It's been four years since Nina Hagen, the punk rock goddess, toured the U.S. -- we last saw her on July 22, 1998, when she performed at a charity concert in New York City, raising funds for the Sri Babaji Memorial Hospital in India. But this past September, she returned to New York City with two Shiva Nights, evenings of Indian spiritual music; a blowout concert with Theo Kogan of the Lunachicks, Ari-Up of the Slits, and the Toilet Boys; and the U.S. premiere of her directorial debut, the documentary Om Gottes Willen ("For God's Sake").
It may not be an exaggeration to say that 99 percent of the fans who saw Hagen loved at her first sight, and those who first heard her, loved her at first sound. On the CD insert for NunSexMonkRock, her first English-language U.S. release, she looks so unusual and daring -- consistently hot, sometimes vampish. She's had elaborate, huge hairstyles in shades to match her moods; hot pink, red, black, and yellow are especially memorable hues. She wears bustier tops, leopard prints, fishnet stockings, mini-skirts, and high boots. She's always been a punk rock goddess. Now she's a legend.
Beginning her musical career in the late 70s with Nina Hagen Band, Hagen has a far greater number of German releases than American ones, and remains relatively unknown in America. When she did tour America, she performed mostly in Los Angeles and New York. Her 1983 album Fearless charted briefly, and when her large cult following became indisputable in the early 80s, she had a top ten club hit with "New York New York." But in Europe, she was considered one of the hottest performers alongside the Sex Pistols.
Hagen stretches the possibilities of entertainment beyond the breaking point. She takes cover songs like "My Way," digests them, and spits out her own bizarre versions. Her music did sound more 80s in the 80s, but it has evolved with the times and her beliefs, which include God, UFOs, animal rights and, recently, Hinduism. Hagen is used to the "punk" label -- which explains why her upcoming coffee table book is titled That's Why the Lady is a Punk (to be released in December in German) -- but she doesn't consider herself to be much of one.
"I never said I am doing punk music," she says. "I never said I am a punk. They said that. I wanted to do rock music since I was 12 years old. It touched my heart to hear Tina Turner, the Beatles. And they were all my singing teachers because I made cassettes. And I sang along. And I wanted to make music like that."
Born and raised in East Germany's Berlin, the German label CBS Records signed Hagen in 1976 when she was 21. They knew she could sing like "a standing volcano," as she says, but they wanted her to learn live performance. So they gave her a lot of time and some money to go to London.
"I saw all the punk bands and when I came [back] to Berlin I cut my hair short and made black lipstick," Hagen says, running a finger across her lips. "And then they said I'm a punk. I am an entertainer. I sing political cabaret and spiritual cabaret and [I write] songs about anything concerning life and sciences. So it's just maybe one aspect of my art, the punk art."
Hagen's family was also a great influence. "When I had a brain shattering, I was three years old. I fell down the stairs. I had to lay in the hospital for eight weeks flat on my back and she [her mother] was standing in the door of the hospital room every day so all the children could see her. She played one song after the other on her guitar. And back then I realized how great she is. I was so proud of her because every song was just so cool and another one she pulled up! I think maybe then it started that I also wanted to do this for people, make them happy with songs."
Hagen's step-father, Wolf Biermann, was "public enemy #1," as she says, because he made songs opposing the East German government, causing him to be exiled from that part of the country.
In recent years, one of Hagen's greatest musical influences has been Hinduism. Her daughter's middle name, Shiva, is a Sanskrit word for one of the principal Hindu deities. However, Hagen mostly started singing Indian spiritual music in 1999 with the album Om Namah Shivay!.
On her first Shiva Night in New York, Hagen's good friend Moti-Ma spread incense from a small pan of fire. The stage was full of pastel-colored fabrics, posters of spiritual leaders and flowers. A shrine to Babaji was displayed on a table behind Moti-Ma and Hagen, who played a harmonium. Two Hare Krishna hand drummers (the Om-Heriakhandi-Band) played off to the side. It seemed she'd joined a cult. Hagen explained how one song is supposed to ward off death and sickness, and another, "Baba Shiva," is to bless and cleanse the room. They were messages that seemed true to her previous beliefs. Once she put her hands to her mouth to yell out "Sing!" in her traditional style, the audience loosened up, and most everyone in the room began singing "Baba Shiva" in rhythm with her and Moti-Ma. She and Moti-Ma traded places for certain songs, used each other's mikes and played various instruments (hand drums, finger cymbals, a tambourine).
Hagen offered people in the front rows incense smoke to put over their heads such that they could spiritually cleanse themselves. Later, she held a plate of mysteriously colored balls and offered it to the shrine behind her, allowing Babaji's spirit to take some. Then she went through the audience and offered it to all who held out a hand. They turned out to be peanut M&Ms. Classic.
When Hagen performed at her sold-out concert at Webster Hall, she lit the stage with an invisible aura. Her band members, in their plain, dark clothes, blended in with the stage while she popped. Her skin glowed against her black top and hair. With her signature style defined by its mutating nature, she didn't have to move much to command our attention -- but she did. She stuck out her tongue, curled her lips in that Popeye diagonal smirk, danced around in circles, sat down on the stage, took off her boots, and rolled backwards. Her voice spanned octaves. Maybe not quite so easily after all the cigarettes, but still. She brought to mind all the music she'd created, all the pictures, all the lives she'd touched, all she'd fought for in her life (animal rights, natural cures to AIDS, anti-Nazism, anti-apartheid, the environment, world peace, and more), and all the controversies (masturbating on an Austrian talk show, having a mock wedding with a teenage fan). She played over 20 songs -- well known tunes like "New York New York," "Return of the Mother," and "Nina IV President." She even covered the song "All Apologies," by Kurt Cobain, who she called her brother during her Shiva Night performance. She discussed religious, humanitarian and environmental issues at length and included what seems like the mantra she's invented: be free, be happy, be original, be fearless.
"Of course my step-father was my great teacher for that [fighting for freedom]," Hagen says. "But also Babaji inspires me to speak out for justice, and have the Goddess of the Truth dancing on the top of my tongue."
Make sure to not watch Om Gottes Willen too soon after a big meal. Things get pretty shaky. "This is not a movie I made because I wanted to shimmer and shammer as a movie maker," she told the audience before the film rolled. "It is a movie I made because of a beautiful and important message from a messenger."
First inspired to go to India because of her "gigantically broken heart," Hagen took an LSD trip at 19 (but she strongly recommends against the drug) in a desperate search for God. She then saw a poster with his image as he appeared to her, and the poster read, "Babaji, a message from the Himalayas." It was difficult to keep track of all the names of the spiritual leaders she introduces us to in her film, but the main part of Babaji's message is clear: live a life of truth, love and simplicity.
With pictures of Indian spiritual leaders and landscapes of India, Hagen's film shows her, Moti-Ma, and her second son, Otis, going through spiritual rituals. At points, her rock music plays in the background, reminding us who did the documentary. Her religious beliefs may not be understandable to many people, but in her heart, they make sense.
"I feel the connection with God. I belong to Jesus Christ as much as I belong to Babaji. Narrow-minded Christians might say 'don't fall for the false gurus,' but my heart is always telling me what is false and what is right. Of course, other people can inspire me, help me to get a good book, but the last decision my heart makes," she says. If she hadn't seen God at 19, Hagen says she would have still mentioned him often in her art and "kept looking."
Hagen has an album due out early next year. It's theme? It will "just be good" she says. She also has a TV show in the works that may air on German television next year. Her tattoo of a television on her shoulder reminds her to have her own TV show, she has said in interviews.
"There is one nice saying," she says, "and I like that very much, 'slowliness is holiness.' You cannot say 'ah, I want to be perfect now.' Maybe you are perfect already in certain ways. It's a work in progress. That is why we are human beings, to learn to perfect our daily lives," she says. And as she likes to end, Om Namah Shivay -- "God is the one, thy will be done."