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If They Saw My Face, Would I Still Take a Bow?

Summer of 1983. Russellville, Alabama. My high school buddy Jeff handed me a homemade cassette tape with the non-word “Nomi” scrawled across the label. I don’t know where he came across it. I do know why he gave it to me. He and I were the “New Wave” kids of our class. We were also the class fags, though neither of us had acknowledged this obvious fact out loud to the other at the time. We passed hints by sharing music, I guess, a sort of flirtation via one-upsmanship. I had introduced him to Yaz; he countered with Laurie Anderson. I followed up with Nina Hagen. Deeper and deeper into the so-called “New Wave” so-called counterculture we went, borrowing records from older, hipper friends, making tapes, swapping them out, starting over. The B-52s gave way to Pylon. Romeo Void. Lydia Lunch. X. Lene Lovich. This “Nomi” thing was his final gambit before we both moved to Tuscaloosa, to go to college, and surrendered to the janglier, guitar-ier, more straightforward and straight tastes of our new surroundings — REM, Camper Van Beethoven, “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” blah, blah, the whole earnest gamut of pre-grunge hard pop that people called “college rock” back then.

For that one summer before college, though, I became obsessed with Klaus Nomi, the strange, strange (it is a simple word; there is no other word), strange performer whose life’s work was contained on that homemade cassette. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was in the process of dying, already, of AIDS — one of the first kind-of well-known people to come down with the disease, which most people still called “the gay cancer.”

I hadn’t thought much about Klaus Nomi since then. Every now and then one of his songs would get stuck in my head. The other day at work, I caught myself singing — aloud — his version of “The Twist,” while my co-worker Brian (who is not, shall we say, the New Wave kid of the office) looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I tried to explain Nomi to him, which led me to YouTubing some of Nomi’s performances, which, in turn, led to my finding out that this documentary exists. Popped over to Netflix, and sure enough, they had it, but only in DVD form.

Here is what I learned from the film:

  • In the early eighties, St. Mark’s Place in the East Village was an affordable place to live for hand-to-mouth artist types. By the late eighties, (the first time I visited New York) this was no longer true, by the way.
  • Cabaret performer and underground personality Joey Arias was just as ubiquitous a figure back then as he is now. Maybe even moreso.
  • Klaus Nomi was a pastry chef when he wasn’t performing.
  • Almost everybody who knew Nomi was pissed off at him when he died. He had “sold out,” taken on a record label contract, and dropped a lot of the musicians and other hangers-on who felt like they had gotten him to where he was. This is a common situation. Scratch any pop star and you’ll find disgruntled former associates — but Nomi’s death occurred at precisely the moment between cutting the hangers-on loose and finding new, more professional connections. So he had nobody. Presumably, Joey Arias (who ended up executing his estate) stayed close by, but his point of view isn’t represented on this subject, weirdly.
  • Iggy Pop smokes big cigars and helps David Bowie make promises that won’t be kept. Surprise!

If you have an interest in the New York underground arts/performance scene as it existed in the “New Wave” period (that is, after the glory days of CBGBs, but before the rise of Soho) this documentary has lots of nice little historical bits for you. If you are a Klaus Nomi fan, of course, you’ve definitely got to see the thing. Otherwise, I’m not sure it has any value to anybody else. I loved it — but for purely subjective reasons.

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