You might expect an album of Klaus Nomi material to sound like Klaus Nomi, but Man Parrish’s Dear Klaus Nomiisn’t that. Instead, the New York producer has added highly technical musical accompaniments to archival recordings of the cult figure’s songs to give them fresh sounds and feelings. The result is a love letter from one openly homosexual musician who survived the AIDS epidemic of the 80s to one who did not. Man Parrish met Nomi—a German-born vocalist who trained as an opera singer and cut his teeth on avant-garde vaudeville and performance art—while the former was a gay runaway circulating in the New York downtown club scene of the late 1970s (the same one that birthed artists such as Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, and Jean-Michel Basquiat).
Nomi inspired Parrish to pursue electronic music, and in 1982, Parrish provided the soundtrack for a gay porno. Shortly after the film came out, he discovered his beats being appropriated by club DJs, and the unexpected success of those songs prompted him to release his self-titled debut later that year (Nomi contributed vocals to the track “Six Simple Synthesizers”). Parrish has since been recognized as an early innovator in hip-hop, and he’s enjoyed a long and storied career as an unapologetically homosexual electronic artist and producer. Among his best-known tracks is the frenetic, pulsating “Male Stripper.”
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While Parrish and Nomi were cut from the same cloth in many ways, their music and personas stand in stark contrast. Nomi first pinged the pop-cultural radar when he and close confidante Joey Arias appeared as backup singers to David Bowie during the Starman’s 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live. One of Bowie’s costumes on the show inspired what became Nomi’s signature look: a black triangular tuxedo that gave Nomi a comically hypermasculine torso, paired with form-fitting pants that highlighted his lithe, elegant legs. Nomi also wore pouty black lipstick and drawn-on eyebrows, and he sang in the countertenor register (equivalent to a “female” contralto or mezzo-soprano).
Nomi’s career sped up after his SNL cameo. Record companies were excited by the beautiful, seemingly asexual alien with a sad heart, but they struggled to market his work—there just wasn’t a category for his mix of operatic vocals, new-wave synthesizers, and electric guitar, presented with theatrical elements and effete BDSM. Many fans understood the robust queerness of the way he visually and audibly played with gender and sexuality, but he was never publicly coded as the “threatening” kind of homosexual (the way Man Parrish was), in part because his music and stage show were softer and not especially about sex. When Nomi died of AIDS-related complications in 1983—one of the first high-profile deaths in New York in the early days of the epidemic—he’d released only two records. Music so-and-sos had been expecting his third to be his Ziggy Stardust.
Dear Klaus Nomi is not an imagining of Nomi’s second act; it’s a merging of histories. The record is lush and energetic in a way that Nomi’s output isn’t—it’s a true headphones album, with its engrossing depth of sound and its tones that seem to shift through 360 degrees. It owes as much to modern recording technology as it does to modern electronic-music theory, and its levity and aggression feel truer to Man Parrish’s work than to Nomi’s. It’s not only designed to inspire a certain groove, but it also reflects a future Nomi never got to see. If you let go of your expectations, you might find something profound and beautiful about that—even though many Nomi fans still might want something else. Dear Klaus Nomi is a document of an unknowable kinship shared between two men of a very specific era.
Man Parrish’s Dear Klaus Nomi is available through the artist’s website.