Lydia Lunch is, according to Lydia Lunch, in turns, a “positive nihilist,” a “conceptualist,” a “journalist,” and a “55-year-old terror infant,” among other things. She’s also the de facto spokesperson for No Wave—the aggressive music and cinema that briefly sprung out of the more corporate (at least in comparison) downtown Manhattan punk scene in the late 1970s, of which Lunch, then a teenager, was a central player. She describes the genre as “audience-unfriendly, dissonant, brutal—as opposed to being socially conscious, because it isn’t. It’s about personal insanity.” In conversation, she’ll veer off into lengthy extemporaneous soliloquies about her disappointment with America and her place within its cultural history.
“They don’t know me,” she told me recently, sitting in all black with dark black hair and bright red lipstick at a French restaurant in Chelsea, around the corner from a friend’s apartment where she’s been crashing. However much she may be associated with New York, she hasn’t lived here since 1990—and she moved to Barcelona during the “second stolen election of George W. Bush” because “this country was going into fascism.” She said she’s currently on a “rent strike,” and has spent most of her time in the last few years staying with friends there. “They won’t know me,” she continued. “Your article won’t make them know me. I’m safe. All this surveillance bull shit.” She rolled her eyes. “Surveil this, bitch!” and here she pointed downward with both middle fingers, to her center of gravity. “I wish someone would surveil what I’m doing. Hello! I’m right here! Occupy this! I was on Wall Street in ’84 occupying shit! Pussy Riot?” she said, making reference to the Russian punk band. “Honey, I’ve been staging a pussy riot for 35 years,” and again she pointed downward, with excessive pride.
Lunch currently has her first big exhibition in America at Howl! Happening, an East Village gallery on the ground floor of a fairly new condo building, of all things. It includes Lunch’s photographic works, as well as an installation called You Are Not Safe In Your Own Home. Behind a red curtain, she’s built out a bedroom with empty bottles of liquor scattered across the floor, a side table with a collection of syringes, several dildos buried in purple sheets, reams of poetry taped to the walls, and various epithets scrawled across the scene. (“I Loved You So Fucking Much,” etc.) Playing in the room is a pornographic film featuring Lunch and an ex-boyfriend, whose face has been obscured, “to save him the embarrassment,” Lunch said. (His identity was one of the few things about herself she was not willing to divulge.) Most importantly, the show contains plenty of ephemera from her career—album sleeves, photographs, show flyers—a small record, however incomplete, of her achievements.
Lunch is perhaps best known for her first band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, although they only existed in a quick flash, breaking up in 1979, not long after their first and last high(ish) profile recording session, for the now-legendary No New York compilation album, produced by Brian Eno, which also included contributions from Lunch’s peers, Mars (“my big inspiration,” she said), DNA, and The Contortions.
“He did nothing,” she said of Eno. “First of all—let me drop this little nugget—he had fucked himself into the hospital right before the recording. Bravo! I respect that in a man. This is the worst production Teenage Jesus ever had. He did a great job on Mars and DNA. I just think he was asleep at the wheel. I don’t know why he was there. Much better was being produced by Robert Quine.” Quine was a guitarist known for his work with Richard Hell & the Voidoids and Lou Reed, and for compiling bootleg concert tapes of Reed’s band The Velvet Underground. “He was the best guitar player the world has had, in my opinion,” Lunch continued. “I had seen the first Richard Hell & the Voidoids show. I was 17. I went right up to Bob Quine, who was baldheaded, had sunglasses and a screwdriver in his pocket, and said, ‘You are God.’ I think because I was his first fan and a baby-faced killer, he kind of took a shine to me. I loved Eno’s first album, but he did nothing. I wanted to kill him.” (Eno, for whatever it’s worth, did not respond to a request for comment through his record label.)
The history of No Wave is largely apocryphal because it self-destructed around the time that it was given a name. In broad terms, it is a confluence of music, video, performance, and sound art, and historically is lumped in with New York’s growing contemporaneous downtown art scene in part because galleries played as surrogate venues and in part because artists were among the fans. Chief among them was Dan Graham, who wrote an essay, first published in English in 1982, called “New Wave Rock and the Feminine.” In it, he interpreted Lunch through the philosopher Julia Kristeva, in particular conflating Lunch’s “hysterical pitch” with Kristeva’s concept of “semiotic chora,” a psychoanalytic term, which Graham defines as a “prelinguistic realm of primary drives and feelings [from] the period when the child identifies with the mother–before the fixed, social, ‘stable’ ego necessitated by symbolic language and produced by the castration complex forces conscious denial of these primary drives.” (“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Lunch told me when I brought up the essay.)
Lunch is something of a walking archive, but even she can’t quite say where the phrase No Wave originated. There’s not a huge amount of primary documentation of No Wave, so its story has devolved into rumormongering, like a game of telephone. Of Teenage Jesus’s most famous gig, as part of a five-night festival at Artists Space, at which Eno was supposedly in attendance, Lunch could only say, “Don’t ask me because I don’t remember. Another gig, another night.”
History, however, remembers this as the night where James Chance, the closest thing No Wave had to a journeyman and a member of both the Contortions and Teenage Jesus, had a confrontation with Robert Christgau, then the Village Voice’s music critic. Chance did not respond to an interview request, though Christgau referred me to the account of the story in No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980 by Thurston Moore and Byron Cooley, which Christgau said was “checked with three witnesses: my wife, Perry Brandston,” who was doing sound at the event, “and Perry’s mother Marilyn Stanley, who James Chance was literally hitting on when the incident began with Perry’s stepfather, the painter Bob Stanley, defending his wife.” The false rumor, Christgau said, perpetuated by Bernard Gendron’s Between Montmarte and the Mudd Clubb, was that Christgau had “bloodied” James Chance in a fight. Turns out, Christgau only sat on him. Asked for any further comment on Lunch, he said he had “very little to say…beyond the very little I’ve written about her.” In his famous Consumer Guide letter rating system, he gave Lunch’s most melodic album, 1980’s Queen of Siam, which Lunch described to me as a collection of “the most sick and twisted nursery rhymes,” a B+. (“Having walked out on three different bands led by this dame,” he wrote, “I have the credentials to certify this funny, sexy, accidental little record.”)
Lunch had nothing to say about any of this beyond pointing out that, critically at least, she fared much better with Lester Bangs, Christgau’s colleague, though she did offer another Chance story. One time, a certain venue declined to pay Chance for a performance, she said. “He went to the club owner, put a knife to his own throat, and said, ‘Pay me or I cut my throat.’ Genius! Paid on the spot.”
Lunch was born in Rochester and ran away from home at the age of 14 to come to New York in 1973. She didn’t last long: “I realized I had better go make some money because I did not want to give blow jobs in an Iranian shoe store,” she said. She returned in 1976, when New York was, according to her, “the devil’s letterbox, and it was amazing.” She said she inherited her first apartment from Lenny Bruce’s daughter (a friend of a friend), then moved to East 12th Street, where she rented a place for $75 a month, a nice rate that was a result of the previous tenant having “electrocuted themselves with their TV. A dog ate their face off.”
“I survived at that time as a fucking hustler,” she said. “I’d go with a yellow notepad to 6th Avenue and 8th Street. I’d go up to women and children. ‘Could you give a dollar for the American Cancer Foundation?’ I’d make $10 a fucking day. That was all you needed. $10! Woohoo! Can you imagine? I never had a job in my adult life. I never plan on having one.”
She put together Teenage Jesus not long after moving to New York for the second time. They rehearsed in an abandoned building on Church Street that was for sale—Lunch called the landlord and asked if he could use it, and he said, to her surprise, yes. The space was derelict, so she ran electricity from the building next door. She eventually had to leave after the landlord saw the art she was displaying in the storefront on the ground floor. (“I was going a little far, but whatever.”) She settled in a huge apartment on Delancey Street, which she said became the rehearsal space for Mars, DNA, The Contortions, and whoever else might want to use it. For Teenage Jesus, she tried to create what she calls “wire coat-hanger precision.” She wasn’t kidding. During a rehearsal, she said, if a band member made a mistake, she’d whip him with a wire coat hanger.
I don’t think there are adequate words to describe Lunch’s early music without falling into cliché or superlative, though her description of physically abusing her backup seems about right. She’s been intensely prolific, and her later career has involved a lot of intriguing spoken word performance, but very little recorded music matches Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in terms of intensity. Her guitar playing is strange and completely divorced from convention and sounds impressively like an industrial saw. Her rhythm section seems to actively despise music theory. Her persona as a frontwoman—something across between Vampira and Wanda Jackson, a goth pin-up making guttural howls to pronounce lyrics like “little orphans running through the bloody snow”—has made her a candidate for the godmother of progressive female rock music. She didn’t exactly love being asked about whether No Wave’s influence has been a burden on her.
“I feel like I have had no cultural impact,” she said, evenly. I saw something change in her face at this moment, like a sudden flood of thoughts was overtaking her and had to be let loose. She grew flushed and her eyes opened very wide.
“Don’t blame me for Courtney Love,” she said. “I’m not responsible for her fucking crimes. Don’t blame me for Riot Grrrls. That’s not what I’m about. I’m so not about that. Pick up a fucking tuba. Don’t play bad punk rock. I didn’t ever play punk rock. I was not about that. My quote is, ‘You don’t have a vision? Don’t give it a fucking sound.’ That alienates. Trust me, get the fuck back. I’m not into your garage, punk-rock, third-generation bullshit. That is not female empowerment. Why don’t you become a scientist or an architect? Why don’t you invent something I’ve never heard before? I’m not responsible for the crimes of others. That is not my progeny. I take no responsibility for that. It’s not what I did. It’s not what I set out to do. It’s not what I am about. I’m glad they exist. Anybody who creates, I’m glad they exist. I don’t need to pay them. I don’t create for you. Why should they create for me? That’s cool. That is not where I am situated in my own fabrication of history. I am situated between the Situationists, Henry Miller, whoever this philosopher is Dan Graham wants to compare me to, and Hunter S. fucking Thompson. That is, to me, the terrain I feel I occupy, and it’s very male. What I do is not fucking glamorous. It’s not about being fucking pretty. It’s not trying to romanticize shit. It’s about trying to get to the root issue of the fucking problem and articulate a possibility for surviving it in a most poetic and sometimes brutally beautiful way. That’s it. And it’s not like I’m disavowing everything else. It’s that there was a path I knew since I was 12 I had to carve. I knew at 12 there is a triangle I needed to fill. Always been arrogant. Vanity save me. And it’s not because I’m special. It’s because I understand the plight of the fucking individual who has been battered into reality, baptized in blood, slapped into fucking breathing, who’s too fucking weird or sensitive. I may appear really insensitive and fucking brute, but underneath it all, I am fucking crying for everybody. I am crying for everybody. And if you know me, you know that. And that’s why people come to me. And if my heart is too fucking harsh for those people, and it fucking is, too bad. I’m speaking for the ones whose life has been harsh, and if it’s too harsh for you, you don’t need to fucking see it. Bring me your brokenhearted, your impoverished, your fucking abused, your traumatized, the widows, the weirdos, the gays, the queers.”
“Honey,” she interrupted herself, looking straight at me. She then grabbed her breasts with both hands and shook them for a few seconds. “Balls,” she said.