Lydia, oh Lydia: the intrepid artist on life, death, punk rock, the universe and everything

At some point early in 1989 I interviewed the musician, performance artist and self-described “confrontationalist” Lydia Lunch for Boston Rock magazine, a small but important monthly on that city’s alternative scene. The piece ran as the cover story in BR issue #96 in July of that year. As part of a continuing effort to reclaim some of my old writing from the pre-Internet era and shove it out there again “to an anxiously awaiting world” (to quote my bratty, smartypants late ’80s print persona), here it is again for the first time in almost — gag me — 24 years. To me, at least, it serves as a snapshot of not only where Lydia was at that particular point in time, but of my writing style in those days (which, on the infrequent occasions when I re-read my old clips, sometimes makes me want to reach out across the decades and slap my extended-adolescent younger self but good). When we spoke over the phone, Ms. Lunch, born Lydia Anne Koch on June 2, 1959, was bearing down hard on her 30th birthday, which she described to me in her typical point-blank style as “the end of youth.” There was, however, no noticeable diminution in her trademark enfant terrible snark and bile.

I conducted the interview from my first-floor studio apartment at 220 Kelton Street, Allston, where I lived for nine years — nine long years when I often thought that I might never, ever get out of that particular place and space. I remember having some trouble with my tape recorder, losing some of the transcript, and arranged with her publicist to do a second interview (!), to which Lydia obliged politely with only a semi-waspish joke about how she was doing her art “when I’m not talking to you all the time.” But whatever you think about Lydia Lunch and her work, I felt she was honest and sincere with me and as you might expect, needed little prompting to start spilling the beans.

These days I occasionally conduct interviews with various entertainers, usually comedians, actors and musicians, for the Life & Arts section of a mainstream newspaper. I like the work I do and believe it contributes to the stream of general knowledge in its own way (and I definitely feel I’ve become a much better writer than I used to be), but there’s something to be said for a 2,000-word article like this that you would never, ever find in a daily newspaper anywhere. (The original manuscript, which I still have, was only minimally edited; I’m not one of those ego cases who doesn’t like to have his prose touched and I see plenty of room for editing now, but I’ve only made a few slight changes from the piece as it was printed in BR, checking it with the original copy.)

I’m a vastly different person, praise be, from the guy who wrote the following, and I suspect Lydia is too; we’ve both moved on, but we’re both also, at least, still here.

So Lydia, if you ever read this, how about a follow-up chat?

The photo of Lydia I’ve chosen here, taken by Michael Lavine, accompanied the original article.

Image

WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN

LYDIA LUNCH

EXPLAINS

by Wes Eichenwald

It’s not that nihilistic doom-and-gloom-and-death-and-nuclear-war-and-sex-and-black clothing-beat (let’s not call it rock, for reasons to be explained) doesn’t have its place. It’s just that it’s too often been done so badly (done to death, you might say) by people who, uh, just don’t care. There’s not caring…and then there’s not caring. And beyond that, there is Lydia Lunch.

Sweet little Lydia needs little introduction here. Her profession is shoving her reality in other people’s faces. One newspaper headline once called her “the princess of perversion.” She once called herself “the red-hot poker up everyone’s ass.” Her familiar baleful black-haired visage stares out from countless ‘zine covers and alternative-record-store posters, calling everyone’s bluff. Veteran of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Beirut Slump, Eight-Eyed Spy, Slow Choke et al, she has been singer, ranter, film actress, poet, performance artist, collaborator with a multitude, Spin journalist [she interviewed Pat Benatar], femme fataliste for our time.

As I said, she needs little introduction.

The original excuse for a recent phone chat with Lydia from her digs in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge was the recent release of the charmingly titled and typically lydiaesque Stinkfist album, a big-beat exploration with Clint Ruin, D.J. Bonebrake and other impressive drummers, featuring the sounds of Lydia hoofing it on sheet metal for good measure.

(Relax. There will be no expressions in this article like “Elpee noise to tear the flesh from yr bones, chomp chomp.” Just say no to magazine hyperbole, you’ll feel better.)

Over the phone, she is torrentially verbal, intelligently dogmatic, and funny; cascades of rapid Lydia Diatribe pour out the wire to an anxiously awaiting world. (Although ladylike subtlety isn’t her strong suit, every third word out of her mouth is not “fuck,” either.) A few words as a goad and she’s off riffing and ranting — on the brainwashing of the individual by the white male sexist racist supremacist power establishment, the way females are dominated (“I can’t think of anything worse than being a little girl”), the pecking order of the universe.

Lydia is no messiah, not even an Antichrist. As she is the first to admit, she doesn’t have any answers, but she’s got a few provocative questions to act out. “The only cause I have is to make people think in the first place. Priorities, that’s what I’m always questioning.”

The one-time enfant terrible of the ’70s New York No Wave scene will be 30 this summer. “I’m nearing the end of a cycle,” she says. “It’s the end of youth.” She welcomes it, going into a Diatribe about how Society values youth and shallowness so much.

“Some people think I’m older (than I am), and some people think I’m the same age I was when I started.”

You might have guessed she wasn’t the family type, but yes, we ask her if she ever thinks about going the Patti Smith route, mellowing out, getting hitched. “All the time. Know anyone with that much money? Neither do I.”

“I think a family should be made up of people who have things in common with each other, not people you hate who you see twice a year for stupid pagan holidays. If you live the other way you can give them presents every day, you don’t have to wait for a holiday.”

At times she sounds definitely hopeful in the face of the void, but, she hastens to add, “I’m still as full of hate and rage as I always was.”

She is not about to have preciously named children or record love songs to them. Rest assured. These days Lydia finds herself, not creatively exhausted, but, she explains, “I’ve done all I could do in that format, I’ve explored all the possibilities. I just feel like I would like other aspects of information to come in before I relay any other ones.” She now devotes most of her energies to going over the still-unreleased shards of her vast output. “It’s not the writing,” she says, “it’s all the bullshit after you finish your end of the work that makes it exhausting.”

Lydia’s new spoken-word LP is called Oral Fixation, a live recording of a performance at the Detroit Institute of Art. She is also producing an Emilio Cubeiro record called Death of an Asshole, and will act Off-Broadway in a Cubeiro play called Saigon 69.

She also wants to make more Super-8 short films: nothing for a mass audience, “because they wouldn’t be interested in the revulsion.” She plans to write an autobiography: “That’ll be the next book. I’m waiting for an important figure in my family to die, which should be any day now, actually.”

Other than that, her calendar is empty.

When she started as a runaway, sixteen, seventeen, just down from Rochester, New York, she was the unpleasant upstart from Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. You recall the shots on the Manhattan underground rock scene then: Talking Heads, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television. “They were all ten years older than I was,” Lydia says. “I looked at them as the enemy. I didn’t like rock music.”

She laughs at ever being considered a punk. “There was a big division between New York, London and Los Angeles…as far as output and intention during the so-called punk era. I think everyone in New York [who were her friends] just thought that the whole movement was so foolish and cartoonish, and also based on such bullshit, because they were trying to destroy rock by using the very most basic format of what they were trying to destroy. I couldn’t understand why punk rock was so rock-oriented, when that was what they were supposedly against. That always insulted my intelligence and listening pleasure. If they were claiming to destroy everything and start new, well, why didn’t they translate that message to the music?”

Still a radical statement, from a person still on the fringe. Agree with her or not, you have to admire her consistency.

Where does she draw the line? With a pencil, or with a crayon?

“That’s undefinable — ‘Would you, you know, would you kill someone or yourself for your art?’ I don’t know — then it’s not art, is it, it’s murder, it’s another form. Immediately the extreme comes to mind when you asked that question, but I mean, I don’t usually find I’m the one drawing the lines — it’s everyone else that wants to draw the lines around what you do, so it can be categorized.

“I don’t think a so-called artist sets out to either cross a line that’s already been drawn, or, one word that I always hate that gets dumped on a lot of people, is shock. ‘Do-you-want-to-must-you-do-you-have-to-be-are-you-do you-consider yourself shocking? No fuckin’ artist considers themselves shocking. They’re trying to express what they feel, not trying to make something out of nothing or to exaggerate. I mean, the real artists, the people I respect.”

Does she consider herself a writer, performer or musician? The response is predictable. “Not if I can avoid it. I like to consider myself a confrontationalist; I don’t see why it has to be broken down into specific categories connotating what implement I’m using in my tortures.”

Lydia is known for whirling 180 degrees around with every new band/project, which she says is “more true in the past than now…I haven’t had a band in five years. I have a stubborn resistance to performing music. I don’t go out to rock clubs, dance clubs or discos, and I don’t like to be employed to perform in them. It’s a lot of hassle, aggro and little reward.” Think of her recent “bands” as affinity groups recruited to work on specific recording projects. (The historically minded are referred to Hysterie, a double album, four-band retrospective of the first decade, on Lunch’s own Widowspeak label. Personally, I love 8 Eyed Spy, like Slow Choke, and find the early stuff unlistenable.)

Lydia Lunch started out as a Catholic girl. Does she fall in with the popular Catholic-school-mauled-me-for-life rant? Yes and no.

“I had the basic eight years of Catholic school. I had the religious hallucinations, I saw God, I saw Satan, I received communion. It influences you insofar as that when you’re a very young child, and you’re under the fist-print of religious upbringing, the mythology is so strong, the images are so vivid — Catholicism is so extreme, it’s so brutal and ugly and gory and graphic, and — I mean, I guess I’m no different, you know. Me and religion have a lot in common!

“I think that’s of course a guideline to help control you, because that’s what they always want to do anyway, and religion is a great form of controlling, by threatening [children] with something that they can’t scope out whether is real or not.

“I’m not very influenced still, but of course I am influenced by early experience and knowledge of horrors of the Catholic church.”

Given her demeanor and attire, some might think Lydia preoccupied with death (no, really!). She has a propensity to get out of thorny philosophical investigations with a timely wiseass quip, but then, who doesn’t, or wishes they could? Her thoughts on the afterlife: “I hope myself, personally speaking, that it doesn’t continue. I hope that it’s a pitch-black velvety ditch, the end, over, goodnight, finis, black velvet, no smells and sounds. But what you hear, from people who have supposedly tasted the other side, is that it’s the exact opposite…white and light and airy and cloudy. I don’t know about that. They try to claim that energy goes on, but I would like to think there’s eventual peace.”

What does Lydia Lunch’s vision of heaven look like? “Oh, it’s the ivory tower I live in in Brooklyn…it’s not what it looks like, it’s what it feels like, which is relief. How do you paint relief? I don’t know. It could be a new commercial. It’s a lifting of the heavy weight that congeals in your lungs and chest.”

For now, she’s stuck in New York for the six months or so she’s not someplace else. Although she hates “being ground down” by the city, she sees it as an experiment, with herself as the white rat.

“The important thing is to maintain. You’ve got to deal with it. Balance, y’know, balance, because there is so little of it outside of my own reality. And that’s, I think, why I like to always be in such tight control, because I am able to run such a small ship in the face of the battle.”

What does our Lydia care about the most? (Shout, shout, let it all out…) “My peace of mind, first and foremost, which is an ongoing battle. ‘My peace of mind’ meaning a balance between the raging frustration and hatred that threatens to throttle my every movement, because I cannot turn the blinders on in my existence. Some kind of balance there so that it doesn’t have to be constantly a screaming raw nerve either, out of feelings of inadequacy, knowing that you are unable to do anything about the situation.

“Not being personally plagued and raped by the condition the world is in. Trying to avoid chronically being too sober in reality. Because I’m a very sober person, and it’s obvious,” she laughs, “why a lot of people would prefer not to remain sober 24 hours a day.”

So where does that leave all the other sufferers?

“Same place as me.”

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