Three decades after his death, the talented and influential performer Klaus Nomi remains enigmatic, haunting Visual AIDS guest writer, Andrew Durbin.
Doesn’t David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” which supposes a “world” not so crippled with the overhead cost of its atrocities that it has a going price, suggest a deeper economic mystery of the buyer than the seller? What would ownership of the last thing (the whole thing) not for sale entail? David Bowie doesn’t seem to know: the speaker of his song ends up confusing himself for the seller (not the buyer) and loses track of the exchange entirely: “I thought you died alone,” he wonders aloud at the opening of the song; “I must have died alone,” he concludes later. The man who bought the world remains, in the end, the invisible Third Man who purchased the control the singer and the seller claim they never lost—or sold. But isn’t one history of economics a history of swindles? Of course, you lost control. The question is: to whom did you lose it?
Klaus Nomi died alone, thirty years ago this month, in the breathless, late summer days of “gay cancer” at Sloan Kettering on the Upper West Side. He died long before I arrived in New York, but his absence feels like that of a friend’s. Like Bowie’s loner on the stair, I’ve passed him more than once at a party, on the block, at an opening, at a concert. I don’t want to pay false homage with flimsy mystical feeling—I don’t “see” him in others, I actually see him out of the corner of my eye, just over the edge of a crowd, in the back the train. My sense of his belonging to this city structures, and encourages, the way I live in it. I see him like I sometimes see Frank O’Hara or Arthur Russell, two other queer artists whose original incandescence flamed out prematurely. I can’t stand that they gone, but they are.
When David Bowie played “The Man Who Sold the World” for his 1979 Saturday Night Live performance and sang “I thought you died a long, long time ago,” Klaus Nomi sang back, “Oh no, not me.” It was the first and only time they shared a stage, having met only a few weeks before. Generously, Bowie offered Nomi and his friend Joey Arias a spot on the SNL stage, where Nomi’s deep space warble induced vertigo in its siren-like call. (It consistently overpowers David Bowie.) It’s a stunning performance. This moment was supposed to be the one in which Nomi’s star would climb over the larger U.S., not just New York’s downtown scene, and install itself next to Bowie’s. That never happened, but the show did allow Nomi to finalize an image of himself as the black and white extraterrestrial from Planet Europa—here and not here at all. “It was like New York was standing still,” Joey Arias later wrote of the career-making performance. And with it, the world must have stood still, too. Klaatu and Gort had arrived in the capitol; Nomi and Bowie were on TV.
Looking at the footage, Bowie’s immobile; Tristan Tzara-inspired Dada suit looks a lot like Gort’s humanoid robot frame. During the performance he had to be animated (literally carried across stage) by Nomi and Arias. It’s an odd, striking look that conceals much of Bowie’s angular, dance-y appeal. Attracted to the suit’s obscuring quality, Nomi adapted the outfit into the large, geometric suit and bowtie that became his iconic look, becoming the Tzara-Bowie-Klaatu of New York underground pop.
After Saturday Night Live, the earth began to spin again. There wasn’t a spot in the broader template of pre-MTV 80s pop for Nomi (if there was, he never found it—despite his rigorous, cross-continental campaign to do so), but this decade has retroactively created it for him. His cosmic paucity has made its way into the various image banks of recent couture, from Givenchy and Paco Rabanne and Hugo Boss to the Lady Gaga of the 2010’s “Telephone” video. Nomi has been a regular character on the late night cartoon The Venture Brothers. And the (admittedly weak) Nomi Song, one of a recent slew of documentaries that rediscover “lost” musicians, repositioned Nomi as the legendary downtown performer he was. Not quite a pop musician, not quite a performance artist, Nomi occupied a hybridized, queer place between media that, while certainly not unfamiliar to the art of the 1970s and 80s, seems far more at home among artists today like Ryan Trecartin and Peggy Noland, who have metastasized their visual eccentricities across multiple social and aesthetic platforms. Children of Bowie as we are, Nomi was the first—a name that both implies its negation and an exhortation to understand it, no me/know me, Klaus Nomi’s rhizomatic identity crisis is hardly alien.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the famously curtailed trajectory of Nomi’s career nor do I want to buy too much into the alien self-branding, though I think both significantly structured his work. As with any artist, we want to know how he smelled, tasted, fucked—Nomi, whose distance between him and us was so palpable, most of all. (At least I do.) Did he ever break a sweat? What did he smell like? An avid baker, he must have smelled faintly of the kitchen and cigarette smoke, perfumed just enough to mute the sour air of the Village in summer. In Nomi Song, I remember best the moment where a friend says that everyone thought Nomi was asexual until they realized he had been going down to the West Side piers to get fucked at night by the dock boys. For me, this is the wonderful moment where Nomi falls back to the level of the rest of us, even if fucking and getting fucked, the thing that would have brought Nomi closest to us, was also the thing he kept most secret—until its consequences, which neither he nor his doctors fully understood, began to define his public life.
Nomi breathed. One of his most famous performances was also his last. Overcome with Karposi Sarcoma, Nomi adopted a Baroque-style uniform that covered his body and neck for his final performances, the last of which placed him at Eberhard Schoener’s Classic Rock Night in Munich in 1982. Joined by a full orchestra, Nomi performed Purcell’s aria of the Cold Genius from King Arthur, an aria that Nomi struggles to maintain in its tremendously difficult but requisite vocal control. “I can scarcely move or draw my breath,” the cold genius sings, and Nomi stumbles back. “Let me, let me, let me freeze again to death.” In Purcell’s opera, Osmond conjures up this Genius in a masque to win over Emmeline. In it Cupid, forces the Cold Genius to admit love’s power. Relenting, the Genius acknowledges love’s power, then returns to sleep. I don’t think I need to disambiguate the poignancy of the moment.
In an interview with the BBC fifteen years after Nomi died, David Bowie said of the song, “I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for.” Whatever David Bowie saw in Nomi, perhaps the part he was looking for, he chose not to pursue it. They never performed together again and though (I believe) they remained on good terms, Nomi fell back to the periphery of Bowie’s ever-widening circle. Eventually they lost touch. I don’t know if it crushed Nomi, but it didn’t deter him. His work got better. Though his second album was weaker than his first, the fragments we have of a third suggest a new direction, leveraged by a less-lyrical, more-ambient focus on the possibilities of Nomi’s voice.
There was this moment for me outside of Anthology Film Archive a few summers ago when I was crying in the street. I was in the final hours of breaking up with a boyfriend and I had confused my anger at his casual disregard for my feelings with loss. Leaning against the brick wall that faces Second Avenue, a Nomian boy from Mexico City—a musician, he later told me, with long black hair and black pants and a black t-shirt—came up to me and asked what was wrong. I explained the situation to him and he instantly gave me the most rigid, loving hug I’d ever received. He smiled with the same spacey charm as Klaus Nomi smiled and we went to a big, hallucinatory party together in an empty loft in SoHo. In the boozy dreaminess of the party, with its wall-to-wall body count and basement rave/skate park, all encased in a thick cloud of cigarette smoke, I did “see” Nomi in the flimsy, mystical sense of seeing. In my drunk moodiness, I saw Nomi’s dashed, breathless discomfort with the world that made him its most disciplined subject in this boy who did spooky lounge shows uptown and liked to talk to plants. The dream to transcend is so common most people ignore it. We danced until the cops came, after which he disappeared. I looked for him (he didn’t have a cellphone, so I couldn’t call him) for half an hour, but I couldn’t find him anywhere in the streets. I gave up and walked home to my windowless shoebox in Bushwick—too broke to cab or take the subway home. I suppose that is our condition as Nomi’s fans (as it was the condition of his friends and lovers): endless pursuit.
Andrew Durbin co-edits Wonder, an open-source publishing and events platform for poetry and new media art. He is the author of Reveler (Argos Books 2012) and The Standard (Insert Blanc Press 2014). He curates the Queer Division reading series at the Bureau of General Services--Queer Division on the Lower East Side, and lives in New York.