A couple weeks back I was lucky enough to have lunch with Lydia Lunch, a legendary figure in the New York no wave scene and the hurricane-like force behind Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, queen of spoken word, and now a multi-faceted visual artist who remains inextricably tied to the downtown scene of the late 1970s and ’80s despite having left New York City in the dust a long time ago. Understandably, Lunch’s feelings about the city have changed somewhat over the years. “I hate fuckin’ New York,” she told me. “It’s dirty and you’re paying five times too much for every fuckin’ thing. I don’t understand how it can be so expensive and still suck in so many ways. The quality of the food, the subways– I’d rather walk. Rats, disgusting.”
Lunch describes herself as a “nomad,” having never stayed in a city for more than a few years at a time. But she’s found herself holed up in Barcelona for the past decade living under what she calls a strictly-enforced “rent strike.” It’s the longest stretch she’s spent in one city, she says and rather than own property, she prefers to stay with friends. “I’m not a communist, but I’m a commune-ist,” she explained. But Lunch is back in New York City, for the moment anyway, to helm her solo retrospective exhibition, Lydia Lunch: So Real It Hurts at Howl Happening in the East Village.
The exhibition, which opens Friday, May 8, will show Lunch’s progression from teenagehood to now through an array of work including photography, installation, and ephemera. There’s a lot of ground to cover– Lunch has been producing work for more than three decades and doesn’t seem to be cool with stopping or even slowing down anytime soon. She’s curated shows, grown into her own as a teacher of spoken word, become a go-to speaker for panels, and even written a cookbook, The Need to Feed: developing a healthy obsession for deeply satisfying foods.
But the cookbook is sort of a red herring– in no way has Lunch gone soft. “I’m not creating out of happiness and joy here, that’s for pop musicians. I’m creating out of what drives us to the brink of madness,” she explained. “I’m not alone in this, these aren’t all my own emotions.”
And though she reached the status of cult hero a long time ago, Lunch still feels embattled: “People have hated me my entire career. People fear me because they hate me and they hate me because I’m fearless. I don’t give a shit, I’d rather have them hate me for the right reasons than love me for the wrong reasons,” she said. “People still can’t deal with me in this town because I do what I want, and not at the expense of anyone else. I just want you to have fun, but people are so uptight and so traditional and have so much shame and fear that they are still living in the 1950s in this fuckin’ town. It’s ridiculous to me.”
Needless to say I was slightly afraid at the start of our meeting. I mean, Lunch recently pounded Vice into oblivion and to describe Lunch’s stage presence as intimidating is an understatement. Plus, it’s not as if her energy seems to have quelled even a little with age. Her same spitfire diction is present, as is her brutal honesty. “I have to enjoy the smallest things, otherwise I’m gonna blow my own fuckin’ head off,” she said. “Because I can’t kill all the enemies, I am a one-woman war.”
I was sweating, at first. But as soon I grew accustomed to her bipolar mix of humility and brashness, I tapped into Lunch’s flow. “I don’t think it’s special or anything, but I don’t know how many records I’ve put out,” she admitted. Discogs lists 68 releases, which is a hell of a lot of material to be modest about. But Lunch consistently characterized her experiences as commonplace, while at other points confirming her confident, tough girl reputation.
Throughout the meeting Lunch was hopped up, recalling the previous night’s drama at a spoken word show where she performed alongside several women she’d workshopped. Apparently, a man she dubbed “the asshole” had interrupted the set. “I do what I fuckin want, no apologies, I’m aggressive and I’m articulate,” she said. “I’m not going out. I’m not going down. I’m still here, so let’s go.”
I was inspired to crack the wine seal earlier than usual, feeling a kindred spirit across the table– “Yes! It is wine ‘o clock, baby!” Lunch hissed (she doesn’t drink beer). And when she let me try her soup, which was really good by the way, well that sealed the deal. The thing is, when Lunch thinks you’re cool, wow do you feel cool. And when Lunch approves, she’ll let you know. A couple of screaming teenage girls passed our table outside the cafe. She stopped our conversation to cheer them on “YES! Oh I love crazy, honey– looking good!” she said. “I love to hear women scream on the streets, enjoy.”
I had a show last night, a workshop for women last week, and I’ve had a few shows. Last night I went down at about 5 am. It was old-school spoken word, a verbal boxing match with one fucking asshole. It was all women reading and one asshole and he went down. He went down. Threw in the towel. It happens. Good times. Old school. I got so many bruises last night at the show, it was like how? who? I didn’t touch the guy! It was verbal tongue lashing. I was gesticulating wildly. A lot of women reading for the first time, it was great. It was about 15 women.
Last night was interesting, and it reminds me of why I don’t live in New York, because people are fuckin’ soft now and I’m still too fuckin’ hard for them. What’s interesting is that really sensitive, shy guys, and a lot of fuckin’ weirdos– and when I say weirdo, I saw that with a badge of respect– non-mono-genders, myself included, sad girls, they don’t fear me. Sensitive boys never are afraid of me, ever. At shows people want me to hug them, I have to hug the whole fuckin’ audience sometimes after a spoken word show. Mother India!
I saw you at the Brooklyn Museum for the feminist punk panel and I thought it was really interesting you said you aren’t punk.
No, I’m not. Not it. It’s a style of music I never endeavored in. If it was about the attitude, all right. But that’s even in my art to me which is Dada, surrealist, situationist– it’s just a whole different school of thought.
What’s interesting is that punk was nihilistic. But the world is nihilistic. I’m trying to make something positive out of the brutality I see. If that means I have to use a negative language to make the point, I’m still reclaiming the horror and the trauma.
It’s interesting that you’ve written about your art as a kind of sickness and obsession.
Well, it’s public psychotherapy. I’m not the only one suffering from these issues, whether it’s chronic frustration or anger on the ground level. I’m never angry in my personal life. I’ve never thrown a dish out of anger or anything. My anger is much greater. I don’t have beef with anybody, except for if you’re a dick like that guy last night, you’re gonna get put down. Do not interrupt my show or a woman’s show.
For instance, some of the photography in my show that’s going to open, I’ve lived in Spain for almost 10 years and there’s one Spanish Civil War battle zone there that is still left and it’s one of the biggest battle sites in Europe that remains I think. And every year I go there to take photographs or videos kind of as an homage to the dead but also to reclaim from the destruction that man has wracked the planet with and make something beautiful from that.
I first started using these landscapes as background when I’m talking about the war. So I’m actually standing in this bombed out village where 6,000 people died. Sometimes just one still image, using coppers, blues, I’m giving back beauty and kind of speaking for the dead. And that’s what the photographic part of my show is about, the war is never over. I can’t stop talking about it. It’s never going to end. I feel like I’m the last woman with a bullhorn. Stop the madness! You know, I started talking about this shit under Reagan. I can use the same fuckin’ speech, it’s the same thing.
Well la-di-da it’s all so nice here but I also hear it’s really brutal, things are so fuckin’ expensive here. But there’s a lot of people who are not complacent. But for me, there’s not much art that is complaining at this point and in the ‘60s there was, in the ‘20s there was, in the ‘40s there was.
Maybe people are just tired of crying about it. I had to find a new language to still express that we kill on a grand scale, we the fuckin’ terrorists, America the liars who proclaim everything we are not and we try to force those ideals we do not abide by on other people. It’s doublespeak to the highest degree, it’s perfect propaganda. I don’t support that shit.
Of course it ramps up because it’s never ending. I mean we have 800 military bases around the world. We have 5,000 prisons, that’s more than colleges. This is madness. I ran away from this country when Bush stole the second election, that’s when I moved to Spain. I went to a country that was 30 years out of fascism as this one went into it. We are in a fascist state, especially in New York. There are more fuckin cops in New York than Bogota. It’s scary.
Look, there’s always corruption in any system like that. Nobody decides to become a cop because they want to be an asshole, they really want to help people. But they’re outnumbered and they’re outgunned and they’re part of a system which is that of a bully. This country’s a bully and the police are bullies. Hundreds of thousands of people have been arrested for marijuana. I mean, this is New York City– or it was, before it became the fuckin’ suburbs, Iowa.
People don’t rob someone because they think they’re going to get away with it, it’s an act of desperation. We have so much poverty and homeless in this country. It’s the pathetic reality of a world gone insane by corporate capitalism run by the patriarchy. I mean it’s that fuckin simple. I mean really. Is it really more complicated than that? Not.
There’s my God versus your God, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about my God is money, so fuck you, you’re gonna die. We rob people, we rob whole countries yet we imprison people for stealing a fuckin’ slice of pizza? That’s kind of nuts. In Austria, you can’t get arrested for stealing food.
I moved to Barcelona because I move all the time, it’s actually the longest I’ve lived in any one city. I usually move every two or four years since I left New York in 1990. I came here in ’77, I went to LA ’80 to ’81, London ’82 to ’84, back to New York for six years and literally made like a pentagram– New Orleans, San Francisco, LA, London, and then to Spain.
I just went there so I could do more of what I do, which has always been difficult for me to do in this country. First of all, I do too much shit. I’ve never been signed to any major label because I’m not going to go at their pace, I’m going to go at my pace. You know, I can have exhibitions there, I can do spoken word, I can do improv, I have a band Big Sexy Noise, I have a band with Cypress Grove which is desert blues, I have a three-piece female improv group called Medusa’s Bed which only plays in Eastern Europe, and then I have Retrovirus which is my band here. But I can also just put together improv shows with people, curate shows.
I’ve been to New York a lot for the past two and a half years. This year is much better, last year wasn’t bad, but the years before that wow, talk about a global catastrophe happening on a personal level to everybody. One of the reasons I started to come back to New York was because I felt there were a lot of people here I had to cattle prod and cheer up. Big negative nihilist, here you go! The cheerleader! Anti-everything! Which is true, I am kind of the cheerleader, which is bizarre. To quote Kafka, “There is hope, but not for us.”
And I’m doing interesting projects here. Particularly with spoken word because the situation to me was so dire in the past 10 years. I think Obama, the beige puppet, what a disaster, how sad. He was the perfect piece of propaganda for the enemy to get in there and do the damage they were gonna do anyway. I don’t think he’s a bad man and I don’t think he’s dumb. I think he’s been used, brutally. Really horrible.
I think I was the only person I know who watched the debates with alternative candidates. People were like what are you talking about? There are more than two people running! In Italy there are 18 political parties. We don’t need that many but we need a fuckin alternative here because this is just a disaster.
Do you think there’s any hope in the political process in the U.S. right now?
Well, Elizabeth Warren would be good. Anyone who’s not a millionaire would be good, anyone who’s not in the pocket of corporate war whores. Are you running? I’m running away from the White House honey, I’m not running to it.
To me it’s like feudal times, it’s like the Middle Ages. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was. We just have more access to information about what’s going on now. It’s always been those that colonized, those that abused, those countries that dominated other countries. It just goes round and round. For me it’s an obsession, but I can’t stop talking about it. But at the same time I have to rebel with my own private utopia. I have to rebel with intimate relationships with people, with pleasure, with having a good time, laughing as much as possible.
At the end of it, it’s not my war. It’s not our war. And we’re not the ones really suffering from it, there are millions of bodies piled up and we’ve painted the desert red with it. I don’t understand why we don’t just wipe out whole countries at once? One death is a tragedy, a million is a static. This is a terrifying sentence and it’s America. One death is a tragedy unless it’s a black man. That happens every day.
Very important. Really, one of the things I realized a few years ago that inspired me to become an artist was a memory of when I was growing up. When I was five there were race riots right in front of my house, my father’s car was destroyed, a helicopter crashed, thousands of people were arrested.
There were race riots in 17 cities at the time and this was in Rochester. People were running down the streets— “I’m black and I’m proud, more pay for more work” – as a kid I didn’t really comprehend, I just thought it was madness. But I think that kind of rebellion must have gotten into my psyche somehow and the failure from my generation, the negative feelings about who we were or are to some degree and the art we created was a rebellion against the state.
I think all of the turmoil then really impacted my age group a lot, it really made us stronger, it made us hateful, it made us pissed off, and it made us do something about it, which was ultimately to create because we couldn’t contain it. We had to do something with it. And I think doing art was a form of absolute protest, even if it wasn’t political art. I’m having a temper tantrum on a grand scale. Wah, wah, wah! Even my early music sounded like a temper tantrum. Nah, nah, nah, nah!
There’s some ephemera there, it’s not the majority of it. There’s a few archival posters and we’re doing a poster wall, the way people used to put posters up. I’ve been compiling my archives in the past year. It’s amazing, because I own everything I ever did. When I was 17, I don’t know how, but I just insisted on documenting shit. I curated a lot of shows and I always documented them. I have so many unreleased live performances with all kinds of dead people, dead poets.
I moved to Spain with nothing. I mean you’re moving to Spain, what are you gonna take? Two suitcases and a guitar, man. But I’ve been going through my archives and there’s just a lot of stuff there. I have over 1,359 things itemized and there’s still more shit. I’ve been taking photos since 1990, there are tons of photos, and photos people have taken of me. The emails are where some gold might be. In the old days there would be books released of people writing letters to each other. I have a lot of amazing letters to and from people through email. One guy I have a huge stack from, some brilliant gonzo writer who’s know in prison and might never come out of it.
There is some ephemera in the show. But mostly I’m trying to focus on the now, which is The War is Never Over and this installation called You Are Not Safe in Your Own Home. We go from the war zone to the personal trauma zone.
What’s interesting about this installation is that it makes some people sick, literally, because they’ve been in that same room, in that kind of relationship which is so intoxicating and so toxic. Basically it’s about the irresistible nature of certain kinds of relationships, but it’s littered with poetry. All the shit I wrote under this guy who was such a self-saboteur, there’s pages everywhere that people can take, and there’s photos of me and “You made me hate you!” written in spray paint on the wall.
And then, I hope to pull this off, which I think we can, when I staged this in Paris and Birmingham, UK: the home pornography. First of all, ladies, we change radically within two years time, like an accordion. That’s amazing, I’m like, “Oh my God! I was a bit… looking hot there… whoa!” What’s interesting is showing this kind of change.
I cut his head off because really, there’s dear Tommy, Joey, Timmy, Jimmy, whatever, asshole.
I’m turning the sex tape industry on its head by not releasing it but projecting it as life-sized ghosts. There’s also an endless tape of phone conversations that show how alcohol deteriorates. When you have the pornography and you have the insanity, therein lies the dilemma. You have this insane pleasure zone, next to this insane asylum and within that hall of twisted mirrors, is the poetry, is the writing, is the music.
I was already 45 when that shit happened, I wasn’t 25. It started when I was 17, but it happened again when I was 45, I knew this. So why did I go back there? And why I went back there, for me at least and I think it’s why a lot of women go back there, first of all trauma is greedy and second of all we will suffer for genius. That’s why a lot of women will take abuse from musicians because they think, “Oh my God, he’s such a genius.” But he’s an asshole.
You can’t save anyone from themselves, they will turn you into the enemy. And I think women get into that trap and that’s why they stand abusive relationships and marriages for years on end, because nobody wakes up thinking, the same way no cop decides to become a cop to be an asshole, “I’m going to beat my fuckin’ wife today.”
There’s a dynamic in there. This isn’t a one-way fuckin’ fight. And it’s a cycle that’s so intoxicating. Why don’t you leave? There are many reasons why women don’t leave and why we always get into the same relationships. I was trying to decode this type of madness because I’m not alone in this.
But out of that madness, and I hope I don’t have to go there again, there was so much beauty, there was so much genius, and I created so much under that. At one point the best relationship of my life which turned into the worst relationship of my life still made me externally prolific.
That’s why I have to do other shit, I don’t live non-stop in the trauma zone. I’m pretty optimistic despite the fact I do love the apocalypse. My goal is to seek out and cut out that piece of fuckin’ utopia which will save me and anyone who comes in my circle and give us some fuckin’ peace at some point in the day or night based on real fuckin’ intimacy and real fuckin’ emotion. That’s important to me, it’s really fucking important. It’s why I like to do the workshops, it’s why I like to do the teaching.
I really like to do workshops and a lot of the gals last night, they had never read before. It’s important for women. You gotta write it, you gotta get it out. Writing is therapy. There’s a lot of tricks for spoken word– use a highlighter, don’t get cotton mouth, don’t drink a beer.
I wrote a few books and I did them all in the months. How did I do it? Well I went, okay, between 6 am and 9 am, I never sleep. I’m going to write the book then, I don’t care if it’s one sentence or 100 pages. I don’t care if I’m staring into the sunrise, I’m dedicating that time. For me, those are the best hours because no one’s awake. And you better do this before you go to work, because after work you’re drained. It is like a form of meditation. That’s how you write a book. That’s how you get a record out. Discipline has never been an issue with me, somehow, because it’s what I do, it’s what I am.
People paint their little monster face on me, but then why can I collaborate with all these nice, sensitive people? I think a collaboration is a sacred union that can’t exist without those people. I’m a conceptualist– I come up with a concept and think about who would best suit that concept. I don’t think, I’d like to work with da da da. That’s backwards thinking to me.
When I collaborate, I just want people to feel good. They’re there because, to me, they’re the best. I tell them that every fuckin’ date. It’s about appreciating who they are and what they do. I don’t need fuckin’ applause. This is what I love about spoken word I’m like, stop! Don’t applaud. But I like to applaud other people.
I started doing photography when I moved to New Orleans in 1990, teenage boys especially because I felt they’re at a really precarious moment, they’re going to start being bullied because they’re an individual. We don’t need any more men who think with a mass, frat mentality. So how do we get in there and say, “Hey buddy, this is you, and that’s fuckin’ cool. Don’t wear the Nike swastika, don’t put on the backwards baseball cap. This is you.”
That was a successful experiment. Now being a teenager is harder. When I was a teenager because it was the glam era, the weirder the better. Now they need people to tell them, “You’re weird and that’s fuckin cool.” Lady Gaga ain’t doing it for me. How can it help someone when your weirdness is manufactured by other people you pay to make you weird? She’s really fuckin’ normal and straight, Stephanie. Again, I say that with the utmost respect.
I think there are women out there who are the real weirdos. We don’t know about that many. But there’s Admiral Grey of Cellular Chaos, she’s amazing. She does all kinds of theater. Carla Bozulich, she’s a different generation but she’s still out there from Geraldine Fibbers. There’s a group in London called We Are Birds of Paradise, three Australian girls making really twisted cabaret music.
And there’s a lot more women writers out there. I always tell women, don’t go into music if you don’t have a vision, don’t put it into sound. Pick up a fuckin’ tuba. These are not my progeny, I never played bad three-chord rock. Why don’t you just go study science? Become an architect. Don’t come to music, don’t come to art.
I think it’s really hard in music right now because there’s so much bad music. Music is in a real fuckin’ ugly slope. I listen to anything people give me. But I’m glad people do anything. I don’t hear as much music as you probably do, but I think right now it’s kind of a lull. I don’t like a lot of these semi-weird women making really commercial music. Florence and the Machine, Zola Jesus, this is all really straight to me. I don’t get it. A lot of them are operatic. What is this the Kate Bush fan club? It’s like a secretary playing fetish model on the weekend to me. It could be your mom’s record. Isn’t that kooky?
It’s kind of this tokenism. We find out about these kind of quirky chicks, whatever I don’t want people to make records because I’m gonna listen to them. Fuck it, I’m going to listen to Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis. There’s so much great music. I feel like more women need to go into science. We need better drugs. This country’s on too many prescription drugs, we need un-prescription drugs. Drugs that really expand the mind, not that are liquid handcuffs.
Did you see my stalking video? I’m going to do a few more stalking videos. Why does everybody love Louis CK? I’m with 25-year-old goth chicks and they’re like, “Louis CK!” And I’m like, I know! Poor Louie! I wanna be one of his bad dates. Obviously I didn’t get a call back.
I’ve got one on Vincent D’Onofrio, I’m obsessed with him. Him in The Cell. I wrote a song called “Bad for Bobby” about him. I’ve done one on Woody Harrelson. I need to do one on Matthew McConaughey. It’s fun. I’m going to put them all up at once.
I was there last year doing a show for Retrovirus and I have to give it to those people because they have the same stamina and energy that New Yorkers once did. It’s the rust belt, we saw the collapse, in our faces, in our lifetimes. It has risen. I love Eminem’s new video “Detroit Versus Everyone.” Detroit’s a ghost town, but it’s getting interesting.
When I first came to New York, not long after I got here and this was before Tribeca was called Tribeca, it was down below Chambers Street, my friends lived in this building and there was an empty building next to them for sale and I called the landlord. He gave me the fuckin’ keys. I was 17. It was a four-story abandoned building with a printing press. I had to run electricity from my friends’ building and I had no running water. Did I care? It could be Detroit, you see a number, you call it.