In the world of entertainment, people are fond of slapping labels on things they don't understand. Some members of the press have been quick to label Diamanda Gals a "performance artist." Big, big mistake.
"I have no relationship at all to this schooltime, academic, low-temperature, Anglo-Saxon performance-art shit," qualifies Gals, 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 Gals' 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 Gals. 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, Gals 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, Gals 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 rsum 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 Gals 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 Gals 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 Gals, 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 Gals' 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 Gals and not just produce her. This meshed completely with what she had in mind.
"She'd done quite a lot of serious pieces, and was ready for something a bit more playful," he explains. "She wanted to do a rock album, so I had a pretty good idea how to put that across."
Gals, whose musical experience in the early Seventies included playing with free-jazz legend Ornette Coleman, had long admired Jones' work, even if she wasn't always sure it was him. "I'd be at a friend's house and they'd be playing Led Zeppelin and I'd say, 'What is that killer rhythm section?' The Jones/Bonham thing. That is a motherfucker rhythm section. That's the kind of rhythm section that my voice would enjoy handling."
Before actually getting together, Gals and Jones sent each other demos for several months with "little, funny notes." Says Gals, "I'd send him stuff with voice and Hammond organ and then he'd send me stuff with bass and programmed drums. And I was working on my stuff for about a month before I heard his stuff. When I heard his bass line and the drums to 'Do You Take This Man?', I fuckin' screamed!"
Jones adds, "After the first night together, we made the decision not to make an album with any guitars, which was a relief to us all. I mean, where would we put them? Plus, I used a lot of eight-string bass, which is an old trick I used in the Led Zeppelin days live. It gives you all these 12-string harmonies."
If Jones seems deliriously happy about not having to work with a guitarist, it's because he--unlike his former partners Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, currently looking worse for the wear and tear on MTV's unLEDded special--doesn't want to coast on former glories. "John's just happy to get a new sound," Gals states. "He's not interested in re-creating the Zeppelin sound. Everybody's after him to do that, all these bands like Primal Scream or something, because there's all these Zeppelin look-alike contests."
Not that you can mistake that rhythm section for anything else once it kicks in. What will surprise a lot of people about The Sporting Life is hearing just how much the trademark Zeppelin sound hinged upon Jones' contributions. "A lot of people have gone to this album saying, 'Oh, it's Led Zeppelin-influenced,'" says Gals. "Well, do they ever stop to think that maybe Zeppelin was John Paul Jones-influenced?" "Skótseme" ("Kill Me" in Greek), the opening track, is, indeed, very Jones-influenced. It features the power and majesty of his old band's greatest moments, with his lap-steel playing recalling "In the Light" and "In the Evening." But then add Gals' demented voice, bending and twisting like a whammy bar on a Stratocaster from hell. Gals coaxes notes out of her throat that have been missing in action since Hendrix's "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The Zeppelin similarities pretty much end there. You can't mistake The Sporting Life for Houses of the Holy as far as subject matter is concerned. Instead of Tolkien references, you get songs that chronicle the thin line between love and hate, sadomasochism and marriage, insanity and just someone with a twisted idea of what fun is. It has songs about hiding the cutlery from an unstable romantic partner ("Baby's Insane"), about a prostitute killing her john just to watch him die ("The Sporting Life") and about a demonic curse that is so evil, it can't even be translated ("Hex"). To record such a difficult piece as "Hex" required Gals to submerge herself into a sort of hypnotic trance.
Wasn't Jones, as producer, just a wee bit intimidated by Gals' otherworldly display of vocal prowess, enough to maybe not make her do another take of the song for fear she'd burst into flames?
"Sometimes, after she'd done a take, I'd look over at Pete [Thomas] and we'd be shaking," Jones admits.
But Gals is a professional. Don't you kids try this at home!
"I snap right out of it, because it's a heavy level of concentration," says Gals. "I'm used to doing it for years. It's my job. In a way, it's like being an athlete. You do the long jump and then afterwards, when your friends are around, you're not jumping all over the fucking room."
All this would seem pretty morose if The Sporting Life didn't have at least a few chuckles to it. "There's a lot of sarcasm and humor here that you could never have in Plague Mass," Gals allows. "Because Plague Mass is a work of tragedy, about a tragic situation. Love affairs or obsessive relationships may be unfortunate, but most of the time, people know what they're getting into; you can't call it a tragic situation when you're certainly in it as well as the other one. I think that would be self-pitying. And there's enough of that horseshit in the alternative-music scene."
"She never sounds like she feels sorry for herself," says Jones. "One night, we were sitting at the piano, and I had the Motown song book, and we played everything," he remembers. One could only imagine what "Seven Rooms of Gloom" or "Standing in the Shadows of Love" sound like bereft of pity. Jones suggested that Gals cover James Carr's brooding soul classic "The Dark End of the Street," long regarded as soul music's ultimate cheating song. Gals, in turn, strips the song of all its shame. "It sounds like she's delighted she's getting away with something," Jones says, snickering. Until now, Gals has never had to release a single and make an accompanying video. Mute Records has chosen "Do You Take This Man?", with its Peter Gunn-driven rhythm section, to go toe to toe with Madonna's latest in the pop marketplace. Gals spits out those beloved marriage vows, largely spoken, with battery acid dripping over every syllable. It sounds like the kind of recording Tina Turner might've made had she lost her mind after Ike hit her with the phone too many times.
"I don't know exactly how it works, really, this record-company shit," says Gals. "We made a video for it, and I've got this whole thing where I've got this guy chained up to a wall and we got this knife up against him, so they're [MTV] not playing it. But they don't mind playing that stupid fuck Snoop Doggy Dogg talking about corn-holing bitches all over the place."
In "Do You Take This Man?", a woman is stuck with a deadbeat husband intent on shirking his sexual duties. But unlike a man in a similar situation, she doesn't have the luxury of having a papal injunction slapped on her spouse.
"The man says he's not doing it anymore; he's not interested. And she says, 'God, I'm sorry you feel that way, but that's not really gonna change my situation,'" says Gals. "It's based in a tragic characteristic that the person is obsessive, possessive and a bit nuts; no matter what she does, she's gonna do it that way, and that's too bad. But if you've lived it, you've gotta laugh at that. Because otherwise you'll jump off a fuckin' building!"
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At this point, you may be wondering how Gals is weathering the influx of beer-guzzlin' Zeppelin freaks into her fan base and the infusion of hard rock with her audience.
"I think that some people who like me don't like me sharing the stage with anyone. And I'm sure some of his [Jones'] audience is like, 'Who is that fuckin' bitch up there? Get the fuck off the stage.' But both of us get a real kick out of that. So far, it's been very good. In Chicago, these kind of good ol' boys were there screaming, 'The song remains the same!' And I said, 'No, it doesn't, motherfucker!' Everybody started laughing. John got a real laugh out of that."
Diamanda Gals, and John Paul Jones are scheduled to perform on Friday, December 2, at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m.