As I began to write this, the second of what I intend to be three posts, I realized a better title for the troika under discussion might be “Who You Callin’ a Kook?” Certainly Nina Hagen is strange and unique and, yes, very often downright weird. But she’s a helluva talented singer-rocker-stage performer and, like Sterling Hayden, is mocked at the peril of missing out on what is truly exceptional about her “weird” and fascinating work.
So, as always, context: when I was a record-buyin’ youngster, there were (I believed) three degrees of wonderfully “odd” female singers from overseas. The first level was the uncommonly pretty and sublimely talented Kate Bush; the second was my infatuation of several new-wave-obsessed years, Lene Lovich (whom I must salute soon, because she was/is awesome); and the third and by far the most daunting and “incredibly strange” (esp. for a teen who grew up on AM radio) Ms. Nina Hagen, who turned 57 this past week.
As the years go by I’ve gotten to love Nina for the ways in which her music broke the boundaries of punk, new wave, dance music, rap, etc etc. She also has always been a jarring figure to behold on television (the few times that I saw her sing or be interviewed); very few of her videos ever played on MTV (they were actually seen more on cable-access), but now with the “tool” that is YouTube, we can catch up on all the wonderful stuff that appeared on European and UK television networks.
Kate’s music was gorgeous and Lene’s was more hummable, but no woman singer did as much to disorient her audience as Nina. To update the comparison: sure, Lady Gaga’s young and talented and has a good eye for odd, jarring juxtapositions, but please don’t tell me what she’s doing is truly “weird” and unpredictable. Fraulein Hagen’s been covering that side of the strasse for several decades now.
Her voice ranges from sweet and melodious to impossibly gravelly (this was the case even when she was a very young woman). Thus she is capable of singing operatic arias as well as gritty rockers with the same intensity. Her career began in East Germany with tunes like “You forgot the color film” (a snotty comment about how drab East Germany looked); here she is at age 19 with her group “Automobil.”
Her first notable cover was this kick-ass German rewrite of the Tubes’ “White Punks on Dope” called “TV Glotzer”:
She has continued throughout the years to alternate between her own songs and covers of a wide variety of material (and I do mean a wide variety). When she was a full-blown punk, she attacked “My Way” in German:
In the same year, 1980, she did this terrific cover of “Ziggy Stardust” on Swedish TV. She definitely made even the British punk goddesses Siouxsie Sioux and Poly Styrene look like normal girls next door:
And since I’m an incurable Monkee fan, I must include her punk cover of their biggest hit, redone in German as “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”:
By 1982, her own songs had become pretty hook-y (a good thing by me) and she started singing in English. One of the songs that showed up on “new wave” radio stations around that time was her account of the club scene of the time, the brilliantly frantic “New York, New York,” and the very catchy “Universal Radio.” This is punk meeting funk/disco with a woman occasionally lapsing into operatic singing (take that, Gaga!):
Her 1984 tune “Zarah” is perhaps the fullest flowering of her wonderfully conflicting impulses. A tribute to the Swedish film star Zarah Leander (1907-81), who was very well known in Germany for her decision to keep acting during the Nazi era. Nina’s tune comprises about five or six musical genres (add jazz and hip-hop to the mix cited above). The video is as jarring and confrontational as the song:
While all this music was being made, Nina made a name for herself as a really outlandish talk show host. Her bios make mention of a time on German TV when she discussed female masturbation on-air (with a simulation), but in the U.S. and the U.K. she was very likely to veer a discussion of her new LP into a chat about UFOs, religion (at various times she has adhered to various faiths, including Hare Krishna and Xtianity), and animal rights. I very fondly remember her bringing up a “cure” for AIDS she knew of to a drag-queen host on Manhattan access. She even interviewed herself now and again.
Speaking of her love of animals and finally moving to the subject of Nina’s duets, here is live footage from Italian TV in which Nina joins Lene Lovich to perform their 1986 single “Don’t Kill the Animals.” Sure it’s a pretty goofy white-girl rap, but the intentions are good and it’s a melding of two of the finest “weird” ladies of the Eighties (dig also the extremely serious and smoothly-sung anthemic tune that Nina performs in English at the end):
As the punk generation has gotten older, it’s been fascinating seeing how they’ve been treated by the media. Some of these gents and ladies (I’m looking at you, John Lydon) have become lovable old cranks, whereas truly versatile talents like Nina have wound up becoming eminences grises. Check out the transgressive Ms. Hagen as cute variety-show guest, showing her mastery of yodeling:
Nina's repertoire has grown even more eclectic over the years, with her covering “Summertime,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “The Alabama Song,” “Rivers of Babylon,” “The Lady is a Tramp,”“Fever,” and “Good Vibrations” (all of which can be found on YT). Here she performs “ Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy. Even with a “lounge”-y rendition of a Broadway standard, Nina is able to inject some of her own idiosyncratic personality:
Sticking with old show-biz (American style), here’s a privately shot video of her singing “Flat Foot Floogie”:
In March 2008 I recommended on this blog a clip that was quickly down after I touted it, the immortal meeting of Nina and Don Rickles (you read that right) on The Merv Griffin Show somewhere in the late Eighties. (Presumably Merv had the same booker who put Iggy on Dinah!)
The juxtaposition (old show biz/new show biz; America/Europe; comic character/true eccentric) is very impressive (and what talk shows used to do on a regular basis), but of course it descends into Don mocking Nina — except he can’t do much with the German-wants-to-kill-the-Jew theme, since Nina notes that her father was Jewish. Regardless, it’s a mindfuck and a joining of two worlds I enjoy very much:
I’m glad the Merv clip has been reposted (this time by someone who saved it last time), but the singlet strangest-seeming cover I discovered that Nina has done is her acoustic folkie version of Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists Bound to Lose” (!). Woody was quite an open-minded gent, and I’m sure he would’ve enjoyed this, since she clearly believes in the lyrics (see above):
The last two clips are unions that items we in the U.S. never would’ve seen without the “sharity” the epitomizes YouTube. First, Nina’s early Nineties duet with the one and only artificial-man-made-real, king of “schlager,” Heino!!! The two perform “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” from the Leslie Caron musical Lili. Feast:
And a truly sublime pairing, which finds Nina being entirely (gasp) normal! It is her 1990 duet with a curiously eyeglass-less Nana Mouskouri on an extremely Dietrich-like rendition of “Lili Marleen.” The two women do full justice to Marlene (another Nina trib to her is here), whose take-no-prisoners spirit has lived on in both of them.
Happy Birthday to Nina and thanks to two people: friend Dave for turning me on to Nina many (many!) years ago, and to Krys O. for spurring on this blog entry by her discovery of the Nina/Nana duet.