A slightly abridged version of this interview was published here in English, and here in Portuguese...
I had the pleasure of seeing Lightning Strikes in Braga, Portugal in the gilded opulence of Teatro Circo - an ironic backdrop for a show which celebrated the less salubrious streets of forgotten downtown New York. It was, to be frank, an unashamedly show-bizzy celebration, Kristian doing his best Crocodile Rock moves, and Joey cutting a vampy figure with the requisite shimmying. Was it punk? Not at all. It was cabaret bathed in warmth. When they crashed into Bowie's "Oh! You Pretty Things" for an encore, it was a big old knees-up.
Later on that night and the next day I hung out with them and Joey's manager, Earl Dax, of NYC party "Pussy Faggot" fame. I was mentally back in New York, albeit in the chilly Galician north - the studied attention to self, the warmth and generosity of spirit I associate with NYC, and the heady self-obsession of the born performer.
These days I find myself retreating within for a variety of reasons; it was nice to be dragged kicking and screaming out my shell for a couple of days.
If like me you grew up in in the mire that was 70s or 80s England (albeit in my case in the pink-tinged environs of Brighton) and imagined great, gay things for yourself, then you had to have dreamed at some point of the streets paved with rat shit and glitter of New York City. Nostalgia is a powerful aphrodisiac, and NYC was a whiff of poppers on a sex-drenched dance floor. I did get there eventually, though by then the city of my fantasies was something else, still special, but the streets were anything but mean.
Those times have lost none of their fascination if the sheer outpouring of documentaries, articles and griping about the Disneyfication of Times Square are anything to go by. The few lucky enough to have made it out alive are like beacons of devastating light from a peculiarly free time that seems forever lost; their survival is the illumination of the many who didn’t make it and were swept away in its miseries. Joey Arias is one such survivor, who has gone on to have a career transcending yet still celebrating his raffish origins – most conspicuously a six-year stint as Mistress of Seduction for Cirque de Soleil’s Zumanity in Las Vegas. Klaus Nomi was however one of the era’s casualties, who seemed to have it all in his grasp only to see it abruptly snatched away. They were artists and performers, misfit toys and friends. We first saw them together in 1979 on Saturday Night Live, as robot-dancing backing singers for David Bowie – a mesmerizing testament to the seventies’ wilful cha-cha with the avant-garde if ever there was one. Klaus Nomi would have been 70 years young if he were still with us today. On his current European tour, Joey will be interpreting some of Klaus’ iconic songs alongside their composer Kristian Hoffman, at the Queer Contact Festival in Manchester (February 6) and the ICA (February 8 and 9) The show is called Lightning Strikes, a Nomi number that perfectly encapsulates the effect Klaus Sperber, one time pastry chef, had on an already bustling downtown scene. There was no one in remotely the same galaxy as him, and the recent documentary, The Nomi Song, illustrates our continued fascination with his burning singularity and talent. Kristian Hoffman himself was an integral, indeed a pioneering element of the No Wave New York music scene that made a hell of a racket for a very Warholian 15 minutes, and since continues to work in Los Angeles. I talked with both Joey and Kristian, about then and now.
My first question is – and excuse me for being so bold – but who is Joey Arias? Are you really Joey, or is this a persona you have adopted?
I can’t tell you. When the book comes out, maybe I’ll go there, maybe I won’t. I gotta keep some secrets.
Absolutely. From an early age, you knew you wanted to be in New York and landed quickly on your feet as soon as you got there.
I grew up in LA and was in a band – kind of Bowie meets weird meets Devo – and we even got signed by Capitol Records to release a couple of singles. But I struggled to get work as an actor; I was too bizarre looking. In New York I never told anybody about my past, I was this new person. I came there running, people were like: “Wow! Who is this?” and I was working in fashion at Fiorucci’s New York store (known as the “daytime Studio 54” for its mix of celebs and clubbers). My first week in New York I met Klaus, I met Debbie Harry, so many people. The Ramones. But Klaus at that time was Klaus Sperber, the baker and opera singer. He was this weird looking older man. He didn’t stick out very much. Only when the punk thing was happening, did he start discovering himself. Then it wasn’t till the New Wave Vaudeville Show that Klaus changed his name to Nomi. When he came out and sang his aria in a space suit, everyone was shocked.
Oh my God, it sounds like Maria Callas!
Kristian: That was the first time I ever saw him. Ann Magnuson (American performance legend in her own right) had apparently discovered Klaus singing on a snow bank in Union Square New York and invited him to be in the show. For a minute after it was over, there was this silence, followed by a standing ovation. The very next day, someone called up and said, “You should start a band with this guy!”
One thing Kristian that troubles me is how the bold artiness of late seventies/early eighties pop culture is these days presented as “kitsch”. Never before had queer bored into the mainstream to such dazzling effect, and hardly ever since. One statement I remember you making, Kristian, in the documentary film The Nomi Song, was how absolutely serious Klaus was about his art. For him, his operatic, outlandish persona was no gimmick.
There was a heavy dose of irony and camp in all we were doing but we all totally believed in ourselves. I considered myself a great songwriter at the time (Kristian first emerged in New York cult band, The Mumps before being instrumental in the No Wave scene alongside the likes of Lydia Lunch and The Contortions). It wasn’t so much that Klaus was being serious – he was advocating beauty, which people were afraid to do at the time. Punk was “hate everything.” Klaus said, “no, you can be this rebellious revolutionary or outsider, by creating the most beautiful noise ever heard in the world.”
Klaus believed he was going to be a superstar. Certainly people were telling him as much.
Once I became, I guess, his musical director – though I didn’t even know the word at the time – writing and arranging the songs with the exception of his classical numbers, and he brought in his friends from Fiorucci, like Joey Arias (also Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, John Sex, Kenny Scharf) to be his backing dancers, it got popular astonishingly quickly. Suddenly we were on the six o’clock news and it went to everyone’s head. We had all watched Blondie, and Talking Heads. We all wanted to share that dream as things took off. At first most of us only wanted to meet Andy Warhol. We ended up meeting each other.
Before long Klaus and Joey were David Bowie’s dancers on a particularly memorable Saturday Night Live performance (part of which is in The Nomi Song in all its glory).
Joey: We had about 10 shows under our belt, and we were at the Mudd Club one night about to leave, and someone said, “Aren’t you going to say goodbye to David”. And we said, “What?!”
After the giddy rush of the late seventies scene, there was no reason to believe the 80s would be any different, only better. And then certain things started to happen.
Joey: Yes, we began to hear about this gay cancer going around, or something. Klaus left for two months to Europe, to do this tour. When he came back around Christmas time, he showed up at a house party looking like he had lost about 80 pounds, clothes just hanging on him. He could barely walk. In the bathroom with a friend we just started crying. “Something’s up, something’s up.” When Klaus went into hospital, he was under plastic and you had to wear a mask and a body suit. He had lesions on his body, but I just took everything off to massage him The doctors looked at me in horror. I said to Klaus, “I don’t care.” Klaus was crying, it was really sad.
He was one of the first celebrities to pass away, in 1983.
Kristian: There were people braver than I was, who went and visited Klaus all the time. I didn’t do that. I was scared. Klaus was scared too. It was this epidemic that just came out of nowhere, and people were saying the gays deserved it. I’ve decided to move on. That’s not the Klaus I choose to remember. There is something about Klaus that supersedes the tragic arc of this very involving story. The reason we’re doing this tour, whatever happened to him through illness, is because what he did intend is still living on.
Joey, I’d like to talk about your personal icons.
Klaus was not an icon, he was my friend. My sister, my brother. David Bowie, Billie Holiday… Bettie Page. I love women of the forties.
Are you a creature –
I am a creature.
- of the blues?
No, I’m a creature of the jazz. The way you live your life, the way you move, explore and do things.
‘Queer’ has suddenly gained relevance as a byword for a certain kind of artistic expression. It seems almost everyone in the world of performance claims to be queer.
I see ‘queer’ as a word from a different era. That was the word we used in the sixties. It’s an old-fashioned term. I don’t use it in any of my shows. My director Manfred Thierry Mugler (one-time fashion designer of legend) told me: “All you have to do, is be you. Walk on stage, give no more, give no less.” That’s your queer. That’s your alien. That’s your past and that’s your future.
I find it very intriguing. Audiences perhaps expect slapstick from their genderbenders, and shock value. You are an elegant presence on the stage.
I was called by a dear, dear friend, “You are classy, and classic. With a little bit of trash thrown in.” There’s nothing phony about me. This shit is real. I never liked drag, I hated it. I couldn’t bring myself to go to drag bars. Then one day I had to dress up for an Andy Warhol Halloween party in drag. I went as a kind of Russ Meyer super vixen and everyone screamed, “Oh my God, I love it!”
Drag has thrown up a new bunch of kids confounding expectations of what it should be. There’s Bushwig in Brooklyn, for example. And you are involved in Earl Dax’s New York Pussy Faggot party.
I’ve never really liked going back and looking at the past. I’m really excited to see some new artists coming out, new faces. But a lot of them are lost; it’s a whole new world out there, with computers and technology. Pussy Faggot is a celebration of the low-down and dark, the bizarre. New York, if you squeeze it, there’ll always be these little lumps that pop up between your fingers. Unfortunately, those little lumps are smaller now.
Kristian: Before the internet you actually had to go out your house and meet people back then. You kind of had to earn your discovery. In New York it created this crazy petri dish – everyone wanted to be an eccentric and that’s why they moved there. It made it very magical how these people could create a scene out of nothing, if only because the city was bankrupt. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to afford to go there.
Joey: And then I just got married, to a Scottish man!
Whoa, where did that come from?
His name is Juano Diaz. Wait a minute, Juano Diaz? That’s not Scottish! That’s a story in itself.
It’s not Scottish at all!
He’s an amazing artist. A writer. I see the new world in him.
Is it nice to be a married man?
A married creature. We actually got married on Klaus Nomi’s birthday. We didn’t think about it, it just happened that way.
And now you are celebrating Klaus’ life through this show.
Klaus was an opera singer, I’m a jazz singer. It’s a challenge, but it’s pretty amazing. I get there (Joey proceeds to let out an extremely high-pitched note. He gets there.) It’s a demanding show, one time on the west coast I just turned to Kristian on stage and said, “No wonder Klaus died.” The audience went quiet and Kristian just laughed.