Shades – 1983 (or 84?)
By Mark Leach
Submitted by Sue Paleniuk
"I'm timeless." – Nina Hagen
Nina Hagen was born in East Germany in 1955. She became a hippie in 1968 and also had her first religious experiences that year. She became increasingly radical during the 1970's under the influence of Wolf Biermann and other activists. During this period she studied singing at the Studio For Music Entertainment, training an already compelling voice until it became a precision instrument. She worked as an actress on TV and as a singer with pop bands, eventually becoming a huge popular success and a star, at least by East German standards. Biermann, who had assumed the role if not the title of her step-father, was deported as an undesirable in 1976 and Hagen was allowed to leave soon after, having already been turfed out of the Communist Youth Association for her links with Biermann and other dissidents. She lived in England for a time and became a close friend of Arianna of the Slits who introduced her to the principal players in the nascent English punk scene. She lived in Holland too and became involved with the radical No-Name commune in Amsterdam and with Holland's rock superstar Herman Brood. More recently she lived with musician Ferdinand Karmelk and he is the father of her child, a girl named Cosma Shiva. Nina Hagen now lives in America and continues to record for CBS records, who have released three albums to date: Nina Hagen Band, Unbehagen and Nunsexmonkrock.
"I am on my way to becoming the first superwoman, the first female Buddha. That is to become like Jesus, then you can walk over water and heal sick people in the name of Jesus." – Nina Hagen, Sounds July 3, 1982.
Nina Hagen and her band played three nights in Toronto at Larry's: a Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with the Wednesday off so Hagen could rest her voice. Early on the Tuesday evening I went to the soundcheck in order to set up an interview, but Hagen didn't come to the club until the show started. Instead I talked to Julianna, Hagen's film and video director and the closest thing she has to a day-to-day business manager right now. Between us we agreed Thursday afternoon would be the best time and that the interview would be at Hagen's hotel. The Victoria Hotel is a rather innocuous looking structure, sandwiched between other buildings near the foot of Yonge Street. It is not a particularly splendid or expensive hotel and I had never heard of it before. The band hated it, and said so to Julianna. She convinced them to stay at least that first night before moving to other more expensive accommodation by saying that Hagen loved the hotel because it reminded her of Berlin. The guys in the band responded that they thought it was more like the Soviet Union, but they stayed. The Victoria is, in fact, a European style hotel with one old cage-style elevator and public washrooms and shower facilities down the hall for most suites. When I found Hagen's room I asked her about Julianna's statement that the hotel reminded her of home. Sher said no, she hadn't seen much resemblance. I noticed that her room was spacious, unlike those shared by the band, and that she had her own bathroom. I began to suspect that Julianna had learned a few tricks from Hagen's former management firm of Glotzer in New York.
Nina Hagen is charming and talkative but not really what could be classified as an easy person to interview. Her mind darts about quickly, like a child who has difficulty thinking of more than one thing at a time and makes up for it by not thinking about anything for very long. Hagen believes that we should all think less and pray more. With her strong accent and less than complete knowledge of English coupled with her almost constant smoking of the herb, talking to Hagen was equivalent to interviewing the average Jamaican reggae star. Just as well, therefore, that this was not a one on one interview because Hagen would wear out any writer working alone. One reporter was already there when I came in and another writer and photographer arrived later. We took turns asking our own favorite questions and Hagen kept handling them with ease, changing the subject when it suited her and ignoring questions occasionally. I began to feel that we were marauding Indians uselessly circling a wagon train and that our questions – whether they were shot, pitched, rolled or trickled towards Hagen – were hitting the mark about as often as the Indians' arrows did in all those western movies. This is a typical example:
Shades – "Do you think you'll have more children?
Nina Hagen – (whispers chidingly) I don't think. God knows.
Shades – Would you like to have more children? Nina – I don't like, I love.
Shades – Ok, would you love to have more children?
Nina – I love children.
Shades – I'll take that as a yes.
But there was good humor throughout the room because we were all fans of her talent and when we asked for autographs at the end she applied herself to the task with delight. She said, though, that she didn't ask people she admired for autographs, "When I met David Bowie I didn't say give me an autograph, I said give me a kiss!"
Nina – "I'd had a hit with a German marching song that I'd done as a piss-take, so I showed up first on TV in East Germany with a band of longhairs, guys, and I was really freaky dressed and suddenly we were number one band. And then I did many kinds of things, galas with orchestras, a show at the Entertainment Palace in East Berlin where they have ballet and many artists from foreign countries. I was singing I Never Say Goodbye by Gloria Gaynor (laughter) and Motion Man by Tina Charles and Nashville City Limits from Tina Turner. I was writing songs then but they'd didn't allow me to sing my own songs on TV. It's like a censor, you have to give them the lyrics and they have to say yes or no. Shades – Did they ever say yes to one of your lyrics? Nina – Yes. One. It was about sneezing and being ill and have a cough and laying in bed and waiting for the boyfriend to bring some candy.
Shades – Why did you decide to come to America?
Nina – I didn't decide. I didn't decide anything. It was God decides everything I do. It was because I was in love with a junkie (Ferdinand) and I brought him to a hospital in Sussex, England. And afterwards we wanted to go somewhere new. And we had management for us, typical American management, Glotzer, and I signed a stupid contract.
The reason I didn't do an lp for so long is Glotzer management and CBS, they were fighting over some stupid contract. I was sitting there with these wonderful ideas and wonderful musicians and always Glotzer would to to CBS and say she's not ready, she's pregnant. I would love to have it when I was pregnant, it would be the holiest record in the whole wide world. But he went to CBS and said I act crazy in interviews and only talk about God and religion and Jesus. And those are the reasons he splits, because I went out of my mind, I'm a crazy bitch, I smoke pot all day long and I don't take that amount of cocaine like he does. All those pigs! All those pigs gonna burn in Hell when they don't let me do do what I want to do, because it's the will of God that I have to do many albums. CBS even stopped pushing the album (Nunsexmonkrock) because of Glotzer. That guy is ruled by the devil, he's trying to destroy my career. But now we are getting
good reviews, now we're sending good interviews to CBS so they can see that Glotzer is a big liar. I have to clean up all my past, I have to show I'm pure. Now I always visit CBS office wherever we are and show that we are touring and doing well without Glotzer management because Jesus is our manager. I hope CBS will understand that I am outrageous talent and that everybody wants me. I don't know. CBS is a stupid Babylon company. (laughter).
Nina Hagen is in her element onstage, but then Nina Hagen is always in her element. Maybe Nina Hagen is an element. Hagen has gone through an extraordinary number of musicians in her bands; as she says, "I was always waiting for the right guys and I was always firing the wrong guys." But there's nothing wrong with the band she has now, who are worlds away from the hack session musicians she worked with when she started. Paul Baker on drums and Carl Racker on bass are an impeccable foundation and Steve Shift on guitar has a brittle style and the all-important faddish haircut. On keyboards is Richard S0hl who is well remembered by all fans of the late Patti Smith Group. Bassist Racker, who is the only one of this band to play on the last album,has an intriguing habit. In one break between songs early in the set he changes the bass from his natural right hand playing position to a backwards left hand position and plays it upside down – equally well – for the rest of the song before switching it back. He does it again later in the night. I am totally unable to come up with an explanation for this action. Maybe Somebody Up There spoke to him? The band played Antiworld, Smack Jack (for which there is a fine video), Taitschi-Tarot, Dread Love, Future Is Now, Cosma Shiva, and UFO all from the new album, plus African Reggae, My Way, Satisfaction, Glory Glory Hallelujah and a lovely straight version of Rivers Of Babylon. Hagen dances a bit on the limited space of the club stage but saves most of the gyrations for her voice, which can soothe or irritate and provoke either love or hate not only within the confines of one song but within a single phrase or even one word. They give us a lone set and two generous encores, then the whole band links arms and bows to the audience in the manner of a theatre company. In truth, Nina Hagen uses her face almost as much as her voice to put across the songs and she is an actress as well as a singer. She is really doing cabaret. She compares herself to Marlene Dietrich and Hildegard Knef. In twenty years she could still be doing it, maybe in Las Vegas or on TV.
Nina – (glances at the TV set which is off, and says) Archie Bunker.
Shades – Do you like Archie Bunker?
Nina – Not especially, but it's ok.
Shades – Do you watch any TV? Nina – Yeah.
Shades – What TV do you like?
Nina – I like Jim Bakker and Tammy Bakker (PTL Club)
Shades – You should phone them up sometime, that would be interesting, or appear on their show.
Nina – Yeah, I will call them. I want to. I think those people are pure. Jim Bakker and Tammy Bakker and his family are pure. I don't know about the 700 Club (another religious talk show), Pat and Ben the two guys (hosts), they are a little strange. They say the I Ching and Tarot and Astrology was made by the devil, they shouldn't talk that much. They should pray more and sing a little more, then think, sing a little more, then think. That's a good slogan for Pat and Ben and the 700 Club. We're going to do more with video and film and do our own TV shows but we only can do when we have some money and we don't have any money now because…this Glotzer is too stupid and (another pause) me too (chuckle).
From the Concise Oxford Dictionary: god 1. Superhuman being worshiped as having power over nature & human fortunes. 2. Image, animal, or other object, worshiped as symbolizing, being the visible habitation of, or itself possessing, divine power; an idol. 3. Adored, admired, or influential person. 4.(theatrical) Occupants of gallery. 5. (God) Supreme being, Creator & Ruler of universe (God, often the Lord God, Almighty God; God's (own) country, alleged description of the U.S. by Americans).
Nina – In the Tibetan death book they say when your soul goes out of your body from the ears then you go into a sphere where they dance and sing forever. I think I've arrived there. I think the last time I went out of my ears and next time I have to go out of my front and then I can go to God. All my music is inspired by God. By G O D, make a pyramid out of God. Don't write God only like a word like you would write any other word, write God like a pyramid. Herman (Brood) also came out of his ears last time and that's why he has to sing every day. Herman is what you call a real rock star. He went throught so much shit and he's still playing everday somewhere. He was a big star in Holland and then afterwards he fell down totally and nobody wanted him anymore and he doesn't care as long as he can make music. He's not on smack anymore, he's off it for one year now.
Sometimes I think I'm alone in this world. and then I think…then I start to think and that's wrong, because ther are more of us. So I'm not alone. Even though I think it sometimes, I know I'm not alone. David Bowie said that to me on one of his records, he said it directly to me, and I stole it from him and put it on the UFO song. We are all one. I just wish that in Germany they would understand that it's the same everywhere, the same pattern I mean, the same thing. We are all one.
Shades – Do you have good memories of Berlin?
Nina – I love Berlin, I love East Berlin and West Berlin, I love every soul in Berlin and there are many people in Berlin who love me like that too. I haven't been back in years so when I go to Berlin they're gonna come and kiss my feet (laughs). We gonna have a big party, a big laugh party.
There was an interview with Nina Hagen on CITY TV's news that same week that covered all her favorite topics: God, UFO's and the god-people who inhabit them, and herself. After it was aired the two anchorpersons leaned back, shook their heads in bafflement and uttered their decision on Hagen's sanity, "E.T. phone home." They seemed impressed by their own wit. But despite Hagen's frequently wild statements, she is not in danger of being classified insane. Prior to meeting Hagen I was convicced that her story of seeing God in a vision and being chosen by Him for a special purpose was a publicity ploy. After an hour with her I came away certain of her sincerity and sanity, although I can't say that I saw any signs of encroaching divinity about her either. But the I'm an atheist. One final note before Hagen gets the last word: for the first time in two years my tape machine failed to record properly and Hagen's voice is a barely audible presence next to the recorded music that it should have wiped out. (Which is why her famous Los Angeles UFO story is not here: I couldn't decode it.) It was a problem with the tape machine of course, or with the tape. But when you listen to that wavering disembodied voice talking about God, it's easy to imagine that, like a quasi-vampire, who sees only a dim reflection in their mirror, Hagen could be in mid-transformation to a less temporal plane, as she believes herself to be.
Nina – Jesus was the son of God. Jesus was a Buddha on Earth. He was one of them.
I hope I gonna be one too.
Shades – I thought you already were?
Nina – (a very long pause, so long that another question is asked before she smiles shyly and answers me) Maybe. I hope so.. I feel something very close to God. (something indeciperable). I already asked Steve Strange if he was the new messiah (laughter). I wait for the religious revolution. I try to make everyone feel that we are children and that we are wild and that we are ruled by God and that God is the most fabulous thing in the world. All the other preacher men are bad teachers and nobody wants to hear about it, it's like when you to to school and you have history but your history teacher is totally asshole and you don't want to hear anything from him. So I pray God for that He gave me the voice that I can go and tell them about it because I know Him personally from my first acid trip in 1978 and afterwards. So I know he is there all the time. And when we all want it, when we all believe it, then He can come. He is going to come again, many times. It's like David Bowie says, just for one day. He can show He is there and how it is. Even for three days or for seven days, just believe in it and it will happen, it just comes. But you have to give yourself, it's so easy. Shades – Have you given yourself up totally? Nina – Well, I could cancel the whole tour with that fucking voice (problem), but in the evening I go on stage and it's like nothing, it's totally ok, it's all in the head. I just have to pray, I say Jesus you are the magician of magicians, you can heal my voice in ten minutes. My voice gets thick in these smoky clubs but they, the god-people, they make their click and they can take it away. I, as a human being, shouldn't think that much, I should just pray because that's what I'm created for. Not to think.