10 PERCENT, November/December 1995
By Anne-Marie Praetzel
The inimitable Nina Hagen–heavy-metal cabaret singer, gay icon, and Hinduism devotee–stays crazy after all these years.
Nina Hagen wants to go to Sushiland. It's a few hours before her gig at San Franciso's Bimbo's nightclub, and she's had about enough of waiting in the hotel. So we follow her to the Japanese restaurant across the patio and soon realize it's not Sushiland we're in, but Ninaland. For some timeless period, we are held captive by this cosmic German Diva and her snaking hand gestures, Barbarella-meets-Swamp-Thing getup, and rubberband voice that stretches from squeaky soprano to Harvey Fierstein bass. Between bites of pickled ginger, she recites a poem she just wrote in which she and Kurt Cobain are driving along and suddenly spot Madonna's "big pink pussy in the sky." So it seems the protean Nina we see a few hours later on stage is, in fact, for real.
And how else could she have made it to Sushiland from her childhood in repressive East Berlin? Hagen hopped the wall in 1976 and, at the tender age of 21, ignited the frigid West German rock scene with her punk-political musical theatrics. Now approaching 40, a spry Hagen keeps busy raising two children, promoting her new album, Revolution Ballroom, and writing about world concerns for Germany's popular Der Spiegel magazine.
Back in Ninaland, Hagen calls repeatedly upon the wisdom of her beloved Indian gods and gurus Shiva, Rama, and Babachi and explains how she plans to save the world. Watching her earnestly bob her pink tiara-crested wig, how can we help but believe?
10 PERCENT: I like the cover of your new album because you're in bondage, but you look strong.
Nina Hagen: Well, it's not my new profession. I look like I'm the condition of human beings, bonded in our own stupid little wall-to-wall thinking. That's why I agreed to do that picture.
How'd you hook up with [cover photographers] Pierre and Gilles?
Through my boyfriend, my forever boyfriend.
He knew them?
He knows everything. My boyfriend's name is Franck–Franck Chevalier. Pierre and Gilles are in love with him. They photographed Franck as Jesus, Franck as the bleeding angel, and Franck, me, and little Otis, our son, as Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.
How did you meet Jean-Paul Gaultier [art director on a previous album]?
He desired my presence one day in 1989. He was throwing one of his parties, kind of a fashion show with a contest of who was the most beautiful model. And Franck was there, because Franck used to work for Jean-Paul in Paris, showing Grace Jones and other superstars around. He was a model also. When everybody found out Franck and me became one egg–one Kinder surprise–they were like, Have you heard? And Jean-Paul: What? Them? No!
You've played in a lot of gay clubs over the years.
I even risked my life to save about 200 gay people in Hamburg when I was very young. It was New Year's Eve, and some [neo-] Nazis came into this restaurant and started shooting. Everyone hid, and a couple of us went outside and they shot at us. I fell down and screamed as if I was hit–I can scream very loud. They thought they hit somebody, so they left. Everybody was amazed I did that. And afterwards I thought, yeah, I would jump into the fire for the sake of humanity.
You're somewhat of an icon in the gay community.
Yes, I think I'm a legend.
Have you fostered this image?
No, I'm just such a perfect mother that all the gay people can't help but search for refuge in me. It's like I'm kind of a Divine Mother, and I shall lead them over the hills, over the Himalnt, and scientists, and professor Peter Duesberg about HIV and AIDS.
So how about your sexual orientation?
It's Franck, Franck, Franck, forever.
But have you dabbled in anything else?
I did have girlfriends also, if you want to know that. It was also a sweet, strong love relationship. And then I met Franck, and he's a woman and a man and everything–and he's God too.
You play around with traditional roles of gender and sexuality. Are you going for the shock value?
What I do is a teaching in a song, and I'm looking for what's best for the teaching to come across. Like when I'm singing a Kurt Cobain song, I put a black shirt on: Kurt/shirt; black/widow.
What did you think when you heard about his suicide?
I was eating hot and sour soup in a Chinese restaurant across from the Folies Bergere in Paris when somebody told me. I had to stop eating. Later we were in a hotel talking business, and the window was open and it was hailing. It was all so emotional; these hails were rolling into the room from the balcony, and the sky was brown and black. It made me realize what great spirit made a great mistake–that God was fighting for the soul that some stupid devil spirit heroine was taking. I perform some of his songs. They're all genius.
Who are your other mentors, besides Kurt?
Babachi. He is the most interesting incarnation of God. He only stayed about 14 years and died on Valentine's Day 1984, when I made my Fearless album–I, Nina, his future wife. What do you think [happens] when we die? Do we all become one with God, or do we stay as individuals?
I'd say we all become one.
One soup? Wow! Then I get to be one with Kurt Cobain! Or Adolf Hitler…
Do you believe in reincarnation?
Of course. If the miracle of entering the utero can happen once, it can happen again, Einstein said.
He did not.
Well, maybe it was Goethe!
Nina Hagen said…
No, it was somebody big, Beethoven or somebody.
Who do you think you'll come back as?
I hope I can be with my husband.
You rarely sing in German these days.
Yeah, but when I wrote all those songs I was 16 and I was thinking in German, and I'm now so much out of my German cage.
Do you still have friends in East Berlin?
Everyone knows everybody in that country.
Has reunification affected the art and music scene?
I have no idea, man. I live in Spain.
And where do you live besides Ibiza?
Everywhere. Because I'm like Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela in one person, so I consider my home in many countries.
You're often compared to Madonna.
I'm an original, so you can't compare me to anyone.
What do you think of her?
Well…you know, if you do only disco for too long–it would be great to hear some other sounds from her. I've had many dreams with Madonna. When I was pregnant with Otis, I couldn't come to her show in Spain. And she came to my dream and took me backstage and showed me a few things on the soundcheck. Really entertaining little exercises. And she had the devil on stage, one of her dancers, and he comes out and says, "Aren't you Nina Hagen? We love you! We saw your show in New York." And I say, "You better get back on stage, man." And he says, "Aw, she can do it alone."
What other musicians do you listen to?
Everybody. And the ones I don't like, I don't listen to.
But you must have favorites…
Oh, yeah. I like the sound of the sun when she rises in the morning and when she goes down at night. Otherwise
I like to listen to Franck's voice and Otis's voice–and I love myself a lot.
What are you doing that's new?
I tell you, it's groovy to get old because otherwise we stay stupid forever.
Do your kids go by Chevalier or Hagen?
Hagen, of course. I mean, I had to press them out, right?
10 PERCENT managing editor Anne-Marie Praetzel was an impressionable teenager living in West Germany when Nina Hagen released her first album.