San Francisco Chronicle Datebook – June 19, 1994
By Michael Snyder
Typed by Hagenpaws
In 1976, when the Berlin Wall was still an international flash point, eccentric 21-year-old Nina Hagen crossed from East Berlin to West Berlin. Within a year, the woman with the gymnastic, near-operatic voice – a vision in leather and rubber wear and exaggerated makeup – had turned the German pop music scene on its ear. Hagen's first album was greeted by accolades in the British press. In America, she built a loyal cult of fans with her spiritualist/hedonist cabaret sensibility and her strange m'lange of styles, from punk and reggae to techno and blues. She also rang up a few dance-club hits such as 'New York, New York.'Last year, she recorded her eighth album, 'Revolution Ballroom,'produced by Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera. Hagen, who was recently in town to participate in the Goethe Institute-sponsored tribute to Weimar Republic poet/dancer/prostitute Anita Berber, returns with her band July 12-13 to headline at Bimbo's. Recently, she spoke by phone from Hamburg, where she was on the tail end of a European concert tour. She had just played a pop festival outside of the city.
Q: 'Revolution Ballroom'has a couple of songs with a heavy Indian influence. How did you develop your interest in Indian religion and culture?
A: When I was 19, I got my initiation. I took LSD and had a death experience. I met God. I found a book about a guru known as Babaji, who first appeared in public in the early '70s at the age of 20 and died in 1984 on Valentine's Day. I made a pilgrimage to the village in the Himalayas where he lived. His message was that all religions are equal. All human beings and cultures are equal. The idea is living in respect and harmony with everything around you. But his teachings were in my heart before I read his work.
Q: When's your next album coming out?
A: I have a new record-company deal with RCA. I can produce myself. I did it on my first two albums. And I can choose my own co-producer. I really respect Phil Manzanera, but I think the last album was overproduced. Things were too much controlled by the record company. They tried to turn me into a product. I can do it myself. I'm like the Grateful Dead: I'll always be there.
Q: Backed by Alphabet Soup at the Anita Berber tribute, you performed a number of new songs co-written by Dee Dee Ramone. Are you doing them with your own band?
A: Yes, they're much better now. They'll be on my next album. (The Anita Berber show) was cool. It was a nice bunch of people. But I've been on the road with my band for four weeks and we are hot, hot, hot. We're gonna burn America with good vibrational information.
Q: What led you to leave East Berlin?
A: I grew up in an artist family. From the time I was a little tiny person, I saw my mother performing in theater. My stepfather was the Bob Dylan of East Germany. There were always artists and musicians in the house, visiting from the West. The government kicked out my stepfather, so the whole family was allowed to go. I was lucky. A lot of my friends weren't so lucky. They had to stay.
Q: What was your reaction to the reunification of Germany?
A: I was on tour when I heard and I didn't believe it. I thought, 'What a great joke!'Now I think the whole world has to do this thing: One love. One love nation.
Q: Where is your home now?
A: I have a house on Ibiza. It's the most beautiful area. I also have a little place outside London. I'm going to rent something in L.A. soon, to write songs. I'm going to record my next album in America. I'm actually going to record two albums, one in English, one in German. I used to do most of my albums in both languages. I've become an expert in translating my favorite songs into German. Most recently, I translated some Ramones songs: 'Blitzkrieg Bop'and 'We're a Happy Family.'They turned into antiwar songs when I translated them.
Q: Who inspires your unique vocal style?
A: I get it from everybody: gospel singers, Elvis, blues singers. . .I started listening to rock and roll at 12 and never stopped. With a voice, you can do so much, especially if you're Nina Hagen.
Q: On your last recording, you did hard rock, electronic house music, traditional blues tunes, some new-wave pop and the Indian tracks. What accounts for the eclecticism?
A: I always liked to mingle and mix the different styles. I'm the universal soup maker. Everything comes together – the music and the religion . . . Buddhism, Christianity, accordion, didgeridoo, hip-hop, rock, reggae.
Q: Your image is always striking, but always changing. Why are you such a chameleon?
A: It's theater. I grew up watching my mother do 'My Fair Lady.'I don't think of myself as a pop star. I think of myself as more of a mirror for the audience. I'm Janis Joplin and Anita Berber and more. I'm like a transvestite – you know, how they do impressions of different women. I own 30 wigs. It's because I often shave my head like the holy people in India. But I'm a ska skinhead, not a fascist.
Q: What inspired your songs about animal rights and pollution?
A: I have a son and daughter. I'm a mother, and a normal human being, so I must do this. The whole world is upside down. We're moving toward destruction. Some people are fighting it, but there aren't enough laws to protect the environment. The animals need their rights. Everybody need their rights. It's all the same story.