Cabaret performer and drag legend Joey Arias talked to PAPER‘s Kim Hastreiter about the time he and underground legend Klaus Nomi performed on Saturday Night Live with David Bowie. Do you remember it? I do. The year was 1979. Punk and disco were merging into New Wave. The times they were a-changing. Things were getting weird. Then one night, there was Bowie… THE GOD OF WEIRD…. on the SNL stage in a blue stewardess dress. His backup singers were Klaus and Joey in matching red and black Mugler dresses. It… was… LEGENDARY. LIFE-CHANGING. A real SEISMIC EVENT for little gay boys around the country. Anybody who witnessed it will tell you the same.
Here’s Joey on how it came to be:
The first time I met David Bowie was at the Mudd Club with Klaus. It was late, around 4 a.m., and we were getting ready to leave. Someone came over and said “aren’t you going to say goodbye to David?” We turned around, and there was David Bowie sitting in the corner. This Russian hitman friend of mine — it’s a long story — had managed to get past his bodyguards and was waving us over to come and speak to him. So Klaus and I go over, and David starts exclaiming over him, “Oh my god, Klaus! I just got back from Berlin and everyone is talking about you. We have to get together.” At that point, Klaus was getting famous for his space opera, Za Bakdaz. It was 1979. Klaus and I were both wearing these denim jumpsuits — I had red hair — and we both had blazers and jackets on over them with big shoulder pads. He gave Klaus his phone number and said, “please call me.” It was very brie.
Now, at this point, David was working a lot with Toni Basil. She choreographed his shows for the Diamond Dogs tour. David was interested in working with Klaus on some shows and trying something new but it was starting to get complicated with travel. But then he was playing Saturday Night Live and felt like this was the perfect time to work with Klaus. They talked, and Klaus told him that I had a singing voice like Billie Holiday‘s, which made David really interested in meeting me. He told Klaus he wanted the two of us to choreograph his SNL performance and perform on stage with him.
I was working at Fiorucci at the time, and I came home from the store one night. Klaus was sitting there and was so excited. He said, “Are you ready to meet David Bowie?” I said, “What are you talking about, yes!” That was a Thursday and the following Monday we went to RCA studios off 6th Avenue at the request of Bowie’s management to start rehearsals. We were wearing our jean jumpsuits again — sitting in the lobby of RCA for about 30 minutes, just watching people walk by. Finally, this man walked in and said, ‘Oh Klaus! There you are!” Then this guy walks over to me. He smells bad, he has a beard, he’s wearing bad polyester clothes and these funny shoes. He looked like a pimp, sort of. We start walking back to a studio with him and I say, “Wow, I’m so excited to meet David Bowie!” He turns to me and laughs and I realize this man is David Bowie. I was so embarrassed. He was like, “The David Bowie you see on stage is different than the one you’re meeting now.”
We walk into this huge studio. He takes us into a room and then we just ended up eating lunch with him and talking for hours. He wanted to know all about us. He was like a child, with his curiosity in people. He just wanted to hear more and more stories about us and our lives and where we were from and how we grew up. He started lamenting that he hadn’t met us sooner, since he was at the point in his career where he was done with the Ziggy Stardust stuff. But he kept saying that he knew what we would do together on SNL would be really fun. It was. I pulled a poodle with a television in it around the stage!
Continue reading the story here.
And watch the performance below.