Tuesday, January 26, 2010

You're Face to Face With the Man With Klaus Nomi

Back in 1979, David Bowie was spending a lot of time hanging out at downtown New York hotspots like the Mudd Club (which was named for the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth). It was upstairs at the Mudd Club one night that Bowie ran into the drag artist Joey Arias and the cabaret singer Klaus Nomi (right). To hear Arias tell the story, Bowie was as excited to see Nomi as Nomi and Arias were to see Bowie. Nomi, a native of Bavaria, was working as a pastry chef at the World Trade Center by day but carving out a unique niche for himself in the clubs at night, decked out in whiteface, rocking his widow’s peak and singing everything from ariettas to Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes” in his otherworldly falsetto.

Bowie was slated to perform on Saturday Night Live for the first time ever that December, early in that show’s ill-starred fifth season. Martin Sheen was the host. Bowie asked Arias and Nomi if they would appear with him, and they cobbled together a little act in which the two of them would carry Bowie, stiff as a board, out to the front of the stage, then sing with him. Bowie’s latest album was Lodger, which had already been out for seven months and which nobody much liked at that point, so he decided to haul out “The Man Who Sold the World” for this unholy trio to sing, despite the fact that it was nine years old. Nomi wore his customary black and white makeup; Arias was all in red; Bowie wore a plastic dickie and a bowtie the size of a clown's shoe.

Bowie did two more songs that night, the three-year-old “TVC 15” in a Chinese stewardess’ dress, and “Boys Keep Swinging” with a marionette in a box poised just under his chin. Nomi reappeared during “TVC 15,” pulling around a toy stuffed poodle with a TV in its mouth – which was playing the live performance of “TVC 15.” So meta. “Boys Keep Swinging,” which Bowie did at about 12:50 a.m., was the first single from Lodger, but it had already flopped by then anyway.

Bowie never saw Nomi and Arias again. Well, that’s not literally true, but it’s close enough.

Nomi was a fascinating cat. His heavily mannered, operatic cabaret shows must have been the most German act ever – the Weimar Republic comes to Danceteria, except with spaceships. (The name Nomi is an anagram of Omni, Klaus’ favorite magazine.) It’s no wonder that Bowie, in the midst of his transition from setting trends to jumping onto them, latched onto him. Nomi recorded several albums in New York, became a fixture of the cognoscenti and even appeared in Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, which I have not seen but would very much like to. "I wear black lipstick and black nail polish," Nomi said. "I like things unnatural. I think a man without makeup is like a cake without icing."

Nomi died, an early victim of AIDS, in 1983, but his legend was only beginning to grow. A couple years ago, a film called The Nomi Song was released, containing many of Nomi’s most memorable performances, interviews with people who knew him, and of course his appearance on Saturday Night Live. You can watch the whole movie right here, but it you just want to see Nomi and Bowie, have at it:

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