Lydia Lunch is perhaps best known as the former lead singer for Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, but she is also known for her provocative performances that have served to inspire other generations of aggressive women musicians. Writing in All Music Guide, Steve Huey explained that throughout her career, Lunch has displayed "an attitude of confrontational nihilism expressed in both her sound and her often violent and/or sexually oriented subject matter." Her body of work has included various recording projects with bands such as the Birthday Party, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Sonic Youth.
Lunch has not confined herself to any single art form. In addition to her work in music, she has dabbled in spoken word performance, writing, and acting. She has said she views herself as "a journalist, who uses various mediums to document the emotional dystopia of present time. Always confrontational," according to an interview in Russia's St. Petersburg Times.
"Lunch has gotten under the listener's skin by pulling back her own skin to reveal the morbid processes within," wrote Joy Press and Simon Reynolds in The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock 'n' Roll. "Lunch's work is an archaeology of self-knowledge, excavating through the strata to uncover the primal wound that compels her to be an artist. … [Her] work is a kind of assault course of therapy: getting it out of her system by imposing it on the audience."
Born Lydia Koch, she transformed herself into Lydia Lunch after dropping out of school in the tenth grade. Her new name came, she claims, from always being willing to help famished friends. Lunch has said that sexual abuse by her father throughout her childhood was key in shaping the artist she would become.
In 1977 Lunch and James Chance, a rhythm and blues saxophone player, formed Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. "The early Teenage Jesus was an attempt to remind the new wave of its free-jazz roots, wrote Clinton Heylin in From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. "Their form of free jazz/punk combined the aggression of punk with the structural freedom of free jazz." Chance soon left the group and formed the Contortions in late 1977. Both groups were associated with the No-Wave movement.
No-Wave has been described as the antithesis of punk. Lunch herself has said she is anti-punk, and described the movement as "dissonance, discordance and a desire to abolish tradition." Perhaps no other compilation better illustrated this brief movement than No New York, produced by Brian Eno and released in 1978. "All the 'no wave' bands just self-destructed," noted Lunch in an interview with Heylin. "They were all so concise in the music, the delivery, the point and they just ended. It wasn't a premature death. It was an immediate and accurate one. They didn't extend the boundaries of their short lives."
While still performing with Teenage Jesus, Lunch founded the group Beirut Slump. The band released one single and recorded an album. Lunch made her first foray into acting in the late 1970s. She primarily worked in underground film with a small set of directors, including Vivienne Dick and Richard Kern. Some of her work purportedly straddles the line between underground art house and pornography.
Queen of Siam was Lunch's debut as a solo artist. Released in 1980, it "proved to be one of her most acclaimed efforts," wrote Huey, "as was her next band, the funk-inflected 8 Eyed Spy." The group 8 Eyed Spy included some of the notables of No-Wave: George Scott (ex-Contortions bassist) and Jim Sclavunos (ex-Teenage Jesus bassist on drums), as well as Michael Paumgardhen and Pat Irwin, who had worked with Lunch on Queen of Siam. "The lifespan of the group set a pattern for Lydia's ventures: assemble a band, work with it for a while, disband it when she got 'bored'; six months later some vinyl would appear," said Trouser Press. The publication noted that this group was "perhaps the acme of New York no wave groups."
In 1982 Lunch began working with a number of groups, including Nick Cave and the Birthday Party. The result was the EP The Agony Is the Ecstasy. Projects with Einstürzende Neubauten, members of Sonic Youth, Die Haut, and Marc Almond followed. Her next solo release, 13.13, was, according to Trouser Press, "like her previous stuff … simultaneously fascinating and annoying." With Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Pat Place, Lunch released the EP In Limbo. Trouser Press found the six-track EP "typically rough going, but recommended for anyone who has trouble contending with an entire album's worth of her clamor."
Another musical partnership was formed with Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell, a.k.a. Clint Ruin. Their first project was a remix of earlier recordings, and was released in 1987. The EP Stinkfist was released in 1989. Lunch founded the Widowspeak label in 1985. The first releases were Lunch's first salvo into the spoken word and her eclectic back catalog. The "best of" compilation Hysterie was released in 1986.
For the Record …
Born Lydia Koch in 1959, in Rochester, NY.
Co-founded Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, 1977; band included on No New York compilation, 1978; founded Beirut Slump, circa 1977-78; began acting in underground film, late 1970s; released first solo project Queen of Siam, 1980; joined 8 Eyed Spy, 1980; group broke up, Lunch went solo, 1982; began collaborating with numerous musicians, 1982–; recorded 13.13, 1982; released In Limbo with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Pat Place, 1984; recorded EP Stinkfist with Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell, 1989; founded Widowspeak label, 1985; released "best of" compilation Hysterie, 1986; began working on spoken word performance, issued The Uncensored Lydia Lunch and Oral Fixation, 1980s; published Paradoxia: A Predator's Diary, 1997; recorded Champagne, Cocaine and Nicotine Stains (EP, with Anubian Lights), 2002; toured Russia, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—CDHW!, Manteuffelstr. 58, D-10999 Berlin, Germany. Booking—Creature Booking, 159 Glen Ellen, Ventura, CA 93003, website: http://www.creaturebooking.com. Website—Lydia Lunch Official Website: http://www.lydia-lunch.org.
"As the 1980s progressed, Lunch's work would divide between the allegorical (the burnt-out psychic waste-land of Honeymoon in Red, the apocalyptic visions of Stinkfist) and full-on, assaultive autobiography, spoken word albums like The Uncensored Lydia Lunch and Oral Fixation," wrote Press and Reynolds. "Lunch's solo vocal performances remain coherent and decipherable, even at her highest pitch of rapid-fire rage."
Throughout the 1990s Lunch devoted her creative energies to spoken word and acting. She has said she prefers the direct nature of spoken word to other art forms she has explored. Trouser Press noted that "as venomous as her song lyrics can get, [the spoken word] format allows her to take a giant step further. Sometimes clever, frequently condescending and always relentless, she spits out her observations about sex, death, middle class values, etc., with plenty of nihilistic passion, but never offers any reference point: everything in the world just plain sucks."
Lunch noted in an interview with Jazziz that music needs to continue to change in order to be relevant. "The only relevant music happening now, is music that consciously blurs the lines of genre in an attempt to create another form. We don't need more jazz, rock, rap, pop, punk, or soul," Lunch said. "We need mutant forms that are enriched by a spectacular array of cross-pollination."
A stream of written material also issued forth in the 1990s. Most notably, this included the book Paradoxia: A Predator's Diary, published in 1997. Her published writing also included several graphic novels and comics, such as Toxic Gumbo and Bloodsucker. Her only musical effort in the decade was an 1990 EP with Rowland S. Howard (ex-Birthday Party), released in 1991.
In her acting career during this decade, Lunch primarily worked with Scott B and Beth B, a film-making couple described by Time's Richard Corliss as having "worked in the New York new wave underground since the mid-'70s, shooting on Super 8 stock and exhibiting the results in punk nightclubs." Corliss did not, however, have much to say about Lunch's performance. He found her work in Vortex "uneven" and noted "Lunch's delicious coarseness as she tries to remember her lines."
In the early 2000s, Lunch began to return her artistic focus to music. She resumed touring, notably in support of Champagne, Cocaine and Nicotine Stains, an EP of her work with the group Anubian Lights. She continued touring through the spring of 2004, when she was invited to perform in Russia. Despite her prolific output, critics have been reluctant to embrace Lunch as anything more than an artistic agent provocateur. As Ros Wynne-Jones observed in the Independent, "Except in noir circles, Lunch is nowadays mainly a footnote in other people's biographies."
Queen of Siam, ZE, 1980; reissued, Widowspeak, 1985; reissued, Triple X, 1991.
13.13, Ruby, 1982; reissued, Widowspeak, 1988.
In Limbo (EP), Doublevision, 1984; reissued, Widowspeak, 1986.
Hysterie (greatest hits), Rough Trade/Widowspeak, 1989; reissued, CD Presents, 1986.
Honeymoon in Red, Widowspeak, 1987; reissued, Atavistic, 1996.
Drowning in Limbo, Widowspeak, 1989; reissued, Atavistic, 1995.
(With Teenage Jesus and the Jerks) Pre-Teenage Jesus & The Jerks (12-inch vinyl), ZE Records, 197x.
(With Teenage Jesus and the Jerks) "Pink," (7-inch vinyl), Lust/Unlust, 1979.
(With Teenage Jesus and the Jerks) "Orphans," (7-inch vinyl), Lust/Unlust, 1979.
(With Teenage Jesus and the Jerks) "Baby Doll," (7-inch vinyl), Lust/Unlust, 1979.
(With Beirut Slump) "Beirut Slump," (7-inch vinyl), Lust/Unlust, 1979.
(With 8 Eyed Spy) "8 Eyed Spy" (7-inch vinyl), Fetish Records, 1980.
(With 8 Eyed Spy) 8 Eyed Spy Live, ROIR, 1981.
(With 8 Eyed Spy) 8 Eyed Spy, Fetish Records, 1981.
(With The Birthday Party) The Agony Is the Ecstasy (EP), 4AD, 1982.
(With Sonic Youth) "Death Valley '69" (7-inch vinyl), Iridescence Records, 1984.
(With Jim Thirlwell/Clint Ruin) Stinkfist, Widowspeak, 1988; reissued with The Crumb, Widowspeak, 1990.
(With Jim Thirlwell/Clint Ruin) The Crumb, Widowspeak, 1988; reissued with Stinkfist, Widowspeak, 1990.
(With Anubian Lights) Champagne, Cocaine, and Nicotine Stains (EP), Hot Wax, 2002.
Selected spoken word recordings
The Uncensored Lydia Lunch (tape), Widowspeak, 1985.
Oral Fixation, Widowspeak, 1989; reissued with Uncensored, Atavistic, 1996.
Conspiracy of Women, Widowspeak, 1990.
(With others) Our Fathers Who Aren't in Heaven, Widowspeak, 1990.
Crimes Against Nature, Triple X, 1993.
(With Exene Cervenka) Rude Hieroglyphics, Rykodisc, 1995.
Heylin, Clinton, From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World, Penguin, 1993.
Press, Joy and Simon Reynolds, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock 'n' Roll, Harvard University Press, 1995.
America's Intelligence Wire, March 12, 2004.
Edmonton Journal (Canada), February 7, 2000.
Independent (London, England), October 26, 1997; November 5, 2004.
Jazziz, July 2002.
Time, March 14, 1983.
"Lydia Lunch," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 2, 2005).
"Lydia Lunch," Trouser Press,http://www.trouserpress.com/entry.php?a=lydia_lunch (March 2, 2005).
Lydia Lunch Official Website, http://www.lydia-lunch.org/ (February 24, 2005).
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