❉ Paul Matts on the life and career of a unique creative force, as documented in a new book and film.
‘I wanted to make some of the angriest yet most precise, bitter, traumatising music – a scream from the bowels.’ Lydia Lunch
‘Lydia is nonstop, her mindset and attitude are unique. It’s exhilarating being around her. She’s so fucking good at what she does’ – James Johnson (Big Sexy Noise)
Lydia Lunch remains, to this day, the force of creative nature. Merely to describe her as a force of creative nature means dropping her onto a pile with everyone else on this goddamn planet who has dared to consider themselves ‘creative’.
The defiant free-spirited young teen who stepped away from Catholic and domestic abuse in Rochester in 1973 and made her way to New York City, has made a positive imprint on the lives of an immeasurable amount of people. Her artistic output is astonishing, relentless and spans genres far and wide.
A new book by Nick Soulsby, The War Is Never Over, is to be published later this month by Jawbone Press and is a companion to a documentary film of the same name premiered in November 2019, produced and directed by Beth B.
Lydia Anne Koch was born in 1959 in Rochester, New York. How Lydia Koch became Lydia Lunch is an example of her can-do, resourceful approach. After arriving in NYC in the late seventies, she gravitated towards people in the lower east side who interested her. Stiv Bators and the Dead Boys, for example. And Mink Deville. There was a song on the the Dead Boys’ Young, Loud and Snotty album called I Need Lunch. Lydia, underage but with fake ID, got a job for two weeks in a restaurant, enough time to steal food and bring it to her new buddies. For their lunch. One day, in front of CBGBs, Willy Deville called out, “It’s Lydia Lunch! Lydia Lunch!”
In 1977, in the wake of the first punk storm, Lydia formed her first band, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, with Bradly Field (drum) and Jim Sclavunos (bass). A brutal tantrum of a band, focusing on the deconstruction of rock n roll. Baby Doll emphasises everything about this kid who had infiltrated the New York City music scene and unleashed a sonic anger unlike anything in the East Village, Soho or anywhere else in the Big Apple.
In what was to become a blueprint for Lydia’s entire career, they weren’t so much a band as a project. The members were recruited to achieve Lydia’s goal, and then she moved on: “I never had a band in those days that lasted beyond its necessary means.”
She was already rebelling against punk rock’s limited and unambitious approach – basically re-cycled rock n roll clichés with loud, muscular guitars. Lydia wanted and gave creative dissonance, noise, horrific screams and atonality. Which together produced an avant-garde music which helped prevent punk disappearing up its own ass. No sooner had punk begun, she was questioning it. This attitude underpinned the new No Wave scene, itself short lived. However, it opened the door for many to seek new methods of expressing primal creativity.
Such as on celluloid. Film makers started cropping up in the lower east side, attracted by the neighbourhood’s appeal to young, penniless, determined individuals. Lydia soon appeared in several short films, such as 1978’s psychodrama She Had Her Guns All Ready, produced by Vivienne Dick. A run of short films followed including Rome ’78 (1978), Beauty Becomes The Beast (1979) and Black Box (1978). The latter was an early work with Beth B. Alliances were forged during this period as No Wave Cinema grew.
Lydia utilised sexuality and gender. Not to shock or promote but to state reality, to rally against trauma and the use of power. The Right Side of My Brain explores sexual appetite and desire, and like the notorious Fingered was one of a series of films she made with Richard Kern. A sex phone operator moves from victim to victimiser with a stunning final scene involving the actress Lung Leg. Eye-opening, uncompromising stuff not for the faint hearted. Lydia was to remark, “If you can’t take it for twenty minutes, try living it for twenty or forty years.”
Lydia’s thirst for a project has always been insatiable. Following several other bands after Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, Lydia made her first solo record, The Queen of Siam in 1980. More No Wave? Punk? Hell no. How about an album involving musicians and orchestral parts, covering noir jazz, big band and dance? Lydia’s poetry commands proceedings, the music reacting to her verse. A truly remarkable record, showing a charismatic and fascinating artiste on the grow.
Typically, it was a project taken no further. Spooky and Atomic Bongos played away in the clubs as Lydia moved on to 8 Eyed Spy, a surf punk outfit -“a bit more accessible but still crazy music”, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore recalls.
Just as they were getting popular Lydia inevitably called things to a halt and formed 13.13 with members of The Weirdos. A dingy punk sound, a precursor to grunge nearly a decade later.
A series of collaborations, a reoccurring characteristic throughout Lydia’s career, started to surface. Lydia spent time in Berlin and worked with post punk band Die Haut and the experimental Einsturzende Neubaten. Vital listening. Especially Der Karaibische Western by Die Haut.
She also worked with the Sonic Youth (Death Valley ’69), The Birthday Party (Drunk on the Pope’s Blood/The Agony is the Ecstasy), as well doing a truckload full of stuff with J.G. Thirlwell.
As New York City started to become gentrified, Lydia moved out. To New Orleans. An album with Rowland S. Howard, Shotgun Wedding, was released to critical acclaim (‘An essential document.’ Record Collector).
It included a cover of Led Zeppelin’s In My Time Of Dying. Lydia has always chosen interesting tunes to cover, done in her own discordant way. Check out the entirety of 2017’s Under The Covers, a record made with English bluesman Cypress Grove.
Other musical projects include rock outfit Big Sexy Noise. Only officially disbanded in in 2019, they represent Lydia’s longest running band project by some distance. Primal, dirty, grimy riff-based blue rock with plenty of edge. Lydia’s grated vocal, part sung, part spoken, is a praiseworthy tool. Often over-looked compared to other aspects in her career. She can holler, whisper, shout and melodic to fantastic effect. Her guitar-work is impressive and unique, using the instrument rather than playing it a traditional manner. All part of the persona.
Lydia’s film career continued in parallel to her music. In all, including very short musical films, we are talking the best part of a hundred works. Wow. Ranging from short films to full length movies, with roles including acting, narrating, producing, collaborating, interviewing and being interviewed. Selections include punk melodramas such as The Offenders (1979), film noir (Vortex, 1981), documentaries (Kill Your Idols 2004), and cult dramas (Kiss Napoleon Goodbye, 1990, with Henry Rollins).
Her first book, Adulterers Anonymous, was published in 1982. A selection of poems in collaboration from Exene Cervenka, exploring nihilism, dissatisfaction with life in early eighties USA and other street themes. She has gone on to have over thirty books published. The written word became another cultural weapon of Lydia’s.
As did the spoken word:
‘I brought quite a few people to the spoken-word stage for the first time. Nick Cave, Vincent Gallo … I’m the cattle prodder. I came to New York originally to do spoken word, but it didn’t really exist at that point.’
Lydia’s debut spoken word concerned domestic abuse she suffered as a child, entitled Daddy Dearest. It can be found on The Uncensored/Oral Fixation album, one of many spoken word albums she has made. Spoken word is really her primary source of expression. Raw, uncluttered, direct. No instruments, props or musicians in the way. Check out You, Me and Jim Beam. Further collaborations with Henry Rollins, that other spoken-word juggernaut, followed, including tour dates.
The form became a natural ally for experimental electronic music, and both Lydia’s torrents and subtleties appeared on 1997’s superb Matrikamantra album, as well as with Anubian Lights on Champagne, Cocaine and Nicotine Stains. Medusa’s Bed (2017) is a further example of instrumentation under-pinning her spoken-word output. A Worthy Quarry contains slow, predatory verse that works with fantastic effect.
Lydia starred, wrote and produced a theatrical work in the ’80s entitled South of Your Border in New York. A tale of paedophilia, power and sexuality, it involved a totally naked Lydia being crucified on a cross, with blood being poured all over her. With her co-star underneath her, clad in a gimp mask, as she shot out a cascade of piss over him. Power over patriarchy. Lydia has spent her life expressing this continuing fight, and this example underlines her uninhibited nerve, her candid belief and her genuine self-confidence. To fight using artistic expression as a weapon, and hopefully, provide healing.
Long may that continue, for the world needs her.
The War Is Never Over is an appropriate title in many ways, given Lydia’s relentless fight against abuse, trauma and inequality. Pills and treatments do not solve trauma. It is an ongoing battle, and to come out the other side requires motivation, the ability to recognise the issue and find a way of coping, managing and ultimately, healing. The fight is also against sexism, racism, ageism and classism, and is expressed via a huge range of artistic forms. Art is the equitable way to bring people together to achieve this end, and this film and book represent exuberant rallying cries.
Firstly, the film. It is made by independent film maker and long-time collaborator of Lydia’s, Beth B. A successful Kickstarter campaign financed the movie. Beth and Scott B were in NYC in the seventies when Lydia elbowed her way in. Or rather, when she kicked open its door. They were creative when there was little cash to do much else. Beth is undeviating, uncompromising and unfaltering in her approach. She addresses issues on behalf of those who do not have a platform. Fortunately for humanity, Beth B has a platform. And Lydia has several platforms. They inspire each other and have worked effectively together for a long time.
The War Is Never Over is a retrospective on the acerbic, electric and confrontational artist herself, made up of archives, interviews, contributors and discussion. It spans her entire, forty-two-year, career. The film also features life on tour with Retrovirus.
Nick is a writer who has zeal and fervour. He has had two books on Nirvana published, I Found My Friends: The Oral History Of Nirvana and Cobain on Cobain – Interviews and Encounters. His book, Thurston Moore: We Sing A New Language is the first definitive account of the Sonic Youth man’s own collaborations. He has also written a book on Swans, called Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence: The Oral History.
The book kicks off with a passionately written introduction, which provides a journey through Lydia’s life. It is divided into periods of time, for example her early punk years come under the heading ‘1977-84’. This would be handy for anyone exploring Lydia for the first time, as is the chronology and a list of works at the end. A full run-down of the contributors, complete with brief descriptions, is also included.
The stories and accounts add up to an honest work on this creative, relentless individual.
The book flows in a chronological order as Lydia’s career is traced through time courtesy of interviews with the contributors. Episodes have clear chapter titles, usually a given project’s name. Retrovirus, Big Sexy Noise, Beirut Slump, 8-Eyed Spy, Medusa’s Bed – whatever. Among the contributors are Jim Sclavunos (Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, Nick Cave), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), J.G. Thirlwell, Richard Kern (filmmaker), Donita Sparks (L7), Beth B and a whole stack more. The sheer variety of people spoken to make the pages come alive, as the reader never gets stagnated on a lengthy monologue from one contributor. It moves around quickly. The entries are short, snappy and relevant. It is chronological insofar as it does follow Lydia’s career via those close to Lydia at the time. For instance, Thurston Moore is more prominent when the Death Valley ’69 EP, made by Lydia and Sonic Youth, is on the agenda – “It was sort of like Lydia Lunch was passing the baton to us.”
The entries are warts and all. Lydia the sexual predator, Lydia the project leader, Lydia the producer, Lydia the photographer, Lydia the actress, Lydia the musician, Lydia the writer, Lydia the collaborator, Lydia the loudmouth. Everything is thrown in, and no attempt appears to have been made to sanitise what is being said. Rudi Protrudi of Devil Dogs, a short-lived rock project early in Lydia’s career, is cynical: “I never got the impression from Lydia, however, that this was anything other than a filler band to go between what she had done and what she wanted to do next.”
In the book’s final chapter, the reader is given a further glimpse into Lydia’s psyche. Tim Dahl, of Retrovirus recalls an episode when ‘Big Lou’, an alter-ego of Lydia, appeared. This passage is worth the purchase price alone. I’ve no intention of spoiling it for anyone, incidentally, so read it yourself.
These elements are entirely believable. Lydia’s persona will not please everyone all the time and the book is better for such excerpts.
Plenty evolves around her sexuality. From the abuse suffered at the hands of her father, through the voracious teenage predator, to the domineering woman to whom sex was as natural as breathing. Which of course it is. Nothing is avoided or made light of through these pages. Its reality.
The work is no biography, like the film is no rockumentary. It does not tell her story by reeling off a series of dates and accomplishments. There are no mentions of record sales, audience figures or tour length.
Some of the most pleasing aspects of the book are the passages distinguishing Lydia’s public persona from Lydia the private person. We all feel we know (though I am certain we do NOT) Lydia through her work and art.
Yet her off stage personality is heavily featured. Often this is the part left out of similar works, as if the only details on offer are what the subject wants their public to know about. She is a fine chef, for example. And domesticated. Not necessarily the kind of detail you’d expect – ‘When she found out I was subsisting on mostly fast food, she gave me a few – mandatory – cooking lessons’ , Glyn Styler recalls.
Her sense of humour comes through also. Tim Dahl testifies: ‘Her humour, it’s fast, it’s witty. Almost Don Rickle’s one-liners. Just sharp, clever, funny and mean.’ Anyone who has ever listened to her ‘Lydian Spin’ podcast will vouch for this.
The section on war is revealing, with Lydia’s words seeming to be from a debate where she could hold her own with any soldier or politician, I’m sure. A further insight: ‘I’ve never experienced war – I’m a privileged white artist… I want the numbers… Why? I’ve no idea why… Maybe it just makes the war inside seem so much easier to bear.’
That concept again. The fight. War. The final chapter is especially relevant. No spoilers once more.
In summary, Nick Soulsby has written a passionate, faithful book, using words from the film. It should delight those already converted to Lydia, whilst providing a fascinating retrospective to anyone new to her, or who has lost touch following her early punk days on the streets of NYC.
Ultimately, does the book live up to its title? Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over. Yes, it does. Lydia is relentless. Her fight against imbalance of the sexes, ages, classes and races is relentless. And ‘relentless’ is a word used by Beth B in a recent Lydian Spin podcast to describe Lydia.
It is apt description of her artistic expression. Her weapon. Her healing. Nick Soulsby, helped by the words of such a vast expanse of willing contributors, has produced a document which underlines this. And it’s just as well, since the world at large will most probably have to wait to see Beth B’s film given the spread of COVID-19.
❉ ‘Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over’ by Nick Soulsby, published April 30th, 2020 by Jawbone Press | ISBN 9781911036456 | 320pp paperback | £14.95 UK/$22.95 USA/$29.95 CAN
❉ For more information on Beth B’s documentary Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, visit www.lydialunchmovie.com.
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.