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Middle-Aged Jesus: Lydia Lunch’s Second Coming

Teenage Jesus and the Jerks: June 13, 2008, the Knitting Factory
No Wave: Post-punk. Underground. New York. 1976–1980 by Thurston Moore and Byron Coley

Lydia Lunch performing at the Knitting Factory.  Photo provided by Amy Belgan.
Lydia Lunch performing at the Knitting Factory. Photo provided by Amy Belgan.

Lydia Lunch is the most arresting performer I’ve ever seen. I’ve gotten sweaty and blissed-out with Dan Deacon more times than I can count, survived the dark opera that is a Xiu Xiu set, and delved into the Mountain Goats’s incisive, emotional whirlwind. The Gossip once awakened in me a near-religious state of ecstatic fervor. And I was moved to tears one evening when Jeff Mangum, Neutral Milk Hotel’s reclusive mastermind, joined the Olivia Tremor Control on stage. As intense and consuming as these artists are, not one has stopped me in my tracks the way Lydia Lunch did when Teenage Jesus and the Jerks performed at the Knitting Factory on June 13 for the first time in nearly thirty years.

It isn’t that I had a lot of fun. Lunch doesn’t exactly encourage the kind of drunken, communal celebration that one might associate with a transcendent live show. And the music, which may have been radical in 1978, has by now been eclipsed by the more sophisticated noise-rock outfits that turn out in droves for New York’s yearly No Fun Fest. While I will gladly listen to other no wave bands, like James Chance and the Contortions and Theoretical Girls, Teenage Jesus’ cacophony of primitive, assaulting instrumentals and ear-busting poetry never seems appropriate for casual iPod play.

Somehow, though, I knew that there was more to the band. A few months ago, I caught a screening of a few rare, short no wave films that starred Lunch. Her presence was unusual and unsettling. Though she was still a round-faced teenager, she exuded a kind of bored, superior authority, an all-seeing and all-knowing realpolitik about what this world was (a shithole) and who she was in it (the scourge of God). It’s that fascination that brought me to the Knitting Factory. I did worry that, at almost fifty years old, Lunch might have softened up. Nothing would have been more excruciating than to watch her gratefully greet the crowd and wistfully reminisce about her late-seventies glory days. While others fretted over spending $25 on what was likely to be the kind of brutal, ten-to-twenty-minute set Teenage Jesus is known for, I prayed that the performance would be as short, violent, and cold as ever.

Lunch immediately dashed my fears, sauntering across the stage for the first time and acknowledging our applause with a harsh “What?” Retaining the shoulder-length, dyed-black hair and severe, black wardrobe of her youth, she may look even sourer in middle age. Flanked by Teenage Jesus’ former bassist Jim Sclavunos on drums and the seemingly ubiquitous Thurston Moore on bass, Lunch never broke character. Her way of performing is so odd and unique—especially for a woman—that it almost defies description. She is tiny, but, eyes fixed at some point in the distance, pale face twisted into a savage grimace, voice skittering from growl to scream, she sucks all the air out of the room. Interacting with the crowd only to taunt and name-call, Lunch doesn’t give us one ounce of pleasure. When she felt that one of her bandmates had slipped up, she would abruptly stop, shoot him a truly evil glance, and shout “Again!” like an angry drill sergeant. They scrambled to fall in line, pounding away at their instruments with a learned dispassion. I’ve never seen the typically goofy Moore look so somber.

Watching Lunch perform, I found myself wondering why we ever needed riot grrrl in the first place. What was the point of Kathleen Hanna scrawling “slut” on her stomach, screaming about sexism, and calling all the ladies to the front of the crowd when, fifteen years earlier, Lydia Lunch had two male musicians and an audience of downtown scenesters cowering at her feet? Where riot grrrl’s constant, didactic evocations of feminist doctrine seemed to amount to nothing more than a protracted plea to be allowed into the boys’ club, Lunch took her authority without asking. Rather than claim ad nauseam that grrrls could do anything boys could do, she just did it. And she did it better. Lydia Lunch never insisted on the importance of her gender; she was too busy transcending it.

In fact, as Moore and rock critic Byron Coley’s new book, No Wave: Post-punk. Underground. New York. 1976–1980, illustrates, the no wave scene was bursting with co-ed bands in which women played vocal, and often principal, roles. “I loved the idea of women having an equal voice and power in bands with men,” Christine Hahn of Daily Life, Static, and the Hahn/Ess/Hirsch Trio tells the authors. While the city’s cbgb-based punk scene, which coalesced only a few years before no wave’s 1978 peak, was rife with macho misogyny, bands like Teenage Jesus, Mars, dna, Ut, Terminal, Red Transistors, the Contortions, Theoretical Girls, and a host of others featured prominent female members. Since no wave grew, in large part, out of the Soho and East Village visual art scenes, it was only natural that the women artists and scenesters who frequented the galleries would join the bands as well.

Of course, gender is only part of what made the lamentably short-lived movement so influential. No wave also united the worlds of avant-garde music and rock ’n’ roll. Musicians like Theoretical Girls’ Glenn Branca and dna’s Arto Lindsay begat, among others, Moore’s own Sonic Youth, who brought experimentalism to the quasi-mainstream and spawned an entirely new, noise-rock underground. But, unfortunately, if you pick up No Wave looking to hear about the movement’s cultural significance, or even just get an overview of who these artists were and what they sounded like, you’re out of luck.

No Wave is strictly for fans and archivists. While, in theory, the book’s oral-history style should allow us a close-up look at the personalities who populated the scene, most of the interviews are disappointingly dry. It’s the performers’ stories of backstage mischief and personal crisis that make Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s oral history of punk, so consuming. And while I assume that no wave’s strange and volatile characters could tell some fascinating tales of their own, few of them show up in this book. Except in rare moments, as when music critic Robert Christgau recalls the night he got into a fistfight with James Chance, we hear only the mundane details of who was playing in what band with whom.

Still, if Moore and Coley haven’t produced a thrilling read, they’ve at least assembled an invaluable document. They are nothing if not thorough: a chart at the beginning of the book is a sort of no wave family tree, tracing the endless connections between bands. And they amassed an impressive group of interviewees, including almost all of the scene’s most important figures, from Lunch and Chance to Branca and dna drummer Ikue Mori. In a surprising touch, at the end of a long section discussing Brian Eno’s controversial no wave compilation No New York, the authors include a long passage of insightful speech by the British icon. “I just had the sense that it wasn’t going to last very long,” says Eno, explaining why he recorded the album so quickly. “It just seemed to me like one of those sorts of flames that burns very brightly for a short time and then it goes out.”

But it’s the photographs and flyers that comprise the majority of the book that make No Wave worthwhile. Page after page of black-and-white images reveal far more about the scene than any interview could. A handbill advertising 1978’s movement-defining X Magazine benefit concert, an eerie, Chuck Close–like closeup of Lindsay, and a Lydia Lunch calendar are only a few of the rare artifacts that Moore and Coley have scared up. No Wave isn’t a definitive history, but it’s undeniably a definitive scrapbook.

Of course, there’s one voice that remains vital amongst the obscure, insider-y chatter that pervades No Wave, and it belongs to none other than Lydia Lunch (who also wrote the book’s foreword). Of all the interviewees, only she steps outside of the insular movement to consider its cultural, historical, and personal significance. “People were going to have a goddamn good time because it was rebellion against death,” she says of no wave’s place in depressed, crumbling, late-seventies New York. “As everything is collapsing, as buildings are burning, as poverty spreads its evil face across the whole fucking city, as everyone is starving...the music became the rebellion against all of that...I always knew what I was tapping into, that pain was a universal thing. It was more universal even than love.” It’s a harsh lesson, but one that today’s New York could stand to learn, too.


Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.


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JUL-AUG 2008

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