"I don't think that women are hormonally constituted to be passive. I think that's something that is a male indoctrination."
Greek-American singer and composer, b. San Diego 1955-08-29.
A singer with a unique, powerful, three and a half octave vocal range who doesn't hesitate to use it as a weapon. Violently passionate, arrogant, politically incorrect,
uncompromising and raw, Galas embodies the banshee of conscience, the high priestess of an unforgiving goddess who accepts no excuses. In terms of vocal quality, she's been compared to Maria Callas but is probably more versatile and expressive than the late diva.
Trained as a classical pianist but from a strict Greek Orthodox family where singing in the house was frowned upon even though her father was a musician, Galas grew up surrounded by very different kinds of music. On one hand her Greek heritage, more precisely from the part of southern Laconia known as Mani, long the land of blood feuds and dirges; on the other hand her father's jazz music and the jazz and blues musicians she worked with herself later and who gave her a inside view of black music a white woman would normally be denied.
Her music expresses deep feelings based on experience. Number one on her hit list is AIDS. She was already working on a musical project about AIDS when her brother, playwright Philip Dimitri Galas was diagnosed with the disease ("He was a strong man, a genius, a great writer. He was a fucking homosexual..."). She herself is hepatitis C positive and has "We Are All HIV+" tattooed across the fingers of her left hand. Her musical and performance art training, her education as a neurochemist and immunologist and the personal experience of seeing her brother and her friends die as well as her own experience walking the streets in the company mostly of drag queens (she quit when she "realised she was probably a better piano player than criminal") gave her not only the insight but also the background knowledge and artistic skill to express the desperation of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s. Ever since, that's been a central theme of her work. The Masque of the Red Death trilogy is an absolutely merciless attack on a society that promotes deadly ignorance and bigotry. Her later work is no less violent. This woman is angry and to be feared, not just reckoned with. When she lets loose her trademark shriek, she's not showing off--she means business. Her music is not for the faint-hearted.
The number of different projects she's worked on and their variety is amazing. Galas has done everything a singer can do, from opera to gospel (indeed, she's probably one of few women alive with the voice and soul for real gospel) to rock and back. She writes much of her own material and has written music for a number of films. She also switches between English, French, Greek and Italian as the nature of the music requires her to, often including passages from the Bible, Charles Baudelaire, St. Thomas Aquinas, Phil Ochs and others and drawing musical influences from an amazing variety of sources. Although she does prefer to have full artistic control over her work, she's collaborated with many other musicians and composers including John Paul Jones, with whom she made The Sporting Life (street slang for her former life as a prostitute), Jane's Addiction, and Nick Cave.
Her work as a performer is based on her music and more often than not takes after an opera or a mass in structure and is centred around a theme, as in Tragoudia Apo to Aima Ehon Fonos (Songs From the Blood of Those Murdered) in which she summons her ancestral spirits and unleashes them on the murderous Greek junta that ended in 1974. She reprised her Greek theme in Defixiones: Orders From the Dead, which addresses the genocides of the early 20th century in Asia Minor.
"Arrested at St. Patrick's. Performing at St. John's."
Her acts have earned her the outrage of Pat Robinson and the Vatican and many others who denounce her as a satanist and a witch and have given her every epithet in the dictionary and some not found in it. Her most notorious clash with organised religion was in 1990 when she first got herself arrested for trespassing in St. Patrick's in New York and then performed the Plague Mass in the cathedral of St. John the Divine... stripped to the waist and covered in blood... and in Italian, which left no one in doubt of the meaning of her words. It's reasonable to believe that the promoters were not intimate with her work.
I had the opportunity to attend her Plague Mass in 1991 and it was an experience, partly due to the venue. Here's this slender, almost blind woman standing half-naked on a chilly hilltop armed with nothing but a voice and a presence and there she is drawing raw chaos from the bowels of the earth and hurling it at the objects of her displeasure. She speaks with the voice of the furies and we mortals better damn well listen. And, if we're not listening, she'll damn well make us listen.
"Gloom to me is a state of passivity. I much prefer the idea of dying alive to the idea of living dead."
Of course, this being very uneasy listening, it's hard to recommend something to start with. If your mainstay is rock, choose The Sporting Life. If you prefer your music a capella or jazz-like, Malediction and Prayer might be the most suitable. For something more gothic, Plague Mass and, in a more blues-like vein, The Singer. For individual tracks, try Let My People Go (from You Must Be Certain of the Devil) and Gloomy Sunday (from The Singer). Be warned, she takes some getting used to. A LOT of getting used to.
Factual sources: numerous
Original text for E2