by Susanne Kammlott
Once, she was just another pouty, disturbed, blue-eyed runaway from Rochester, NY, but in the mid-’70s, Lydia Lunch quickly became the dark doyenne of New York’s No Wave Scene as the hysterical singer for the grinding and grating band Teenage Jesus and The Jerks. She went on to a more funked-up presence with Eight Eyed Spy and is probably best known musically for her haunting 13.13 album. Since being established as the Medusa-haired Poetess of Pain, Lydia has moved from collaboration to collaboration and medium to medium. She’s co-authored a book of anti-romantic poetry, Adulterers Anonymous, with X’s Exene Cervenka, sirened alongside Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard of the Birthday Party, and Foetus’ Jim Thirlwell; crooned with the Swedish avant garde band, Sort Sol, and Sonic Youth, plus assorted members of Einstürzende Neubauten. She ravaged good taste in the wholly demented videos Right Side of My Brain and Fingered, and was Richard Kern’s pick for a sexy gumshoe in Vortex. Then there’s the sickening audio cassette short-story collection with Michael Gira of Swans. Not to mention cartoon capers in DC Comics’ Toxic Gumbo, with artist Ted McKeever. She’s aired her own dirty psycho laundry in the barely fictional novel Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary. Like a graveyard, she’s covered a lot of ground. Much to her own surprise, Lydia was recently chosen as the poster girl for the Whitney Museum’s No Wave Film Festival.
But she still doesn’t give a shit whether she makes it into the pages of Rolling Stone or Spin Magazine. Or MTV for that matter. Lydia has a lifelong mission – to wake the hell out of sleeping complacency and expose the prejudices and perversions of everyday life. She’s added a few more artistic weapons to her arsenal of expression, but she continues to rail, rant, and reject the norm in all its forms.I caught up with her before sound check, on a chilly Monday afternoon at The Middle East in Cambridge.
In 1977, you were dubbed the Queen of the Primal Scream: what were you screaming about then and what are you screaming abut now?
Well, I view myself as more than the Queen of the Primal Scream, but we’ll start there. In 1977 with Teenage Jesus, it can’t get more primal than that. It was basically a cry of outrage against everything and everyone – myself included. I have always, and still do, try to cover every emotion. I haven’t always screamed; sometimes I whisper, moan, rant, and rage. If you listen en masse to my 22 years of output, you’ll find it’s one of the most diverse bodies of work. My target of verbal obsession is that which oppresses, whether it’s the father – the patriarchy – or the government – our own victimization and the propagation of it. We as women need to find our voices. We have every right to be angry. If you wake up and you’re conscious, there’s any number of things to point your finger at that are intolerable, yet we have no choice but to tolerate. There’s any number of things that irritate me, and I’ve tried to concentrate on them. I don’t see any progress in this society, I see more denial than ever before. We all know what’s happening in this country, what’s going on on a global scale, but we’re not protesting, we’re just going along, la dee fuckin’ da. What’s horrifying to me is that in 1982, I started spoken word, and now there isn’t much of it left. That’s very disheartening because spoken word is the perfect vehicle for protest, but we’re beyond protest. We need a fuckin’ revolution in this country! We’ve needed one for a long time… the sexual revolution didn’t work. We need an economic revolution. I’ve been talking about history, war, victimization, all my favorite subjects. I’m horrified we’re such incredible pacifists in this country. There’s more emotion in a football stadium then there is in this whole nation. When we were on tour in Europe, it was all about the World Cup. There’s no female equivalent. What about a World Nut? My idea is an arena of screaming women learning how to orgasm, learning to female ejaculate, because the most passionate men ever get is over sports. If they could harness that passion, that aggression, that vibrancy towards real issues, the world would completely change over fuckin’ night.
Why do you think people are so passive?
Spoiled, lazy, scared. Afraid to lose what they have. Our time is consumed by multiple distractions. Like paying the rent, that’s a big one. It occupies and preoccupies so much of your time – just for the space you sleep in. The cost of living has gone up, the minimum rage, the minimum wage has remained fairly stagnant, the convenience of videos, movies, computers, and all the other distractions we happily consume with every fuckin’ penny we get. Whereas if we cut down on the distractions, we might have time to think what the fuck the situations are and do something about them. In France, there’s continually public revolt – they revolt over bad coffee. We need minorities, women, minimum wage workers, to unite. What about the economic war in our country, when you hear a statistic that the top percentile makes as much as the rest put together? If you don’t puke on the spot, you’re not human.
Sounds like you’re running for office.
I will soon. Hey, if Jesse “The Body” Ventura can do it, and Jello Biafra tried in San Francisco… It might not be long. I don’t know if running for politics is the answer, because it’s run by corporations. We all know what’s happening here, we all know about mega-merger takeovers and global takeovers, about slave trading, yet we just la dee da, and that’s the most frustrating part of being an artist, of being a women. I’m not leading the revolution, I’m merely praying for it on a daily basis.
You say when you got to NYC, it was like the Devil’s Playground. How do you keep your demons at bay? What keeps you going?
Believe me, killing everyone else… going postal… I just don’t have enough bullets. If I did I’d know where to aim them. I see it as a social necessity. I feel I have to speak out. I don’t see my replacements. I don’t see anyone else, past or present, that can fill my role. I feel it’s my social duty. At the expense of my own time and energy, there’s no choice but to say what I say. Exorcising this gives me the energy to carry on. The situation is no different than feudal times. We’re living in feudal times, it just hasn’t been deemed so.
What advice would you give to women looking to subvert conformity? What would be your handbook?
First of all, live alone. Be alone for a while and learn and understand exactly what you need, what you desire, and what satisfies you emotionally, sexually, psychologically. Realize if you’re looking for someone to fill the void – you’ll be eternally disappointed. When you bring self-satisfaction to a relationship, there’s less of a burden on it. That’s the biggest problem we as women face. We’re bred to look for the one right person, but for me, that person existed 1000 times – right for this, right for that. Because I’m so independent, in my mind’s eye I’m the hermit on the hill. That’s why most relationships fail. People go on and on with “Satisfy me, fulfill me.” Bullshit. Know what you want and find a sensitive person of either sex who can embellish what you already have.
You’ve started doing sculpture – what’s that all about?
I’ve had right exhibitions all over the world: Melbourne, Prague, Paris, L.A., San Francisco, etc. They’re mostly plaster casts of my torso covered in gold, amber, and blood which have titles like “Ancient Rituals,” and “Sins of the Father.” It’s an alternative to the so-called idea of perfection forced on us by queer fashion designers, those images of mostly anorexics that look like teenage boys, so it’s good to get those plump female forms on the wall. It speaks about mauling and dismembering the female body and psyche that’s carried on today. Whether it’s incest, harmful relationships, sexual practices in the Middle East, or African countries and how many women a year are getting clitorectomies. It’s another way to express without words, not that I’m out of them. It’s another way to illustrate a point.
How’d you first become involved with photography?
It’s interesting, I started taking pictures seven years ago in New Orleans, just of these kids I knew. Indigent studies, and then urban and rural decay that led to graveyards, female statues, and ruins. It developed sort of unconsciously, starting with the blossom of youth, and then going to death and decay. Photos are so instantaneous – photojournalism – you’re documenting the way the light falls on a person or a statue, and it’ll never fall that way again. It’s specific in time, in emotional history, in social history, and in political history. In essence, it’s capturing a moment that will never happen again. They’re almost more satisfying because I’m so divorced from them.
Why and when did you form Widowspeak?
I started it to house my and other people’s music. It’s a direct approach, an umbrella title. Unfortunately, I still have to work with distributors because I can’t do everything. It’s bad enough to have a donkey cart to sell your own stuff after the show, but it’s a direct way to get to people. I’m working with Atavistic in Chicago, myself and Glenn Branca, the Swans, and a few other people from the No Wave scene. They’re very sensitive to fostering and keeping this type of expression out there.
How is your work an act of compassion?
I’m speaking – telling the truth as I see it – articulating a voice I find doesn’t exist. I’m trying to voice for the disenfranchised, for people that are eternally oppressed – women and minorities. That’s where the compassion comes in. There’s no denying that anyone who isn’t a middle aged white man is oppressed. We’re oppressed because we’re not running the corporations, but we can only do what we can in a small way, on some level. Being oppressed, it doesn’t take away my power, I’ve created my own universe. There’s still a glass ceiling, there’s still is a minimum wage. Wealth denied to who? Women and children. The individual woman is not oppressed, the individual woman has as much power as she can grab, as she can find, but globally, we’re still an oppressed species. I’m not coming from a middle class mind set, I’m talking universally.
You’re pro porn – why?
What’s the goal of pornography? It’s to make money and give relief. Not only men are buying it. The biggest rental market for porn is college women. The problem with porn is that most of it is really bad. But with people like Annie Sprinkle and Candida Royale, the face of it will change. It won’t be that fucking ridiculous, redundant ’70s shit. The whole goal is sexual relief, whether it’s one on one, couples, whatever. That argument is never brought up in the debate. Nothing you do in your own fuckin’ house should be against the law. No one forces women to be a part of porn. A lot of women I know love to get fucked, and they love to get paid. What’s the problem? The two don’t have to go hand-in-hand. However, we need more porn, and we need better porn. We need intelligent porn, we need queers, lesbians, couples, alternative… It’s sex. Why is sex still the ultimate fuckin’ taboo? I don’t get it. It doesn’t have to be exploitative. We love it and loathe it. We almost all do it. The whole controversy with censorship and 2-Live Crew… Women have been mauled and exploited for hundreds of years, why do you want to blame it on in the last 25? The Ted Bundy excuse that pornography “made me do it” is a cheap explanation. The goal of pornography is relief, not frustration, let’s get the fuckin’ facts straight. To me, pornography is religion. It’s the fuckin’ carrot in the afterlife, and hell and damnation in this life. But when you look at all the war and aggression, you realize the real porn – war is porn, minimum wage is porn. If something offends you because it’s not the kind of sex you want to have, then don’t watch it. Go find something you like.
What haven’t you conquered? What’s on the horizon?
I’d like to make a really good porn film. Although the films I made in the early ’80s were considered pornographic, they weren’t made with pornographic intent. They were were made to show the horrors of a certain type of sexual intoxication. They were not made to titillate. Everyone has a different reaction. At the time, I was accused by critics yelling, “How could you show that?!” As if I inhabited an alternative reality because I was a performer. I did it because I lived it, because I’m not the only one. I’m not the only one who had these kinds of relationships. I felt they weren’t shocking enough because I lived through them for years, not viewed them for twenty minutes. I would be very interested in writing and directing an intellectually-challenging porn film.
What’s this new collaboration with Joseph Budenholzer and Terry Edwards?
It’s illustrated word, some are songs, some spoken word – it’s new music, psycho ambient soundtrack material, live sax, percussion, heavy lyrics, house detective noir, post-Lynchian Twin Peaks from Hell music.
Something for everyone?
I doubt it.