On an evening with Lydia Lunch, or, God was the first cop

Jostling with orange haired 40-something greebos with large black umbrellas, we join a snaking queue and ascend a spiral staircase and enter an already-full room that is the halls’ main meeting chamber. The driving rain outside has made the room smell like laundry detergent, and I survey the audience, a bizarre sight against the century-old wooden panelling. It’s a heady mix of queer postgrads that like woollen clothes that look like critical theory, your standard rockabilly parents, triumphant rainbow genderfucks in New Rock boots, and the full gamut of fetishwear-lite looks, including a guy with plastic piping for hair who’s painted half his face grey. The abominable congregation takes a seat before our rogue Priestess, mother filth queen, tiny sex raven. We are here for the glorious, outlandish, spurious, ridiculous Lydia Lunch.

It’s a wet night in the early throes of October. I took the bus the few stops from my home down the road to an old, rather ostentatiously decorated building in South London. Deptford town hall is a gilded lily on the ramshackle road that leads traffic through New Cross and out, eventually into the suburbs. Once a grandiose municipal flourish, living testament to the not-so-sensible use of taxes back in turn of the century boom times, lost civic heydays, complete with naval theme and several sculptures of slave ships (yeah, about those boom times..) the Town hall was bought out and saved from demolition as a baroque curio by Goldsmiths University, whose ever-expanding property portfolio stretches across these southern reaches of the borough of Lewisham.

We’re there for two hours. They are two long hours on a hard bench. The experience is, by turns, excruciating and extremely pleasurable, a contrast that feels entirely appropriate. I am squished in next to Ellie, my band mate, who is much smarter than me and as such is doing a PhD on live art performance in the 1970s. Ellie’s supervisor, Dr. Dominic Johnson, is here on the stage – he’s the A to her B in this conversation, but of course it’s anything but – his work here is more playing the highly skilled lion tamer, a calm, softly spoken man asking probing, deep questions and being greeted, largely, by electric non-sequitors that reel into a sequence of admittedly mesmeric aphorisms that it’s very clear she’s said many times before. But here’s the rub, and the magic of this frustrating women: they ring truer with every repetition. The format of the talk is a brief introduction, two separate spoken word pieces from Lydia, then an extended back-n-forth, and finally, in what turns out to be the most revealing section of the event, rather than, as anticipated, the most embarrassing; the audience Q and A. This is all interspersed with slightly overly long choices of tracks that she has been part of. A listening party with a rabble of aging ‘academigoth’ strangers bopping on their wooden benches to select cuts from No New York is not the first place I’d ask you to take me on a Thursday evening, but it’s all strangely entertaining.

It’s notable how routinely women artists like Lydia get suitated in the context of men they’ve collaborated with: Nick Cave, Marc Almond, Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore, JG Thirlwell. So often we’re led, hand-held, blind-folded, through these swindling corridors of cultural legitimacy, to gently fondle the marble busts of these underground statesmen and others like them, identifying their fixed faces with our hands, this is true genius, this is pure talent. It’s a rankling dick-litany that only tells us ‘Look, she must be worthy of your reverence, she, mere tiny mouth, has created with these men of stature!’ Yet Lydia’s unbreakable self-assuredness jars against this, even while she revels in it all.

Lydia’s spoken word pieces were, loosely speaking, on New York (and her coming to be there) and Death (and her sense of having come from it, obsession with it, ways in which to cheat it) respectively. They’re amazing, and are only briefly detracted from by her grating insistence on a series of schlocky asides, mostly unnecessary attempts to crowdplease what is, for the most part, an already whooping audience of superfans, which seems a shame when her work actually speaks for itself. I’ve also since found the exact piece she read out on Youtube, which made me feel sad, but also good in so much as that version has a lot less annoying asides in it. In this first piece, she layers up the cultural moment that No Wave sprang from, squats, political fear, the blackout and looting of ’77, the deliberate divestment of the lower east side at the time, what roots sprang there as the fire service and police left it to ruin and her chance meetings with James Chance and Alan Vega and where this led her to.

The second piece is more personal and more rousing. She described being ‘born into death’, and my eyes begin to roll until she qualifies this in that classic Lunchian trick of smashing the metaphor you think you’ve been presented with. She immediately describes what she’s referring to: her mother miscarrying before her, and again after her, how she was born strangling the foetus of her dead twin with her umbilical cord. Speaking in the languorous register of a woman with a number of longstanding prescriptions (she mentions her chronic pain condition only briefly, we’re afforded no insight into her vulnerability) Lydia Lunch talks about creating music and sacred spaces. I am on board for Teenage Jesus, on board for even the whackier parts of Queen of Siam, absolutely on board for the Clint Ruin/No Trend work, and oh my god that song with Sort Sol, but sonically it must be said Lydia Lunch has misfired plenty of times, just as much as Patty Smith might have misfired more if she’d been more active in the 90s and say, branched into working with House and Techno DJs (who am I kidding, I’d pay to hear a Eurotrance remix of Horses, but we may be getting beyond the realms of MRR-readership relevance, so I’ll leave that there.) All of this aside, it is her existence as a completely self-created human in the wake of that intense abuse, the classic personal invention, stripping shades of a city and making yourself from it, it is all this that will be forever inspiring about her, even as she shrugs and bandies her way from lamppost to lamppost talking dismissively how she ‘fucking loved all the death, AIDS, blackouts, and lawlessness’ of late ‘70s New York.

As time progresses her salient points swim ever more loosely in a soup of weak double entendres, and ‘Lydia doing Lydia’ which starts to feel like wrapping oneself in a old blanket, at turns comforting and full of sharp jagged crumbs of discarded crisps. This is particularly off-key when she brushes off questions she doesn’t understand as badly worded, and fails to name a single current woman musician she is inspired by and asks the audience to call out names (someone gets very righteously shouted down for saying ‘Savages!’ and someone else shouts ‘Pharmakon’ which, hilariously, Lydia responds with ‘Pharmakon eh? Good name, I’m writing that down!’ Now that would be really exciting collaboration.)

At one point, she states it as plainly as ‘I am not and have never been a punk rocker.’ She identifies this split through her having been drawn to No Wave’s personal insanity over Punk’s political insanity. We get tales of Brian Eno ‘fucking himself into the hospital’ on his jaunt to NYC, how he did very little for No New York compilation, was terrible at production and good at giving money.

It’s fascinating that Lydia’s remained so on message in her role and what she calls a ‘hysterian’ ‘confrontationalist.’ She’s at her strongest when rolling out truths that have only got larger, more bold and more italic in the last thirty years – about patriarchy, which she names and deconstructs in terms simpler and more powerful than any zeitgeisty twitter feminist you can name.  Lydia’s sharpest points come when talking about covens and collective power of sisterhood, when she heaps praise on things like Kembra Pfahler’s Future Feminism project, because all this feels that little bit more honest than the endless hedonism she touts. The pleasure-seeking Lydia rings rather hollow after the first half hour, she sings the mantra of a very lonely person, and plies lots of very hyper-individualised notions of self-love and the pursuit of pleasure as paramount – indulgence of the id in a world turned to shit, commands to ‘just fuck and drink’ over and above everything else. It all comes across a little neo-liberal and jarring, especially in the context of her rousing call for the need to riot more and riot more violently. Like many artists of her ilk, her engagement with the politically radical seems stilted at the theoretical, but she’s an artist not an organiser, so maybe her way of saying it is inspiring enough. 

As I catch myself in a cringe as she performs herself so knowingly in front of a packed room, I wonder if that involuntary response is really a kind of internalised hatred for a badly behaved woman, and I’m a bit disgusted by myself. Then again, I’m also the kind of person who can’t bear to overhear strangers making forced small talk on the train, so maybe it’s a generalised neurosis over that sahara desert of social anxiety, that is to say, A is for ‘awkward’- over some unchecked misogyny. Either way, it’s her complete rejection of humility as currency – the apparent entry price to cultural legitimacy – that makes it so hard to like Lydia Lunch, at face value, in terms of how she behaves, at least as a person you might want to spend time with, and by the same token, what makes it so easy to love her as a self-created woman entity with literally zero fucks to even begin to give, way beyond the point where even that is some kind of pose in itself. We expect any women given time to talk, even under the kind of dim, marginal spotlight that Lydia has maintained, to graciously answer questions, be self-aware and humble, to take their platform with a figurative curtsy. We absolutely do not like them to, as Lydia did over the course of these two hours, divert questions to areas they want to talk about, ignore instructions, throw microphones, down mini-bar bottles of vodka from their handbag, sway seductively with intent while the town hall PA plays their song, try to flirt with her interviewer by saying he’d make a good future ex-husband and telling him ‘I’m really just a faggot truck driver, how’d you like that?’

Two hours with Lydia was a joyous slog that proved that an orgasm and a full body cringe are so often two sides of the same coin. Consumed by the effect of constant vacillation between disgust and intoxication, I come home and fall into (another) Youtube hole, wanting to find out how her self-created self has developed, what the nascent Lydia had to say. Cable access, VHS and detuned fuzz is my kryptonite. Here is Lydia on stage the year I was born, 1986, brick red feather cut, wildfire eyes, promoting her film Fingered which, despite being directed and historically known as a film by career creep Richard Kern (another bust for the corridor) she wrote a lot of and scored. Lunch is delivering an arch monologue about meat and fucking. It’s in her direct, expletive-laden style, all ‘you’ statements that stoke and unsettle the audience until there is a volley of response from the audience. Without room mics, we can see her eyes spark each time but never hear the exact nature of each heckle she is responding, just a low rumble in a male register. Her voice is missing the tobacco-stained drawl that reverberated through the Town Hall. As the attacks come faster and harder, the gaps between her clipped phrases are even smaller than normal, instead of pushing through her piece she embraces the derailment into a torrent of torrid abuse that is by turns base and crude and huge, but still feels very much like what she intended. Maybe this was all part of the act but as an expression of artist bravery and power against the know your place woman-art-eating machine – it’s matchless. I have watched it eight times this afternoon. I search for vulnerability of a sense of what would be a very natural defensiveness as she is railing back at her detractors (who knows what they came there for, but then this was 1986.) She deftly lays the blame for structural damage of a world that turns on an axis of abuse at the feet of the shouting men in that room. Sharper than sawn off dildo, she does not draw breath. Blood red totalising negativity pulses from her face like the flickering exit sign towards absolute emancipation.

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