Punk hellraiser Lydia Lunch: ‘I’m chronically misunderstood but I get off on it’


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The runaway, singer and counter-culture icon is hitting 60 and is as incendiary as ever, touring and raging against polluters and politicians in a rip-roaring book

Lydia Lunch turned 60 this year, but age has done little to dim this counterculture icons lust for life. Decades after her start as the nihilist 16-year-old frontwoman of 1970s no-wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, the New York-born apocalyptician is a revered veteran of the US underground: a writer, spoken-word performer, musician, actor and artist. Lunchs style is raw and incendiary, all sex and death and taboo-busting feminist rage. And in 2019, the sexagenarian is as unapologetic and active as ever still writing, touring, collaborating and performing.

Lunch is in Colchester when we speak, luxuriating in a fabulous cottage-type hotel conveniently situated near the cultural centre where shes set to play that night with her band, Big Sexy Noise. On the stage and the page, shes a formidable presence seducing, goading and tongue-lashing her audience. In conversation, via Skype, shes surprisingly jovial: affable, accommodating, disarmingly witty, a potty-mouthed doyenne dealing out double-entendres. Is she misunderstood? Oh, chronically! But I get off on it. Im not a miserable person, I just deal in miserable subjects.

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The last time the Guardian spoke with Lunch, in 2015, she was scouting around for a home for her archive, an honour thats since gone to New York University. Theyre opening a new exhibition space next year and I think theyre gonna launch it with my archives, which is great. Its a fitting location: although she left for good in 1990, and doesnt consider it home (even when I lived there), New York informed much of who Lunch became, and the art shes made since.

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I didnt think Id live this long Lunch performing in Barcelona in 2011. Photograph: Jordi Vidal/Redferns

Lunchs work is defiant, thrilling and unflinching. Her latest release, So Real It Hurts, is just so: an anthology of new and established writings that include everything from violent feminist revenge fantasies to diatribes on pollution and politics (and yes, Trump) in the Anthropocene epoch. They detail deviant delights, heroes sung (Hubert Selby Jr) and unsung (Herbert Huncke) alike. They offer alternative historical testimony documented in killer style: pre-gentrification New York, (the devils litterbox); the no-wave scene (a collective bowel-cleansing caterwaul a mad collective of death-defiant miscreants); and the start of the race riots of 1967, witnessed first-hand by an eight-year-old Lydia when her hometown which became the centre of the chaos erupted into violence, with a baseball-bat carrying hoard stampeding directly in front of my house.

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The anthology, she tells me, was rejected by 26 American publishers and Im quite happy to say that. I wanted that stamped on the front cover, actually. She eventually found a publisher, Seven Stories, that appreciates her calling as a stubborn, independent town-crier. I asked them, Why do you want to publish this book? And one of them said, Because I laughed at every chapter. Finally! Someone gets it. Yes! I mean, this [life] shit is deadly serious, so lets have a party and celebrate the fact that were still alive in spite of this nightmare. Thats what my whole career has been about.

Opening the anthology is an introduction by the late celebrity chef and travel writer Anthony Bourdain. Were they friends? We knew of each other. Hed read something Id written for a photobook of [Bourdains partner] Asia Argento. And wed met when he did his Lower East Side special. One of the questions I asked him was, How did you do it? How did he go from being a heroin addict scumbag cook to [a sober and successful celebrity]? He said, It was a total fluke. I just think thats great. Because some people are born ambitious and they plan for success; other people just do what they do, and wherever it goes is where they get.

Like Bourdain, Lunch found community through food as a young runaway. As legend tells it, the young hellion earned her nom de plume after gaining renown as both an expert food thief and an on-the-fly chef, transforming produce shed filched into nourishing lunches for fellow punks such as Dead Boys. In 2012 she released a cookbook, The Need to Feed, telling Vice: Cooking is one of the most intimate things this side of sex cooking leads to good sex. You are touching something that someone else is digesting. Your DNA is on the food they eat. Its a form of impregnation which is basically what my entire artistic motive is, anyway.

Does she still enjoy cooking? I do. Its very witchy. But youve gotta be careful about where your food comes from especially in the UK and the States because we end up consuming so much poison.

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I think we comprehended more than we knew Lunch rocks Los Angeles in 1981. Photograph: Ray Stevenson/Rex/Shutterstock

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Lunch knows a thing or two about toxins. Before she was old enough to pick her own poisons, Lunch grew up on one of Americas Superfund sites: land contaminated by life-endangering hazardous waste. At last count, says Lunch, there are 39,000 hazardous sites spread across America. So Real It Hurts points the finger at big conglomerates and the US Department of Justice. But this isnt a new theme for Lunch; shes been speaking out about environmental justice since her early20s.

I think those of us doing spoken word when I got started, under Reagan and Thatcher John Cooper Clarke, Exene Cervenka, Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra I think we comprehended more than we knew. I go back to some of the speeches I wrote in 84, and Im like, yup, I could do that one tonight.

Shes cheered by todays climate activists, citing Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (big fan), but is also incredulous at current political inaction. I mean its just ridiculous that were still having this conversation. There were 379 tornados in 13 days in America last month. In India? Drought. China? Flooding. I was in Mexico City a month ago; they have the worst air pollution in decades. You cant get away from it. Therell be more plastic in the ocean than fish soon. I mean, wake the fuck up.

Lydia
Lydia Lunch with photographer Nan Goldin at the Kitchen NYC last year. Photograph: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

I tell her that a recent investigation has revealed that British people are ingesting a credit-card-sized amount of plastic every week thanks to microplastics in our air, food and water supplies. If only we could shit those credit cards out and use em at the ATM, eh?

Lunchs sense of humour is dark, delightful and revelatory. In the chapter Motherhood: Its Not Compulsory, we meet Lunch the baby whisperer, an intentionally childless hellraiser with an almost supernatural ability to soothe other peoples fractious children. In Assume the Position, she divulges her decades-long kink for cops, detailing her various illicit and comic encounters with the long arm of the law. And in Detox, we find Lunch in self-help guru mode, encouraging us to indulge in regular masturbation and ditch toxic household cleaning products for DIY vinegar concoctions: With all the money you save from not making multinationals richer, you could get a massage once a month for the rest of your life! Or, start saving for your own funeral. It might come sooner than you think.

Many of us Lunch included are surprised shes still around given her propensity for extreme living. In the chapter Drunk on Fuck, she writes of reaching a point where her libido and the need to possess, to consume had reached danger point, prompting a long bout of celibacy. Is she dating again now? Does she still enjoy lovers? Is that an invitation? she parries mischievously.

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Keep going kid Lunch and Richard Hell play the Limelight in New York in 1986. Photograph: MediaPunch Inc/Alamy Stock

Lunch has described herself in previous years as a self-confessed adrenaline junkie, obsessed by deaths black magnetism. Shes survived childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, dated various unhinged lovers (from a suspected psychopath to an ex-alcoholic who went on to murder his wife), escaped deranged stalkers and haunted the same streets as such serial killers as Richard Ramirez. I didnt think Id live this long either, it wasnt my goal actually, but Im not gonna resist it [life] either. Im having too much fun. Im too stubborn to die, too much to do still. Would she change anything, if she could go back? God, no. Not a lick of it. And if she could go back and talk to her 16-year-old self? Id say, Keep going, kid; youre on the right track.

She remains a cult figure, despite collaborations with the likes of Sonic Youth and Nick Cave. But a critical reappraisal of Lunchs work is overdue; her varied and hairied career is the subject of an upcoming documentary by long-time friend and collaborator, Beth B. Besides, says Lunch, looking for evidence of her legacy in the usual, convenient places, like music may well be folly in 2019. Maybe todays counterculture exists elsewhere, in architecture, science, medicine.

What makes Lunch happy these days? Laughing after Ive cried. I think my rebellion as Ive said for years has always been and will always be pleasure. Its in talking, in sharing conversation with others; its in laughter; its in stretching both middle fingers up into the air and saying, Still here, motherfucker. Yeah.

So Real It Hurts is out now, published by Seven Stories.

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