Sunday, 26 January 2014

Tallulah and Billie

/ Tallulah Bankhead in the 1930s /

/ Billie Holiday photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1949 /

The intimate friendship between dissolute husky-voiced first lady of the American stage Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968) and the great doomed jazz chanteuse Billie Holiday (1915-1959) spanned at least two decades – from the golden age of 1930s Harlem cafe society until the mid-1950s. “Tally and Lady were like sisters,” as one observer put it. Fierce, stylish sisters with a tinge of incest, apparently.

From Joel Lobenthal’s 2005 biography Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady:

Tallulah’s relationships, of course, seldom observed clear-cut boundaries, and it appears that during the late 1940s she and Holiday were also lovers. Perhaps they had been all along.  Holiday later told William Dufty, who ghostwrote her autobiography, that when Tallulah visited backstage at the Strand Theatre, the thrill she took in exhibitionistic sex made her insist on keeping Holiday’s dressing room door open. Holiday later claimed that Tallulah’s brazen show of affection almost cost her her job at the Strand.

John Levy was also Holiday’s lover as well as her manager at the time, and although he was one of the abusive strong men to whom Holiday gravitated, Levy was intimidated by Tallulah and her connections. When Tallulah came around, all he could do was get out of the way. Once at a nightclub he sat at a nearby table watching Tallulah express her affection to Holiday. “Look at that bitch, Carl, look at that!” he exclaimed to musician Carl Drinkard. “That bitch is going out of her fucking mind, she’s all over her.”

A daughter of the patrician Old South who knew a thing or two about breaking taboos, the gloriously hedonistic Tallulah was a bold pioneer when it came to interracial sex – another of her conquests was Hattie McDaniel (yes, Mammy from Gone with the Wind). Sadly, Bankhead and Holiday’s friendship ended acrimoniously around the time of the publication of Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday’s 1956 memoirs. (Bankhead was bedeviled by tabloid scandals at the time and, fearing what dirt Holiday might rake up in her autobiography, abruptly distanced herself from her – probably on the advice of her lawyer). What a shame. Read Holiday’s lacerating and embittered kiss-off letter to Bankhead here. 

/ Bankhead was primarily a stage actress and only made a handful of films. In the early 1930s she was dispatched to Hollywood in the hopes she would become a screen rival to Garbo and Dietrich (in truth, she was the rare American actress who did convincingly exude their kind of heavy-lidded Continental decadence). Unfortunately all her films belly flopped and her Hollywood stint was brief. Here she is in The Cheat (1931), which certainly looks intriguing. I've never seen it, but apparently it’s available to watch in ten-minute segments on Youtube /

/ Sultry Bankhead with delectable leading man Gary Cooper in The Devil and The Deep (1932) – which I have seen and is great, campy fun. Bankhead famously confessed, “The only reason I went to Hollywood was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper.”/ 

/ I think my favourite photos of Billie Holiday ever taken were from this weirdly modern 1949 series by Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) – which include these sensational nude portraits. Young Holiday looks a bit tough and hard-edged but not yet ravaged. I love how they're clearly un-retouched: you can see the little scar on her face. Her golden skin makes her look like one of Gauguin’s Tahitian beauties. See more here /

/ Towards the end: Holiday in 1958 /

/ Rare shot of Billie and Tallulah in happier times, apparently taken at The Strand Theatre circa 1948 /

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

She's In A Bad Mood: My 1999 Flipside Interview with Lydia Lunch

/ Two of photographer Johnny Volcano's portraits of Lunch taken backstage at The Garage in London in 1999, the day I interviewed her for Flipside. (She did a blistering show at the venue later that night). These are the only two shots I have from the session and I've accidentally scanned them small! If I get the opportunity to scan them bigger, I'll re-insert them here /

Consider this a sequel to my earlier post Queen of the Damned: The Wit and Wisdom of High Priestess of Punk Lydia Lunch. That was my 1993 MAXIMUMROCKNROLL interview with the volcanic avant-garde-ian angel and punk poetess.  In 1999 I interviewed Lunch in London again, this time for the Los Angeles punk zine Flipside. (In those days I regularly contributed to both MRR and Flipside. Yes, I have punk credibility coming out of my ass! Considering Flipside folded in 2000, this would have appeared in one of its last issues). Note: later in the interview when Lunch and I discuss the jazz-influenced music she was then making with musician Terry Edwards, it later surfaced on the 2004 album Smoke in the Shadows.

Toxic beauty Lydia Lunch is the high priestess of punk with the fierce curves and even fiercer mouth. Call her a singer, actress, performance artist or poetess (Lunch herself prefers the multi-purpose “confrontationalist”), she’s the scowling face and lacerating voice of the underground. Whatever the medium, everything Lunch does is characterized by scalding intelligence, a volatile worldview and a compulsion for confession, articulating her own alienation in order to better understand it. It’s an interesting time to hook up again with Lunch. Now 40, by her own reckoning she’s at the mid-point of her career. Recent work has seen the earlier distraught wails and anguished thrashings tempered into something more soulful and reflective. The first 22 years of her musical outpourings, from teenage scream queen to present day, are documented in the new two CD retrospective compilation Widowspeak, while her two latest missives are major statements from a mature artist. The deeply alluring Matrikamantra CD sounds like tales from the crypt or telegrams from hell, with Lunch exhaling bleak poetry, frequently in a near whisper, over an eerie film noir haunted house soundtrack. Her book Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary is memoir as raw wound. Fleeing to New York at 15 to escape her father’s sexual abuse, the book depicts how delinquent lost girl Lunch survived by hustling (casual drug dealing, shoplifting, occasional prostitution, stripping) while overdosing on anonymous sex and increasingly violent relationships with a series of psychopathic boyfriends. Lunch did more than just survive her desperate living – she absorbed everything and emerged tough, wise and serene. “Feel free to pry,” she challenged, wreathing herself in cigarette smoke. I took her at her word.

“In every work of art the composer is trying to figure out why he did what he did and what were the injuries that betrayed him. Always it returns to sexual experience.” – Louise Brooks

Graham Russell: Why didn't you wait until you were 65 to write your autobiography? There’s a lot of chapters still to come.

Lydia Lunch: Well, midway point. That’s like asking why do you make any record when you do. It’s a statement, a historical document of where I am at the moment. I had finally the time and the insight to document that. And for the incredible lack of feminine aggressive sexual voices – it screamed out for that void to be filled. I also look at it almost as a bookend  to the films (Right Side of My Brain (1984) and Fingered (1986), the two notorious neo-porn films she made with director Richard Kern. Paradoxia puts them firmly into context as autobiographical). It’s not like a midpoint to my career, Paradoxia, but a bookend to the documentation of certain obsessions.

/ Lunch in the Richard Kern film Right Side of My Brain (1984) /

GR: Are we meant to regard Paradoxia as your autobiography?

LL: No, and I don’t consider it a novel. I just consider it memoirs in the sense that I consider Henry Miller memoirs.

GR: It really reveals how your life bleeds into your art. They’re inseparable.

LL: I don’t speak about the art in the book, I speak about the obsessions that drove my life, which then caused the documentation and creation to come forth. Leaving all that out was urgent because I don’t want to write a rock autobiography. (Spits the words “rock autobiography” with scathing contempt). I’m not fucking interested. That’s left to people like you, to document what I've done. But to get to the bottom line, to really deal with the issue, like I have done for two decades now, of my father, but in a new perspective. From where I could understand the benefits he imbued in me. A lot of the personality traits that are so intrinsically me are my father. So love or loathe the bastard, he had to be put into a perspective that wasn't just a tirade against him but to really start to understand how much influence he’s had on me. Eventually, intellectually I've had to curtail his influence without becoming a raving lunatic. Some would argue otherwise. I also do have a deep understanding of what drives addictive personalities, what drives the sexually insane. It’s a lot of what I've concentrated my work on. But ultimately the book is about what led up to the eventual healing of all that, to a calmer state, to not any longer be a victim of your desires or influences. That’s a very important state to arrive at.  Then you’re in control of the driving, you’re not just being driven. Obviously I had to arrive at that state long before I could write the book. And then I had to go back and view important incidences almost like a picture postcard memory the back of which needed to be filled in, to recollect exactly what kind of impact that relationship had on my life.

GR: You told me years ago you were intending to write a book called My Father’s Daughter. Is Paradoxia what that evolved into?

LL: Exactly. And the line “my father’s daughter” is even in there. I think also there is a humongous void in literature: it’s always men we accuse of being predatory, but women are very predatory. It’s just they do it in much more subtle ways. I had no subtlety in my predation whatsoever. I was ferocious. Part of that was my own sexual rebellion, revolting against what women are supposed to be like. My sexuality was always very masculine. It was very macho.

GR: What about your mother? You've said she forced religious delusions on you.

LL: My mother was very psychic. She was kind of a Catholic mystic. It’s interesting you mention her, just because of her sex. That’s the next line of attack. I've spent so many decades describing the male condition and the ills that species has fostered upon us and now it’s time to take upon women and the problem with what they propagate. That’s a very important issue for me to start dealing with. Tonight in one of the songs I’ll be doing I say that although no woman has ever started a world war they've never ended one either. Although it’s women and children first – first to be raped and exiled and sacrificed and widowed and refugeed – we can no longer afford to be passive victims. We can’t allow the world to continue on this patriarchal down-slide. We’re a bigger percentage of the population and we shouldn't be forced to withstand this abuse any longer. There’s plenty of things we need to iron out about what’s wrong with women according to the Lydian method. I've spent two decades now picking on what’s wrong with God the father, God the fucker, the father of my country and my own father specifically. My mother like so many mothers was a facilitator and that is part of abuse. Mothers tolerate what happens within the family often and that’s part of the ongoing cycle of familial abuse. My mother wasn't the guilty party but I didn't allow her to be guilt-free, either. There’s no way you cannot know what’s happening within the family. What I've gained from her – since I've documented quite accurately what I gained from my father – is she had an incredible amount of patience and tolerance and so do I. I've worked with infants my whole adult life – I work with musicians! That’s what she imbued me with and that’s what truly kept me sane.

GR: Your mother was Italian. You inherited her Italian looks.

LL: I do look frighteningly like my mother. It’s scary. (Lunch has joked about her heritage "The surname  (Koch) is German. The nose is Sicilian").

/ Lunch on the cover of the zine Forced Exposure (1986). The photo is almost certainly by Richard Kern /

GR: In both the book and the song “Escape”, you eloquently spell out the motivation for your work: the cathartic quality of confession. (On “Escape” Lunch hisses “My sanity insists upon expulsion. Purgation. Insists I wring from every cell the poisonous thoughts, polluted deeds, malicious intentions, that would, if not puked forth, riddle me with disease. With sickness. With death. My incredible well-being is a testament to the curative of confession, the healing power of the words. And if it makes you sick … so much the better.”). Part of the release is making it public, otherwise you’d leave it in private diaries or journals.

GR: The only reason I began in the first place was because I knew my trauma was not so fucking personal or individual or unique, which is what a lot of artists suffer from. They feel their pain is so incredibly unique. Pain is pain – hello! The issues I've tended to focus on are very universal themes and there is a void that speaks directly to these problems. It started as primal therapy and it ends as a social duty. That’s one of the reasons I feel the need to continue to release in a public format. I don’t see my cultural influence. I don’t see other people adopting the formats, so even if it’s just to five people a night out of a hundred, five hundred or a thousand, that you know you’re speaking directly to, there is a real urgency. When these people come up to you and you know how much it matters to them you’re saying what you’re saying. Without being too femocentric, it’s a feminine social duty just because of the void in female music. There’s so few aggressive female icons and even fewer aggressive articulate female icons dealing with any important issues. There’s Diamanda Galas, Karen Finley, Wanda Coleman, Exene Cervenka – the same fucking people there’s always been. And in place of them there’s no one. Or in place of them we don’t know who the other women who might be creating because the people who get the concentrated attention in any format has gotten smaller and smaller based on fucking kick-back. That’s why thank God magazines like Flipside still do fucking exist. Because I doubt the corporate sponsors who buy the ads are getting in. Unlike Rolling Stone or Spin where you pay to be featured. Hence why I've had one review in Rolling Stone by fucking Lester Bangs. That’s the last time Rolling Stone has ever mentioned my name. In Europe they have a different cultural concept of my place in history. In America I’m the footnote in everyone else’s career. Turn to Rolling Stone’s Women in Rock (book), other than Patti Smith I’ll have more footnotes than anyone else. And I’ll have the shortest chapter.

GR: But you also never aspired to that kind of stardom or acceptance. Not even in terms of other women, but Henry Rollins and Nick Cave are your peers and started at the same time and they’re accepted on an establishment level in a way you’re not.

LL: Part of it is the male-female divide. Historically it’s just a gender issue. Take the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the Situationists, take rock’n’roll, take movies. Also I’m just more intense than they are. And I also diversify more. It’s not like I’m promoting one album or one book like Rollins over and over again, with very little diversity within that. Or Nick Cave who’s just become a balladeer, which is the ultimate perversion. How he gets Goth teenagers to buy these saccharine ballads is bizarre! It’s wonderful. No one can get a handle on what it is I do. If they've heard one thing they assume that’s what my entire career sounds like. If they've heard Teenage Jesus and the Jerks they think all my records must be that. If they've heard Queen of Siam all my records must be that. Even though you might be able to recognize my voice, always the flavor is going to change even if the subject matter consistently remains the same. Which it does. Also part of that is just the rate at which I create is not fit for public consumption.

/ Lunch in the 1986 Richard Kern neo-porn film Fingered. If you've seen it, you know what's happening just outside of the frame in this shot /

GR: Paradoxia is mostly about your relationships with men, but you’re quite selective. There’s no Rollins …

LL: Rollins was only a friend of mine. He was never a boyfriend or lover, so why should he get a chapter? He’s written his own fucking books. Again, I left out my creative side. Our relationship was based on the spoken word tours we did together. He didn't play an active part in my sexual or social reality. That was the dividing line. Other than J G Thirlwell (aka Foetus, aka Clint Ruin) there’s a big difference between the people I live with or my relationships and the people I create with. The two just don’t cross.

GR: There’s no Nick Zedd.

LL: Again, why? It was a month-long affair that’s lasted his whole lifetime. I’m his obsession, he’s not mine. He never was. (Cinema of Transgression filmmaker Zedd gives his won account of their relationship in his autobiography Totem of the Depraved. Lunch was the subject of his obsessive neo-documentary The Wild World of Lydia Lunch (1983)).

GR: There’s no Nick Cave.

LL: Then again why, too? We didn't have a romantic involvement. It if was a rock autobiography their names would've been written in blood. Theirs. Thirlwell made an interesting comment. He asked, Why is my chapter so short? I said, Consider yourself lucky, boy. We didn't have a traumatic relationship. I tend to concentrate on the driven obsessions not on the satisfying relationships.

/ Lunch with her former boyfriend and frequent musical collaborator J G Thirlwell /

GR: There’s more drugs in the book than I expected.

LL: We did a lot of drugs in those days.

GR: But your name’s not linked with drugs like Johnny Thunders’ is or Nico’s is.

LL: Thankfully in your book, no. I have guilt by association. Everyone I've ever collaborated with has either been a junkie or an alcoholic, it appears. With a few exceptions. I've just never had an addiction and I've never done heroin that much. I did heroin twice and that was enough for me. I’m certainly not completely straight edge, but I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs. If I feel like having a drink, I’ll have one cognac, whatever. I don’t think anyone has to be straight edge unless that’s the only way you can be. I’m happy I had the opportunity to do it when I was very young and purge it from my system early  and I’m happy I experimented with everything I did. I did a lot of acid. A lot of mescaline. Tuinals. Placidols. Barbiturates. Seconals. Quaaludes. Cocaine. Jack Daniels. I loved it all! But I just didn't do it on a daily basis. I've asked a lot of my friends who’re now in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous what’s the defining difference between you and me? It’s not that I’m not obsessive. I guess I just don’t have an addictive personality, but that’s down to my fickle nature – I’m too fickle to be involved with one drug for too long. To me doing the same drug for a long period would be like making the same record two or three times! And they don’t make the drugs that I like anymore anyway, so that solved that! They just don’t make those good barbiturates anymore. And personally if I was going to turn to drugs it would be barbiturates because I’m at such an accelerated speed. Heroin? It’s too much of a knock-out. Speed? No, I’d become totally violent. I’m not against drugs – just against them as a lifestyle.

GR: What do you make of Prozac?

LL: And Ritalin. It’s just trying to salve the wound. But there are also a lot of people who’re physiologically and chemically damaged by the bad food their parents and parents’ parents ate. And the alcoholism and cigarette smoking and the caffeine throughout the generations. There are people who’re neurologically damaged who do need a chemical re-balance and if that’s going to make you feel better and easier for you to live, fine. I never had to go on psychoactive drugs. I never went through therapy. I think I've sorted myself out pretty good. Karen Finley was asking how I could’ve managed to never gone in therapy and I said I’m in therapy every time I’m on fucking stage, what’re you talking about woman? I've been in therapy for 22 years.

GR: I get the impression from the book you had to do a lot of things in order not to do them.

LL: I had to gluttonize ‘til I made myself sick. Of a lot of things. Alcohol included. I had to suffer alcohol poisoning before I could finally say, “this is not the drug for me.” I had to make myself sexually horrified. It wasn't just the sex that was always the issue. It had a lot more to do than just being sexually promiscuous as a rebellion against abuse. Some victims do turn to promiscuity as a way out, to redress the imbalance. To me it was an experiment with mind control. With anonymity. With power plays. Transformation. A vampirism of energy. There was a lot more behind it than just, I think I’ll get fucked tonight. Which is also good every now and then. Sometimes you just want a good, dirty fuck, face it. But there was a lot more behind it than that.

/ Portrait of Lunch from the back cover of her 1982 album 13.13: a panicked, claustrophobic masterpiece /

GR: I love the idea that it was your English teacher when you were 15 who encouraged you to quit school.

LL: Beautiful. She was great.

GR: The idea of you as self-educated and self-created. And you needed to read writers like Henry Miller and Hubert Selby and de Sade in order to understand your own life and they wouldn't have been on the high school curriculum, anyway.

LL: Exactly. I've always managed within the chaos of my life to read an incredible amount. That’s my main activity, reading or creating. There’s a lot of time in the day to read when you’re not busy entertaining yourself with other peoples’ imaginations. Which I’m not.

/ Pouty portrait of Lunch from the wonderful book We're Desperate: The Punk Rock Photography of Jim Jocoy, which grungily documents the early San Francisco and Los Angeles punk subcultures between 1978 and 1980 /

GR: When you ran away to New York in the early 1970s you arrived in time for the whole Max’s Kansas City punk explosion. You've said that it was the New York Dolls in particular who lured you. What was their attraction?

LL: They weren't perfectionists. Their music was so rough. Their costumes. The whole gender issue. While still utilizing tradition, there was a huge break with tradition. Their calamity. The chaos. It was just the time, really. It was very exciting.

GR: While you liked the Dolls and The Ramones and Patti Smith, when you formed Teenage Jesus and The Jerks you had to rebel against what they represented.

LL: I had to rebel against the traditionalism that inspired me. They were far too traditional. I still feel Patti Smith could’ve gone a lot further out.

GR: How much of a direct influence was Patti Smith? Not musically, but the way she combined spoken word and poetry with music.

LL: There was also Nico. There was also Berlin (Lou Reed’s 1973 album) – probably that album was far more influential to me than any single recording. David Bowie. The fact that he was a conceptualist was very inspirational. More so than his music, just that he continued to re-permutate and transform. I found the poetry of Patti Smith very inspirational when I was 13 but I also found it very rock and I was never really that big of a rock fan. Other than The Stooges. There wasn't many other women at the time you could call upon. Nico had as big an influence on me as Patti Smith. I’m a huge fan of The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End.

GR: Did you ever meet Nico before she died?

LL: No, I never did.

GR: You probably would've been disappointed.

LL: Oh of course. She was a nightmare. She was a horror. What was beautiful about Nico was that because she was so incredibly beautiful she wanted to erase the burden of beauty from herself. She did it in such a tragic way. But I can understand her feeling that her visage was just too much of a burden – you couldn't be taken seriously when you’re that beautiful. You’re an object. So she set out to destroy that. And she did.

GR: People are so dismissive of Nico, but she was like Billie Holiday or Chet Baker – no matter how screwed-up her life, she could still pull herself together and make powerful music.

LL: She made some terrible records later in her life, but who hasn't?

As well as collaborating with Cinema of Transgression auteurs like Richard Kern, Nick Zedd and Scott and Beth B, Lunch also appeared in several films by underground filmmaker Vivienne Dick. It’s a shame the films Dick and Lunch made together are so obscure – they show a different, more sensitive and reflective side to Lunch. I've seen She Had Her Gun All Ready, Beauty Becomes the Beast (both 1978) and Like Dawn to Dust (1983). At one point they were all on Youtube; they've since been yanked down. Above is Lunch’s brief, sullen appearance in Guérillère Talks (1978). Her flat-voiced delivery reminds me of doomed Warhol Superstar Andrea Feldman. Read more about Lunch and Dick's work together here /

GR: What do you want to do next musically? What’s the music you hear in your head?

LL: On the Widowspeak compilation there’s a track called “Four Cornered Room” which I used a War sample to and I think I’d like to do something not funk or groove-based – certainly I’m not going to do a funk record or a dance record or R&B. But I’d like to do something that’s more of a marriage between Eartha Kitt and Patti Waters. I’m going in a more jazz direction. The circle is coming complete: we’re doing a song from Queen of Siam (the song was “Knives in The Drain”. Queen of Siam, her 1980 album of charred big band torch songs and stark poetry, remains one of Lunch’s definitive statements). Something that marries a kind of psycho-ambiance with elements that have a very heavy deep groove that’s not danceable and that propels the words. Not rap, but word-based and very minimal. That’s the marriage I’ll go for next. In the live set we’re going in that direction. The first song we’re doing tonight, “Gone City”, which hasn't been recorded, is a vibe I’d like to go in. (The general feel was harsh, dissonant jazz. For the gig Lunch was backed by Ian White on percussion and ex-Gallon Drunk sideman Terry Edwards on honking, squawking saxophone. Lunch’s cat-scratch voice is always ideally partnered with sleazy horns).

GR: Your stuff is so autobiographical, but where do you draw the line? How much do you think we really know you?

LL: (Pauses) Very good question. I've pretty much told it all. What more is left of my personal life to reveal? I think I've pretty much flayed myself open. I think what I don’t share is how happy I am. Not happy – how satisfied I am. How much peace there is within my life. How calm I am. I never get mad. I don’t throw tantrums. I don’t have fits. I’m rarely frustrated. I’m very open and non-judgmental. These aren't adjectives one throws at who they think I am, but that’s the way I truly am. Because I tend to concentrate on the extremes of passion and that which does not satisfy me about the world, I haven’t had the chance to write the self-help Nihilist’s Guide to the Apocalypse, which might be very life-affirming. Life-affirming? Maybe death-affirming. It would be existence-confirming. Unless you know me personally you don’t know how easy-going and generous I am. That’s what’s left out, because I don’t find there’s much room in the forms of art I care to create to share that. There’s no taboo, but the nirvana of my existence might be the only thing I leave out of the discourse. Basically I’m the most unperturbed person you’ll ever meet because I have so many vehicles to express that which truly irritates me. Part of that is narcissism. I just feel so above it all. I’m going into the sewer and investigating and reporting, but I refuse to be muddied by it all. That’s just part of my narcissism, which is what saves me.

GR: Or strength of character.

LL: Either way. Narcissism’s been given a bad rap. Narcissism, but not at the expense of anyone else. I’m lucky to have found my own place in history, created my own universe, and I’m so self-sufficient and independent. Eventually the things that drive negative desires are washed-away. I have only an ambition to do exactly what I want and create in the most honest way possible. I want for so little – basically to be left alone and continue to create at the mid-point of my career, which is where I must be at by now.

/ Perma-scowling: portrait of Lunch by Richard Kern /

GR: What’re the consequences or repercussions of the nature of your work? Because it’s so personal and confessional [not to mention frequently sexually explicit], when you encounter people they must have certain assumptions about you.

LL: They’re always shocked that I’ll give ‘em five minutes. What I project tends to keep a lot of people away. That’s good. Never stalk the stalker.

GR: Do you attract stalkers and psychos?

LL: No because who’d be more psychotic, me or them? It’s victim psychology: predators prey on people who have a different electrical charge. They don’t prey on similar types. So no I don’t think there are any repercussions. I have incredible psychic self-defense.

/ Lunch in full rant mode in her abrasive 1989 short film The Gun is Loaded /

GR:  What do you make of the belief an artist has to be in pain in order to create? (This is after all the woman who posed for the cover of her 1984 album In Limbo holding a razor blade to her own throat).

LL: A lot of creation does stem from that wellspring. That’s what most of the greatest paintings, literature and music has come from. A frustration, an aggravation, an angst, a torture of some kind. I just don’t suffer in the typical way. The torture that has been my life was then made into my art, but I did not suffer to create my art. I don’t think I've ever had artistic frustration. It comes so naturally to me, and I’m using words. Words are free. They’re all over the place. The only struggle is to arrange them, like throwing the dice. A lot of artists feel that once they heal themselves they won’t have anything to talk about. I find that highly ridiculous. There comes a point where that’s old, it’s tired, you've suffered enough. Get on with it. Everyone has to decide for themselves how heavy the cross is they’re going to be willing to fucking bear.

GR: So at the moment you’re quite content.

LL: For quite a long time. After I left New York, really. This is almost ten years. Leaving New York was the best thing I could’ve done. Just like every time I move, it’s the best thing I could possibly do. That mobility incredibly helps. I can’t understand why people tend to live in one city for a great amount of time, especially if they’re creative. I need to feel other elements, other vibrations, certain geographical sicknesses, to be influenced by what’s come before in that place. But that’s just me. (Paradoxia keeps restlessly shifting locales from New York to Los Angeles to London to New Orleans. After a stint in Pittsburgh Lunch is currently living in Los Angeles again with her artist boyfriend).

GR: In Matrikamantra there’s a sense of despair in the songs …

LL: Or it wouldn't be Lydian. And it’s 1999.

GR: … but there’s a degree of optimism.

LL: (Incredulous) Where’d you see that?!

GR: Well, the messages of self-empowerment and self-sufficiency. (On “Need to Feed” Lunch purrs “To fill the void within / Only the self will suffice”).

LL: I don’t know if I’d call that optimism. It’s more putting things in perspective. Self-sufficiency, which is what I've had to been my entire life. I’m a very positive person but not for the state of the world. Not for where we’re headed or the human condition, but in spite of that I’m not angst ridden. I guess my humor saves me – I find it all ridiculous. Highly hilarious.

GR: There’s definitely two voices or mindsets in your work: the tough as nails hard-boiled side versus the almost mystical, spiritual side.

LL: Well, yeah. There are those two sides that fight to be heard. My lyrics are much more mystical and the speeches or stories or the books are a lot more hard-boiled. There is a division there. And one houses one and one houses the other.

GR: It’s almost like your Henry Miller side versus your Anais Nin side.

LL: Well, I don’t know. I guess so. Sure. Why not!

GR: What do you see yourself doing artistically in the years to come?

LL: I’d like to do some documentaries. Not about myself – I've documented that enough. About other things. The video camera is calling me. I can’t say exactly what the theme will be, but a film like Gummo (1997) is very important to me. I think it’s one of the best films to come out in the past ten years. I view it almost as a documentary of a certain breed of kid that does exist. I've had exhibitions in Melbourne, Prague, Paris, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Orlando. It’s a totally different side to what I do. If you thought I’m taking photos – “Oh, they must be like (Richard) Kern.” They’re not at all fetishistic, they’re not at all sexual. They’re black and white still lives of very quiet things. Non-thematically, I just started taking photos of kids, adolescents, then rural decay. Sheds. Shacks. Crashed cars. Then, travelling around the world, gravestones – specifically female gravestones. The concept quickly became obvious to me that it was about blossom, decay and death. I have two books of photographs that are basically ready that I want to concentrate on this year. More music. More books. I’ll just carry on in the tradition I've already established for myself.

GR: Because you’re not tied to anything “youth culture” you can keep going ‘til you drop dead.

LL: Some young people come to the shows. Middle-aged people. My oldest fan is 85. He’s a sexologist in Copenhagen. If someone suddenly gets interested in No Wave and they happen upon what I’m doing and they happen to be 17, that’s beautiful.

GR: What I mean is, even when you were 17 …

LL: Oh, exactly! I wasn't making music for people my age! I don’t know who I was making music for. Myself.

GR: And you weren't exactly singing about innocence or being in love for the first time.

LL: (Guffaws) Heck, no! That’s still to come. Maybe at 60.

GR: It’s always been about what you've experienced, so that will be a ongoing thing.

LL: Exactly. I hope to keep refining the formats. I’m sure the subject matter will remain quite constant because there’s still a lot to be discussed about sexual politics, about politics, about the destruction of the world. It’s not getting any better. Someone’s got to be the town crier and that’s left to people like me and Karen Finley and Jello Biafra, who I do feel some kinship with. He’s out there telling the truth, he’s doing the research, he knows what’s happening. I don’t go to his three hour long shows but I’m glad he fucking exists. I’m very glad he has the energy to continue and I’m sure he will, too.

/ Teenage Bad Girl: Lydia Lunch in 1977 /

GR: When you were on the Greyhound bus from Rochester to New York for the last time when you were 15 and you knew there was no turning back, what were your expectations for the life you wanted and how has it turned out?

LL: I've exceeded my own expectations. Everything occurred naturally. It was just obvious I would have a band like Teenage Jesus. It was obvious I would continue. But you can’t predict what’s going to happen. I couldn't have predicted I’d have the energy to continue. That I would create in so many formats and have the self-made opportunity to document them. Certainly I've had the least help from anyone from the place where I started. Especially always being the one pursuing the collaborators. It’s not as if these people came to me – I went to every person I've ever collaborated with. I've had to organize everything, design and conceptualise everything and set up the collaborations and house them and often feed them and pay them – and when I've had to, book the shows. Who would've predicted I’d have the energy or that I wouldn't have found another path? There’s no telling. And there’s no telling what’s to come. None at all.

/ Catch up with present-day Lunch and her current provocations in this recent (December 2013) profile in The New York Times. This great, defiant shot of 54-year old punk earth mother Lunch - looking very Anna Magnani - accompanied the article / 

Below: A selection of my own best shots of Lydia Lunch performing in London over the years. Clicking on the links takes you to the full flickr sets if you want to see more.

Below: Lydia Lunch in 2005

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020 Lydia Lunch / Teenage Jesus & The Jerks
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Friday, 10 January 2014

Queen of the Damned: The Wit and Wisdom of High Priestess of Punk Lydia Lunch

“Where all the killers are heroes, I'm the queen of cripples, one-armed bandits, one-eyed jacks and dead cats.” Meltdown Oratorio. From Lydia Lunch’s 1987 album Stinkfist

As my own hard-working archivist (no one else is going to do it if I don’t!), I’m endeavoring to gradually get my most noteworthy interviews online. So far I've uploaded my profiles of John Waters, Marianne Faithfull, The Cramps’ Poison Ivy and the late Christina Amphlett of Divinyls. This time: volatile punk provocateur Lydia Lunch.

The interview below was originally published in the December 1993 issue of hardcore punk zine MAXIMUMROCKNROLL. I first met Lunch in 1990 when I was still a student in Canada and interviewed her for my university newspaper. It was after one of Lunch’s spoken word gigs at the Montreal punk club Les Foufounes Electriques. Onstage Lunch was mesmerizingly antagonistic, utilising just her remarkable wailing, sneering, accusing and emotionally resonant voice to zero in on the dreams, anxieties and pretensions of her audience. Backstage afterwards over beers Lunch was even more riveting. I was intoxicated by her. Up-close the 34-year old Lunch was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever encountered. I was struck by the petal-like perfection of her ivory complexion, red lips out of a Tamara de Lempicka painting, her perfume (patchouli-based – surprisingly hippie-ish), and her truly awesome pair of fuck-you black cowboy boots. I was already waiting in her dressing room when Lunch arrived. When told her I’d been expecting a redhead (her hair was inky jet black) she replied, “It never stays one colour very long.” To my horror afterwards my tape recorder’s batteries ran out long before Lydia did – a mistake I ensured never happened again! The interview I managed to salvage concluded with me asking Lunch about the cathartic quality of her work. “Cathartic?” she demurred. “I don’t know. An enema would feel better, I think. Not an emotional enema, a Scotch enema. Champagne is very nice also. At least that way you get the real high. An enema to all your readers. Here’s one for you.”

By 1993 I was living in London. When I learned Lunch would be in town promoting the release of her book of poetry and essays Incriminating Evidence I seized the interview to properly interview her again – this time with a fresh pair of batteries. She gave a spoken word performance at the now-defunct, much-missed Compendium bookstore in Camden Town, then we headed to the vegetarian restaurant across the street (also long gone). We were accompanied by her friend the musician Karl Blake of the band Shock Headed Peters. I remember Lunch blotting her lipstick before sipping from her cappuccino and the vivid coral-pink kiss imprint on her napkin afterwards. This is the interview exactly as it appeared in MAXIMUMROCKNROLL. There was no introduction, it just plunges straight in.

/ What the original 1993 MRR article looked like /

Graham Russell: Last time I talked to you, you said you were totally uninterested in music, that it was redundant and you’d prefer to work exclusively in the spoken word format. Since then, though, you've put out some music albums …

Lydia Lunch: I put out one music album, with Roland S Howard [ex-Birthday Party guitarist, who died in 2009. The album was 1991’s Shotgun Wedding: a gloomy, driven and pissed-off stone cold classic], and that was because he called me to please save him from the wretch that is England, and I did, in my generosity. And you know, how could I refuse working with Roland S Howard? You just can’t – it’s too enjoyable. And since I spoke to you last I've been living in New Orleans, which I’m moving from in a month anyway, and I wanted to do something that was evocative of that atmosphere without being swamp rock or delta blues but still have that same kind of romanticism, and Roland was the right man.

GR: Melody Maker announced you’d be recording a new LP with the German band Die Haut later this year.

LL: No, they actually have an album out, that came out last year actually or the beginning of this year, that I sing a few songs on. So does Blixa Bargeld and Kid Congo [Powers]. It’s called Head On [1992] but it’s not released in the States and it’s hard to get. It’s out of Germany.

GR: But you must have a love of making music. You've spent most of your adult life making it, you do it so beautifully …

LL: Yes, but it depends on the project. I mean, the thought of music disturbs me. It is redundant. But when those certain special collaborators … (loses train of thought). I mean, music as a format I despise, but then there are those special collaborators who make the whole procedure a pleasure. And with Roland I just decided I would make an album and do a tour because I had never done that in the past. I had never done a single album and went on tour in support of it, because I – you know – I don’t see why. But that was convenient and I thought it was important because the songs did change a lot from the recorded versions because we’d written them and recorded within six weeks. Written all the songs, rehearsed them and recorded them. It’s sort of a dry run. It’s not really a chance for a band to develop but it was fun to do the live shows, with that format with that band.

GR: Where did you tour with the Shotgun Wedding band?

LL: We did play in London, two shows, and we did play in Europe but not in the States. I can’t afford to tour music in the States. I can barely get any spoken word shows there.

GR: Why is that?

LL: Because there’s no booking agents. It’s as simple as that.

GR: You have some songs on the upcoming My Life with theThrill Kill Kult album (The Chicago-based industrial band with whom Lunch has recorded in the past, most notably contributing snarling backing vocals on “CuzIt’s Hot”).

LL: I have three songs with them. Two I’m just singing back-up. I mean, they’re friends of mine. It sounded like fun. It’s not really my style of music, but I love them so much as people. I just did a song I just sang the lyrics to and there was no music and then they put the music around it, so that’s kind of interesting. It’s kind of a take-off of “Justify My Love” by Madonna. Kind of. It’s called “Dirty Little Secrets.”

GR: So you have no other upcoming musical plans?

LL: I do have some musical plans but as of yet they’re under wraps. Who I’d really like to work with is Mario Caldato Jr who produced the last Beastie Boys album. We've been meeting and I’d like to do something with him. The only music I listen to now is death rap. You know: Geto Boys, Scarface, Paris, the Lynch Mob. Insane Poetry out of Los Angeles. That’s the only kind of music I’m interested in at the moment because this style of rap is very diverse, it’s not hypo-techno production, it’s more back to the seventies, very slow, funky old style grooves. I’m not saying I’m going to make a rap album, but something that is groovier and very sexy and percussion-oriented, maybe with a Latin influence. When I say that, take that with a grain of salt …

GR: Well, as filtered through you …

LL: (Agreeing). Filtered through me. And so that’s the kind of thing I’m interested in doing next. I really love a lot of the tracks that were on the last Beastie Boys album that were Dr John-influenced. That’s a style that I’d like to go for.

GR: That’s not such a departure for you. You've done that kind of vocal style – almost talking over music – in the past, like Queen of Siam (1980).

LL: Yeah. Yeah. And I am the real Mr Scarface, so he’d better watch his motherfucking mouth!

/ Queen of Siam, Lunch's stark 1980 death jazz masterpiece, is one of my all-time treasured albums. As succinctly puts it: "Her laconic slur of a voice has never sounded sexier, and her off-key rendition of "Spooky" is so lazily erotic that it nearly sucks the life out of you. A putrid classic of style and substance." /

GR: Some pretty major things have happened to you since we last spoke three years ago. You moved to New Orleans. Your father died. And you’re now in your 30s.

LL: Isn't that beautiful?

GR: I think it is.

LL: Thank you.

GR: You’re know as a sort of fixture of the New York Lower East Side art/punk scene. Why’d you move to New Orleans?

/ A study in badittude. Note Lunch's little white vinyl go-go boots /

LL: Because I didn't know a single person there. Because there was no independent music scene. No bands ever play there. I thought that was a perfect thing. And I also just wanted to go to a place that I could afford to live. It’s one of the cheapest cities in America. It’s beautiful – architecturally superb. No harassment. And basically just to escape, and I knew I wanted to go someplace more rural and isolated, but I wasn't ready. I’d been living in New York again for three or so years and I wanted to sort of ease my transition into a more rural atmosphere, which I've done. And now in a month or so I’ll be leaving, heading for the hills of God knows where.

GR: You just don’t know where exactly yet?

LL: I don’t know and I don’t care.

GR: What’re you looking for?

LL: Isolation. I don’t want to have to wake up and have to look at people walking down the street. In my work as it is I have to deal with so many people every day in every city that when I’m not doing that all I wanna do is read and write. I don’t wanna have to deal … I don’t wanna have to communicate. Communication by phone, or maybe by pager. I may not even have a phone. For me, it’s also time to stop. I've done enough. Certainly I need to appreciate for myself what I've already accomplished. When I think of what I've done in my life, I don’t look at my discography and say, Oh yeah – 32 records, 42 books, 62 whatever. It doesn't add up in my own mind because I need time to understand what I've already done. Like I said tonight, a lot of times I write things and I don’t completely understand them until months later. I do all of my writing in an automatic style. I agitate myself for 90% of the time and then I sit and write it and what it says is what it says and then I try to figure it out. It’s just my technique. 

/ Cinema of Transgression auteur Nick Zedd and Lunch were briefly romantically involved. He documented the fall-out in the odd, melancholy short film The Wild World of Lydia Lunch (1983). Lunch - who looks devastating with her punk bouffant haystack of dyed-black teased hair - is certainly convincingly pissed-off and depressed throughout. Her bad mood reaches a kind of crescendo at 14:45, where she sits on a child's swing with the most impossibly sullen and contemptuous expression on her face /

GR: Tell me about your life in New Orleans. People who've seen the films and heard the albums must have an impression of what you’re really like …

LL: I never go out of the house. I never go to bars or clubs or discos or plays. I don’t even go to movies because they’re all lousy. I might rent an occasional video. I basically lead a very peaceful existence there, just reading as much as possible and escaping from the rest of my life. Escaping from duties and responsibilities. As I said, New Orleans is architecturally therapeutic. Basically I was just boning up for this next move. And when you’re creating at this rate of expulsion you have to have a place that is basically calm, because otherwise you’re just creating out of frustration and irritation, which I've created enough of out of those modes. That’s another reason to move on.

GR: So you think over the next few years there’ll be a change of tone in your work?

LL: Well hopefully I’ll be able to cover other subjects. I think I've espoused enough about pain and abuse and trauma and death and now it might be time to talk about something else. Whatever that may be, I don’t know.

GR: I think there is an empathy and compassion in your stuff now that as a 17-year old in Teenage Jesus and The Jerks you couldn't have had.

LL: Yeah, I would say so. And I've also been able to vent an incredible amount of my own inner poison onto others. I've had that opportunity – self-made opportunity, I might add. Basically all I've ever tried to do is articulate the frustrations of everyone else. I've said all I can on those subjects. I really feel that.

GR: Your father died recently.

LL: Both my parents died. It’s a great relief. It’s a beautiful relief that they’re both dead. Even though I hold no grudge against them, although they’re responsible for the condition I've had to fight 33 years to escape from. It’s just a relief that they’re dead. It’s a relief that my mother’s dead, that she doesn't have to suffer anymore. And it’s a relief that my father’s dead, that he doesn't have anyone to torture anymore. Perhaps now he’s being tortured. We can only hope.

(Lunch frequently alludes to her abused childhood in her work, most specifically on the spoken word piece “Daddy Dearest.” It originally appeared on 1984’s The Uncensored Lydia Lunch and details her incestuous relationship with her father. Lunch was born Lydia Koch in 1959 in Rochester, New York. Her father Lenny Koch first began sexually abusing her at age six. One gets the impression Lunch is still reeling from the injustice and it totally informs her worldview, sensibilities and preoccupations).

/ Lydia Anne Koch as a child /

GR: I read that they never really knew about your music career or your spoken word career.

LL: No. My father always thought I was a comedienne. I think he was the only one who got it.

GR: They never actually came into contact with any of your work, then?

LL: No, I would send them things.

GR: Whenever you would do that, what were you hoping? That they would understand?

LL: Oh I think my mother did understand. She encouraged me from the time I was 12, when I started writing. Even when I was writing things like “Kill Your Parents.” She always encouraged me. I mean, I’m happy for some of the things my father taught me, in spite of the way he had to teach me. He taught me to be self-sufficient, not give a shit, get by with whatever, be a con artist, not take any shit. But then there were a lot of lessons that he taught me I had to unlearn, too. Which I’d rather not go into.

GR: If you ever listen back to the music you made when you were 17, 18, 19, can you still relate to that person, or have you moved on so much that person is like a stranger?

LL: No, I can still relate but I don’t go back and listen to them. I know what they sound like, I like the effect. I’m glad those documents exist.

/ Early notoriety: very young teenage bad girl Lunch at a 1977 Dead Boys concert, explaining that their song "I Want Lunch" is about her. And what she intends to do with her used tampons. (Lunch is also immortalized in another Dead Boys song - "Caught with the Meat in Your Mouth").  /

GR: Tell me about growing up in Rochester.

LL: It was a lot of muscle-bound boys with fast cars, so I actually had a very good time.

GR: So why’d you run away, then?

LL: I guess for skinny boys with dyed hair!

GR: What were you hoping to find in New York?

LL: Myself. I was just hoping to go into myself, surrounded by like-minded people. I did have an impact on New York because a lot of the people I busted upon like the Voidoids, they couldn't really get me: I was too aggressive, too young. They just didn't get where I was coming from. And that was enjoyable, of course.

/ I Was a Teenage Jesus: Lunch as No Wave Death Kitten /

GR: What exactly was the sound you were aiming for with Teenage Jesus?

LL: That sounded like the words felt. To me, the music made perfect sense to compliment the words and everything is based around the words.

/ No Wave royalty: Lydia Lunch and James Chance. Chance played saxophone in the original Teenage Jesus and the Jerks line-up before forming  James Chance and The Contortions /

GR: When you were a teenager in Rochester, what was the music you listened to, that inspired you?

LL: Lou Reed’s Berlin. That was probably the most influential record. That was about ’74. (Lunch’s admiration for Berlin is revealing. While highly regarded as perhaps Lou Reed’s finest post-Velvet Underground solo album, it’s also recognized as one of the most suicidally bleak albums ever made. While most people would describe the LP as “depressing”, Lunch finds it “beautiful”). I was also a big fan of The Man Who Sold The World, the original heavy metal album by Bowie. Basically because it was all lyric-based. The Stooges, same as everyone else. But it was the New York Dolls that actually made me run away to New York.

GR: Did you get to meet them and hang out with them before they split up?

LL: Yeah. Johnny Thunders almost ran me over one time. See where it got him. (Johnny Thunders died in 1991).

/ Portrait of a Teenage Jesus: beautiful photo of 17-year old Lunch in the early days of Teenage Jesus and The Jerks. Via /

GR: Speaking of Berlin, it was beautiful when you and Roland sang “Caroline Says” together. Were you guys serious about re-recording the whole Berlin album together? (Howard and Lunch performed together on 25 June 1992 in a spoken word with musical interludes show at The Underworld in London. They duetted on “Caroline Says.” Lunch announced she and Howard intended to re-record the whole Berlin album together and insisted, “I’m not shitting you!” It was in fact a joke).

LL: (Laughs) No!

GR: No? That would be so much fun if you did.

LL: It would be so much fun; it’s such a beautiful album. But I think it was completely perfect the first time. It really was.

GR: What do you make of the Velvet Underground reunion?

LL: I don’t know. I haven’t heard it. I guess it’s a good way to make money. I think it’s kind of pathetic but if it sounds good, fine, let ‘em go. I think it’s great they’re boycotting the States.

GR: It’s so true, though – the States never helped them out.

LL: No. I think it’s great. Let ‘em boycott. I boycott it too for the most part.

GR: I was reading you’re friends with Lesley (Rankine) from Silverfish these days. (Lunch reportedly met and befriended Rankine, the tough as nails Scottish singer of London-based band Silverfish when Foetus produced the band’s Organ Fan album in 1991. Rankine has recalled how she never knew how to dress onstage, usually wearing jeans and a “HipsTitsLipsPower” t-shirt, and that Lunch gave her some hand-me-down dresses).

LL: (A bit suspicious). Uh-huh. Where’d you read that?

GR: In some American music magazine.

LL: Was she talking about it?

GR: I think the reporter was more talking about it. It just sounded sweet, a sort of big sister deal.

LL: Big sister? She ain't that much younger than me, honey! Hang on!

GR: (Cautiously) Well, relatively older big sister …

LL: Big. She’s quite a big girl. Yeah, Lesley’s good. Those Scots. I like the Scots.

GR: And you've been giving her your old cast-off dresses …

LL: (Bemused) Have I? I don’t know that. That sounds like the Courtney Love story to me.

GR: Let’s talk about Courtney, then. In every interview she’s done almost it mentions how you two once shared a house together in San Francisco or something …

LL: She’s full of shit. Absolutely not. She’s a liar. She uses my name like she uses everybody else’s. I've never been a friend of hers. I never could stand her. I've never said twenty words to her.

GR: That’s insane.

LL: Well, she is, isn't she? Don’t blame me for her crimes.

GR: She rips you off majorly.

LL: (Dismissive) Well, that’s her problem, isn't it?

GR: Do you hear your influence? Do you see it?

LL: I don’t listen to her music. Of course I know she rips me off. What do I care? I just wish she did a better job.

GR: The story goes you two lived together in San Francisco

LL: I've never lived in San Francisco. She’s such a crock of shit. Every word that comes out of her mouth is a lie. She’s a pathological liar.

GR: Amazing.

LL: Not really. If you don’t have an interesting reality you might as well create one. She’s a spoiled little rich bitch. Always has been rich. Let her go.

GR: Everyone’s going on about “this new style of dressing.” Jesus Christ …

LL: Grow up, that’s all I can say. That’s why I like to wear suits now, you know. To look as conservative and business-like as possible. Because I’m quite sick of 1977 myself.

(This needs to be qualified somewhat: Lunch was wearing a highly uncharacteristic, conservative beige “power blazer” with shoulder pads, but accessorized it with the more familiar rat’s nest of dyed red hair, cleavage, stiletto-heeled calf-length black leather boots and second-skin black leggings. The effect wasn't exactly Nancy Reagan).

/ A wasted-looking Lunch during her stint in the mighty No Wave jazz/punk band 8-Eyed Spy (you can tell by the song titles on the set list safety-pinned to her jean jacket) /

GR: I remember Foetus saying the motivation behind you two recording a version of The Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was because so many of your friends have died over the past few years. (Lunch and Foetus [aka J G Thirlwell, Lunch's romantic and musical partner at the time] released a four song EP called Don’t Fear the Reaper in 1991).

LL: Yeah. It’s kind of my pro-AIDS song. Don’t be afraid, just die. We’re all gonna die. What’re you waiting for?

GR: You've known lots of people who've died from AIDS?

LL: Absolutely. At least ten. All men, too.

/ Punk pieta: Lunch and Foetus (J G Thirlwell) in 1986 /

GR: Whatever happened to your screenplay Psychomenstrum? (Psychomenstrum is the proposed film whose screenplay Lunch had been working on for years. In it, a female biology student with chronic PMS (to be portrayed by Lunch herself) begins experimenting with hormone injections which lead to violent fantasies in which she kills deserving male figures).

LL: I hope to publish it by the end of this year. I actually was approached by a psychiatrist who’s been studying hormones for 30 years and has an incredible list of credentials out of Phoenix, Arizona who has worked with transsexuals for the past eight years and who wants to do a collaboration with me. I’m thinking this script is perhaps the perfect thing for her. But I want to publish it.

GR: But aren't you actually going to film it?

LL: I can’t chase it as a movie. If the book is out, maybe someone will want to film it. I just can’t chase-out the Hollywood money for it, because it needs a big budget. If I can’t have a big budget, I’m not going to do it on a shoestring.

GR: For a while Deborah Harry was attached to the project.

LL: Yeah she’d down for the part of the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist who wrote to me actually looks incredibly like Debbie Harry. That beautiful. It’s phenomenal. She’s 53.

GR: And what about your autobiography My Father’s Daughter?

LL: That’s what I hope to accomplish in my sabbatical. (My Father’s Daughter, the proposed autobiography, is another project that’s been cited in Lunch’s interviews since at least 1987).

GR: You talk about yourself and your past a lot in your work, but in a more impressionistic way, not in a prose style. Is this going to be a more straightforward autobiography?

LL: Yeah, I’d like to write a novel. Obviously writing for monologues or stories or rants is a much different format than writing a novel. So I think I’ll undertake that format next.

/ Lunch's eerie interpretation of the 1941 Billie Holiday jazz standard "Gloomy Sunday" from her album Queen of Siam (1980). The video feels influenced by the tormented Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski's 1965 psychological horror film Repulsion /

GR: When you first started it was rare for performers to deal with their childhood problems so publicly. What do you make of the whole rash in the past few years of performers like Axl Rose, Roseanne Arnold, Sinaed O’Connor, etc coming forward?

LL: Of course it’s a good thing. I think we were all abused as children, whether or not it was physical, emotional, psychic or psychological. The power structure on which the family unit is based is such a ridiculous concept that anyone’s bound to be abused. Originally when there was still the time of the tribes women would chose the biological sperm donor but he would not be the guardian of the child and I think that’s a good concept. Absolutely. The family structure is just a microcosm of the government, anyway, of God. And I don’t believe in God. So I don’t believe in the father.

GR: Have you read much of Camille Paglia?

LL: Not really.

GR: She would love you, though, if she knew who you were.

LL: Well maybe she needs to read my books, then. I mean, I’m aware she’s another woman with a big mouth and I've read her interviews but I haven’t dealt with her book because I’m not really interested in her version or take on pop culture. It doesn't interest me, to be quite frank. Maybe you should send her a copy of my book. (In fact Paglia wrote a chapter about the Marquis de Sade in her 1990 book Sexual Personae that Lunch herself would probably appreciate).

GR: I’d love to. Hey, I can’t even get a copy of your book, what are you talking about!

(Prior to our interview Lunch made an appearance at Compendium Books where she was meant to read from and autograph her newly-released book of poetry, short stories and rants Incriminating Evidence. The shipment of books didn't arrive at the book store in time, though, because they were seized by British customs and the book’s release was in jeopardy. This was no news for Lunch: her films with Richard Kern had also been banned in the UK and her 1987 Stinkfist album almost met the same fate due to its cover photo of a naked Lunch and Foetus mock fornicating on the ground).

LL: There you go. Neither can I.

GR: You talk about reading a lot. What’re you reading these days that’s inspiring you?

LL: What I've been reading is Madness and Civilization by Foucault and The Rebel by Camus, which I’d never read before. And basically anything that talks about the Marquis de Sade I’m immediately attracted to.

GR: You share his birthday, don’t you? [2 June]

LL: That’s right. And his quote is on my new CD. (Cryptic). He visited me this year, too. It was beautiful …

GR: Tell me about this!

LL: (Evasive) No, that’s OK. (I laugh and she imitates it). The Marquis de Sade is with me at all times.

(The Marquis de Sade quote on the cover of Lunch’s 1993 Crimes Against Nature CD: “What I should like to find is a crime the effects of which would be perpetual, even when I myself do not act, so that there would not be a single moment of my life even when I were asleep, when I was not the cause of some chaos, a chaos of such proportions that it would provoke a general corruption or disturbance so formal that even after my death its effects would still be felt.” This could be seen as a MO that Lunch herself shares in her own career).

GR: What is it about him that appeals to you so much?

LL: His philosophy.

GR: Of cruelty …

LL: The argument that nature is the one responsible, that nature is to blame for all sins and all guilt and all acts of madness. That impresses me. It’s the philosophy rather than the extremity of his sexual depictions, which are secondary. And it’s the beauty and fluidity of his writing, and the fact he would write 600 pages while incarcerated for four months. He was so prolific. God knows how many of his journals and discourses were burned. So much was salvaged but who knows he compiled that was destroyed? I’m so thankful for those Grove Press editions. He’s just such a beautiful writer.

GR: That’s one of the things that separates you from so many of the post-punk / post-feminist contingent. I don’t want to talk about the Riot Grrrl scene because I’m sure you’re thoroughly bored with it …

LL: I refuse to accept responsibility for the crimes of others.

GR: Exactly. What separates you from them is that you actually celebrate ambivalence and ambiguity …

LL: I guess so … (Laughs).

GR: You’re not a politically correct person.

LL: No, I’m not and neither is anybody. There is no correct solution, anyway. There’s no answer. Other than annihilation.

GR: But you’re not truly misanthropic. You have relationships and friendships.

LL: I love people individually and I have great patience and generosity of spirit and soul with them -- really incredible patience, considering how easily agitated I am. But I will wade through rivers of shit to get to that one golden nugget that only I can see in someone. So in that sense it is a strange dichotomy that I suffer under, because the human race I despise but individuals I do adore.

/ Wonderfully macabre: "Dance of the Dead Children" from Lunch's 1982 album 13.13 /

GR: When I last saw you perform in Montreal a few years ago the spoken word piece you were doing had an “Annie Get Your Gun” theme. Do you actually carry a gun yourself?

LL: I don’t carry a gun but I have a gun and have take a gun training course. My favorite part was shooting in the dark. I have a 357 Magnum. You have to have one in Louisiana because burglary and rape are the highest crimes. Until about three years ago they had the John Wayne Law in New Orleans which meant you could carry a gun as long as it was exposed. But I guess they knew I was coming and they took that off the books. I think all women should have guns in their home. Not to promote carrying guns but a woman has got to at least feel safe in her own home. I’m sorry, you've got to. It’s an obligation. When I lived in Los Angeles I was in a constant state of panic that someone was going to break the door down. And consequently someone down the block did and raped a woman for six hours. He didn't leave ‘til he had to go to work the next day and then talked so much he got arrested. I dare you to come into my house. I got a 93 in my final test. Shooting in the dark (grim laugh)

/ Bad Girls Get Spanked: Lydia Lunch and genuinely creepy and disturbing leading man Marty Nation (her real-life boyfriend at the time) in the Richard Kern film Fingered (1986) / 

GR: I understand you want to work with Richard Kern again on another film in which you’ll play the wife of a cop or something … (Lunch was a prime mover in the anti-social early 1980s New York Super 8 underground film-making movement known as the Cinema of Transgression, which was closely linked to the city’s No Wave punk music scene. As an actress Lunch appeared in the films of its key figures: Scott and Beth B, Vivienne Dick and Nick Zedd (who’s written of his love affair with Lunch in his autobiography Bleed, Part 1). She has most frequently – and notoriously – worked with Kern, though, starring in and co-writing the screenplays for the sexually explicit, misanthropic films The Right Side of My Brain (1984) and Fingered (1986). She’s also featured in his Submit to Me (1985), Death Valley ’69 (1986) and Submit to Me Now (1987)).

LL: Yeah, that’s coming. A black cop. It’s a film about racism and pathological lying. It’s going to be split into three sections with three main characters: myself, a black cop and my brother. I set him up (the cop) for crimes I've committed and run off to my brother and then he comes looking for me and every step of the way he’s insulted, assaulted and harassed but he’s the only dignified character in the film. I want to make a point about racism by showing some huge powerful karate expert black cop who’s ultimately in control while everyone else is degenerate around him. I hope I can pull it off. It’s a very sticky issue but I think it’s a point that has to be made. And also to show the opposite of what you’re telling. It’s the first film I’ll be doing with Kern that deals with fiction, so we’ll see how that goes. It’ll possibly be feature-length. I've been very inspired by three films in the past few years: Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The reason I think they worked was the incredible amount of charisma. With Henry it didn't matter if he was watching TV or picking his feet, you couldn't take your eyes off that. I think that’s one thing Kern can capture, this incredible charisma, although he doesn't do that in his other films …

GR: Yeah, exactly.

LL: Yeah, well but then we know what that problem is. (In fact I’m not sure what we’re agreeing on here: I assumed we were agreeing that Kern’s films without Lunch are nowhere near as effective or purposeful (their films together are shot through with her subjectivity). She seems though, possibly, to be referring to Kern’s heroin addiction and its effect on his work).

/ Fingered (1986), admiringly described by John Waters as "the ultimate date movie for psychos" /

GR: You’re talking about your own charisma …

LL: Yeah, absolutely. (Lunch is not being remotely arrogant here: her insolent performances in the Kern films are truly screen-scalding). Interracial stories are rare. I loved One False Move, too. I thought that was a great film.

/ For me, the opening of Submit to Me (1986) represents Lunch at the height of her beauty. If you're feeling brave and you aren't too squeamish, watch the whole film on Vimeo /

GR: You’re one of the few from your peer group left not to get any above-ground / mainstream recognition (e.g. Henry Rollins, Sonic Youth and the recent grunge commercial breakthrough; also the success of second generation Lydia-derived acts like Hole and Babes in Toyland.) It’s almost to an extent something you've chosen.

LL: Absolutely. I don’t want the responsibility ad I don’t want to have to play the same songs for ten years and I don’t want to have to do three hour spoken word shows or 300 shows a year. (Lunch seems to be referring obliquely to ex-Black Flag singer Henry Rollins here. Rollins is perhaps her closest peer and their careers have followed remarkably similar paths. Both exactly the same age, the two can almost be appreciated as twin brother and sister, sharing much of the same thematic concerns in their music and spoken word work (unsurprisingly, Rollins – real name Henry Garfield – also emerged from an abusive childhood), although they are quite different stylistically. Via a punishing non-stop touring schedule with both his Rollins Band and solo spoken word shows, including a stint on the highly visible Lollapalooza tour, Rollins has been finally rewarded with above-ground recognition, feted by the glossy mainstream media. Lunch is clearly uninterested in following this route).

/ Lunch gets to grips with Henry Rollins /

I don’t think that would improve anything. Popularity is not my priority anyway. Documentation is. And everything I have done has been documented. I know it’s hard for you to find and it’s often unavailable, but that’s not my concern. I've done my duty in the face of history and when I’m dead I will be recognized and I can wait. I’d rather wait ‘til I’m dead than be living dead, like so many others who are just burdened with the responsibility of their financial situation and doing what they think it is they want to do. Which to me means compromise. I can’t hang with that.

GR: So you would never say, do Lollapalooza …

LL: (Snorts) I spat in their face. Puh-lease!

GR: Perry Farrell asked you?

LL: No, he didn't ask me personally. A lot of fucking good it would have done him. A lot of fucking good. Hasn't he got enough money by now? The way he treats people on that tour, it’s a fucking crime. He doesn't pay anybody – no one gets paid. Like I wanna go to summer camp with 46 other degenerates to play to people who could give a shit less and who are sun stroked and drunk? I don’t think so. I’d rather play in a book store in front of 20 people who fucking get it than 2000 or 20,000 who don’t care. It just doesn't interest me.

GR: Eventually someone like David Lynch or Jonathon Demme is going to find you out …

LL: It’ll be too late, because they’re both already over. (Caustic, dripping sarcasm). Sorry, David – you should've called me ten years ago. I might have thought about it. The only filmmaker I’m interested in besides Polanski is Cronenberg. And he’s a possibility that I’d like to send my film script (Psychomenstrum) to. As a matter of fact I just got his address. He’s the only one who could do it justice. One of his last films was one of his best: Dead Ringers. That was critically acclaimed but not a big draw. I’m sure maybe he made the money back in video sales and rentals. But since he’s already done a film that was basically “gynecologically incorrect” I don’t know if he’d wanna do another one! But maybe he would. He’s the only one I can think of.

GR: What did you make of his Naked Lunch?

LL: I hated it. Excuse me, no wonder I ignored that film. I have never read a single William S Burroughs book in my life …

GR: Funny, I've seen your name linked with his so often.

LL: He likes me. Nah, I don’t think so. I don’t think he likes any women. I don’t know why they accuse me of being a Burroughs-phile when I've never even fucking read one of his books. The only thing he taught me, and he did teach me a good lesson, is that your life can be your art statement and I think that’s beautiful. That’s the best thing you can teach anyone: you can have your whole life as your art project. That’s what I believe in. The artifacts are irrelevant. I live my life the way I want to, where I want, with who I want to, doing exactly what I want to. What a fucking con. Beautiful. That’s the success.

GR: When did you get the tattoos on your back? That’s relatively new, isn't it? What do they mean? (Lunch has acquired swirling, ornately-detailed vaguely Oriental-looking and feminine tattoos on her back. They are the female equivalent of the fierce tattoos that cover Rollins’s back and when exposed make her look like a tiny pagan warrior woman).

LL: Well, no. I've been accumulating them for years. They’re ancient Egyptian swastikas. They’re symbols of chaos and created in a circular rosary pattern. Basically it’s just energy symbols. The sign of chaos along my hips basically means a trouble spot – the lower back, a lot of women have trouble down there. To me, it was just to focus and concentrate on the chakras, energy chakras. My own designs, my own symbols. I have a Thai fire god, the rising lotus, a pyramid. They’re just personal symbols, universal symbols, ancient symbols.

GR: When did you get them done? ‘Cause I've seen you naked hundreds of times, I've never seen them before …

LL: Those (Richard Kern) films were made in ’82 and ’84, don’t forget.

GR: And the Gallery photo spread … (At some point in the late 80s Lunch was featured in a nude photo spread in the men’s porn magazine Gallery. Photographed by her kindred spirit, fellow New York performance artist and self-titled Queen of Post-Modern Porn Annie Sprinkle, the shots seemed to parody 1950s cheesecake pin-ups, with Lunch snarling amidst props like giant fuzzy dice and balloons).

LL: That was a long time ago, too. “Hundreds of times” … I guess so!

Postscript: This appeared in the readers' letters section of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL the following month.

Maximum / Graham Russell

Unfortunately our nanny brought your elitist .0001 % of the "punque rocque" population arguing amongst themselves about whether vegan means lactic acid or not magazine to our home. In it, Mr Russell refers to me claiming I (sic) lived with "Lydia Lunch" in SF. I never lived with Lydia Lunch, I barely know her and I've certainly never said it. It just proves that he believes everything he reads in the British tabloids (wich {sic}are certainly not "punk" to buy) and Entertainment Weekly. Gee, the mainstream media really tells the truth, duh, that's so ... "suburbia"!

As for La Lunch, recently she sent a fax to me while I was on a radio show it stated exactly this: "Dear Courtney, stop trying to rip me off, your (sic) not nearly as smart and youll (sic) never pull it off" Gee! I responded - on the air - after I read her very supportive fax, that she had been an entirely important influence on me, had changed my life and helped me discover my own identity, duh, no shit! Lydia's a wonderful orater (sic), maybe the best there is! But she is not a songwriter, and her cobbled attempts at musicianship have been very Yoko / avant-garde, her reason for Shotgun Wedding w/Roland S Howard was (im {sic} quoting) to "show all us bitches who'se (sic) the Queen." (It was very mediocre and boring musically). Shes (sic) slagged all of my contemperaries (sic), Riotgrrrl, Kat, Jennifer (Finch), etc, etc. Lydia should be secure enough in herself to know that she is culturally an incredibeley (sic) important figure and influence instead of being so self-absorbed and meglamaniac (sic) to think she has the copyright on the collective rage of women. And Mr Russell should certainly be more responsible than to quote a sensationlist (sic) British tabloid editorial, not quote, I thought "punk" of the spirit of it was Questioning Authority, not having cable, and since Authority / God is the media true subversiveness / "Guerilla (sic) Warfare" (Lydia concept) is to think for oneself and take no prisoners.

I have indeed spoken 20 (maybe a few more) words to Lydia, always in shy deference. I have always been so awed by her incredible presence and impact on my life. She is utterly my most treasured influence. I have certainly never "lied" about my relationship with her. And any fact checking on Graham Russells (sic) part would have shown this. Also her reference to Lesley (Silverfish) as being her age is ageist and untrue. Lesley is 26 maybe 27, Lydia is 33, wich (sic) noone (sic) cares about anyway except the mainstream press (sexist and ageist). I think Lydias (sic) a total mysoginist (sic) and I think shes (sic) bitter, and its (sic) unflattering and unbefittting  to such a great linguistic talent. its (sic) not my fault she cant (sic) play guitar - who cares if shes (sic) not a musician. All I have to say is your (sic) completely stupid and thickheaded to believe the mainstream press when you write for something as marginal and hardline as Maximum.


Courtney Love

Founder of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL Tim Yohannan (1945-1998) replied below:

Dear Courtney's "nanny"

Could you see to it that this marginal issue of MRR somehow infiltrates Courtney and Kurt's abode. And while you're at it, why don't you slide in a dictionary? Oops, sorry for being elitist.


PS: Do they pay well?

Lydia Lunch photographed in 2011 by Lucie Inland

Still hungry for more, sensationalism freaks? Read my 1999 reunion interview with Lydia Lunch (for the Los Angeles punk zine Flipside this time) here.