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Before Bowie: Klaus Nomi and the 'New Wave Vaudeville' show

Klaus Nomi was one of the most individualist artists of the modern era. Born during the last days of Hitler’s Third Reich on January 24, 1944, in Immenstadt, Bavaria, Nomi would go on to embody the anthesis of the Nazi’s ideology. Via New York City, Nomi would become a futuristic embodiment of Hitler’s worst nightmare, and he did it brilliantly.

He would first venture into the world of arts amongst the hedonist abandon of ’60s West Berlin. Notably, he worked as an usher at the esteemed Deutsche Oper, an opera company in the city’s historical Charlottenburg district. He honed the rudimentary form of his craft by singing for the other ushers and maintenance crew on stage behind the safety curtain after the performances had ended. Running parallel to this, and in a less formal environment, he sang operatic arias at the Berlin gay club Kleist Casino. These vocal renditions of the operas of old would become a crucial part of his act.

In 1972, Nomi moved to New York, and it was here that he would cement his legacy as an artist who straddled the gulf between the pre and post-War worlds. Over the course of the decade, as the city moved into its post-Warholian creative iteration, Nomi would began to integrate himself into the pioneering art scene based in the city’s East Village. 

As it had been in the ’60s, The East Village was the centre of the city’s artistic universe, and in terms of music, its most famous establishment was CBGB. Over the course of the decade, it would house the proto-punks, the New York Dolls, the city’s punk movement that included the Ramones, and the post-punk/new-wave movement, that helped propel western music into the future, with bands like Talking Heads its leading lights. 

It was with the dawn of the latter movement where Nomi truly made his stamp. He would thrive in the new-wave environment, presenting himself as a galactic infused Pierrot looking character. His aesthetic was like no other, futuristic yet Baroque; his eye-catching costumes set him apart from his peers.

The most memorable element of his visage was undoubtedly his signature hairstyle, an angular, heavily stylised work. It flaunted his receding hairline, giving him the look of a supervillain from a zany ’60s shows such as The Avengers. Ironic as Nomi was undoubtedly a force for the good.

Typically, his songs were not of the usual sort. His works included synthesiser driven interpretations of opera’s but also covers of ’60s pop classics such as Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’ and Lou Christie’s ‘Lightnin’ Strikes’. A modern embodiment of a Weimar or Victorian entertainer, Nomi was totally at home on stage, aware of its fluid benefits.

Unlike his new-wave peers, he would only release two albums in his lifetime, 1981’s Klaus Nomi and 1982’s Simple Man. Tragically, he was one of the first in the creative world to pass away owing to AIDS complications in 1983. Aged only 39, Nomi would leave the world as a great example of Germany’s younger generation who stuck a big middle finger up to the murderous ideology of their parent’s generation, helping to move the world forward. 

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Nomi’s most iconic performance is undoubtedly his supporting role as one of David Bowie‘s backing singers for his strange redux of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ in 1979 on Saturday Night Live. Like an intergalactic helper to Bowie’s equally alien frontman, Nomi’s performance augmented Bowie’s eccentric take on his 1970 original. 

However, before this glamorous appearance, Nomi made a name for himself with the New York art scene’s most mysterious and alluring event. Retrospectively, this is the defining moment in his career. In 1978 he debuted at the ‘New Wave Vaudeville’ show, a four-night extravaganza organised by Susan Hannaford and actress Ann Magnuson at the iconic Club 57.

Hosted by David McDermott, the madcap, modern take on the vaudeville shows of old put out advertisements looking for “Egyptian slaves, hostesses, robot monsters, geeks, nazis, emotional cripples; and assembled a group of crazies from the club scene”, who would all deliver skits as part of the show. Described as a “punk version of Mickey Rooney” by Nomi collaborator Kristian Hoffman, footage from the shows prove this right. 

The highlight of the ‘New Wave Vaudeville’ was resoundingly Nomi. Dressed in a skin-tight spacesuit and donning a plastic cape, Nomi took the audience back to 1877 with a rendition of the aria ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson and Delilah. Ever the walking juxtaposition, the performance ended with an abrupt crash of smoke bombs, strobe lights and electronic sound effects, as Nomi disappeared from the stage engulfed in a cloud of smoke. 

East Village artist Joey Arias recalled in 1986: “I still get goose pimples when I think about it… It was like he was from a different planet and his parents were calling him home. When the smoke cleared, he was gone.” 

After that, Nomi was invited to perform at many clubs across New York City. The performance would hail the start of Nomi’s ascendance as a gay icon and a key staple of the city’s new-wave scene. In fact, local greats such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring would even go on to perform as part of Nomi’s show, a brilliant but little known nugget of information that shows the pulling power of Nomi’s genius. 

His acceptance into the scene and his success shows that at the time, the city was a world leader in pushing boundaries and destroying expectance. This sentiment is made all the more apparent when you think about how many future icons this tight-knit movement inspired. A dizzying truth.

Watch a clip of Nomi’s ‘New Wave Vaudeville’ debut, below. 

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