Breaking into the Vault: Waste Paper #24, Aug. ’89

New Album Review: Diamanda Galas: You Must Be Certain of the Devil LP (Restless/US/1988)

This is the final installment in Diamanda Galas’s “Masque of the Red Death Plague,” a trilogy dealing, at least partly, with her brother’s death from AIDS. I say partly because Galas’s extraordinary handling of this material does what all great art must: she transmutes the particular into the general, the concrete into the universal.

“You Must Be Certain of the Devil is a powerful and moving testament of love, grief and a wild, bitter anger. We find here that cold rage and clear-eyed candor that comes out of the personal confrontation with one’s own feelings: the songs are neither maudlin nor merely angry in the way they address the listener’s most private, and consequently most universal, fears; for here are the demons that plague the human soul: not only death, but the loss of love and community that accompanies a death that first marks its victims as the Unclean, the pariahs of our society: not just to die, but to die alone, feared, despised, hated.

Ultimately, what these songs are about is quarentine – the power to exclude, to isolate, to banish.

Nothing appeals to the New Right’s sense of downhome fascism as the thought of another purification ritual, whether it is the purging of its own ranks or the excommunication of those it identifies as social, moral or sexual deviants.

Far be it from these paragons of virtue and righteousness to worry about what Michel Foucault called the
‘indignity of speaking for others’; their intent is in fact to speak loud enough so that no other might be heard, so that their voice is the only one heard crying in the wilderness.

Neitzsche noted long ago that ‘all religions are at the deepest level systems of cruelties’ in which the social bond between individuals must, always and finally, be founded in blood and terror: the Bible is a story of redemption only because it is also a story of retribution, of revenge.

“You Must Be Certain of the Devil’ speaks not at all of AIDS, of the course of a disease through an individual or a community; it is instead a slant discourse, a speaking in tongues that drip with a venomous contempt and hard, brittle laughter at all the poor, bare defenses we bring to bear against the recognition of the fact that all disease, AIDS most especially, are human: are endured, suffered and repeated in humans who live and die in the grips of a contact they are powerless to deny or defy.

The material here is much more accessible than it has been on earlier efforts, perhaps because of the need to communicate what she really feels: the message is too important to garble. Here, the words are clear and biting, the famous shouts, screams, swoops and shrieks, the layers upon layers of howling, the thick, dark flux of noise is dissolved in a kind of minimalism.

“Let’s Not Chat About Despair” confronts the bigotry of AIDS discrimination not by trying to deny the reality of the disease, but by insisting upon it: ‘Do you pray each evening out of horror or of fear/to the savage God whose bloody hand/ commands you now to die alone?.. Do you wait for miracles in small hotels/with Seconal and Compazine/or for a ticket to the house of death in Amsterdam?’ And the others, those of us who surround the dying with the presence, the illusion, of health and well-being, who sit back and talk of their dying: ‘…who mix the words of torture, suicide, and death/with scotch and soda at the bar,/we’re all real decent people, aren’t we/but there’s no time left for talk… Let’s not chat about despair.’

The mystery of loss, of the irreparable breach between living and dying is addressed in ‘Birds Of Death’ with its harrowing chorus: ‘Lights Out/Lights Out/Lights Out/Lights Out: Let My People Go’ finds a bleak humour in the idea that, since God is All Powerful, he must have allowed the Devil to create our deaths: ‘The Devil has designed my death/and he’s waiting to be sure/that plenty of his black sheep die before he finds a cure/…O Lord Jesus, do you think I’ve served my time?’

And, finally, in ‘Malediction,’ Galas gives full vent to the vision of horror, pain and helplessness that comes with this exile into disease, into the nothingness that is allowed when we deny any in the human community their place at our side: ‘The arms that you cut off the body/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.’

Diamanda Galas website

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