retro record

Klaus Nomi sung about being a “Simple Man,” yet he was anything but

Klaus Nomi dressed in a black and white costume and all-white make up singing on stage with smoke billowing behind him.

Among the near mythical experimental music icons who helped shape queer performance spaces in the early 80s — from RuPaul’s days as a “sex freak” to Hi-NRG daddy Patrick Cowley and contemporary Paul Parker—Klaus Nomi was truly a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma in New York City. And that was only a peek of what audiences got to see of him on stage.

To weigh the songs in Nomi’s music catalog as a “hit” or miss would be doing him a disservice. A countertenor, Nomi’s performance and music style was also of the counterculture—mashing up classical, rock and opera with disco while baking theatrics, camp and kitsch into his live shows.

The catchy and eclectic “Simple Man” is a classic Nomi track, if there was ever such a thing, and comes dangerously close to flirting with the mainstream pop. Released in 1982 off an album of the same name, Nomi was anything but “simple.” Yet he managed to make a clear impact on experimental art and music over a short career. 

Believed to be born around 1944 in Immenstadt, Bavaria, Nomi leaned into his Germanic roots and made his foreignness a focal point of his stage persona. He had a heavy German accent, and he reportedly started performing as an usher at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin in the 1960s. After the night’s show, he would sing and entertain the maintenance crews, adding his own twist to arias and other opera classics. 

In 1972, Nomi arrived in New York City and situated himself in the East Village art scene. This is distinctly documented in his documentary, “The Nomi Song,” and even among the city’s outcasts and misfits, Nomi seemed to be on an island of his own. He reportedly moonlighted as a pastry chef and a Broadway bit player during the day but cultivated his stage aesthetic at night.

In 1977, Nomi appeared in a satirical production of Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” at Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company as the Rheinmaidens and the Wood Bird. Whether he was truly strange or just very German wasn’t clear, but no one could deny the talent and tone he had as a singer.

Nomi’s musical sensibility was equally out of this world. He added synths and disco to covers of 1960s pop standards like Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” and Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes” and operas as his own. Singing the “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart opens to your voice”) from Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera “Samson et Dalila” became a regular part of his shows, and there are numerous videos of him performing the song online.

“I still get goose pimples when I think about it,” said Nomi’s close friend Joey Arias about his performance style. “It was like he was from a different planet and his parents were calling him home. When the smoke cleared, he was gone.”  Add strobe lights, smoke bombs, and electronic sound effects, and Nomi was a hit in New York City’s underground and soon he was invited to perform all over the city.

Over the next few years, things went into hyperdrive for Nomi. He met Kristian Hoffman, a songwriter for the Mumps, and he became Nomi’s musical director. Hoffman wrote several pop songs for Nomi, including “Simple Man,” “The Nomi Song,” and the operatic “Total Eclipse.” Then the pair recruited other musicians to form the Klaus Nomi band, and added other singer and performance artists to their shows, including Arias, Keith Haring, John Sex and Kenny Scharf, and even Jean-Michel Basquiat reportedly.

Performing at iconic clubs all over Manhattan, including Max’s Kansas City, Danceteria and Hurrah, it was a meeting of eclectic minds when Nomi met David Bowie at The Mudd Club.  Bowie hired Nomi and Arias as back up performers and singers for his appearance on Saturday Night Live on Dec. 15, 1979. They performed “TVC 15,” “The Man Who Sold the World,” and “Boys Keep Swinging,” and adding Nomi and Arias gave Bowie street cred in the creative art scene. 

But just as it seemed Nomi’s star was on the rise, his health reportedly went into sharp decline. In the last few months of his life, he managed to release his second album “Simple Man” after “Klaus Nomi” in 1982, and he managed to and he appeared on Man Parrish’s 1982 album “Man Parrish” as a backup vocalist on the track “Six Simple Synthesizers.”

On “Simple Man,” Nomi sings, “Love is just a simple thought/ A little bit the worse for wear/ Like a thief who got caught.” And then continues with, “Hope is just a thing you bought/ It’s just another safe white lie/ That everybody got taught.” For a simple song, the lyrics peel back layers of complicated emotion that Nomi must have been hiding under his stage persona. He was human in the end and singing and performing was his passion. 

Known by now for his white makeup and eclectic Baroque-era outfits, Nomi reportedly began using fashion to cover the symptoms of his AIDS-related ailments. Nomi died at NYC’s Sloan Kettering Hospital Center on August 6, 1983, from AIDS complications, and he was reportedly one of th earliest known figures to die from the disease. 

Although Nomi was on the brink of commercial success when he died, but he had a cult following that has staying power to this day. In fact, the only contemporary artist that has ever come close to comparison is Lady Gaga, who named him as one of her influences.

In their America’s Got Talent audition, the glam opera post-punk band Timur and the Dime Museum covered Nomi’s “Total Eclipse.” Then this year, Timur and music technologist Matthew Setzer opened the musical “Klaus from Space” curated by Hoffman at O. Festival in Rotterdam. It’s an ode and a rehashing of an iconic performer whose influence on art and music was far from simple. 

Listen to “Simple Man” below. 

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