“Enough!” Lydia Lunch told the crowd at IFC Center as they gave her a semi-standing ovation after the world premiere of Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over.
“If you don’t think I know how fucking great I am, you don’t know anything,” growled the former frontwoman of influential No Wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks.
To be fair, the applause was also for the film’s director, Beth B. The visual artist and filmmaker came of age in the Cinema of Transgression scene of the early ’80s, when her DIY shorts featured Lunch and other fixtures of the downtown avant garde. Some of those legends– including fellow transgressive filmmaker Richard Kern, performance artist Kembra Pfahler, and musician JG Thirlwell– are interviewed in the film and showed up at Saturday’s premiere.
Beth B met Lunch when the firebrand was just 19; she said making the film was “like reentering the chaos and the spirit of our 20s… and having to wrestle this beast of our past to the ground.” She described Lunch as a “vital and valid and critically important voice” that was synonymous with New York City– “but I would say the old New York City,” she made clear.
You may recall Lunch from Anthony Bourdain’s tribute to the old Lower East Side, which ended up being the final episode of Parts Unknown. (Or you may have read our 2015 interview with her.) This documentary is likewise a throwback to the East Village of burned-out buildings, heroin bazaars, and edgy artists spitting in the face of the famous “Drop Dead” edict. In it, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, which collaborated with Lunch on “Death Valley ’69,” recalls walking around the desolate LES with her and watching her kick open the door of a random tenement building so she could gleefully piss in a stairwell. (Yes, kids, there was once a time when there wasn’t a Starbucks restroom on every corner.)
After watching the film, someone got up the nerve to ask Lunch why she left New York in 1990.
“Because you live here!” she snapped back before giving the more thoughtful answer: “I left New York because there’s other fucking places to live, other people to work with,” she explained, recalling stints in Los Angeles, London, Barcelona, New Orleans, San Francisco, and even Pittsburgh. Plus, she said, “It was 1990. This place already sucked. And you know what, it’s not getting much better.
“But I’m glad you live here. I don’t know how you afford it,” she continued. “And I’ve got a question for you: how much do you make a year?” She paused before answering her own question: “Not enough.”
Lunch formed Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in 1977 and pioneered a sometimes staccato, sometimes plodding, often discordant and confrontational brand of sexually fearless noise rock years before Kathleen Hanna sang the words “Suck my left one.” Four decades later, she’s still hustling. She had a gig at Brooklyn Bazaar just last week, and she was all business during the decidedly brief Q&A at IFC Center: “We have posters and tote bags to sell,” she told the crowd. “I don’t give a shit about questions or answers.”
“I like to hear the questions,” Beth B asserted. “I know you don’t because you [already] have all the answers.”
Indeed, The War Is Never Over shows Lunch at her most incendiary, verbally eviscerating the patriarchy in her spoken word performances while also calling out the #MeToo movement in a way that will shock conventional feminists but won’t be surprising to anyone who’s familiar with her freewheeling sexual assertiveness (one musician describes how he gave her his virginity in order to join her band.) But a less combative, more contemplative side of Lunch is also revealed as she reflects on surviving the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.
I have to admit, I was a little nervous about being in the front row during the Q&A, having just watched footage of Lunch menacing (or was it seducing? in her case, it’s sometimes hard to tell which) audience members during her sexed-up, spazzed-out performances. In the film, Thurston Moore warns “there was nothing more dangerous than Lydia Lunch.” But she ended up fielding just a couple of questions. After an audience member asked if she wished she had done anything differently, Lunch shot a look of are you serious? and replied, “Not a fucking thing. And you know what? There’s nothing I could’ve done more of, quite frankly.”
With that, Lunch returned to her seat in the audience and asked Beth B a question of her own: How did this “ruthless, relentless” “one-woman army” manage to get the film made?
The director responded that she wanted to inspire “the next generation of women. To be able to have women be inspired by this film, by Lydia, by the voices of that time, and actually open your mouths–“
“And legs!” Lunch chimed in, to everyone’s delight.
“—and legs sometimes, only if you choose to, because it’s critically important to keep the legacy–”
Lunch jumped in again: “And to know how to crack a motherfucking dick if you don’t like it between your legs.”
“Wait,” a young woman in the audience said, turning to Lunch, “How do you do that?”
The answer: “All you do is a sharp left turn.”