“Right now? I feel like going dancing and having a party,” Lydia Lunch announces. We’re a few glasses of wine deep at Le Gamin, a French cafe in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, when we inevitably arrive where many conversations do these days: the cumulative effects of very bad men making very bad decisions for decades. But Lunch – over 40 years into a career of dissent and dissonance as a performance artist, musician and actress – cuts it short.
“I’m running away from fucking politics,” says the musician, throwing her hands up as talk turns to the 2020 US presidential election. “I have never voted for anyone except (Hustler impresario) Larry Flynt – that’s a man who believes in freedom and liberty. I don’t even know who’s running.”
“Everyone,” I sigh. (Actually: more than a dozen Democrats so far.) But Lunch is defiant about her right to find pleasure in a hopeless place. “I’m a dancer, a laugher – because there is nothing that you can do about this right now. What are you going to do? Dance until you die?” she offers with a shrug, her famous mane of inky black hair, pale skin and bold red lips lending her an air of severity in the tranquil setting. “I’m still a hedonist. You have to have good conversations, good food, good drugs that don’t make you addicted. The more they kill, the more I fuck!” She emits a raspy laugh. “If only I had that much time on my hands!”
The cafe dwellers mind their late-afternoon business while we ponder when the world will burn itself out and be born anew. Lunch speaks quickly, with vivid detail and in a certain cadence that feels rhythmic, almost like the harrowing spoken-word performances she is known for. She remains as sceptical of humanity as ever (“It’s always been Apocalypse Now”) but wants to light a candle for us all. She makes time to smile at children passing by. She is kind, fascinating – a walking contradiction to her public image as a hellraiser, until you realise that categorising a woman, or anyone, as ‘intimidating’ versus ‘approachable’ is bullshit, anyway.
Since helping to ignite the no-wave movement in the 70s, singer, writer, performance artist and firestarter Lunch has given an urgent voice, terrifying and cathartic, to the walking wounded. Appearing without limits on stage and off, she has earned a reputation for performing unspeakable truths and confronting every taboo, both as leader of the short-lived Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and in every incarnation since. In 2019, she’s indomitable as ever, with live shows, a book of essays, healing workshops, albums and more on the horizon. She’s also set to be the star of LYDIA LUNCH The War Is Never Over, a documentary on her life and work by her longtime friend and collaborator, Beth B.
“I found her terrifying,” Beth recalls of her first encounter with Lunch, at CBGBs in the 70s. “I had never seen a woman so possessed – all sharp edges that cut into one’s soul, shattering previous notions of music, gender, performance. She spoke of things personal and political with such rage, unapologetic in presentation and impact. Seeing her on stage was like the feeling you get when you’re so close to a burning fire you become as incendiary and can’t walk away unsinged.”
The long-germinating film has been both labour of love and Kickstarter success story, earning more than $62,000 towards its creation. That demand is a testament to Lunch’s enduring impact and relevance. Grippingly described by Beth as “a story about anyone who has felt that they have a mouth they cannot scream from”, the film will almost certainly prove to be essential viewing. “She is the psychosexual transgressive who revoked patriarchal expectations of what a female performer might mean, while forging a vocabulary of rare emotional honesty, philosophy and humour,” Beth says.
“I saw the first edit and wasn’t sure whether to vomit, cry or piss,” says Lunch of the film. “I was amazed.” She loves that it doesn’t only focus on her – “boring” – but also “the connective tissues” with other artists she’s worked with over the years. “How do you condense 40 years into 80 minutes? What a brain-fuck for her! She did a great job with it.”
Growing up in the era of “race riots” in Rochester, New York, Lunch (nee Lydia Anne Koch) took an early interest in music, sneaking into shows by Aerosmith and Roxy Music with help from a local college DJ. After plotting to insert herself into the burgeoning New York City post-punk scene, she took a toe-dip into the city in 1973, aged just 14. “It was pretty bleak,” she says. “I said I would make some money and come back. There was no way I was going to make any money even if I worked in a garage or anything.” Two years later she arrived for good, and began to hustle “in a number of ways”, she grins. Naturally, nothing about her NYC debut was conventional, including her creative goals.
“I didn’t want to get into making music. I didn’t want to do slam poetry. I wanted to do spoken word. It was all just a primal scream,” Lunch explains. Inspired by bands like Mars, Suicide and James Chance and the Contortions, she formed Teenage Jesus and the Jerks as her own response to the burgeoning scene.
The band Suicide – Martin Rev and his late collaborator, Alan Vega – were among Lunch’s first friends when she crash-landed in desolate Manhattan. “I could immediately see that here was an exuberantly intelligent person who was excited about life,” says Rev, recalling his first impressions. “And when she showed me something she had written, a poem, I saw that this was no ordinary writer. She already had a very focused and fierce pen, with fresh and original imagery.”
The music created the battle-cry to match: deconstructionist, amelodic and little to do with punk. It was “schizophrenic”, as Lunch calls it, but she notes that it was also disciplined and deliberate. “When you’re that dissonant, you have to be pretty tight,” she explains. In fact, she has described Teenage Jesus’s main quality as “wire-coat hanger precision”, partially due to the form of punishment Lunch meted out if the band made mistakes. Sinister.
Among that pointed catharsis, proper musicianship was never the point. “I just use music as a machine-gun to get the words across,” Lunch once memorably said. And it’s true to this day. Through the many styles of sound she’s bent to her will – from guitars played with glass to her more recent, melodic work – her main artistic constant is her trademark barbed and brutal spoken word. Her discography is vast, deep and multi-tiered. From Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ shocking noise and her playfully dissonant 1980 release, Queen of Siam (“nursery rhymes – it’s really a children’s nightmare,” she quips) to 90s/00s projects like Retrovirus and Big Sexy Noise, she is a master of constant, restless reinvention to this day. “I have to stay creative,” Lunch states simply of her spectrum of projects. “But I can also be very fucking lazy.”
“I’ve been called a feminist and a misogynist – I’m sure they didn’t know which one I was. They have a problem seeing that passionate aggression can be empathetic and not an attack” – Lydia Lunch
She also collaborates across generations, linking up with Sonic Youth and Nick Cave in the past and, more recently, Chilean-American electronic artist Nicolas Jaar, who remixed and rereleased her 1990 album, Conspiracy of Women, in 2015. (“Such a wonderful guy,” she remarks.) The New York no-wave story is enriched by the power of Lydia Lunch’s myth, but, unlike many others from that scene, she remains defiantly unchained to any era or medium, giving her a contemporary, post-internet edge.
“I’ve met a lot of famous people over the years and (Lydia) is one of the few who lived up to her image. She is not fake,” says photographer and director Richard Kern, who worked with Lunch on experimental films like Fingered and The Right Side of My Brain, during the 80s cinema of transgression era. Violent, seedy and wilfully offensive, these films were yet another outlet through which Lunch, and other countercultural figures including Henry Rollins and JG Thirlwell, made their mark. In Fingered, she plays a phone sex operator who engages in graphic sex acts before going on a violent road trip, crossing lines of consent with her boyfriend and a hitchhiker played by Sonic Youth cover star Lung Leg. To put it mildly, it would not pass muster in 2019, but it fits into the nihilistic spirit of the time, and is something of a fringe-film classic.
“Lydia was great to work with because she never said no to anything – she always wanted to push things far beyond what was acceptable, politically correct and legal,” says Kern. “Most people, myself included, have a tipping point where we begin to question what we are doing, but I never found Lydia’s. I would say she was acting out rather than acting in those films.”
To this day, Lunch most definitely still works her dark magic via humour, horror and healing. Watching her onstage – a few days after we meet, she performs a hypnotic take on the already febrile “Frankie Teardrop”, at the annual Suicide tribute night in the East Village – is to witness the expulsion of demons. It’s a full-on predatory psychic attack. She invites us to join her, to savour the purge.
And, then, in what might be a surprise to some: she leaves it there.
“That’s on the stage for a reason,” she says. “I get paid to be a bitch, you know what I mean? People can’t always handle it. Look, the thing is they don’t understand the fucking feminine power of it all. I’ve been called a feminist and a misogynist – I’m sure they didn’t know which one I was. And also, they have a problem seeing that passionate aggression can be empathetic and not an attack!”
Lunch focuses a lot on the importance of community. I begin to recognise her as a very world-weary empath, an artist who feels everyone else’s pain on top of her own and wants to solve it by confronting it. For instance, her side vocation as a coach in performance workshops for women, where she encourages them to articulate their needs expressively. The people who need to find these workshops do, she tells me. Women from “17 to 70”, and in an array of professions, show up for their own reasons. Scandinavia will be her next stop.
“It’s kind of like a coven,” Lunch explains. “How do you write? How do you perform? How do you hold a microphone? Even if you’re performing at a funeral, how do you do that? When you write, sometimes you can’t hear it unless someone else reads it to you.” I mention that, even now, a lot of women seem to need ‘permission’ to perform or assert themselves, and that I can see why a safehaven for this might be necessary. She nods. “Where do you practise this shit? Through somebody else. You can see what it means to somebody else. I’m at home, they’re at home.”
Lunch commands a well-earned, guru-like energy, and has joked about giving Tony Robbins a run for his money. I ask if she’s considered doing a self-help book of sorts. “I do feel like I’m a therapist for a lot of people. I don’t like to give all my secrets away. Give me $250 after this and I’ll tell you about it,” she says with a laugh, then pauses to reflect. “It’s because I don’t judge. Nothing can shock me. I do have a lot of empathy. I never fight with people. I only encourage people. I try and help as many people as I can – I just want people to be whatever they fucking are, you know? I want everybody to be freer, safer and more creative. That’s it.”
Lunch also offers creative counsel for life milestones... from dust to dust. As an ordained reverend of the Universal Life Church, she can officiate weddings, as well as guarantee you the funeral you deserve while you get to observe it. “Why wait until you die to celebrate your life? For a few thousand dollars, we’ll do it now,” says Lunch of the musical project and event service, dubbed Family In Mourning. Lunch grounds her work in darkness but radiates an infectious joie de vivre. She fires off opinions on everything from social media (“A drain on focus. If you want to be my friend, look me in the fucking face!”) to US city living (“super-fucked”). She prefers the lifestyle afforded by Barcelona, where she lived for eight years, but returned to New York in 2017, settling in Park Slope, Brooklyn – when we meet, she says she’ll be moving again and spending a lot of the year as a nomad. That might work in Lunch’s favour, because she’s got a lot lined up. Now 59, she has not slowed down at all, with – among other things – a new “jazz noir” music project on the way, a set of podcasts (Lydia’s Spin) set to launch in June, and a new anthology of essays, So Real It Hurts, coming later in the summer.
“I had 26 rejections in America,” she notes, with a comical shake of her head. “When it got accepted, I was like, ‘Why do you want it after 26 rejections?’ It was a young female editor and she said they laughed at every chapter. I was like, ‘You fucking get it.’ It’s being translated into 12 languages now.”
Lunch’s good friend Anthony Bourdain, with whom she dined on the last episode of his foodie travel show Parts Unknown, wrote the foreword to the book. They became acquainted years back, when Lunch sent the late presenter and chef a copy of her cookbook(!), The Need to Feed, a guide to cooking practically, with humour and on a budget. (One major tip: “When it comes to meat, know your dealer.”) “I started cooking because I was poor and had to feed other people. It’s still one of the most intimate things you can do,” she says. “People eating the food you made? They’re eating your DNA! I like that idea.” (Fun fact: Lunch has a longstanding obsession with forensics. “I also collect other people’s DNA just in case. Teeth, hair, fingernails...”)
Lunch is refreshingly interested in using modern means to help her work find its people. She mentions her idea to turn a future home into a performance space, playing with remote video broadcasts as a form of “television hypnosis” – the list goes on. The musician is no luddite or purist, using tech to aid her work when called for, as long as it doesn’t “sound technical”. She admits to not keeping track of her work on digital platforms but is grateful people find it. (She is very interested when I mention Spotify indicates that she seems especially popular in Mexico City.) A major new goal involves the creation of a “digital museum” of her immense body of work.
“I want somebody to digitise everything. I have hundreds of performances. I own everything I’ve ever done. I want it so that somebody in Romania can find a 1983 spoken word. I’d be happy for that (to happen),” she says. “Do I have eight arms? I sleep three hours a night. I’m not tired!”
Thank God for that. The world needs Lydia Lunch. Her performative fury and force feel more urgent than ever. “With the current explosion of women stepping out of their silence regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, Lydia continues to expose the patriarchy, sexual abuse, the cycle of violence, and corporate greed with stubborn resistance,” says Beth B.
Lunch remains a beacon of defiance ahead of her time and, somehow, slightly beyond our own, this turbulent age for “nasty women”. But her impact is reaching younger generations – she sees the proof at her shows. “I really like that there are 20-year-olds at my shows who know their shit,” Lunch says. “Whatever drew you to it, thank you! I feel like Mother Teresa. Because everybody needs a hug, everybody needs a selfie. If it really means that much to somebody, it takes one second.”
Back at the cafe, Lunch raises her glass of pinot grigio. “I love every fucking day I’m still alive. My rebellion. What else is there? Cheers, my friend.”
So Real It Hurts is out in July. LYDIA LUNCH The War Is Never Over is released early 2020
Hair Braydon Nelson at Streeters using R+Co, make-up Yumi Lee at Streeters using M.A.C, photography assistant Pierre Crosby, styling assistant Rika Nurrahmah