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"I have no relationship at all to this schooltime, academic, low-temperature, Anglo-Saxon performance-art shit," qualifies Galás, calling from Lincoln, Nebraska, midway through her current tour. "I'm Greek. I come from a very ancient context of performance. I'm much more related to performance in the days of fuckin' Caligula and Nero. That's something I like being obnoxious about."
Got that? Good! Actually, it's a mighty tall order trying to pin down the self-proclaimed "bitch diva queen" to one all-encompassing category. Her music contains elements of opera, jazz, R&B and gospel, and has a defiant edge that you'd classify as punk. All of these influences manifest themselves in her latest album, The Sporting Life, done in collaboration with John Paul Jones. Clearly, the perfect tag for Diamanda Galás' music would be "alternative," since there isn't anything else around like her. Diamanda agrees that if the Cranberries can be considered alternative, then a viable alternative to the current alternative-music scene is, indeed, necessary.
"Schools of self-pity that call themselves movements in music--what's alternative about that? It sucks, man!" As for the crybaby practitioners of grunge, she offers this sound bite of advice. "Go fuckin' hang yourselves and shut the fuck up! I know too many people in hospitals with agendas that are really, really fuckin' horrifying. I don't give a fuck about some rich teenager who can't get it together."
Truly, the current crop of alternative performers is little different than the smarmy, crowd-pleasing mainstream celebs it attempts to provide relief from. A new artist in this day and age is unlikely to piss somebody off, thereby running the risk of not getting asked back to the MTV Video Awards.
When it comes to almost-shocking levels of honesty, there's nary a band among the current crowd of rock rebels that can touch Galás. In Plague Mass, her pet title for Masque of the Red Death Trilogy, a theatre piece about the horror of AIDS, she performs doused with more blood than Carrie on prom night. She also hangs naked on a cross and lambastes the Catholic Church for its callous treatment of AIDS victims, something that has led the Italian press--after a performance in that country--to label her "sacrilegious, blasphemous and cursed."
Since her first recording, The Litanies of Satan, in 1982, this avant-garde composer, musician, poet and singer has shocked the complacent (read: almost everybody) with her cutting social commentary and her stunning--often head-splitting--three-and-a-half-octave vocal range. To date, Galás has gained her biggest dose of notoriety for the aforementioned Plague Mass, a work of tragedy that thrusts audiences to the center of AIDS suffering, embodying both the disease and its stigma. That's quite a far cry from how most entertainers prefer to deal with AIDS, performing innocuous, "caring" anthems like "That's What Friends Are For" and wearing ribbons to show that celebrities have good hearts when cameras are clicking away. Given the provocative and confrontational nature of her recordings, and especially of her live performances, Galás would seem to be tailor-made for a massive rock audience. But until now, she hasn't gone after that segment of the music-listening public.
Enter John Paul Jones.
Even if he had not been one-fourth of the world's greatest hard-rock band for 11 years (Led Zeppelin--ever hear of it?), Jones would still have the coolest résumé in all of rock. He's done string arrangements for everybody from the Rolling Stones ("She's a Rainbow") to R.E.M. ("Everybody Hurts") to Lulu ("To Sir With Love"). He's played in sessions for more than 100 artists, ranging from Sammy Davis Jr. at the height of his peace-and-love phase to the New York Dolls. How's this for range--he's produced Ben E. King and the Butthole Surfers, who once released a Zeppelin-inspired album titled Hairway to Steven.
On The Sporting Life, Jones and Galás forged an unholy alliance with Attractions drummer Pete Thomas, bringing their immense talents to the fore as the power trio to end all power trios. (Because of Thomas' other commitments, Denny Fongheiser has been pounding the pagan skins for this tour, but Galás promises that "Denny's a motherfucker, too!")
Before embarking on this tour, which started in September in the Reeperbahn, home to Hamburg's notorious whoring district and arguably the world's naughtiest street, John Paul Jones spoke via telephone from London about this one-off project with Galás, the first album to bear Jones' name on its spine and the first tour he's embarked on since the dissolving of Led Zeppelin in 1980.
"I've thought about doing a solo album from time to time, but somebody always calls me to do something else and saves me," says Jones, laughing. It was Jones' wife who brought Galás' theatre piece Wild Women With Steak-Knives to his attention some 12 years ago. After attending a performance of Masque of the Red Death in 1989, Jones let it be known that he wanted to collaborate with Galás and not just produce her. This meshed completely with what she had in mind.