The War is Never Over: The Life And Career of Lydia Lunch

Lydia Lunch

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Lydia Lunch is one of the greatest multi-discipline artists of our time, working in nearly every medium during her decades long career. Born Lydia Koch in Rochester New York to an abusive father and compliant mother, she ran away from home at age fourteen and by age sixteen had emigrated to New York city where she worked as a prostitute and lived with Kitty Bruce, the sister of the famous beat poet Lenny Bruce. She earned the pseudonym “Lunch” because she would steal food for the impoverished artists and musicians of New York in 1976.

Originally hoping to become a poet, she had no formal musical training other than a few piano classes as a child. She soon encountered the music of The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy & The Stooges and the New York Dolls. These were early influences but she felt that they still played too standard blues-based rock & roll. Poet-singers like Richard Hell & Patti Smith proved a strong influence and Lunch decided that music, rather than poetry, would be the best way to express herself.

In 1976 she formed Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, with herself on chaotic slide guitar, juvenile delinquent, petty criminal & drug addict Bradley Field played drums, while Jim Sclavunos played bass. Occasionally the band was joined by fellow artist and musician James Chance, also of the band Contortions. Teenage Jesus, The Contortions and local groups Mars and D.N.A. played a sort of anti-rock music based more on rhythm than melody and experimenting with extreme vocal themes, rhythmic, noisy & chaotic guitar & free Jazz style sax solos from James Chance.

The bands came to be called “No Wave” as a pun on the New Wave label that record companies were forcing onto punk rock groups. Ironically No New York, the definitive album of the No Wave movement was produced by Brian Eno, who also produced famous New Wave group, The Talking Heads.

Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, broke up in late 1979, along with most of the early No Wave groups like Mars and D.N.A. This would only be the start of Lunch’s long musical career and in 1980 she founded Eight-Eyed Spy with Pat Irwin of The Contortions and Raybeats, Jim Sclavunos, also of Sonic Youth and George Scott III of Raybeats and Contortions. They proved quite popular with New York audiences despite only releasing a single album. Eight-Eyed Spy ended early with the tragic death of George Scott III later that year of a heroin overdose.

Lunch decided to end her involvement with Eight-Eyed Spy and pursue a solo career at the age of 20 after already forming and disbanding two bands. In the same year as Eight-Eyed Spy she recorded a solo album, Queen of Siam, which was far less harsh and dissonant than listeners expected, with a clear debt to free jazz, and Billie Holiday, with Lunch doing a tender, heartbreaking version of Gloomy Sunday yet songs like Tied & Twist still displayed her commitment to no wave and love of noisy experimentation. Robert Quine of Richard Hell & The Voidoids and later Lou Reed played electric guitar on the record. Lydia once described Quine as her personal guitar hero.

In the early 1980’s Lunch collaborated with multiple artists, most famously Sonic Youth in their single for Bad Moon Rising, Death Valley ’69 but also on a book called Adulterers Anonymous with Excene Cervenka of L.A. punk band X. Honeymoon in Red marked Lunch’s first major collaboration with members of the Australian post punk band, The Birthday Party, including their frontman, Nick Cave (later of The Bad Seeds), and their guitarist Rowland S. Howard, who would go on to join the bands Crime and The City Solution and These Immortal Souls before releasing two solo records. Engineer and fellow artist JG Thirwell played on the record, as did Sonic Youth’s frontman and guitar player Thurston Moore. Her collaboration with Howard on the Frank & Nancy Sinatra cover, Some Velvet Morning became something of an underground hit.

During this period Lunch also worked on poetry and spoken word pieces. Her acclaimed album 13.13 came out and it again featured collaborations with fellow musicians like Moore and Thirwell. The 1980’s saw her release the spoken word/noise album The Agony is the Ecstasy, play piano on The Drowning of Lucy Hamilton, released Conspiracy of Women, a spoken word recording and created her own label, Widowspeak records, to maintain control of her music and release music and poetry she actually enjoyed. It was during this time she wrote many of the memoirs that would come to make up her future books.

In 1992 Lydia released Shotgun Wedding, another collaboration with Rowland S. Howard. It featured some of the best songs of her career and the couple toured the world to support the record. Shotgun Wedding¬†brought Lunch to the attention of a new generation. Her name started to come up in grunge and riot grrl band interviews as a major influence, especially on Donita Sparks of L7. Lunch released two books in this period, Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary, and Will Work for Drugs.

Lydia Lunch spent a semester teaching college students about transgressive cinema and appeared in multiple, radical underground plays that blurred the lines between performance & reality in a disturbingly confrontational manner. She later collaborated with former Black Flag singer Henry Rollins on a spoken word tour.

In 2001, when George Bush won the US presidency, Lydia left her longtime home of New York City in exchange for Barcelona, Spain. She still recorded and released albums but she didn’t tour for years, instead releasing a cookbook and recording a pair of cover albums with the desert blues guitarist, Cyprus Grove. She also collaborated with up & coming Italian grunge musician, Christine IX. In 2008 she formed Big Sexy Noise with members of Gallon Drunk. They played in New York for Lydia’s first time in seven years and blew away the crowd with the mixture of Lunch’s vocals and the superb musicianship of the members of Gallon Drunk.

In 2012 she was persuaded to put together a band that would play a retrospective of her entire career, from Teenage Jesus to Big Sexy noise. The aptly named Retrovirus featured former Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore & Chrome Cranks drummer Bob Bert, Weasel Walter, the drummer for the flying Luttenbachers and guitarist for Cellular Chaos on guitar, and Tim Dahl from Child Abuse on bass. They performed Teenage Jesus Songs, Alice Cooper covers, Suicide Covers, Eight-Eyed Spy songs and music from her time with the late Rowland S. Howard. They released two live albums and toured together until 2019 when they decided to move on to separate projects. Lydia worked with the noise musician Joey Koneko, Members of Neubaten, Swans Sylvia Black & Marc Hurtado.

In 2019 she released the spoken word and music album, Marchesa, which is Lunch’s take on the writings of the infamous Marquis de Sade, namesake of sadism. Beth B, a veteran of No Wave and Transgressive cinema, is working on a documentary about Lydia Lunch, aptly titled The War is Never Over. At 60 she still manages to tour the world doing almost nightly shows, currently performing the songs of Suicide with Mark Hurtado. She has more energy and focus than women half her age. Lydia has been featured in her own art exhibit, is about to publish another book, appeared in key No Wave & Transgressive films and her music inspires a kind of fascination.

Lydia Lunch is very in your face and unapologetic for the things she did, the life she lived and above all her music art and poetry. It inspires the other people on the fringes, who don’t fit in with punks, goths or hippies, who feel more can be expressed with a driving rhythm and screeching noise guitar, in poems about violence against women, mental illness and abuse rather than peace and love acid jams or three chord punk songs. Lunch has always been the antithesis of the regular and her willingness to adapt is what has kept her a relevant artist for the past 42 years. Her music and her poetry are filled with difficult truths that resound in the ears of certain listeners. Her work often explores human sexuality, desire, violence, drugs and pleasure with a frank openness, each poem, photograph & song offering a small insight into her mind at the time.

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