Lydia Lunch is legendary. If not for the wildly experimental music she has made in her own bands and in collaboration with Nick Cave, Henry Rollins, Sonic Youth, Einsturzende Neubauten, and The Birthday Party, then for her ability to eviscerate reporters. Take this exchange with a reporter in Vancouver in 1996, for example–
Reporter: Do you still feel like committing suicide?
Lunch: I never wanted to commit suicide but I’m always ready for murder.
When I was in my twenties I used to say, ‘I will be the oldest living woman of rage.’
Lunch’s primal urges in tandem with her saber-tongued braggadocio started rattling cages back in the late seventies when her band Teenage Jesus and The Jerks was playing CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City in downtown Manhattan, capturing the attention of Brian Eno, and epitomizing the so-called “no-wave” movement, which, by the way, is not the same as “punk rock”. Lunch explains the difference this way:
If you say punk, or blues or jazz or country, you have a pretty specific knowledge of what that’s going to sound like. When you say no-wave, you have no idea. All you know is that it’s going to make you uncomfortable. It’s not going to sound like any of the other things that are no-wave. It’s going to be dissonant. It’s not really audience-friendly. There may or may not be pop melodies. And there’s not only brutality there, but there’s an absolute absence of empathy for the audience because it is a personal insanity that rings through the blood like a metallic knife that if you don’t let it out in a tantrum will kill you or cause you to kill somebody else. That’s as clear as I can be.
Talk about art therapy! Lunch still adheres to a therapeutic definition of art, in the extreme–
No-wave is a personal insanity that rings through the blood like a metallic knife that if you don’t let it out in a tantrum will kill you or cause you to kill somebody else. That’s as clear as I can be.
I used to say, when I was in my twenties , ‘I will be the oldest living woman of rage.’ What has kept me going and why I feel I need to continue is because I will be the voice for those who share the dilemma of existence. Who are not only chronically dissatisfied but are absolutely furious about the state of life as we know it on this incredible planet, which is being destroyed. I have to be the voice for those who cannot scream. I’ve felt that since I was twelve or thirteen.
At the same tender age, Lunch encountered literature—
I had been writing terrible poems, from the age of 11. Misanthropic, already. Hubert Selby, Henry Miller, Jean Genet, Marquis de Sade, Freud, Jung, all were very influential to me, because they decided to write about the extremities of their life. How I came across these books in upstate New York, pre-Internet, in a used bookstore, I have no idea.
Dropping out of high school, Lydia moved to New York City.
Originally when I went to New York, I thought I would do spoken word. But it was an in-between period where there really wasn’t spoken word. A few years later, Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins, Exene Cervenka, Wanda Coleman, and other poets and spoken word artists were coming up. I had to start with music to get the words across.
Fairly soon, Lydia found her way into New York’s literary scene. John Giorno included her among his stable of Dial-a-Poem poets, who left their work on an answering machine that listeners could call in to hear. The answering machine tapes eventually made it onto a series of LPs. One album displays a rogues’ gallery that juxtaposes Lunch with such luminaries as Meridith Monk, David Johansen, and William Burroughs, the éminence grise of the bunch. By the 80s, Burroughs was already known for placing his imprimatur on highly improbable people and projects. Did he have that relationship with Lunch?
“I didn’t really have much contact with Burroughs,” Lunch recalls. “Look, I was a twenty-something punk, female. He didn’t know anything about me.” But she got Burroughs’ allure for the punk generation, which consisted, for one thing, in “his bold disconcern,” she asserts. “He really did not care what you thought: very punk. His lifestyle of travel, of going to Tangier, of admitting what he was obsessed with. Inventing a new form of literature.”
I need these different vehicles to express myself to those who might be interested in being overdosed by some hard-core female warrior energy.
Lunch engages with Burroughs’ literary form in her spoken word performance “In the Beginning Was the Word”, in which she cuts her own stories into Burroughs’ passages. The Burroughs performance is just the first in a series of literary evenings she’s planning to call “Dirty Old Men”, in homage to those early heroes of hers.
In addition to her spoken word performances, Lydia Lunch keeps busy touring the world with her bands Retrovirus and Big Sexy Noise, curating art shows, writing a cookbook, and holding workshops. “I need these different vehicles to express myself, ” Lunch explains, “and to offer what it is that it is that I have to offer for those who might be interested in being overdosed by some hard-core female warrior energy.”
Lydia’s schedule begs the question of where all that energy comes from. “I’m a junky of adrenalin, and energy,” she insists, “and not artificial stimulants, though I do still endorse them, when used in moderation and for the right reasons.'”
The self-described hedonist still asserts the urgency of pleasure; she just has a different way of defining it these days—
The average person, who might have heard one thing I did in all these years, would not assume that I am a chronic snuggler and a serial hugger.
We have got to, with friends, with community, with art, rebel with pleasure. Because it’s what they steal from us in this endless warzone of fear and terror, in this fascist police state. You have to find a way. And gluttony–believe me, I tried it for decades–is not necessarily it. You have to really deprogram yourself. You have to go back to elementals. You have to go back to good company, direct face-to-face conversation, appreciating nature. Oh, how punk I am!
Lunch’s updated version of punk even includes hugs. After shows, at the merchandise table, she often finds herself hugging and kissing fans. “The average person, who might have heard one thing I did in all these years,” she concedes, “would not assume that I am a chronic snuggler and a serial hugger. But we all need a hug right about now.”
Lydia Lunch: Lecture and Performance
Lydia Lunch speaks about Performance, Sex, and Punk Feminism: 1970s to the Present ; and performs In the Beginning Was The Word, a Burroughs homage.
IU Cinema (lecture) and The Bishop, 123 South Walnut St . (show)
Lecture at 4 pm at the IU Cinema; performance, featuring local act Thee Tsunamis, at 9:30 pm at The Bishop
lecture: free; performance: $12.00