Today is World AIDS Day 2006.
When I got my MLIS from UT Austin in 1982, AIDS was still a mystery. I didn’t hear too much about it in my circles, since at that time everyone still thought it was a “gay disease,” and as long as you weren’t gay or sharing needles, it wasn’t of much concern. Even as the 1980s continued, in my safe little heterosexual Roman Catholic circle in St. Louis, I didn’t know too many people who were affected by it. Sure, we read obituaries of people both famous and unknown, who invariably died young after a long illness and were survived by their longtime companions. Sometime in the late 1980s a law professor at my school died of AIDS; friends of friends also died; but that was as close as it came into my life. In later years I learned that some of my friends were HIV positive, but with new medications, were living with what now appeared to be a chronic but manageable disease. At least that’s the case here in North America, where medication is relatively accessible.
A couple of weeks ago I happened to see The Nomi Song on the Sundance Channel. I think I had heard of early 1980s singer Klaus Nomi before, but even in hip Austin he was pretty cutting edge; you had to be living in downtown Manhattan at the time to really be aware of him. I thought it would be the kind of musical documentary I could watch halfway while doing other things, but it was riveting. Klaus Nomi (born Klaus Sperber in Essen, Germany) was an odd, shy little man with a classically trained countertenor voice at a time before Baroque opera had undergone its later revival, so somehow he ended up in downtown Manhattan with many other odd, misfit artists–and there he found his time and place. The film seemed to me to convey what it must have felt like to be in that unique scene at that time. And I loved Klaus Nomi. His spaceman/Weimar persona and his stunning multi-octave voice–whether doing New Wave or Baroque arias–were like nothing you can find today.
In addition to wonderful concert footage and home movies of Klaus and his circle, the film features interviews with those who know and worked with him. Nobody quite understood him, but they were all young and creative, and the possibilities seemed endless.
Klaus Nomi was one of the first celebrities to die of AIDS, in 1983. As delightful as the earlier parts of the film were, the stories of his last days were terribly sad. Lying in a hospital, abandoned by friends who knew no more about AIDS than anyone else and feared catching it, he died alone. Like so many others in those years.
I wasn’t going to write anything about World AIDS Day because I really have nothing to contribute. But by coincidence, my copy of The Essential Klaus Nomi arrived today, and I’m listening to it now. Just another of thousands who should have lived a long and happy life. I’m grateful for the time we had with him.