He Came From Outer Space to Save the Human Race


The freak shall inherit the earth.

Dear Mr Nomi,

We’ve never met, and your ashes have long since been scattered above Manhattan, so I guess it’s pretty weird for me to be writing you this letter. Then again, everyone always says you seemed to hail from another planet. Let’s pretend for a minute that you didn’t die alone in a hospital bed in 1983. It’s comforting to imagine that you simply returned to your home world and maybe, somehow, you can read this.

If you were still here, you’d be 64 years young today. No doubt your friends would be gathered around you at the piano to sing Kurt Weill and Chubby Checkers tunes. Perhaps you’d share some of your delicious homemade pastries with them and spend hours reminiscing about those hazy, crazy post-punk days in NYC.


Ruff and ready.

I wish I could fold time and space to sit in the balcony at Irving Plaza the night your brief, bright star ascended during a four night New Wave Vaudeville series. It was 1978. Up until then, you’d been supporting yourself as a pastry chef for well-to-do Hamptons types. They say that you emerged from the fog machine vapors like an alien from another planet, stiff and somber in a silver space suit and clear vinyl cape. My old friend Jim Sclavunos was there, manning the spotlight. He once told me that when you opened your Clara Bow mouth and sang, no one believed it was really you. The MC had to keep assuring the audience that you were not lip-syncing…

The elasticity and strength of your voice was remarkable: you’d sing verses in a reedy baritone, then leap two octaves up to hit high soprano notes on the chorus. Countertenors may be in vogue these days, but back then, kids had never heard anything like it.

Certainly, nobody had ever seen anyone like you before: your angular pixie face framed by that heavily lacquered balding Kewpie doll ‘do, exclamatory plucked eyebrows, kabuki makeup always immaculately applied whether you were onstage or going ’round the corner for a carton of milk. The sculptural costumes you designed for yourself borrowed as much from German Expressionism as from The Day The Earth Stood Still. You were unabashedly flamboyant onstage, gentle and soft spoken in person.


The schtick is comically absurd, yet your blissed out, impenitent approach is incredibly moving. It stands in direct defiance of the pervading apathy and nihilism of everything around you. As you friend Kristian Hoffman put it:

His vision was naive, quaint, almost foolish, but forceful in its purity and innocence. Even at his most wildly ridiculous (Lightning Strikes) or quaveringly sublime (Purcell’s Death) there was an acknowledgment of impending apocalypse that lent [him] conviction. For Klaus, apocalypse was metaphor for purification, and as the oddball optimist surrounded by cynical detachment an resignation, he dared to believe in a better world.

In that febrile, pre-MTV magic hour you enjoyed a rabid cult following in New York and overseas, gathering a revolving “Nomi family” of fellow misfits around you (including Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and even a young lady named Madonna Louise Ciccone). David Bowie found out you had mutual friends from Berlin and asked you and your partner in crime, Joey Arias, to perform with him on SNL. You signed a record deal, cut an eclectic album of pop and opera songs, made several delightfully ridiculous music videos, appeared in Urgh! A Music War, and toured Europe to great success. You truly seemed poised to take over the world.

Then, quite suddenly, your career ended. You’d grown frighteningly thin almost overnight, complaining of exhaustion and recurrent flu. One morning in early 1983, you collapsed and were rushed to the hospital. Your immune system was shot. Doctors found a rare form of skin cancer breaking out all over your body. The condition was not yet known as AIDS.

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From that time onward, you sat quietly in your lower Manhattan apartment, perusing videos and photos of yourself. “Look at this, this is what I did,” you said to Joey Arias. “Now it’s all gone.” Medications could not heal you. Homeopathic remedies didn’t help, either. That summer you returned to the hospital to receive 24 hour care. You were one of the first celebrities to succumb to the 21st century plague. So little was known about the disease at this point in time, your friends were too afraid to come and visit you. They thought you might be contagious.

You were completely alone when you died.

It’s difficult to listen to your rendition of the “Cold Song” by Purcell (a similarly ill-fated musician who died far too young), even more upsetting to watch this film of your live Munich performance from late 1982. You were already very frail. At times it’s hard to tell if you’re struggling with breath control or merely playing your role as the doomed, panting King Arthur to the hilt. In any case, you gave it your all, belting out “I can scarcely move or draw my breath. Let me, let me, let me freeze again to death.”

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I miss you. Isn’t that strange? Obviously, I never knew you. I was barely sentient when you left this plane of existence! But from the moment I discovered your LP Simple Man in a grimy bin at Lou’s Records years ago and played “After the Fall”, I have adored you for being brilliant and funny and tender-hearted and just… so freakin’ unapologetically odd. You’re my hero.

I wish you were still here so I could throw huge bouquets of hothouse blackberry lilies at your feet during encores, or serenade you with theremin, or maybe just stalk down a more reliable address to send this letter to. I wish that people as unique, talented, joyful and unclassifiable as you weren’t so few and far between, and I know I’m not alone in that.

More than anything, I wish you could still close your eyes and make a wish of your own before blowing out the candles.

Happy birthday, Klaus Nomi.

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Well I told you about the total eclipse now
but still it caught you unaware
But I’m telling you hold on, hold on
Tomorrow we’ll be there
And even though you went to church upon Sunday
you thought you didn’t even have a prayer
But I’m telling you hold on, hold on
Tomorrow we’ll be there

After the fall we’ll be born, born, born again
after it all blows away
after the fall, after the fall
after it all blows away

We’ll take a million years of civilization
We’re gonna give it the electric chair
But I’m telling you hold on, hold on
Tomorrow we’ll be there

I see a hundred million lonely mutants
they are glowing in their dark despair
But I’m telling you hold on, hold on
Tomorrow we’ll be there

Well the freak shall inherit the earth now
No matter how well done or rare
But I’m telling you hold on, hold on
Tomorrow we’ll be there
We’ll build our radioactive castles
out in the radioactive air
And I’m telling you hold on, hold on
Tomorrow we’ll be there

  • official Nomi Song website
  • Psychotica’s fantastic tribute page
  • Klaus Nomi’s recipe for lime tart
  • Nomi w/Bowie and Iggy in an episode of Venture Bros (Bless you, “Doc” and “Jackson”. I miss you guys, too.)
  • 39 Responses to “He Came From Outer Space to Save the Human Race”

    1. BettieRage Says:

      Wow Mer, that made me really happy and a little sad.
      Lovely.
      I too love Klaus Nomi.

    2. Zoetica Says:

      What an beautiful, heartfelt and informed article. Hats off, Mer.

      And happy birthday, Klaus. Perhaps I should try to make that lemon tart.

    3. gooby Says:

      Stop making me cry so early in the morning! Mer, you are seriously on a roll, YOU are my hero!

      @ Zoe: mmmmm… lemon tart….

    4. Milly von Hilly Says:

      *co-signs letter, and queues up ‘Der Nussbaum’*

    5. chaoflux Says:

      agreed

    6. Nadya Says:

      I woke up this morning and this was the first thing I read and I lay in bed for a long time reflecting on his story. It just gave me chills… especially imagining him there, in his apartment, looking at photos of himself, saying “this is what I did.” I wonder what kind of projects he would’ve made, who he would’ve collaborated with. He will always be a mystery.

    7. Ben Morris Says:

      The Venture Bros link didn’t seem to have an image of the animated incarnation of Klaus so I took a screen capture of him for anyone who hasn’t seen the episode.

    8. Skerror Says:

      Yes, thanks Mer…very nice article!

      I just watched “Nomi Song” a couple weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about what someone would have to do to achieve that Nomi-esque overpowering strangeness in today’s world. There are so many oddballs now and everything seems so easily marginalized…what would this generation’s Nomi be like?

      Maybe if Princest Coldheart had a live music show???

    9. chaoflux Says:

      @Skerror

      I think whats happened is that the strange has become somewhat commonplace, so those who are neophiles usually end up seeking out outsider art and music. When people are cogniscent of how weird and original they are, I suppose it tends to come out ersatz.

      Nomi although knew exactly how weird his character was, and how unique his voice was to the public. I feel that this ruined his chances of going even deeper down into unknown realms. Most of the instrumentation to his tracks seem out of place and forced into a pop music aesthetic, meanwhile his greatest works I feel are those in which he was truest to his form, “Cold Song” being my favorite.

      He got over-anxious to cash himself in, at no matter what the cost. I also am pained by his story knowing that he became one those lonesome guys who only really got affection at sleazy cruise joints, in a sense, his loneliness is what killed him, and that he didn’t seek to reach even higher than he did.

      Nomi is the story of a tragic mutant, this is much of why I feel for him so deeply. He was so very lonely, well before dying utterly alone.

      I’d like to think that in our age of networking, these things are less likely to happen. Encourage every weirdo you know to go off the deep-end, rather than wallow in a reality of half-fulfilling affections, to find those on the other side.

      *le sigh!*

    10. Mer Says:

      Thanks, guys. Not too schmalzy? Fuggit. I don’t care if it is! HAIL HERR KLAUS.

      Ben, thanks so much for that still. It was about 4am by the time I finished the post, and I was falling asleep at my keyboard, so I just grabbed the most comprehensive link I could find. It’s been great to watch the VB become so popular. One of its creators and his genius wife are very dear to me. We met when I first arrived in NY ten years ago, and I heard a lot of those jokes (or ones similar) while hanging out in their tiny East Village apartment, swapping books about the occult and watching obscure movies. I really do miss those days.

      Skerror… that’s an awesome pontification. :D I think there are still some pretty extreme oddballs out there. Obviously they’re nothing like Klaus, but we are still being visted somewhat regularly from weirdos from other galaxies. I think Baby Dee is a pretty great candidate for the Beautiful Earnest NYC Oddball Award. Then there’s Genesis P, still alive and kicking and actively reinventing himself all these years later. Pamelia Kurstin, the roller-skating, chain-smoking theremin virtuosa is pretty goddamn incredible… I dunno. I love me some Joanna Newsom. Fiercely. A lot of folks don’t. But where they seem to find pretention or over-reaching, I find sincerity and articulate, believable brilliance. I guess it’s all relative…

      Anyway, I think we have to believe that no matter how crammed this increasingly loud, infantile world gets with tapdancing, Warholian trucker hat-wearing, wooden bracelet-clacking choads shrieking “LOOKIT ME MA, AH GOTS GLITTER IN MAH BEARD” there will always be authentically, endearingly strange and visionary people hanging back off the beaten path. It’s often the quiet ones. Not always. But often. :)

      It’s also interesting to see Klaus’ influence on modern performers like Armen Ra (speaking of thereminists) and the Dresden Dolls (I know Amanda in particular loves Klaus… or basically anything else influenced by Weimar Berlin). And since the amazing documentary film came out, I’ve seen a bunch of Nomi costumes on Halloween. Makes me smile.

    11. Mer Says:

      He got over-anxious to cash himself in, at no matter what the cost. I also am pained by his story knowing that he became one those lonesome guys who only really got affection at sleazy cruise joints, in a sense, his loneliness is what killed him, and that he didn’t seek to reach even higher than he did.

      Chaoflux, I know what you mean. But I think context is very important here. I prefer to appreciate him for exactly what he was and what he accomplished, than judge him for singing those pop songs as well as arias, or for “what could have been” if he hadn’t had lonely gay sex down at the docks in an era where all you had to do if you caught something was get a shot of pennicillin. I mean, really, that’s the only thing that ruined his chances.

      Sure, he craved half-fulfilling affections (like basically almost everyone I’ve ever met who gets gussied up and performs in front of audiences), but he was literally just getting started when he died, you know? And there wasn’t really an avante garde audience yet clamoring for countertenors back then.

      Also, I don’t think those pop tracks are shallow or forced, really. Hearing him sing “You Don’t Own Me” with passion and menace (and without changing the lyrics to the “proper” gender) actually seems more relevant to me than some of his interpetations of classical fare.

      As you know, this man was quite “over the hill” by gay AND celebrity standards when began performing regularly. He had worked all his life as a servant or an usher or (at his most lucrative) as a pet chef for hipster millionaires. There are all these stories about him standing on piles of garbage, or in dingy little kitchenettes, singing for the pure joy of it. He and all of his chums were basically “in the gutter looking at the stars”.

      Some of these friends have flat out admitted that they never initially imagined he’d “go anywhere” with his singing. I have a feeling that much of the in-fighting alluded to by them in interviews came from being in that dismissive enviornment, being talked down to. Oh, the ridiculous backbiting that occurs among even the closest of friends in NYC! It’s an especially dismissive and brutal place to live if you want to make art, particularly on a potato famine diet. The competition is fierce and ugly, and things moves SO fast. There’s this aura of desperation and cannibalism in that city’s indie music community that I’ve never sensed anywhere else, not London or LA or Chicago or Paris. Once the uncertainty gets its claws into you, it’s nigh-impossible to keep a healthy sense of your own worth there.

      Being steeped in that, having had no real conviction that he would be taken seriously, and yes, craving fame as only a lonely, downtrodden outsider can crave it, I don’t blame him one bit for grabbing that brass ring and letting it pull him out of there. The really big stuff basically happened for him over the course of two years, that’s an eye blink! Then he was gone before he could really begin. He was really just getting started.

      Nomi may have known his uniqueness, but I don’t think he necessarily knew his own power at all. I don’t doubt that had he lived to see the rise of interest in avante opera and experimental vocal music, his outlook would have changed, deepened, and he would have made more complex and innovative music.

      All things considered, I actually think he reached VERY high.

    12. chaoflux Says:

      @Mer

      Y’know I think you are right. Thanks for the extra slice of insight onto the man and the situation.

      I think in a way I’m just projecting my own fears as guy in lipstick.

      Also, I’m glad I got off the east coast. ^_^;

    13. Mer Says:

      Heh.
      You and me both, sugar. As you might have guessed from that essay I just wrote you, I barely got out alive. :)

    14. Skerror Says:

      “but he was literally just getting started when he died, you know?”…and I totally agree with you that he didn’t know his own power. I think if he had had a little more time to reinvent himself, we might have seen something really extraordinary. I think what makes him different from the other oddballs is that he seemed to be making inroads at the status quo. He might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but he wasn’t offensive to anyone, he had undeniable singing skills, and his imagination was truly fleshed-out into the real world. The normal reaction to Nomi seemed to start at puzzlement…but then it would move into joy. His was also a time when a single artist could really take the world by storm. He might have ushered in a whole new era of weirdness…like a new tsunami instead of just a new wave.

      Genesis P. for example is too antagonistic to make these kinds of inroads. By every account I’ve ever heard he’s a kind man to the core, but when he’s got metal teeth, d-cups, and psychedelic crucifixions n’ shit going on…people stop feeling safe. Yeah I like Joanna Newsom too…but she doesn’t seem to have the same thirst for theatrics that Nomi had. I was thinking Diamanda Galas might be pretty close, but she kind of goes into banshee demoness territory too much…which is also why she’s great :)

      So mostly the outsiders end up just being appreciated by us “insiders” and neophiles like you say chaoflux. Given a little more time, Nomi might have been able to be the friendly outsider…baking tarts for people and showing that we’re not so dangerous ;)

    15. Tequila Says:

      Beautifully written…I found myself reading this over quite a few times today. Whatever the reality is behind the man his impact is quite clearly what matters…to inspire those even after you’re gone is really the eternal power of art and artists. Reading all this made me a bit sad but I smiled at the end none the less…cause really we all have no control how we’ll be remembered so to have generations inspired still by the work left behind is pretty incredible.

      It’s rare to find anyone who still sees hope in this world…about anything.

      @Mer…”I love me some Joanna Newsom. Fiercely. A lot of folks don’t. But where they seem to find pretention or over-reaching, I find sincerity and articulate, believable brilliance. I guess it’s all relative…”

      Those who dislike her I dismiss as not having a sense of humor. I’ve seen her perform a handful of times and it’s hard not to fall in love with her. I dragged a friend of mine to the performance she gave at the Walt Disney Concert Hall last year and by the end…my friend was a fan. I can see why some would see her as pretentious…but the woman is so delightfully joyful on stage she’s really in a class all her own at the moment.

    16. Ben Morris Says:

      Mer: That episode of Venture Bros is responsible for my knowing who Klaus is. I had seen video of him singing years before and been intrigued, but I didn’t get a chance at that time to find out who he was. Fast forward several years and I see the ‘Showdown at Cremation Creek’ episode of VB I immediately went to googling and quickly discovered his name and further explored his art.

      Tequila & Mer: Seeing Joanna Newsom w/ the Atlanta Symphony a couple months back is one of my all time favorite concerts. In the intermission I overheard an elderly woman in front of me discussing the show, she had never heard of Joanna before and had only come because she had season tickets to the symphony. She was explaining with great enthusiasm to the person sitting beside her how much she was captivated by Joanna Newsom and her music.

    17. Jessica Says:

      Dammit, you made me cry too. Oh how I love him! That was beautiful. Thank you Mer!

    18. miscellanea Says:

      What a beautiful tribute; thank you so much for sharing. This article is what draws me to the work everyone does here at coilhouse: in an age when so much of the internet is “omg look at this freaky link,” you have created a place of thoughtful dialogue. Thank you many times over.

    19. andrew Says:

      this was a beautiful letter. thanks for sharing it with the rest of us. i moved to ny shortly after nomi quit playing. and always wished i had caught at least one show.

    20. el Says:

      Mer: “Pamelia Kurstin, the roller-skating, chain-smoking theremin virtuosa is pretty goddamn incredible…”
      I completely agree, though since her relocation, now i suppose she’s a candidate for the Beautiful Earnest Vienna Oddball Award..

    21. ampersandpilcrow Says:

      I also first found out about Nomi in the Venture Bros. episode, though a friend quickly filled me in on the basics (incredible voice, unique style, died tragically).

      Because of this poignant, revealing piece I have a much greater interest and understanding now (the performance of Cold Song alone was devastating). I’m going to have to find some more of his stuff.

      Thank you.

      P.S. — Between this and “Withnail and I,” that’s two amazing things this site has introduced me to in the last week. Thanks, Coilhouse!

    22. Glossolalia Black Says:

      I think I was introduced to Klaus via the old >URGH! A Music War album that my first girlfriend Rachel owned. It was one of the more astounding entries.

    23. Icarus Says:

      Wow, Mer.

      I’d never heard of Klaus Nomi until now, reading your article. You made his life sound so beautiful and his death sound do tragic (but when is death ever NOT tragic). I done some more research into him and he really was a true original. It seems he held an anomalous position in his industry.

      In the second youtube clip, I love how he sings ‘You don’t own me, don’t say that I can’t play with other boys!’ and so passively shoots the toy gun. =]

      I thank you for introducing me to him.

    24. Mer Says:

      Icarus, you’re so welcome! Thanks for reading. And thanks to all of you for commenting.

    25. Jamie Says:

      That final video is so moving… there’s almost a challenge in his eyes as he sings the final word. Somehow I missed this post back when it was made, so a late thank you!

    26. Krystal Says:

      I love Klaus. That was wonderful, and I enjoyed seeing some images of him that I had not previously seen.

      <3

    27. Koldo Barroso Says:

      Thanks for posting this wonderful “letter”. Klaus Nomi was so unique. I just can’t forget about how sad was to hear about his dead in the 80′s. I think it was the first time I ever heard of AIDS.
      It’s very important that his memory doesn’t get lost and you did a great job here!

    28. BlueAnchorNatasha Says:

      Ive never heard of him before, but his voice reaminds me a bit of Vitas.

    29. Mer Says:

      Yep… Vitas sure can hit those high notes. But he ain’t got nothin’ on Klaus. :)

    30. Zoetica Says:

      Having seen Vitas live [he came to LA a couple of years back] I would like to add that on the off chance he is actually physically hitting those notes, he ain’t keeping them high in any natural way. There was a LOT of tech-wizardry going on at the show, sadly.

    31. April Says:

      that was awesome. brought tears to my eyes, and a smile to my face. Happy Birthday Klaus.

    32. R Says:

      Very well written.

      I was one of the fortunate ones who had the opportunity to meet and get to know Klaus, and to see him perform on several occasions.

      I am always delighted to see that he and his contributions have not been forgotten.

    33. Klaudia Nomi Says:

      Speechless, I am simply speechless.

    34. Ian Says:

      I found that incredibly, deeply moving. Much like Klaus himself.

    35. Caleidh Says:

      I LOVE Klaus Nomi <3 Great letter it was touching!!

    36. Watch This: The Nomi Song Says:

      [...] can watch this unique documentary over at SnagFilms for free. The beautiful tribute to Klaus Nomi by Meredith Yayanos over at Coilhouse (which you should bookmark immediately, and also go buy their [...]

    37. Viktor Says:

      This brought a large amount of sadness up in my heart. I cant believe its been so long and here we are still, just as amazed by this wonderful work of art of a man. (as we should be) he was a huge inspiration to me when i was young, and still is to this day. He reminds me to above all else, be myself. no matter how odd, questionable, awkward and unsettling that may be.

    38. Wolfgang Nomi Says:

      I am a performance artiste here in Baltimore, MD and perform Klaus Nomi tributes in shows…. here is one performance of which I am very proud: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePB6iFUxiMI

    39. ge Says:

      Nicely-put ruv retter to Klaus!
      We were neighbors & collaborators in the Apple.
      Page Wood and I resurrected and released the fleshed-out
      bones of ‘Za Bakdaz’ [the unfinished opera] a few years back, which listeners seem to love or loathe …but most agree this selection = a timeless NomiTune:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Mx_mv6o1Uk

      G. [ICUROK, 3 WISHES] Elliott