Given the history of New York’s East Village as the first foreign language neighborhood in the country after waves of European immigration, perhaps it’s only natural that Klaus Nomi, opera-singing German performance artist who made a name for himself in the punk clubs of the late 70s, would find a home there.
By his time, the tenements had given way to other demographic waves: including Beatniks, writers, actors, Warholian Factory superstars, and punk and New Wave scenesters, whom Dangerous Mind’s Richard Metzger calls a “second generation” after Warhol, “drawn in by that Warhol myth but doing their own things.”
Even amidst the thriving DIY experimentalism of Post-Warholian art, fashion, and music, of a scene including Talking Heads, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring, Nomi stood out. It was the way he seemed to inhabit two time periods at once. He arrived both as a cabaret performer from Weimar Germany—a tragic clown with the voice of an angel—and as a thoroughly convincing intergalactic traveler, teleporting in briefly from the future.
No one was prepared for this when he made his New York debut at Irving Plaza’s New Wave Vaudeville show in 1978, evoking an even earlier era by singing “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,” from Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1877 opera Samson et Dalila. After his stunning performance, he would disappear from the stage in a confusion of strobe lights and smoke. East Village artist Joey Arias remembers, “It was like he was from a different planet and his parents were calling him home.”
Other acts at New Wave Vaudeville, a four-night East Village variety show, were “doing a punk version of Mickey Rooney, ‘We’re going to do a goofy show,’” says Kristian Hoffman, the musician who became Nomi’s musical director. In came Nomi with “a whole different level of accomplishment.” MC David McDermott was obliged to announce that he was not singing to a recording. You can see Nomi debut at New Wave Vaudeville above, in a clip from the 2004 film The Nomi Song.
The significance of these early performances goes far beyond the immediate shock of their first audiences. At these shows, Nomi met Hoffman, who would form his band and write the songs for which he became best known. Producer and director of the New Wave Vaudeville show Susan Hannaford and Ann Magnuson were also the owner and bartender at Club 57, where Nomi would help them organize exhibits by artists like Kenny Scharf.
Seeing Nomi’s debut can still feel a bit like watching a visitor arrive from both the past and the future at once. And it is lucky we have this early footage of an artist who would to on to perform with David Bowie and become a gay icon and pioneer of theatrical New Wave. But we should also see his arrival on the scene as an essential document of the history of the East Village, and its transformation into “a playground,” as Messy Nessy writes, “for artistic misanthropes, anarchists, exhibitionists, queers, poets, punks and everything in between,” including opera-singing aliens from West Berlin.
via Messy Nessy