It may soon be time
For you to guard a dying man
Until the angels come.
Let’s not chat about despair.
If you are a man (and not a coward)
You will grasp the hand of him denied by mercy
Until his breath becomes your own.
In 1983, the AIDS virus was first isolated, after years of deaths from rare pneumonias, cancers, and other illnesses mysteriously plagued communities. The virus had been present in the United States since at least the mid-1970s, affecting namely men who had sex with other men. Research into this disease was slow, with Ronald Reagan famously laughing at the plight of the homosexuals. The disease’s target was the morally impure, it seemed. Consequently, some sectors of American life, the so-called “Silent Majority,” welcomed its spread. Now, one might question how a group of evangelicals fancying themselves the righteous followers of a merciful God would turn their backs on those that require help and mercy. How could they deny their brethren’s humanity?
The darkness of humanity and its hypocrisy are familiar themes for Diamanda Galás. Her work is intense, taking the listener from the highest levels of heaven to the lowest of hell within moments. To listen to her is to be enveloped in emotions, though never in mere sadness. Galás does not deal in such baseness. Armed with an operatically trained three-and-a-half octave range, the full breadth of the human voice is available to her. Few would describe her music as beautiful. It is nearer a score of rented flesh and the conjuring of the souls of the dead. Vowels are elongated into wails of a forgotten crone, words replaced with tongues that fuel the listener with empowerment, fury, and the breathlessness of the thoughts in the latest, loneliest of nights.
On her three part album The Masque of the Red Death, later renamed as her Plague Mass, Galás explores the terror of one flung unwillingly into existential turmoil. In it, she combines readings from Leviticus, Lamentations, and gothic poets to condemn the Death Cult that has overtaken the United States, and, as we are now seeing, the world. Death itself is an easy enough subject to explore—literature is full of elegies, laments, and more to explore its accompanying sadness and fear, after all—but few have the wherewithal to comfort and walk with the dying and abandoned.
The first part of the album, The Divine Punishment, explores the AIDS epidemic from the viewpoint of the moralists. It is comprised of two songs of her characteristic epic length. Screeching biblical passages with the righteous hatred of a Calvinist preacher backed by groans, chains, and ritualistic drumbeats, Galás creates an environment of panic. However, as the album concludes, Galás cries in Italian, proclaiming herself the butcher’s meat, the shit of God, the Antichrist Herself. When marked as monsters, we eventually take the role forced upon us. We may as well revel in it. This leads into Saint of the Pit, easily the most difficult portion of the work.
Saint of the Pit charts misery. With texts from Baudelaire and Nerval, self-hatred and blame are the focus. Wails over drones and synth-like wind carry desperation. With many men having lost scores of friends, lovers, and their families turning their backs to them in the name of justice, her use of “Artémis” and its line “Love the one who loves you from the cradle to the grave” hearkens the pleas of the dispossessed lying on their deathbed, a skeletal being demanding even the slightest moment of reprieve.
The final act of this Mass is entitled You Must Be Certain of the Devil,that old Christian wisdom re-enshrined. Galás forges into the realms of dance, and the title track itself is a gospel. It is a defiant, proud call for the alleged Damned to take action delivered in the character of televangelist. Though written over thirty years ago as a response to the AIDS crisis, it is unnerving how her lyrics are still applicable to this day.
You who speak of crowd control, of karma,
or the punishment of God:
Let’s not chat about despair.
Do you fear the cages they are building in
Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas
While they’re giving ten to forty years to find a cure?
Let’s not chat about despair.
To this day, the zealous wield their hatred to condemn their fellow humans in the name of God. The verb “chat” is chosen purposefully; such a blasé word jars the listener as she describes the depth of brutality the victims face. We can sit and talk, remaining “civil” as so many want to do, while scores of people die around us. However, the time for speaking has long passed, and we must openly defy the Cult of Death.
Though Diamanda Galás herself may not be LGBTQ2S, this album is not mere performance or capitalising off of tragedy. In 1986, Galás lost her brother, the playwright Philip-Dimitri Galás, to the AIDS virus in 1986. Galás has described his passing as a “personal apocalypse” and has dedicated the work to his memory. Furthermore, one must acknowledge her involvement in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) from its inception, as well her protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in 1989. During a sermon by Cardinal John O’Connor, wherein he calls for his followers to care for the afflicted and sick, she and several other protestors hold a die-in, lying in the aisles as he speaks his empty words. She is arrested, but not after reciting the Lord’s Prayer and being hauled from the cathedral on a stretcher. It is an act that forces conversation in its controversy.
In times of illogicality and piety, we must reach across community lines to enact change. During the initial wave of the epidemic, lesbians cared for the sick when doctors themselves refused to treat those infected. Though it may be tempting to become more and more insular, relying on self-imposed barriers between ourselves, we cannot forget that the far right is ever more unified and eager to commit new atrocities. It has been 50 years since Stonewall, 53 since the Compton Cafeteria Riots, and 15 since the death of Reagan. We have seen progress come, but even now, the AIDS virus rages on, Nazis organise, and concentration camps are being constructed and maintained at the border. Civility can only serve so small a purpose when such violence enjoys such deep roots. Action must come. Galás sings in harsh, painful tones, and the listener invariably walks away emotionally drained yet galvanized. Her vocalisations call for revenge against the bloodied sword of righteousness and perverted helm of salvation. “There are no more tickets to the funeral,” she sings.
Will you watch in voyeuristic horror, or will you fight?
The arms that you cut off
of the screaming young man
dance before my eyes the endless murder of my soul
which, taunted every hour by open windows,
has kept itself alive with prayer,
but not for miracles,
and not for heaven.
Just for silence
and for mercy
until the end.
The full works of Diamanda Galás are now available for streaming on Spotify.
Listen to Plague Mass below.