Nina Hagen is explaining her music to me. "Like what actors do in different movies, playing different parts, I embrace different music styles," the 49-year-old German cult star says, on the phone from a hotel in Los Angeles. "I love the Ella Fitzgerald era, gospel music from India, Bertolt Brecht. Even on my rock albums, you can find hip-hop, you can find funk, you can--"
What happened? I dial frantically, but there's no answer. So I wait, staring at Hagen's photo on the cover of her 1985 dance-metal album, In Ekstasy. With thick black eyeliner trailing back to her temples, hot-pink hair cascading Medusa-like down her back and a snakeskin dress that shows off her muscular upper body as she stretches her arms behind her head, she shoots a glance that says, "I will fuck your brains out...and then kill you." Has any white woman ever looked more badass?
Eventually, the phone rings. A lightning storm in the L.A. area has caused a brief power outage. It's fitting--Nina Hagen herself is a force of nature. With an elastic voice that leaps tall genres in a single bound, she has recorded twenty-some albums in English and German, collaborating with everybody from the Slits and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Apocalyptica and the Leipzig Big Band. She's an accomplished author, television star and film actress (her latest movie, 7 Zwerge, is an adaptation of the Snow White story that also features her daughter, Cosma Shiva Hagen, and her mother, Eva Marie Hagen), not to mention a political activist and style icon, inspiring designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood.
Born in East Germany during the height of the Cold War, Hagen studied opera and classical singing before her family moved to West Germany in the late '70s. She scored a recording contract with CBS Records in 1976 and, at the label's urging, took a trip to London to soak up the city's music scene. While there, she fell in with the punk crowd. I ask Hagen how she feels about the "Mother of Punk" epithet that is frequently used to describe her. "When I was in London, I was always the oldest. I was already 23 years old then! Everybody else was 14, 15. They always called me 'the mother of punk,' so I took that name over. Many young musicians, especially female musicians, have praised me for being creative and daring. I am very happy that they like me. Who doesn't want to be loved? But I think that the mother of punk is Patti Smith."
In stark contrast with the nihilistic hatemongering that is often associated with the early punk movement, Hagen has always embraced a philosophy of love. "I enjoyed the solidarity between the people," she says of her time in London. "It was a very interesting, healthy and creative time. It was embracing a lifestyle of living in simplicity, sharing with each other. I enjoyed that very much, the love between the people."
Spirituality has always played an important role in Hagen's life. "When I was growing up, I was with people who were atheists--most of them Communists--and they were always with these bitter, sour faces," she explains. "They said, 'There is no God. God is the morphine for the people, as Karl Marx said.' And I thought, well, if they look so ugly when they say that, then that can't be true. So I searched and found out for myself."
She cites an LSD trip at the age of 19 as a pivotal moment in her spiritual growth. "I had a one-on-one encounter with God. From that day on, I've been a very strong believer that everything is interconnected and everything is in our minds. It's up to us how we create our lives, our realities. From early childhood, we are domesticated and taught to behave in a certain way. Some people have been domesticated more than others. We can all loosen this tight grip on how we perceive this life. We have to first start loving ourselves a lot, and not allow other people to manipulate and control us."
Hagen applies her spiritual outlook to her work ethic, creating whatever she wants, whenever she wants. She emphasizes the fact that this short West Coast tour, which brings her rock band to Dante's on Sunday, has nothing to do with a new album, although both a standards collection with a swing orchestra and a more straightforward pop record are in the works. "I never promote anything! I just go and play music!" she chirps. "I always live in the here and now."
Nina Hagen plays with Storm & The Balls on Sunday, Jan. 16, at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Avenue, 226-6630. 8 pm. $18 advance, $23 day of show, $25 at the door. 21+.