No Rest for the Wicked
By Noah Michelson
Diamanda Gal's has been called "the Bride of Satan," "the Diva of Disease," and "a cross between Elvira and Morticia Adams" -- and that's just by music journalists. The classically trained pianist with a three and a half octave range -- the staggering use of which regularly inspires comparisons to Greek opera singer Maria Callas -- is known for her controversial (to say the least) opinions and her you've-got-to-see-them-to-believe-them concerts featuring an arresting combination of performance art, political protest, and punk bravado.
Gal's is perhaps most widely recognized for The Plague Mass, which she performed covered in cow's blood at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1990. Considered by many to be her masterwork, the Plague Mass is drawn from excerpts of her trilogy of albums collectively entitled The Masque of the Red Death begun by Gal's in the early '80s at the dawning of the AIDS epidemic. The piece serves as a scathing indictment of both the Roman Catholic Church and society at large for ignoring and condemning those suffering from or killed by AIDS -- including her brother and many of her close friends.
Never one to mince words, Gal's is infamous for her biting, often shocking commentary on politics, culture, and art and her interview with Out.com certainly does not disappoint. She phoned from Spain -- where her current European tour had just landed -- to talk about her new live cover album of homicidal love songs, why she thinks Elton John is a 'horrible little midget corpse,' and the similarities between Britney Spears' voice and radioactive worms.
Out: I heard someone refer to you as a 'gay icon' yesterday -- does that title work for you?
Diamanda Gal's: That's delightful! There cannot be a greater honor bestowed upon a female and I'll tell you why. With the exception of those queers who are avidly buying diapers and emulating straight culture -- to be a gay icon means people who have a disposable income by straight standards are spending it on you rather than spending it on fucking diapers. And the fact is that most of my male friends are gay and we have a similar sense of humor. I'm not talking about those 'furniture queens' who despise me and whom I despise. It's a good thing. I'll put it this way -- it puts you in a much more immortal embrace than it does to be a -- heaven forbid -- straight icon, whatever that is. [Laughs] And because my brother was gay -- it's really nice. Then on the other hand there are queers that we really hate. If I heard that Elton John was following my every move I'd get really depressed. I talked to this queer the other day and he said, 'Don't you know about Elton?' And I said, 'No! Tell me everything!' And he said, 'Elton -- he's the only piano player that uses playbacks for his performances.'
Really? Is that true?
I just shrieked! I said, 'No wonder he's so jealous of Madonna.' Because she does playback perfectly. He must just despise her because at least she's a singer doing playback, not a piano player doing playback. There cannot be anything more ignominious than that.
Especially when that's his bread and butter.
And it's dreadful piano playing! And he's a dreadful, dreadful, horrible little midget corpse! Just horrendous. I can see how someone who's that ugly -- who suddenly showed up 15 years into the epidemic when it was too late to save practically anyone -- who suddenly said, "I'm gay" and nobody cared -- would be completely jealous of Madonna. I'm sure he spends hours at night howling in the bathroom about how he can't look like her. I love that thought. It just thrills my soul.
You've mentioned in the past that your drag queen friends were really the first ones to champion your voice.
It was an odd remembrance several years ago that I was singing with them on the street and one of them said, 'You should be singing!' and It was kind of an incredible thing because this was from a drag queen who was pretty vicious when she didn't like something. At the time we were listening to everybody from Stylistics to Sylvester -- everything around that time when Chaka Kahn was really singing. That was a time when people were really singing. I mean singing singing. I learned a lot from living with these broads. There was a lot about them that I wanted to emulate because they would be able to walk down the street with a knife and not be afraid of anyone, and you'd forget it was because they were a man. [Laughs] I'd say, 'What the fuck is it that you have that I'm missing?' I would realize that for one thing they were a foot taller for me and for another thing they were three feet wider than me. They were very big, very tough drag queens. These were real criminals. They were not criminals because they were drag queens -- they were criminals and also drag queens. It made me a little bit more intolerant of more gentrified drag queens. Like certain kinds of New York artist drag queens? They make me want to just cut their faces with a box cutter.
Like the ones who are hosting drag bingo?
What? What is this? I knew I'd learn something new today. Tell me!
There are places you can go and play bingo and it's hosted by drag queens. It's often a lot of straight tourists.
Oh no. That would hurt me! I don't know if bingo would hurt me but the combination of -- I only mention that because Murray Hill is a really sweet person and I met her once and liked her and she does that in the East Village with Hattie [Hathaway]. And I love Hattie, so I'm not going to say anything about that -- but any kind of gentrified drag action is not my scene. Drag queens are just like any other group. Any drag queen is going to be different from the next. There are some drag queens that really hate women and I really hate them. And then there are some that are just lovable. And then there are some that are both. I have some friends that are pretty much both. But they get it from me when they act up. It's like, 'Watch yourself bitch. Just fucking watch it. You might have studied my shit bitch, but you know what? You aren't a woman, so fuck you!' It has to get ugly but then we're laughing at the same time. Anyone who hangs out with a drag queen and doesn't have a sense of humor can just forget it. And if a drag queen doesn't have a sense of humor she should just forget it because the whole idea in the first place is eminently laughable. It better be! [Laughs] Unless you hit the rag once a month sister, don't be talking to me about how you're a fucking 'natural woman' -- just shut up.
Tell me about your new album of 'tragic and homicidal love songs.' How did you go about picking which songs you wanted to cover on Guilty Guilty Guilty?
If the song hits me over the head and I feel I have to perform it, then that's when I do it. If I don't feel that way, then I don't do it. The song is constantly with you in the morning, in the night, you're hearing it, it haunts you. And it also relates to a person -- you're hearing it and it reminds you of this person. And the song is so sad it -- there are a lot of men that I've known and I'd like to call them or I'd like to see them but I know that's not going to happen. But I still have a relationship to them through these songs. I would prefer not to at the time -- but there's this song... [Laughs] There's this fucking song and it's as if the person is in the room kind of taunting me saying 'I'm still alive,' and I'm thinking 'Listen -- you are only alive by virtue of the $100,000 in bail money that I don't have, otherwise you'd be fucking dead!' It's kind of a reverse hex because it's like 'I can't afford to kill you. You're still in my fucking head. And even if I did kill you, you'd still be in my fucking head.' And that's what those songs are to me -- they're omens. That's why I do them. Otherwise I would just say 'eh.' All of these songs are like that -- almost every one of them has a person or a few of them have the same person associated with them.