PUNK ICON:Nina Hagen's childhood was spent on a political knife-edge in East Germany. Her teenage years were suitably wild, and for almost 40 years she has been carving out a career as the queen of punk. Now, she insists she has found Jesus (via some LSD). DEREK SCALLY can't put her memoirs down
NINA HAGEN IS such an original creation that, if she hadn’t already created herself, no one would think of inventing her. With a soaring voice, an unhinged gaze and an electric stage presence, Hagen has spent her 35-year career running the gamut from pop poppet to the mother of punk. More recently she has flirted with Hinduism and channelled Nazi-era divas. In her just-published memoirs, she recalls, among other events in her life, her expulsion as a teenager from her East German home, a UFO sighting off the coast of Malibu, and an encounter with Jesus during an LSD-fuelled near-death experience.
Listening to Hagen chat matter-of-factly about her life, Madonna seems like Doris Day in comparison, while young pretender Lady Gaga is, in Hagen’s own words, “a pop prostitute who has more to do with bikini advertising”.
With her new memoir Bekenntnisse(Confessions), the 55-year-old makes peace with her wild years and, a year after being baptised, her new Christian life. Crowning the conversion is her new album Personal Jesus, on which she delivers a Johnny Cash-beating cover of the Depeche Mode song as well as American gospel numbers.
As fans celebrate her return, others are wondering if her Christian beliefs are just another colour-shift in her chameleon-like career or whether, just maybe, the real Nina Hagen has finally stepped forward?
It’s a mild summer evening in Berlin’s grungy eastern neighbourhood of Friedrichshain. This was where Catharina “Nina” Hagen was born 55 years ago, when it was still East Berlin, to parents Hans Hagen, a successful writer, and actress Eva Maria Hagen.
Some 55 years later, Hagen has come home to give a reading in the Astra, an airless live music venue as grimy as any 1970s Bowery dive. Hagen sits on stage in a single spotlight: white face, heavily made-up dark eyes, and two upright pony-tails of jet-black hair. She looks like Minnie Mouse if, that is, Minnie had hit the skids and was turning tricks for a living. In the black, sweaty hall, a sold-out audience listens, gripped, to her family history.
Her father, one quarter Jewish, lost his own father in the Holocaust and only just survived himself despite serving as a subject in Nazi human experiments. Things turned for the better after the war: in the socialist East German state, her mother starred in dozens of successful films and, on stage, in plays directed by Bertolt Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble. But it was an unhappy home, with her mother plagued by psychological problems.
“She seemed to feel under attack whenever I called her mammy,” says Hagen, who recalls spending endless hours home alone in her cot as a small child. “It wasn’t her personal failing, just part of GDR thinking to leave children alone for half a day and endless evenings. I screamed and cried but no one ever came.”
Turning lemons into lemonade, she adds quickly: “No doubt it was in one of those scream-filled nights in which my strong singer lungs and my crazy voice were born.”
Her close relationship with her father was shattered when, aged three, her parents’ marriage broke down, he moved out and became addicted to sleeping pills. Her mother’s mental problems worsened and, one day, Nina returned home to find her mother covered in blood after slashing her wrists.
Some years later, when Hagen did the same after her boyfriend ran away with her best friend, her mother remarked on visiting her in hospital: “Child, must you copy everything I do?”
She began her wild child apprenticeship at 12 – young even by East Germany’s early bloomer standards – when she found herself, drunk and drugged, under a teenage Romeo whom she thought was having an epileptic fit. As punishment, Hagen was sent to boarding school in the country. On her return, her mother had taken up with political songwriter and performer Wolf Biermann who, as Hagen reminds her Friedrichshain audience, was “no harmless lovey, but a flirtation with the political abyss”.
Biermann was the socialist world’s Bob Dylan, and had moved to East Germany in 1950 out of personal socialist conviction. By the late 1960s, he was one of the loudest and most influential critics of the “real existing socialism” peddled by the East Berlin Politburo.
Having Biermann as her beloved step-father meant the secret police weren’t far behind. When, as an excited teenager, she called a friend to tell her she was auditioning for acting school, the Stasi agent now regularly listening in on the line sent his superiors the terse recommendation: “Prevent.”
Thwarted, she ran away to Warsaw, then returned, and discovered her freak multi-octave voice in music school. Her 1974 breakthrough, the pop hit Du Hast den Farbfilm Vergessen"( You Forgot the Colour Film) was ostensibly about a woman giving out to her boyfriend for not packing enough colour film for their holiday snaps. Beside the rolling melody, however, were Hagen's lyrics insinuating that colour film was the West, and black and white film the stark reality of East German life. "The song drips with irony," she says now. "It plays on the huge aspiration to flee the black and white film to a place full of colour and light."
As a growing star, Hagen became increasingly critical of the East German regime. They felt the same about her and were only too willing to grant her permission to leave the country in 1976; she joined Wolf Biermann, who had been stripped of his East German citizenship after a West German concert months earlier.
Anxious to see the world, Hagen travelled to London in 1977 and fell in with Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. On her return to West Berlin, she formed the Nina Hagen Band and gave her first concert. “Dressed like a Liza Minnelli cover act, in platform shoes and leather trousers, I trilled like a soubrette,” she recalls. “Then we played hard rock, punk and who knows what else.”
Nina Hagen, the notorious West German punk queen, had been crowned. Wild concert sets – many preserved as YouTube clips – and even wilder television appearances followed: in 1979, she got an Austrian chat show host fired after demonstrating female masturbation techniques live on air.
Her fame spread and she toured Europe and the US, winning over audiences with an anarchic mix of high and low art, mixing punk with chanson, playing convention against cliche. A still-breathless New York Times critic wrote in 1983: “She ranted; she yodelled; she rapped; she growled; she sighed. She moaned like a cabaret singer and cackled like a witch; she belted like a diva and scatted up high like a modern-jazz singer. She even warbled the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen as the band played Michael Jackson’s Beat It. And at every mercurial phrase, she was in complete control, vocally and theatrically.”
Those early career highs were soon followed by drug-fuelled lows, a split with her band and increasingly esoteric career choices. She fell in with an Indian guru who, she says, insisted she refer to him as the “king of kings”. In 1981, during this Hindu phase, she had her first child, a daughter, and named her Cosma Shiva.
It all seems so unlikely on paper – particularly the UFO sighting while pregnant – but in the sweaty Berlin hall, the audience is happy to accept every word. “She’s simply an original, there is no one like her anywhere,” says fan Andreas Baader. “She’s not just a singer but a Kunstfigur – an artistic creation who changes and develops, not just the 15-minutes-and-goodbye people we have today.”
SCENE CHANGE. Munich’s cavernous fair grounds, a gaping hall with the proportions and atmosphere of an aircraft hangar. A visibly nervous Hagen is a special guest at the Kirchentag or Ecumenical Church Congress, a huge religious event that has attracted half a million people to the Bavarian capital. The middle-aged, buttoned down Christian crowd is not your traditional Nina Hagen audience. Many have heard of her baptism and have come to see the miraculous transformation for themselves.
“Some are wondering how long she’ll stick with it,” says Alexander Diescher, of the Lamb-Vibration Soundsystem, a leading distributor of Christian reggae. “Others are worried that, now that she’s a Christian, she’s being passed around by the media and will eventually be dropped like everything else in the past.”
Aware she is facing a sceptical audience, Hagen insists that her baptism last year was the conclusion of a long relationship with Christianity. “I’ve been living in a common-law relationship with Jesus for years; last year we sealed our eternal love,” she says. Then she says she has been reading the Bible all her life and recalls her first spiritual encounter during a 1974 LSD trip in her East Berlin apartment. Wracked by a deathly pain, she recalls drifting through a tunnel of light before encountering Jesus. After a brief dispute over whether her life was over or not, she asked Jesus: “Are you going to leave me like all the others?” Unfazed by her accusatory tone, Hagen recalls Jesus sending her back to East Berlin with the words: “I’ll always be there, I was always there, I will always be there.”
In the crowd, the stoney faces are starting to melt. She talks of her charitable work in her second home, Los Angeles, helping homeless people in a soup kitchen and organising evenings of "hymn karaoke". By the time she has pulled out her guitar and rocked her way through half a dozen gospel songs – Glory to his Name, Jesus is the Rock, Amazing Grace– she has won them over. When she tries to leave, she's mobbed. After giving autographs from the stage for half an hour, she moves to a table nearby and ploughs on for another two hours.
Standing behind her is Hagen’s long-time assistant Klaus “Mabel” Aschenneller. “She’s always somewhat . . . mercurial,” says Aschenneller, a bald man in his early 50s, choosing his word carefully. “She can be very unpredictable, particularly when she feels she’s being fenced in. That said, she has calmed down somewhat since her baptism.”
Looking on from a distance, publisher Bernd Neusser admits it was quite an ordeal to pin down the singer to write her memoirs. “She’s terrified of committing herself, being set in stone, she was rewriting right up to the print date,” he says. “This has psychological roots, she’s a deeply injured person.”
With no sign of slowing down, the newly Christian Nina Hagen powers out of the hall and appears to be revving up for another spin on the rock merry-go-round. Germany’s last diva wears her scars well.
Personal Jesus is out now