"The Nomi Song," director Andrew Horn's strange and fascinating documentary about the late New Wave singer and art object Klaus Nomi, gives off a rich whiff of the New York punk bohemia of the late 1970s and early '80s. There it all is: the skinny ties, the spazzy New Wave dancing, the packed little tables at Max's Kansas City. There's the bar at CBGB, and there's Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth and scene chronicler Lisa Robinson and Blondie's Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, all of them high and happy in some long-ago late-night revel. And then — it's still a jolt — there's Klaus Nomi, with his piercing falsetto, his warbly junk-pop arias, and his brittle, Martian-kabuki persona, floating forth through thick billows of stage fog as strobe lights erupt all around him. What on earth, you still wonder, after all these years, is that?
The movie doesn't answer this particular question. There doesn't seem to be an answer. "Klaus Nomi" was an entirely artificial construct put together by a lonely young German named Klaus Sperber. When it was complete, Sperber disappeared into it, and apparently never again emerged.
What "The Nomi Song" does provide is the pungent recollections of old colleagues, like the photographer Michael Halsband. ("People thought he was from another planet. He thought he was from another planet.") And there's the vivid context of rare club footage, some of it obviously pried out of personal archives. The picture the film pieces together is of a man isolated within the peculiarly hollow shell of trendy "avant-garde" fame, and so lonely he's reduced to prowling the Hudson River piers in search of sexual connection. (Klaus Nomi made the cover of Japanese "Vogue" while Klaus Sperber was servicing truck drivers in West Side parking lots.)
He had hoped for much more. He was a true, if untrained, countertenor — the upper range of his voice could hit your ears like an ice pick, but it could also be quite beautiful. He'd grown up enthralled by opera singers, especially the celebrated soprano Maria Callas, and back in Berlin he would offer up a cappella tributes to the great diva in local gay bars. In the mid-'70s, he moved to New York, and there worked the traditional assortment of dumb, grotty jobs while waiting for his time to come. Surprisingly, it did, sort of.
Klaus Nomi made his first significant club appearance, slotted in among a cast of kooky musicians, good-natured strippers and other downtown cut-ups, in a "New Wave Vaudeville Show" mounted by the singer and actress Ann Magnuson. Eventually he acquired a backup band, and astounded (or frightened) audiences wherever he appeared with his unwinking mixture of classical arias by Saint-Saëns and Purcell and less-exalted works by the likes of Donna Summer, Chubby Checker and Lou Christie. (His keening rendition of "Lightning Strikes" might have been his greatest hit, had he ever actually had one.) But with his pop-eyed stare and black-lipped pout and a wardrobe that ran to vinyl capes and ironic tuxedos with huge, mesa-like shoulders, Nomi had to seem like a one-note joke to most people — the ultimate novelty act.
Novel he certainly was, but not entirely extraterrestrial. His lipsticked-robot demeanor owed much to the German synth band Kraftwerk (and to "Cabaret"); and of course David Bowie had softened up the pop market for alien androgyny years before. In fact, at the end of 1979, Nomi got a call from Bowie, who'd been booked to play "Saturday Night Live." He wanted Nomi to appear with him and sing backup on three songs. Here it was: the big-time. Bowie, looking to reclaim the cutting edge he'd dulled during his soul-pop years, wore a dress, among other things. Nomi essentially came as he was. The show was a sensation, and Bowie said he'd stay in touch. As Nomi associate Man Parrish says in the film, though, "We never heard from him again."
The Bowie association didn't do as much for Nomi as he'd hoped. He finally scored a record deal, but it was with the French division of RCA. (His only two studio albums were released in 1982.) And he was still compelled to do rent-paying gigs. (Opening up for Twisted Sister at a concert in New Jersey was an especially humiliating one.) Meanwhile, his health was failing. His voice was losing its power, and he was growing strangely weak. He was in the hospital developing skin lesions when he heard the news about a new "gay cancer" that was both fatal and incurable. The disease was so new, and so terrifying, that most of his friends were afraid to go see him one last time. They never said goodbye.
"The party was over," says painter Kenny Scharf, looking back on those last, pre-AIDS days of freewheeling gay sex. Klaus Nomi was the first semi-well-known figure on the New York scene to make that awful exit. Really famous, like really happy, was something he never got to be.