into the East Village art scene.
Lady Gaga Would Draw Both Musical and Fashion Inspiration
from the Work of Klaus Nomi
It was in 1978 that New York first took notice of Klaus Nomi. Artist David McDermott had organized a four-night run of a production called “New Wave Vaudeville” were participants sang, acted in skits, and generally demonstrated the punk and post-punk ethos bubbling up throughout New York at the time.
“Everyone else in the New Wave Vaudeville show was charming, inept, funny. They were all in this community where they were palling around together doing this punk version of Mickey Rooney,” Nomi collaborator Kristian Hoffman told Horner in 2004. “Then Klaus came on and it was a whole different level of accomplishment.”
Rare footage of Klaus Nomi performing the aria “Samson and Delilah”
at New Wave Vaudeville in 1978.
Hoffman would become Klause Nomi’s musical director. Soon after New Wave Vaudeville, he helped Nomi put together a band. Hoffman would also write many of the songs Nomi was most closely identified with, including “After the Fall,” “Total Eclipse” and “Lightning Strikes.”
While Klaus Nomi and friend Joey Arias (who is still well known both among the New York set and nationally thanks to his theater work and runs with Cirque du Soleil) climbed the New York art scene, their big break came in 1979 when David Bowie caught the two at the Mudd Club in TriBeCa. Bowie was so impressed with them that he hired them as his back-up singers for his December 15, 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Nomi himself would draw influence from Bowie’s plastic fashion that night and would commission for himself the stiff, plastic tuxedo that would become his hallmark in future performances.
Performing TVC-15 with David Bowie on Saturday Night Live
Soon after their appearance, Nomi Would shoot towards pop stardom. While he was celebrated in art circles in New York, Klaus Nomi would obtain gold-record status in France and start to appear on pop charts throughout Europe in the early 1980s. His music was a mix of operatic arias and pop tracks. Some of his well known songs would be works by Kristian Hoffman, while others would be bizarre covers of songs such as Chubby Checker’s “Twist,” Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and The Wizard of Oz‘ “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”.
When Klaus Nomi died thirty years ago, he passed away at the apex of his career. Yet, it wouldn’t be the height of his fame or influence. In the decades to come, he would influence fashion, music and performance art (including Lady Gaga, who drew influence from Nomi while a performance artist in New York City and who continues to employ both his fashion and musical influence in her career today). Fashion houses have routinely alluded to Nomi in their collection with Jean Paul Gaultier basing his Spring 2009 collection largely on Nomi.
Designs from Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2009 Nomi-Inspired Collection
Hugo Boss’ Klaus Nomi-Inspired Men’s Collection
Nomi would even go on to appear in The Venture Bros. in cartoon form as David Bowie’s bodyguard. And when Margaret Thatcher passed away earlier this year, it was Nomi’s version of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” that was used by punks across the United Kingdom to protest her career.
Perhaps the most surprising platform for Klaus Nomi has been on the Rush Limbaugh radio show. For years, Limbaugh has used Nomi’s version of “You Don’t Own Me” as Limbaugh’s Gay Community Update theme, with Limbaugh often interjecting himself over the recording to say things like “Sing it, Klaus!” And although Limbaugh has used Nomi to poke fun at gays, the radio host has admitted respect and appreciation for the artist and had previously posted albums of Nomi for sale on his own website.
Klaus Nomi Covers Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”
Thirty years after the death of Klaus Nomi, the worlds of fashion, music, and art continue to draw on his influence. It is a fitting echo to the lyrics of his song “After the Fall” (written by Kristian Hoffman) which state: I’m telling you hold on. Hold on. Tomorrow will be there. After the fall we’ll be born, born, born again. After it all blows away. Through countless artists, Klaus Nomi continues to be born again.
An early performance of “After the Fall” by Klaus Nomi
Klaus Nomi performs “After the Fall” Shortly before his Death in 1983