Lydia Lunch is a renaissance woman from hell. In her nearly 40 years as a professional provocateur, she’s evolved from a punk-era enfant terrible into an acid-tongued cultural critic, a postfeminist darling and the world’s least-expected cookbook author. En route, she starred in smutty underground films, wrote plays with Nick Cave and imbued everything from spoken-word workshops to Sonic Youth with her inimitable amalgam of sex and snarl. It’s easy to forget she’s also a ferociously precise, wholly unconventional slide guitarist.
That’s the side you’ll see when Lunch revives Teenage Jesus and the Jerks this week. In the late ’70s, her No Wave trio announced its arrival by caterwauling all over Brian Eno’s scene-christening No New York compilation and specialized in 10-minute gigs full of tight, minimalist severity: Bradley Field monotonously pounded a single drum and one cymbal, while Lunch wrenched treble shrieks from her instrument and wailed about orphans running through bloody snow. Now she and a pair of recent recruits, bassist Weasel Walter and percussionist Tim Dahl, return to herald Live 1977–1979, an expertly curated retrospective LP for electronic musician Nicolas Jaar’s label, Other People. From her provisional home in Barcelona, the East Village demigoddess recalls her sordid yet storied adolescence.
Why did you play such short sets back then?
How long do you need to punch somebody in the face?
What inspired all the misery and degradation in the lyrics?
The distresses of most teenagers: rage, hatred, rebellion and the failure of the Summer of Love. That really defined the nihilism of the ’70s, especially in New York, which was the bankrupt, crime-laden bowels of the universe. I felt right at home.
Your guitar sound is so ear-piercing. Where did that come from?
Absolute instinct. As an intellectual sadist, I take my delights in very peculiar places. Doing Teenage Jesus again, I love it when metal dudes fall to their knees at the sound of my guitar. I’m like, What are you thinking, young man? It’s ridiculous.
Your original drummer, the late Bradley Field, was a pretty unhinged guy. Was it hard to play with him?
When I met him, he was setting a homeless person on fire on the Bowery. I stomped it out and said, "What the fuck is going on?" He didn't wanna be in Teenage Jesus; I had to literally take his hands and teach him how to play the drum. He had a drug and alcohol problem, but he was hilarious and he fit the bill perfectly.
Why only one drum and one cymbal?
Why do you need more? It's a simple, precise, fascistic rhythm.
What’s your wildest recollection from a gig?
I was very ill on tour in the Netherlands in ’79. I demanded that this photographer stop taking my picture. He wouldn’t,so I picked up a glass and smashed it right into his camera.
Someone once hurled a chair at Connie Burg from the No Wave band Mars. Anyone ever mess with you onstage?
Never. You throw a chair at me, I'm gonna clobber you over the fucking head. Let's face facts. Nobody harassed me; they ran.
You once said, “I survived as a fucking hustler.” How?
I would stand on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street with a yellow notepad, approach women with children and ask if they could please give a dollar to the American Cancer Foundation. All I needed was $10 a day to live; my first apartment was $75 a month. We did anything it took to get by. I think I’ve had two jobs in my life that were on the books.
No Wave seemed so anti-nostalgia. Why is Teenage Jesus still relevant?
It’s the most brutal fucking thing to come down the pike, and I think that women should not be afraid to be ugly. It’s the beginning of a line that extends through my career, outside of time. That kind of hysteria is still in me, although not to the degree it once was. But my blood is corrosive and it burns, and I need that form of expression. Occasionally, Teenage Jesus has to come back and throw down. I’m not doing it again for the glory, popularity or money. I do it because if I don’t, I’m gonna become very violent. The music is a horrible din; that people have nostalgic reveries about it is amazing to me.