Lydia Lunch and Marty Nation in Richard Kern's Fingered. Photo courtesy of Richard Kern
"I twist, you shout."
That's just one memorable line from a woman who practically breathed them, fueled by the most brilliantly poisoned oxygen, her words a veritable choke hold, an evisceration—our very own Lydia Lunch. Only she's not ours anymore. After almost single-handedly defining the pissed indifference of No Wave in late-70s New York with Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Beirut Slump, and 8-Eyed Spy, Lydia appears to have happily checked into a new age Hotel California. Appearances, however, can be deceiving when you're dealing with any high-octane brain once demonized and dismissed as "confrontational." Those who bravely, at times recklessly, confront the more insidious evils, and where to begin? With the corporate death machine? With the police state? With the cadavers of aging White Male America who suffocate the intellectual and political aspirations of any group that doesn't blindly submit to its power? Praise God and pass the Viagra, and prepare to be screwed for another century at least.
If you can believe a recent story in the Sunday Magazine of The New York Crimes, Lydia Lunch, now in her mid 50s, has re-imagined herself as a self-help guru in Ojai, California, the West Coast's answer to Shangri-La. Just how lost is this horizon? Taken at face value this might seem an odd career change for Lydia, but to those who know her history it makes a kind of perversely perfect sense. Teenage Lydia, from that noirish time, was the blunt instrument in all those bands. Her take-no-prisoners severity could clear a club within minutes, which I witnessed firsthand as one of the few who stayed behind. Lydia was a hybrid baby doll/gun moll/motormouth drill sergeant. Maybe self-help is borne of an intertwined damage and discipline, and Lydia, projecting both outward vulnerability and inner strength, was cut out for it from the very beginning.
In a 1979 interview with the Soho Weekly News she was asked:
SWN: Why do you play such short sets?
LL: Less is more. That's how I feel. Like discipline. Or punishment. You don't need 30 minutes of my music to know what I'm talking about.
SWN: Does a 30-second instrumental say it all?
LL: Yes. It says "FUCK!" "CHILD!" "HURT!" "FUCK!"
SWN: Is the minimalism very important? There's an absence of dynamics in the music, your words express very simple feelings. They don't even express an opinion. Would anything more compromise your opinion of the audience, which is very low?
LL: I never said that. Only that they're secondary, compared to me. I don't think more music is needed. And that attitude is what I feel. It's like primal therapy. I scream for you, you know. I'm up there screaming my fucking guts out. It's for you as much as for me, only I'd be…
SWN: The last to admit it."1
Portrait of Lydia Lunch (R) Courtesy of Rustblade Records
And now, 35 years and 3,000 miles away, in the tranquil garden of the Ananda Verandah, out in that golden West, where the possibilities for growth are always exploited, that admission has, in a sense, finally been made. But if we travel back in time to the late 70s, and even further, to that decade's antithesis, the late 60s, you have to ask: What sort of second act is possible after an annihilation? As Lydia herself would be quick to point out, many of us don’t have a first act, let alone a second. While an amped-up life can negate or make ridiculous whatever follows, we shouldn't be too hasty in our judgment. Because what passes for justice in this country tends to be delivered by those who remain safely on the sidelines, where basic values are fiercely protected even when rotten to the core. From inside that mealy apple, fallen not far from the tree, a lowly worm wriggles out to demand: Is there life after life? Far preferable that he slithers out from the fruit of the original sin than from the hollow socket of your eye. As Anne Sexton, the great confessional poet and eventual suicide, pointedly if flatly observed: "Most people's lives aren't interesting enough for a play."
Black Panthers, California State House, protesting for their right to carry arms. Photo courtesy of the Washington State Archives
Scanning the article I couldn't help wondering, Where do you go from Teenage Jesus or, for that matter, the Black Panthers? Bobby Seale co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense with Huey Newton in 1966. The indelible image of BPP members defiantly armed with rifles, some with ammunition belts across their chests, on the steps of the California State Capitol in Sacramento, on a spring afternoon in 1967, is just as riveting and unbelievable nearly 50 years later. And so is an image—captured only in a drawing, for an incendiary photo would have surely promoted their cause—of Seale, bound and gagged in a Chicago courtroom in '68. The image belies the very notion of free speech. It also serves as a reminder that although show trials were first staged in the counter-revolutionary USSR, they later played to packed houses right here in the good ol' USSA (and still do, only now they're conducted behind closed doors on a military base). The Panthers knew the FBI would try to hunt them down and silence them, but there are times when a lesson and a life must be laid on the line, for where self-preservation and self-determination are one and the same the consequence of one's actions will never outweigh those of inaction. And the price of admission? Some paid with their lives, some with their minds. Those who survived may never escape a lingering sense that to endure is not so much a victory as a matter of having been left behind. Then again, can you spend an entire life walking the streets with a loaded gun? These days, caught between self-help and self-determination, you have to ask: Do you carry a yoga mat or a rifle? Or do you carry a weapon wrapped inside the mat?
In the wake of the turbulence, decimation, and disillusion of the 60s and 70s, Seale, in his second act, went on to work as a talk-radio host and to author a book titled Barbeque'n with Bobby, filled with his down-home recipes as a way of raising funds for progressive, socially engaged groups that were struggling under Reaganism. (Lydia published a collection of her own recipes in 2012, called The Need to Feed.) And as easy as it might be to mock him, just as it was easier to focus on guns over butter, Seale's initiative can be seen to parallel the Panthers' community activism. Particularly the free food program that began in Oakland in '69 and grew exponentially, with free breakfasts offered to many thousands of poor school children nationwide.
Seale's onetime brother-in-arms, Eldridge Cleaver, reinvented himself in another way entirely. His unexpected trajectory delivered him light years from the radicality of his earlier days, slipping sideways into absurdist radical chic with his outrageously irreverent “dick pants”—no concealed weapons here—to the very doorstep of a billion-dollar corporation that, until fairly recently, held to their incredulous belief in the spiritual inferiority of blacks—yes, the Mormon Church. Cleaver's book, Soul on Fire, the follow-up to his 60s prison memoir, Soul on Ice, suggests that even a person who doesn't believe in a heavenly reward may one day confront the prospect of burning in hell. After becoming ensconced in the Church of Latter Day Saints, Cleaver, who had once dismissed Governor Ronald Reagan as a punk and a coward, would end up campaigning for the man when he ran for president, redefining that most misguided of notions: You can't get there from here.
Edridge Cleaver in Rolling Stone, Oct. 9, 1975. Photo of Cleaver (R) by C. J. Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
In the end, there's really only one question to be raised—along with the white flag: How much further can you ascend or descend from Nirvana? This may refer to the state of enlightenment or to the gold-plated unit-shifters of grunge. Take your pick. The recent announcement that a Nirvana single which was set to be pressed and released almost 20 years ago to the week, then hastily deleted after Kurt Cobain checked out, would finally appear, led many to believe his hour of darkness would finally see the light of day. The single was pulled because of the record’s B-side, a little number Cobain had titled "I Hate Myself and Want to Die." He did… and he did. Even so, the song doesn't unlock any particular mysteries, since the title and the lyrics don't illuminate one another, or anything else. If you watch it online, preceded by a commercial for Charmin Ultra Strong, you'll gain about as much insight from the friendly stuffed bear. A nothing-special throwaway song, relegated to the flip-side of a single, then tossed onto a Beavis and Butt-Head CD, and now shamelessly resuscitated to shake a little more change out of the pockets of a corpse. (David Geffen can't possibly need the money. Does Courtney Love?)
While discontinuity is truer to the sense of human flow, where the button that’s been depressed isn’t “play” but “repeat,” reinvention of the self can become its own revolving door. That’s delivering a product, chained to its care and maintenance, and the product is you. The popular term in business and the entertainment-industrial complex is branding. Maybe some of us would be a little less willing to be branded if it actually entailed bending over in front of a hot iron. Once you become someone else’s property, the past is on rewind as you return to the memory of who you once were. Simultaneously the master and the unfaithful servant, the body is exhumed in a future that never happened. Bits of encrusted dirt and mud are rubbed from your eyelids, as fingers crumble from your desiccated hand, scattered by the wind across the dry, dusty ground. Yet the middle finger remains, and is raised above your lifeless form, the only friend… still true.
Even if Lydia fully understands the necrophiliac S&M of the music industry, which isn't all that different from that of the film industry, the fashion industry (are you wearing McQueen this season?) or every other industry—not forgetting the art market—she wouldn't have been able to help Kurt Cobain. Neither could she have done anything for Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Foster Wallace, or Hunter S. Thompson, who referred to the lone well-intended but hopeless intervention of his friends as "the Inquisition." Besides the impenetrable fact that you simply cannot help those who don't want to be helped—just try to counteract the centrifugal force of a person as he or she spirals further away from a center that will not hold—Lydia's services are not available to the male of the species. Her "Post-Catastrophe" workshop is only open to the so-called second sex, advertised thusly: "Create an environment to Empower other women and Inspire artistic collaboration."
In what could serve as the opening scene for The Life and Times of Lydia Lunch, a monologue, though tirade seems more accurate, would be delivered to set the stage:
"I can understand why women trade flesh for money, power, control. What I DON’T GET IS WHY MEN ARE STILL STUPID ENOUGH TO FALL FOR IT. Ever since it was invented, Pussy has been treated as a magic elixir, a voodoo that some men just can’t seem to resist or get enough of. The hyper-sexualization and commoditization of women in all forms of media, culture, and music has NOT BEEN TURNED ON ITS HEAD by middle aged pop-porn princesses running around in lame aerobics costumes playing braindead disco as they sell mega-units for mega-corporate record company pimps. More useless entertainment which tells us nothing and only serves as a distraction …" 2
You have to wonder how Lydia would have reacted to Jane Fonda's second act as the queen of 80s aerobics after her anti-war activism in the 60s. Bobby Seale certainly felt a kinship with her reinvention, going so far as to acknowledge Fonda as an inspiration for his entrepreneurial foray into the BBQ pit. (Back in the day, she had been a very vocal and prominent supporter of the Panthers, and was under surveillance by the NSA for many years. Trading left-wing husband Tom Hayden for the ultra-rich neo-con Ted Turner might have appeased but not erased those associations.)
Fonda helped to set Americans on a course of exercise and more healthful living, giving birth to a craze that became a way of life, as well as big bucks—the fitness industry. And what would she have been doing instead? Remaking Barbarella? Maybe her workout tapes, numbering more than two dozen, which sold millions of copies, and millions of VCRs collaterally—can be spliced together with scenes from Barbarella, a fractured tribute to the woman without whom we might not have all those fabulous yoga and pilates studios, a $7 billion a year, seemingly recession-proof industry. Discussing this recently with the only person I know who goes to a yoga class, despite being into it and acknowledging the benefits, he struck a sour note, claiming that others attend less as a spiritual/physical thing than for their ego, as a way to show off. But while exhibitionists will always find a stage on which to perform, the evolution of Jane Fonda or Lydia or anyone who manages to successfully script for themselves a second act, and even a third, suggests something else: that the hardcore notion of being true to oneself is based on a one-dimensional image of a life, when the truth of life is that it's an unfolding, and to shed one skin for another is the visible sign of this process.
Photo of Jane Fonda as Barbarella courtesy of Paul Joyce
Self-help isn't for everyone, and the price of admission is both psychic and financial. If self-help seems to appeal primarily to a certain class—the ruling class and its devoted/indentured subjects—and that the cost of rehab with a stunning Pacific Ocean view is beyond most of us mere mortals, keep in mind that repression is most effectively and politely administered economically. And even if the spiel for Lydia's Post-Catastrophe workshop sounds at times like so much claptrap: "Art has the ability to act as salve to the universal wound. It gives voice to the silent scream within us all. It rebels as pleasure in times of trauma. It brings a sense of beauty and joy by rising up in celebration of life, a direct contra-diction to the widespread brutality of socio-sadistic bullies who seek to divide and conquer." Yes, despite the cringe-inducing spiel, more power to her, and in every way. In an interview from 2010, Lydia sounded much closer to, shall we say, her old self, insisting that "Pain always subsides, but wisdom, love, intensity, and genius feed the soul. And the soul is a hungry motherfucker." 3
Lydia Lunch is a survivor, not a casualty—or rather she's a casualty who lived to tell the tale, and now to help others. There are plenty of misfits from her gory glory days who aren't around anymore. But you know what? They don't give a fuck. That's the funny thing about consciousness. You're either here… or you're not. For some, self-help will always be the enemy within, and what of life? Which nowadays appears more and more lifelike. As the earliest new-agers, those blissfully enlightened nihilist-millionaires who tripped all the way to India down that long and windy road, told us oh so long ago, Life goes on within us, and without us.
You might as well live.
1. "Sin, Guilt and Lunch," interview with Lydia Lunch, The Soho Weekly News, Oct. 25, 1979. Quoted by Steven Parrino in his essay, "Stinted Expression," The No Texts, Abaton Book Company, 2003.
2. Statement from the "Post-Catastrophe" website, written by Lydia Lunch and Vanessa Skantze.
3. Interview with Percy Howard, "Lydia Lunch will not go quietly," Aug. 10, 2010.