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Nina Hagen
at El Corazon
Nov 4, 2005

By DW Hamilton


The voice ranges from guttural low-pitched growls, with the signature rolling of Rs, to soaring operatic soprano, with pit stops for little girl lisping and full on aggressive rock soul vocals – all which can transpire within 15 seconds.  It was her recorded voice that first introduced her to me over two decades ago, and the songs which flitted between the spiritual and the absurd, disco and techno, progressive jazz, punk, new wave and Teutonic – quite unlike anything else I’d heard before – that landed her music in my cassette collection over two decades ago.  This, and her surrounding of herself with religious iconography (for what I presumed was shock value) that carried my main impression of her.  I knew she was an artist, I considered her important, and I had let myself fall out of touch with her career.  But I always remembered her.  And so, when the opportunity came to see her live in concert, in a very intimate venue, I jumped on it. 

“Don’t be too disappointed if she’s not all that she used to be,” was the less than charitable remark given when I voiced my plans.  “I mean, it’s been years.  I heard she’s rather come down in the world.”  After chastising her detractor for being both sexist and ageist, I was secretly worried.  What if she’s just fat and sad? But her detractor was from Germany, where far from being just a cult superstar (if there is such a thing) she was a household name in her early career, and so he had had expectations perhaps best suited to a child prodigy. 

Three of us from the European Weekly arrived at the night club unfashionably early, and waited through the up-tempo psycho-ramblings of local opening act “Jackie Hell” whose onstage personae represented a worst-case scenario of what Nina could have devolved to, and “Ursula and the Androids” a fun-house romp of glammed-up Goth-pop, with Ursula towering over the set in heals that could kill baby seals in one stomp beneath her fright-night wig.  It was fun.  People bopped in place, laughed, cheered.  The mood was set for the main event, and with impeccable timing, the club began to fill, and the excitement built. 

“Nina!  Nina!  Nina!” And then there she was.  Not old looking at all (although she just passed the half-century mark).  Much prettier than expected, a youthful face, with a body a 25-year-old woman would be proud of, in a black-velvet micro-mini baby-doll dress, fishnet stockings, long black hair bouffed in front, adorned with fake flowers, and the piercing eyes – quite clear and un-dilated, that rolled, and flashed, and winked beneath the elaborate Cleopatra mascara and purple eye-shadow.    

Rather than being scary, she was funny.  Mugging, making faces, sticking her tongue out of a mouth festooned with red sequined lipstick.  It almost seemed like she was looking into your soul, and laughing with you at a mutual joke from a previous life.  The humor, the expression of her spirituality, the connection with the crowd who adored her, and the intimacy of the setting (more cabaret than rock arena) helped explain where she’d been.  The smaller venues suit her, humanize her. No wonder she prefers them. From 50 yards away she would be a cipher.  Here, she could play with the audience.  And play she did, using her remarkable range, raw energy, and vocal wit.  

She opened with a song she recorded with European art rock band “Apocalyptica,” and then ran through an exhaustive set of material pulled from her three decades of recording careers, including New York which took on new meaning post 9-11, and the hyper-charged “UFO.”   She also showcased her dizzying array of musical influences, segueing into a Swing inspired number, singing Frank Sinatra’s My Way her way, emitting an extremely original rendition of Nirvana’s All Apologies, and commanding the audiences rapt attention with, of all things Ave Maria.  Altogether she performed with only one brief break for well over two hours.  It was unforgettable.  I can’t wait to see what she does when she is as old as Mick Jagger.


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