High Art at the Highline with Diamanda Galas
by Tony Phillips
"You can treat me dirty," the Sigourney Weaverish figure in black growls, "you can treat me cruel." She's taken the packed house by surprise, walking out promptly at a quarter past eight and seating herself quietly at the Steinway, but Diamanda Galas is now driving that grand piano like a hopped up trucker and pity the poor audience she's bearing down on with her headlights. A cunty black boot pumps the pedal rhythmically. Purple spots fill the stage. A combinations of shriek and crescendo works its way into the crowd on a cellular level. Diamanda tells us she can forgive, but she cannot forget. She looks across the piano with the eyes of a killer and it's not likely anyone witnessing this opening night at the Highline Ballroom will soon forget her either.
Tonight she's dipping into a cannon of songs she assembles under the loose header Imitation of Life. Drawing from French ballads and classic Chet Baker, there's also a sprinkling of what she's calling "homicidal love songs" from her upcoming November release entitled Guilty, Guilty, Guilty. It's quite surprising, but what Galas is actually doing onstage is spinning chansons of love, albeit ones that are probably opening automatic garage doors all the way out in the 'burbs. "Love is akin to the courtship of the female praying mantis," Galas explains, "who devours the male brain matter." I can feel it happening as she generates these voluminous washes of sound, can feel my brain going. Of course, it goes without saying that before she kills, the praying mantis fucks. Tonight Galas is doing both. She's fucking killing.
“This moron called me a performance artist once,” Diamanda Galas cringes over lunch before she kicks off the tour, “I died a thousand deaths when I read that.” I’ve seen descriptions ranging from “blood covered banshee” to “melisimatic screams and ululating glossalalia” before we meet in a tiny, East Village boite. In fact, I’ve read so much verbal diarrhea about her that I’m getting up the nerve to bounce my own — “Esther Williams gracefully executing a synchronized swimming routine in a pool filled with quicksand” — off her when Galas suddenly grabs my hand and trills, “Electra!” While most musicians would mean the record label, an almost demure — head to toe black, even the sandals, but not much makeup — Galas is talking about the gal Sophocles found unable to “cease from dirge and sore lament.” She admires the intensity of Electra and finds the comparison apt. She could do a lot worse for a Greek girl with daddy issues, but she proudly points out it came from the august New Yorker. And she likes it.
And I’m happy we’ve stumbled on something Galas likes, as the beginning of the interview is punctuated with remarks like “I’ll rip his fucking throat out” when I accidentally inquire about a colleague Galas is not too pleased with this morning. Her relationship with my tape recorder becomes on again/off again as she quickly learns how to operate it, clicking off for her frequent rants and then forgetting to turn it back on. To cut the girl some slack, it is early. And she does giddily agree to roll tape when I ask her if she’ll please go on record with her apropos of nothing Gore Vidal tirade in which she bills the writer “the world’s sloppiest bottom.” Galas continues, “Gore, get down girl. Come on, girl! Come on, girl!” She clearly admires the man, but she can’t resist adding, “That’s why she had to go to Italy: to get some nice, Italian slam and bam.”
Of course, Italy’s also a sore subject for Galas as she’s cancelled some recent dates there, but she actually prefers to tour in Latinate counties, shying away from Australia and the United States most. “This country is very resistant to shows that have twelve languages in them,” Galas explains, “when you do a work in Greek, people that don’t speak Greek get very angry.” Galas would know. She’s been on the road for years with a song cycle detailing the Armenian genocide called Defixiones. “I’m performing works in Greek, written by Greek poets, and journalists are getting upset because they can’t understand it. And I had programs! I’m terribly sorry dear, but the songs were on the website for four years. If you were really interested and a scholar, you would do your duty by these people and tell them what the show was about.” Super titles? Galas is not interested. “I would really prefer for people to do their homework,” she says, “the way they would when they go to an opera. When they go to Tosca, it’s in Italian. You don’t ask Maria Callas to sing in English.”
And okay, Defixiones, with it’s twelve languages, is a difficult, demanding — albeit completely compelling and brilliant — work all ‘round, but the going doesn’t really get any easier for Galas fans, even for her upcoming shows which will feature some lighter repertoire including Judy Garland. “I’m very aggressive when I’m at the piano,” she explains, “I’m very busy when I’m onstage. I’m singing, but I’m not really singing for the audience. I’m singing for the gods.” And these upcoming concerts will find her doing just that, at a grand piano angled so she’ll face the audience in profile: a position I’ve heard her describe as “defenseless.” She clarifies, “It’s defenseless in that you can’t get up, but you can get up. And I have done it.” And I’ve seen her do it. The piano bench is pushed back forcefully and she stands, turning to confront the unlucky, but boisterous audience member. She recalls a recent incident in Scotland, “I just said, ‘Stop the show! House lights! Who’s the bitch? Shut up! No one’s paying to hear you fucking sing so you shut your fucking mouth or I’ll come out there and take you out.’” And does this tactic actually work? Galas claims the offending party usually stands and apologizes. “Then it’s fine, but I really would prefer not to start my shows doing that sort of thing. It’s boring, but I do it when it’s necessary because I need to get on with it, you know?”
Okay, so it’s not “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” but Galas hasn’t got much patience for that either. Please read no further, Elton John. “I don’t know how singer/songwriters play. I don’t really like that tradition of piano. Usually they’re not very good. My education was in Liszt and Chopin and Bach,” she says, “so I’m a total snob when it comes to piano playing. I mean, if you’re going to play the piano, I wanna see it. I want to see Duke Ellington up there. If I see anything that even remotely smells like Elton John, I’ll fucking throw a turd.” That’s not to say Galas pooh-poohs all popular music. In fact, some of the singers Galas finds inspirational are downright unlikely coming from her, although she coyly claims she can’t imagine why. “I love Doris Day,” she screams across the table when I mention the 50s icon, “I adore her! Doris Day never breaks timbre. She sings a line with a perfect ligatto and she never breaks it. She respects the song and does everything in service to it. She was a different person than Peggy Lee. She doesn’t swing as hard, but that doesn’t matter. Her voice, it’s just extraordinary. Sure, some of the songs she sang were garbage, but some of the songs Judy Garland sang were garbage. Still, if you hear Judy balancing ‘Never, Never Will I Marry,’ you go, man, that bitch can swing!”
It’s an interest Galas can trace straight back to her childhood. “I’m somebody who came from a father who said, ‘Fuck the singers, listen instrumentally,’” she remembers, “but my brother being, you know, a theatrical homosexual, he had all the singers: Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan. He had them on all the time so I would hear them. He would sing and I would play the piano for him. Then I said, ‘Honey, I am tired of being the straight man around here sitting at the piano playing for you. One of these days I am going to stand up. I am a real woman. I can stand up too, alright?’” Still, being born female into a strict Greek household didn’t make standing up any easier. The Galas legend has it that her father, himself a jazz musician, encouraged her piano playing, but frowned on the young Diamanda singing because that was something whores did to advertise their services. Eventually, Galas left home and fell in with a pack of black, street-walking trannies in Oakland — a re-birth on the margins, in so many ways — and they not only taught her how to put on makeup, but told her she could sing and did so beautifully. And an outlaw was born.
Back at the table, we’ve somehow made the leap from Doris Day to Tammy Wynette. We’re debating whether or not her husband held her hostage on an opiate drip, shooting her up with speed once a day to hit the stage. Galas adores Wynette as well, but isn’t willing to see herself reflected in that cracked country mirror. “I’ve never been attached to an IV machine,” she jokes, “I mean, I’m ready now, but as far as that’s concerned, no, I’ve never had a man running my career. Those country women, that’s a hard life, but these are people that came from nothing. I didn’t come from nothing. I came from a solid middle class background. People write shit about me that’s so insulting to my parents because they came from nothing. They came from the shoe factories and the brick yards: the worst, hardest life. But by the time I was born, I was given piano lessons. I was raised in San Diego. People have this idea I came from this impoverished, immigrant family and that’s not true. I decided to work the streets for my own reasons, but that was my choice, not because of my family.”
Still, her family does have a curious push pull on her career. Her brother Philip, who died from AIDS in 1986, propelled Galas into doing some of her most compelling work, including 1990’s legendary AIDS memoriam Plague Mass that she began at ground zero, San Francisco in 1984, and launched her trilogy on the subject. Yet she has no sentimental thoughts about the 25-anniversary of AIDS. Her emotions are more tied to individuals she’s lost. She remembers her “gay husband” Carl Valentino, saying, “I loved Carl so much and I can’t believe that he’s dead. I can’t stand it.” She recalls the yearly depression around the anniversary of her brother’s death. “I revisit it every July/August, horribly.” But an anniversary of the disease, itself? “It’s disgusting,” Galas replies. Her knuckles are tatooed with the words “we are all hiv+.” She wraps them on the table and I jokingly tell her it’s very Kenneth Cole. “Can’t Kenneth Cole just concentrate on his clothing line?” she spits, “why does he want to be like Benetton? I was burning Benetton ads on the stage in 1992.” Of that retailers corpse campaign to sell clothing, Galas continues, “I could not stand it. It hurt me and my parents so much. It was so painful. And when Kenneth Cole gets involved in shit like that, look, he’s rich enough. He doesn’t need to make himself look like a nice person. Why doesn’t he just give money to the organizations instead of giving people public lectures?”
“I went there the other day to get something for my father,” Galas says, “and the sales guy said, ‘Oh, we just did something like that too,’ pointing out my tattoo. I said, ‘Are you aware that this is a disease? I put this on my hand not just because my brother died from it, but because I lost so many people, as we all have.’ For Kenneth Cole to be pushing a message in his shoe ads, it’s disgusting. We’re talking about the context. It’s, ‘See our new spring catalogs!’ And to see all these actresses lined up, doing it now? You know, I used to get so much shit for this in 1992, from customs and immigration. But I don’t revisit things like the anniversary of the epidemic. What do I care? I take it person by person. Otherwise it’s like saying you care about everyone who’s ever died of AIDS. Well, I know lots of people who’ve died of AIDS. I hated then when they were alive and I hate them now that they’re dead. Who the fuck cares? I am routinely known to say, ‘Oh my God, he’s still alive?’” Oddly, her gallows humor is also something she inherited from her brother and Valentino. “They disliked my sympathy for homosexuals,” Galas explains, “but I prefer to be in the company gay men. I mean, I don’t like these furniture queens, but they don’t like me either. It all comes down to tradition. And the tradition of Greek mourning is you mourn to move ahead. You mourn to kill the person who killed you loved one or in order to move ahead with your life. You mourn to try and right a wrong or to get stronger. Or you mourn just to get paid, but you don’t mourn to wallow in your tears. Life’s hard enough.”