PopMatters Events Editor
14 Feb 2006: Knitting Factory New York
Diamanda Galas isn’t goth. Well, not exactly. I mean sure, she wears all black. And yeah, she paints her face white and tromps around looking like Morticia Addams. But she’s not really goth. Oh hell, I don’t know. Maybe she is, like really, really goth. But she’s not the kind you’d find behind the counter at Hot Topic.
You see, Galas brags a four-octave range, and a lucidity of tone that’s made her the envy of every opera singer around. Her use of this gift must be the inspiration of similarly widespread contempt. To say that she screams is something of an understatement. Since the mid-‘80s she’s wailed and moaned in self-induced death-throes only to spew piercing tones back in strange, circular wails.
This is why I love her (despite my general disdain for face-painted creatures of the night). Who’s to say that evil is ugly, or that ugliness isn’t art? Avant-garde operatics may be as far from the mainstream as music gets, but it’s in that extremity that the art exists.
And it’s the art that draws me, that and a crazy thing called love. It’s Valentines day, and I’m not crying. In fact, it’s my fourth with my girlfriend. We’ve got this unspoken thing on V-day where we try to do something utterly absurd and unloving, some thing that totally distracts us from the occasion’s supposed weight. Thank god, because I really want to see Diamanda Galas. And what could be more distracting than the singer’s annual Valentines Day Massacre?
* * *
Like clockwork, Galas emerges, at exactly 10:30 (when was the last time your ticket stub got the time right?). The evening’s only performer, she makes a slow move towards a grand piano set at center stage. Well, it’s sort of center: the massive instrument positively dwarfs the Knitting Factory’s tiny setup—it’s also engulfing stage right and left.
Galas is dressed in trademark black, and even through the thick plumes of smoke, her pale face reflects the dim light. At first I think it’s because of the smoke that her face looks like that (yes, there’s lots of smoke), but soon I realize her face is actually painted white. Ok, so she’s goth; we’ve been over this. Her face is taut but strangely worn—she has been doing this for 20 years after all. It looks as if all the skin around her mouth has been pulled straight up her face. Her upper cheeks are bulby and round—like a skeleton with large, fleshy dimples.
There’s a seriousness in her eyes, one that speaks to the weight of tonight’s material. On her recent record, La Serpenta Canta, Galas reined in the skronk, replacing it with the sad, emotional wails of old blues standards. It’s this repertoire of blues and folk songs that she’ll share tonight.
Galas takes her place at the leys and begins to hammer a round of stark, unevenly placed tones. She tickles the pleasing and off-key notes alike, as if she’s running blues scales through John Cage’s piano. Her voice embraces her first selection quietly - breathy, southern-fried sounds falling rightly into place. She builds the number with little bravado, layering the slow tune with sullen (yet quiet) vocal scratches at the edges of each note. And then, as the tune’s protagonist expresses a particularly bitter sentiment, Galas rises around the words and her lungs begin to bellow.
She throws her voice into deep-throated blues-man barks only to skip three octaves into a sudden operatic shriek (Yoko Ono could only dream of pipes like this!). Galas’ voice sounds like some kind of otherworldly sound-effect, pumped through surround-sound speakers in a horror movie as the black-hearted demon begins sucking souls. Again, screaming isn’t really the word for what she does. She transports banshee cries from some dark realm of the soul, forcing them forth against their will as tattered sheets of sound.
As she reins the first song in, I’m more stupefied than stunned. This feeling continues as Galas makes equal headway through tunes by artists like Edith Piaf, Johnny Cash, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. But it’s a good feeling (well sort of). All art shouldn’t leave you smiling after all - some is meant to make you stare stupidly in awe.
Galas’ range is incredible and the millisecond shifts between the upper and lower extremes show virtuoso talent that I’ve never seen matched. What’s most affecting, though, are those wild wails. When she kicks into banshee mode, it’s so sobering that your eyes begin to widen and your nails bite the insides of your fists. Tracing the sounds to their source is as terrifying as hearing them: Galas’ mouth contorts around the notes, the edges of her lips drawing deeply into her cheeks, like some strange contortion of the jaw daring the skin to split.
In a whirlwind fury, Galas kicks through an hour of such bitter melodies, managing only to make one substantive comment to the audience (something about a bad review for one of the songs). As I’ve grown older I’ve taken to toe-tapping at shows, to waiting apprehensively as they draw towards an end. None of that tonight: I could listen to Galas for another five hours.
Of course, I won’t get the chance. The guy next to me whispers that she’s like clockwork: she hits the stage on time, does an hour, sings a one-song encore, and disappears.
And it looks like this clock is set as usual. Galas sneaks off only to emerge a few seconds later as the crowd loudly entreats her return. Is that a smile I see? Perhaps, but it’s quickly masked as she takes her seat and tear into “I Put a Spell On You” reaming the notes with an intensity that puts Screamin’ Jay to shame.
It’s sad, but there’s more to it than that. Galas inverts the song’s emotion, tugging at the more brazenly bitter moments of heartache and regret. It’s emo to the nth degree, taken beyond mere pining to an utterly vulnerable place. It’s stunning and thrilling and scary as shit.
As we walk from the room, my mind reels with the intensity of it all. If a distraction was what I sought, I’ve certainly gotten it. Of course, I didn’t manage to avoid doing something romantic. You see, as I walk I realize that the opposite of love isn’t goth—it’s something far less naïve and superficial. It’s not a dead spirit, but one wracked with uncorkable emotion. It’s a deep, mournful longing that knows no end. And one end understands the other—love and pain are the presence and absence of the same thing.
So maybe, I’m dancing on others’ graves, but so be it. Emerging from such depths (temporary though they were) has left me feeling utterly in love on Valentine’s day. And the reason I can feel it coursing through me so strongly is because I’m not goth, and neither is Galas.