How I came to find and love the man and his music.
Forget my fate!
February 2018, my wife and I were spending the night in a bed and breakfast ready to start IVF treatment the following morning. The end of a long and expensive journey was nearing its end and the anticipation of a good result was high. We’d been trying the usual way to no avail, even though I’d had a full reversal of my vasectomy a couple of years earlier. On that night we found ourselves standing on the doorstep of our dream to start a new family together, and in the morning she would go through a simple procedure to plant an embryo that would make that dream a reality. We were going to be parents. Understandably neither of us could think of getting a good night’s sleep, the excitement equal to a child on Christmas Eve; but as she rolled over to try to get some rest, I stayed up browsing the net for a while and stumbled across something that would quickly become a new musical obsession.
As I was idly browsing I’d stumbled upon a blog dedicated to the fascinating side of death and the macabre. At the bottom of the first page was an image taken from a clip on Youtube of a gaunt looking man wearing a red renaissance style outfit; the brief description accompanying the clip described it as a film of a very sick Klaus Nomi giving a legendary performance of Purcell’s The Cold Song shortly before his untimely death at the tender young age of just 39. The man in the picture looked very pale and almost skeletal, and out of pure curiosity I decided to play the clip.
The clip was of a live performance given in Munich Germany by a man the verge of global infamy; who would have gone on to stand shoulder to shoulder pad with the biggest names of the day. The clip opens with Klaus slowly walking onto the stage and ascending a short stair case to stand before his adoring audience who welcomed him with cheers and applause. It was obvious by the look of him and the nature of his movements he wasn’t in the best of health, yet that didn’t stop him belting out one of the best loved songs in his repertoire. Throughout the performance there are several moments when he is clearly struggling to carry on yet he does so with sheer defiance against the sickness taking his breath and energy away, concluding the song with a long drawn out note that must have taken a great toll on him yet he delivered it perfectly. The song was originally written for bass voice yet Klaus performed it with his clear Counter Tenor tones, standing motionless with his arms held out in a classic pose while darting his black eyes over the audience. His hair raised up into the three spikes that defined part of his iconic image as well as the pure white face make up and black lipstick, yet the look of devastation on his face is painfully clear to see. After delivering what is considered to be the performance of his career he carefully descended the stairs like a frail old man, slowly made his way back stage as the audience continued to cheer. Several months later, Klaus was gone.
This was the first time I’d ever seen Klaus and when he started to sing I wasn’t expecting to hear a voice as powerful and diverse as that coming from a man so close to death, and I had to find out more on youtube where thankfully there’s plenty of material to get stuck into. Klaus was a classically trained Counter Tenor with an equal love for pop and rock music. The next clip I found was another live performance of the song Total Eclipse, recorded in 1981. Here I saw him in his prime wearing the oversized plastic tuxedo and triple spiked hair style that defined his persona. At first I didn’t know what to make of it, but after another clip of the video to The Nomi Song, the bug had well and truly bitten me and I was already hooked. In the months that followed I found myself hunting for as much Nomi material I could get hold of, and like all Nomi fans across the world, I’m left with a desperate need for new material that will never come.
Klaus Sperber was born in Immenstadt Germany on Jan 24th 1944. He grew up in a close family of music lovers where Classical music was always being played. From an early age he developed a love for Opera and fell head over heels for the voice of Soprano legend Mariah Callas, and would often sing along to her records. The 1950’s saw a whole new wave of music spring into existence and Klaus was swept away by the new sounds. Among them was the King, Elvis Presley, and Klaus dreamed to one day produce his own pop music and perform before an adoring audience. In the 1960s, he found work as an usher at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin. After performances he’d sing for the other ushers and maintenance crew on stage in front of the fire curtain. He also sang opera arias at the Berlin gay discothèque Kleist Casino.
Klaus dreamed of one day becoming an opera singer and he certainly had a natural talent to fulfil that ambition, yet he also dreamed of going into pop music, yet felt that his life and career was too much under the control of his family and peers who were determined he’d only do opera. Klaus had a burning ambition in his heart and needed to find a way to do what he wanted without restraint. Across the other side of the world was a land where there were no rules, where the people were free to do as they pleased in a country with a reputation of making dreams come true. To do this he made the tough decision to emigrate to the United States, and in 1972, moved to New York to follow his dream. In the years that followed he supported himself working as a pastry chef to afford singing lessons and accommodation, and very quickly he became well known for his skills in the kitchen making delicious cakes. In his free time he’d get involved with various art scenes singing in clubs and restaurants in the East Village end of town.
His big break came in 1978 with an invitation to take part in a new wave vaudeville variety show put together by some of the friends he’d made along the way. He was the final act and instantly became the star of the show with his unusual image and out of this world voice. After the penultimate act the whole room went dark with strobe lights running around the stage. From somewhere the sound of an alien spacecraft coming to land gradually increased in volume as the vision of a strange little man slowly immerged through the smoke covering the stage. The sound effect came to a crescendo and the stage was lit with a single light, showing Klaus dressed in a black body suit with a transparent plastic cloak. His hair done up into three spikes and makeup around his eyes making them look larger. The rowdy audience were stunned into silence as they observed this otherworldly looking man as gentle classical music started to play. Claus began to sing “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” from the opera Sampson and Delilah by Saint Seans. A man singing with a clear Soprano voice captivated the spellbound audience comprised of a mixture of onlookers, some of whom were rough types, red necks and bikers who’d never give classical music the time of day, were mesmerised by his performance. Many of them were moved to tears.
The song came to an end, the music continued a little more; then came the crashing sound of thundering engines of a spacecraft taking off. Strobe lights and more stage smoke saw Klaus back away to the curtains before vanishing as the sound faded to silence. The audience was still in awe; then erupted into applause and a demand for more. Such was his unusual voice that promoters of the show had to address the crowd and assure them that was his real voice and not a simulation in any form.
The show ran for several nights and the word was spreading fast. Klaus was being booked all over New York yet success was taking its time to make him famous. Then in 1979 another opportunity came in the form of superstar David Bowie, who invited Klaus and his closest friend Joey Arias to provide backing vocals for a now legendary live performance on the popular American TV show Saturday Night Live. It didn’t make a household name for Klaus but it did introduce him to a wider audience. During the performance of the song “The Man Who Sold the World”, Klaus was impressed with the outfit worn by Bowie. It was a plastic suit of an impressionist style and Klaus just had to know where to get his own. Eventually this would bring about the infamous plastic tuxedo that became his iconic image, and is still just as impressive today as it was nearly forty years ago.
By 1980 the rising star of Klaus Nomi was beginning to shine brightly. He was touring the United States balancing his dreams and keeping his regular work. He was growing impatient for success and pulled his resources to produce an album. In 1981 his self titled debut album was released and initially did well. He produced a handful of videos to accompany it and had begun touring in Europe. Success was finally within reach.
By the release of his first album his health was already in decline. He’d had a perpetual cold that had bothered him for a couple of years and was finding it harder to control his breathing during performances. Doctor’s couldn’t find the cause for his repeated spells of health issues and Klaus did his upmost to carry on regardless.
1982 saw the release of his second and final album titled “Simple Man.” By now his health was rapidly failing. His skin was covered in dark blotches getting bigger by the month. He was getting exhausted quickly and relied on drugs to keep his energy levels up and his voice in usable condition. The blotches were called Marconi’s Sarcoma, a form of skin cancer that appears during the final stages of HIV infection. Back then they called it Gay Cancer or GRID, Gay Related Immuno Deficiency. The name HIV and AIDS wouldn’t come about until after his death. Klaus knew his time was nearly up. By the end of 1982 his close family of friends were beginning to avoid him, not knowing how contagious his sickness was. To hide his skin disorder he changed his outfit from the beloved tuxedo to a renaissance style red suit with black cloak complete with frilly neck collar. In the final months he changed course in his career and concentrated mainly on his classical repertoire. In March 1983 he gave the performance in Munich that started my interest in Klaus Nomi. He gave a handful of short concerts in the months that followed before being hospitalised in July of that year. In spite of his rising star and the moderate success of his two phenomenal albums, Klaus Nomi slipped away on the 6th August of that year from complications of AIDS.
The timing of his tragic death meant that instead of worldwide infamy, Klaus was quickly forgotten, but not entirely. His music is still fondly remembered by many and his influence on music and fashion continues to live on today. If he was more fortunate not to have caught AIDS and lived, then by 1984 he would have been one of the most innovative and important personalities in entertainment.
Klaus and the career he may have had.
When we think back to the biggest names in music of the 80’s, a handful of legends spring to mind, Jackson, Madonna, Queen, Bowie, The Bee Gee’s, etc, but not Klaus Nomi. This will forever be one of the greatest tragedies in music history. If Klaus had lived, I have no doubt his career would have been way more elaborate than the biggest names of the time. Klaus set out to be different in every way and was determined to break as many rules as possible in order to stand out. His mixture or musical styles on a single album meant that he practically invented the compilation album. His success would have been based on his limitless imagination and almost inhuman vocal skills.
By the end on 1983 Klaus Nomi should have been firmly in the public eye. By the following year there would have been a third album and a place among the superstars of the decade. I believe it’s inevitable he would have collaborated with the big names such as Michael Jackson, who I can imagine finding Klaus’s unique style irresistible. His vocal skills would have made a superb comparison with Freddie Mercury, and could easily have made several songs together. 1985 saw Live-Aid, which for Queen was a performance that made history. Klaus would have also been involved and catapulted his career to the highest levels. In the early 80’s his fame would have reached England and brought to the attention of comedy icon Kenny Everett. Klaus and Kenny, I believe, would have made a classic comedy duo as Kenny would have had Klaus as a regular guest on his mad cap television show. By the end of the 80’s Klaus would have released several albums of mixed genres and also a bunch of classical releases. He would have had success in nearly all music charts and would have had numerous live shows all over the world.
In classical History there was an opera star called Farinelli. He was the most famous Castrato Tenor there ever was, and for those who don’t know what Castrato means, basically a man who’d had his testicles removed just before puberty to preserve his choir boy voice. Klaus had that kind of voice with his fishing tackle firmly intact. He wanted to be the next Farinelli both on stage and screen, and it’s not hard to imagine him fulfilling that ambition perfectly.
Klaus would have had the 80’s in the palm of his hands making a success in almost every area of modern art; music of course, also acting, fashion, theatre, literature, etc, etc. He would have glided into the 90’s changing his styles and breaking new grounds whilst keeping the tuxedo close by for encores. I believe that if he’d lived to see the film The 5th Element, he would have been blown away and moved to tears by the scene featuring Plavalaguna, the blue alien soprano performing the Diva Dance. I can imagine him being compelled to do his own cover and nailing it perfectly. Maybe it could have been him providing the vocals for the soundtrack instead of Inva Luna, who actually sung the song for the film. Klaus’s vocal range was described as incredible by those who knew him in the studio. Many who remember him say his range was inhuman. The Diva song was written to be nearly impossible to sing, yet I believe Klaus would have found it easy.
Sadly, the two studio albums he managed to produce in his short life don’t give a full demonstration of his vocal range, yet they give a clear indication of what he was capable of. What follows is a quick review of the material he left behind.
His first album called Klaus Nomi was released in 1981 and received limited acclaim. Today it’s looked upon as a failure in regards to overall sales, yet it quickly rose to cult status where it remains to this day. The cover sleeve features a black and white portrait of Klaus wearing the tuxedo; a very eye catching image for anyone browsing through a record store. On the back is a smaller picture of Klaus blowing a kiss to his beloved listeners. Of the two albums this is considered to be his best, yet I bed to differ. It had ten songs including all the greatest hits by which he is best remembered by. The whole album is a mixture of classical, pop, rock, new wave and synth pop which was a new style of music at the time. The opening track, Keys of Life, was written by Klaus and is the only song on his entire discography to have been composed by him. It opens with a gentle drum rhythm accompanied by the words ‘keys of life’ sung repeatedly through the whole song in his high pitch tones, whilst sound effects of strange birds and insects from an alien planet. The whole atmosphere of the song is to give the impression that Klaus is from another world, visiting Earth to save the human race from himself. Overall it’s an unexpected sounding track to open an album and slightly un-nerving, yet it sets the pace for what’s to follow.
Many of the songs including his most memorable hits were written by Kristian Hoffman who’d been friends with Klaus since his arrival in the states. The hits include Total Eclipse and The Nomi Song. There’s also some notable covers such as Lightening Strikes originally by Louie Christie, You don’t Own Me by Medora and White. The most striking track on the album is his own reinterpretation of the Chubby Checkers classic hit The Twist. Here Klaus completely re-invents the song and makes it entirely his own, giving us a taste of his creative genius. Two classical tracks are added to the bizarre mix of styles, The Cold Song and a live recording of “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” from a show he gave in 1979.
In 1982 he released his second and final album Simple Man, another mad mixture of styles with a generous dose of mad cap humour. The opening track is a very chilling piece called From Beyond that wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror movie, before breaking out into the rocking number called After the Fall by K, Hoffman. After the Fall is a sequel to the previous album’s Total Eclipse. Again there’s a series of fresh covers to get the toes tapping including Just One Look by Carrol and Payne, Falling in Love again by Hollander and Lerner, and a very campy rendition of Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead from the movie The Wizard of Ozz. The original tracks include the techno robot dance ICUROK by George Elliot. The delightful Rubber Band Laser was written by Joey Arias and Anthony Frere, which can only be described as a futuristic Country n Western romp. The song Three Wishes is a dip into the realms of psychedelic madness, and of course there’s classical element; Wayward Sisters by Henry Purcell who also composed the Cold Song in the late seventeenth century. The final two tracks are an emotional farewell from a man who knows his time is up yet still with a lifetime of ambition left in his heart that will never come to be. The aria called Death again by Purcell is about a woman meeting her death with dignity yet begging to be remembered. As you listen to Klaus sing the verse, “remember me, remember me, but ah, forget my fate,” you’re listening to a man dying from a disease that devastated the 70’s and 80’s taking a host of beloved celebrities along with it, Liberace, Kenny Everett and Freddie Mercury among them. Klaus didn’t want to be remembered for the way he died, but for the music he gave us that wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg of what he could have produced. The final track is a haunting wordless song delivered like a Gregorian Chant only with counter tenor tones, singing like a ghost lost in limbo.
In 1983 a compilation album was released called Encore featuring his notable hits thus far and included two previously unreleased songs, Der Nussbaum, a classical song from the late nineteenth century, and the moving cover of the Elvis Presley hit, Can’t Help Falling In Love. This song is where Klaus uses his lower tenor voice throughout demonstrating the extent of his range.
In 1986 a live album was released of a concert performed in 1978 that included a cover of a song I Feel Love by Donna Summer. In 2007 a posthumous album called Za Bakdas was released by two friends of Klaus featuring a series of songs and musical projects he was working on for several years up until his untimely death. Among his many ambitions, Klaus also wanted to write his own opera mixing both classical and modern styles. His friends, Page Wood and George Elliot worked with him during those years and kept the incomplete recordings. Many years later they decide to try and finish the projects as best they could without the maestro himself in attendance. The final work, although far from what Klaus would have had in mind, is a collection of musical wonders that give us just a brief glimpse into the workings of his limitless imagination. The most notable tracks are Valentine’s Day and Silent Night. The cover of the album has a moving image of Klaus wearing both the Tuxedo and the red renaissance outfit blended in the middle.
Two studio albums that belong in every record collection the world over followed by three tribute albums to accompany them. I have all five and keep them in pride of place. In 2019 Real Gone Records reissued his first album to a limited number of 1000 copies. Klaus may be gone but his influence lives on. If you haven’t discovered him already, then what are you waiting for??
The following morning we went to the clinic and she had the embryo implanted. In spite of the success of the simple operation, she miscarried three days later.