As part of the No Wave group Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia Lunch (nee Koch) made her early mark on the NYC scene at around the same time the punk movement was getting started. After her short-lived group Eight Eyed Spy disbanded, she embarked on a solo career as musician and performance artist that continues to this day. A new documentary by Beth B., Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, unfolds the whole story.
“We used to be warriors… women. How we have devolved from Medusa to Madonna, from Kali to Courtney Love, from Durga to Uma Thurman.. I don’t get it. We need to get back to the goddess.”- Lydia Lunch
Beth B.’s gritty new documentary, Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, highlights the career of the punk provocateur by taking us back to a time when subway fare was only fifty cents and the .44 Caliber Killer was terrifying city residents.
A 16-year-old Lydia Anne Koch jumped off the Greyhound bus after surviving an abusive family in Rochester, N.Y., and onto the steamy manhole-ridden streets of a then bankrupt ‘70s New York City. With just $200 to her name, Lydia went straight to a bar called Mother’s where she saw a shitty band play. Convincing the band she was an orphan, she took up an invitation to crash with them in Chelsea.
Two days later, she saw Suicide play at Max’s Kansas City, meeting Alan Vega and Martin Rev. The No Wave group Mars played later that week, inspiring Lydia to start playing her own music. To do this, she birthed the darkly cathartic and unnatural sound that became Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, along with James Chance.
The No Wave movement came about in 1976, at the very same time as the punk movement. A lot of people like to lump it in with the post-punk movement, but it was different. It was messier, unconstrained, and animalistic. Featuring a group of disenchanted youth who oozed out of the dark crevices and onto the stage to rise up against their reality. Lydia believes her Baby Boomer comrades were messed up in the head after dealing with the 1960’s race riots, the hippie movement and the decade-ending horror of the Manson murders.
Always one to be delighted by new and unusual ways of making music, Brian Eno followed the No Wave scene and supported these bands by producing the 1978 No New York compilation album. That album was vital for exposure of these artists which included DNA, Mars, James Chance and the Contortions, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. It is considered the definitive album of the No Wave scene even though it only featured four bands.
Lydia didn’t stop there. In 1979, Eight Eyed Spy was formed with James Sclavunos, Michael Paumgardhen, Pat Irwin, and George Scott. It was a tighter outfit with blues guitar riffs and sexy scream singing. They released only one live and one studio album and ultimately broke up in 1980 after the unfortunate death of George Scott.
That same year, Lydia released her first solo album, Queen Of Siam, which she recorded in 1979. The cover art is a photo of her wearing a black leather vest with spikes jutting out of her tits and a face that reads, “Don’t fuck with me.” She refers to this album in The War Is Never Over as, “lullabies”. I don’t know what kind of kid would want to hear these tunes at night tucked in their bed… maybe Wednesday Addams? A track from the spooky, goth album was even used in the suspenseful horror movie, The Blair Witch Project. Robert Quine, known as one of the best guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine and who played with Lou Reed, Brian Eno and the Voidoids, played guitar on a few tracks.
“I started seeing her name in print and thought it was the most audacious and wrong name that could be. This (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks) sounds like cats howling before they are being killed, ya know? This is like the worst sounding thing I’ve ever heard on record. I thought it was a masterpiece.” – Thurston Moore
In a very funny moment of the film, musician James Sclavunos, whose more recent projects include Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Nicole and Jim, described the time his band member decided to deflower him. Lydia decided that his virginity needed to be destroyed and asked him to bring over soda pop and whip cream to her apartment. He’s thinking that things were going to get a little too kinky for his first time, but the grocery list ended up just being her dinner.
Lydia’s overt sexuality and rage stemmed from a childhood of sexual abuse at the hands of her own alcoholic father. The anger was transferred to the stage, her lyrics, movie performances and sexual proclivities. She decided to own her body and sexuality since it was stolen from her for many years. Most abuse survivors turn the pain inward and hurt themselves. But, as she says in the film, “I was homicidal, not suicidal.” Finding her voice and this artistic outlet no doubt helped her survive from mental insanity.
Richard Kern’s shocking films, Fingered and The Right Side Of My Brain, show a raw and sexual Lydia as well as her spoken word poetry haunting the images. Fingered happens to be John Waters’ favorite film and, of course, it was banned when it first came out. This started the Transgressive film movement that, besides Kern’s work, included that of Nick Zedd. Their movies shocked people by pushing the limits of dark imagery, violence, rape, and overt kinky sexuality. Kern told Vice, that his ideas were fostered out of boredom from the more mild, slow paced art films that were a constant.
As I was writing this, I also stumbled upon a Vice article from 2013 called “We Talked To Lydia Lunch And She Didn’t Seem To Like Us Very Much”. This made me laugh out loud, because that seems to be Lydia’s way of sizing people up. She probably did like those guys; she just doesn’t make it easy on newcomers.
“No Wave was a contrarian gesture against classic rock.” – Lydia Lunch
Thurston Moore recounted walking around Lydia and his bombed-out neighborhood of the Lower East Side, and watching her kick in a door while asking him to be her lookout. She raised her dress, squatted low and pissed on the steps while laughing the whole while. He knew this interesting character was going to be in his life for a long time after that. The petite tough girl with the shaggy black hair, bangs almost stabbing her eyes, pale skin, red lipstick, spiked heels, and black dress must’ve been a sight to behold back then. This was before every New Yorker made all black a basic staple.
“Why is it that the same assholes that invented torture, and kidnapping, and nuclear power, and pollution, and welfare, and poverty, and war… Why do these same idiots want to abolish my right to a legal abortion?” -Lydia Lunch in spoken word
“I recorded an album Honeymoon In Red when I lived in London and was touring with the Birthday Party. Nick Cave and I never agreed on anything from the moment we met. Roland Howard and I agreed on everything. Years later, went on to perform Shotgun Wedding. I was living in New Orleans and brought Rowland down to work on that.” – Lydia Lunch
Lydia’s current band is called Retrovirus and her attitude on stage has not changed. She berates the audience for clapping. Sneering at everyone in a way that silently says, “Can you take it? Or are you gonna run to mommy?” Yet, her aggressiveness is not meant to be a hateful action. It’s almost out of love that she’s trying to toughen the young people up. Make them take charge of their lives, rather than sleep with their eyes open.
In one emotional segment of The War Is Never Over, Lydia’s band member cries while recounting a man wanting Lydia to dominate him over a weekend on tour. After the sessions, he cried to her while thanking her for helping him and she hugged him. Two trauma survivors just trying to make the world make sense the only way they know how. Inner children and teens being seen for the first time by a fellow victim of abuse.
Drummer Bob Bert was a fan of Lydia’s before he began playing music with her. One of his quotes from the film, that I completely agree with, was, “Lydia’s greatest work of art is herself.” Bob had been a member of Sonic Youth in his past, but now devotes his time to drumming in Lydia’s current band, Retrovirus. Catch them play if you haven’t yet, they put on an incendiary show.
You should also see this documentary. Between hilarious interviews, amazing old footage of Lydia back in the day, to very well-presented storyline graphics; The War Is Never Over provides a shot of life in our current culturally mediocre existence. I felt like I was high for the rest of the day after seeing this.
Growing up reading Lydia’s memoir, Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary, not only titillated my teenage brain with its overt sexuality, but made me realize how much power I have as a woman. It was MY feminist manifesto. She takes charge of her sexuality and becomes the aggressor, instead of the prey. Lydia also survives some brutal characters in highly charged drug- and booze-laden situations. I still look up to this smart, confident, aggressive woman. She demands your respect with her presence. If you don’t give it to her, she’ll tell you to fuck off. I wish more women would harness this power and speak up for themselves. Your inner warrior woman is lying dormant inside, just waiting for you to lose your social graces.
*Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over debuted in theaters on November 9th.
*Just a few artists interviewed in the documentary: Donita Sparks (of L7), JG Thirwell (Foetus), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), and Richard Kern (writer/filmmaker: Fingered, Right Side Of My Brain).