Bay Area Reporter, 1984
By Jerry De Gracia
Submitted to the Shrine by Hagenpaws
Judging from the fashion parade at Nina Hagen’s sold out Kabuki performance last Saturday night, her fans enjoy emulating the singer’s bizarre style of dress as much as they enjoy listening to her music. The punked out crowd ran the gamut from blue and white face paint to a bearded South of Market number clad in full black leather with a green plastic chainsaw tied to his waist. This absurd imagery is just what Nina Hagen herself projects in performance.
But at a press conference before the show, the outspoken East German revealed another side of herself. She left most of the press wondering if she was using the intimate gathering as a platform for a little Theater of the Absurd or if she really was the subdued and straight-laced woman she claimed to be.
It is no surprise that she has gained her strong cult. Her band plays hard and tight rock and her dynamic voice offers the most unique female vocalizing on the scene.
The quality that has garnered her such a following, though, may be the exact reason she has yet to hit the Top Forty airwaves. She twists and turns her scatalogical lyrics almost to a point beyond recognition by making sounds that border on “inhuman.” Her voice is best described in her press release, which calls it “a wavering blast of operatic precision, punctuated by guttural growls, roller-coaster whoops, and multi-lingual profundities.” The mass audience seems unwilling to accept anything so wildly different though.
After her sold-out Old Waldorf shows earlier this year, the Kabuki gig was billed as her triumphant return to San Francisco. A friend asked how she sounded live since her recorded vocals were so obviously electronically treated. Although she uses a voice machine for echoes much of her operatic warbling and child-like outburst are produced without gimmickry, and simply demonstrate her amazing vocal control.
This explains how she broke into pop music to begin with. She realized she was destined to sing when at nine years old she was able to amuse her friends in East Berlin by imitating opera singers and pop singers alike including the crystal clear sounds of Joan Baez. She described herself, at the age of 12, as a hippie who listened to the Beatles and Spooky Tooth and dreamed of traveling around the world. She attained this ambition at the age of 21 when she renounced her East German citizenship and moved to West Berlin in 1976.
Before leaving the Eastern bloc she recorded with a group called Automobile which achieved notoriety in their home country with a four-song EP. Her first two solo albums, recorded in 1978 and 1979, were best sellers in Europe and Japan and led to her American recording deal with Columbia Records.
A subsequent performing tour was cut short when she found she was pregnant, so Nina moved on to Los Angeles, where she prepared for the birth by doing yoga exercises and watching for UFO’s from a Malibu Beach house. Cosma Shiva Hagen was born on May 17, 1981.
While that press release scenario does not contradict her music or her image, it was at this point in the conversation (discussions about her daughter) that the German milkmaid began to show through the “outre” facade. Although I cannot speak from experience, maternity must inspire a woman to reevaluate many aspects of her life and it has obviously had a dramatic impact on the real Nina Hagen. She not only spoke lovingly of her daughter but also of her “fellowman.” When asked if she had any brothers and sisters she replied “everyone in the world is my brother and sister.” She even had kind words for President Reagan of whom she said “it is his karma that he is a politician.” As she discussed astrology, including an American Indian version which her mother had told her about, it slowly dawned on me that I was talking to a child of the sixties in punk drag.
While the evolution of contemporary music and philosophy can be easily traced by anyone old enough to remember the last three decades, it was interesting to learn that one of the current icons of post-punk music did not necessarily adhere to the punk and post-punk ideology of nihilism. But I never had a baby.
She said she is close to her mother, an actress who lives in Hamburg, and noted that when the German press criticizes rock singer Nina Hagen, her mother writes letters to the paper in her defense.
Nina Hagen no longer sports brightly colored hair. She credits this change of style to a spiritual cleansing she felt a need for after the birth of daughter Cosma.
Interviewing the striking blonde was not unlike talking to Chris Williamson. They are both down-to-Earth and strongly opinionated. The difference is that Williamson explains her beliefs in accurate detail whereas Nina Hagen gives short, nondescript and vague answers and leaves the press guessing.
Although Ms. Hagen speaks excellent English her command of the language is not flawless and she misunderstood some of the questions asked by the press. But neither she nor the press pursued the miscommunications. She has a tendency to use “like” and “love” abusively so to reverse the trend of conversation I asked her if there was anything she hated. She said “no” with a deadpan glance.
Her exile from East Germany has been romanticized by the press, but her departure from East Berlin, which she described as a “party” city just like San Francisco, was a mutual agreement between her and the bureaucracy.
“East Germany is no better or worse than any other country, including the U.S. they are all bureaucratic.” she said, adding that it was her desire to be a “free bird in this life” which prompted her to leave and continues to motivate her as she travels all over the world.
Unfortunately, many questions were simply answered “yes” or “no” without explanation which led to long, difficult moments of silence for the press. Nina Hagen used these periods of silence to pose for flashing cameras.
It became obvious she was very adept at dealing with the press which led me back to my original thought “is she in drag or just incognito?” Will the real Nina Hagen please stand up?
Note: This article contained a picture of Nina in black leather ‘Gestapo’ drag with the caption, “she’s been through this butch phase and several freak-out phases too. Now Nina Hagen is playing Hausfrau”
If someone can explain to me how to post pics on this site I will scan the article photos and post them too.