Folks from Rochester take a lot of pride in our ability to deal with winter weather. This has been an unusually harsh winter here in New York City, but compared to storms in which two feet of snow fall over the course of a day, it hasn’t been that bad. Something else that defines Rochestarians is a desire to get the hell out, which is what Lydia Lunch did at the age of sixteen, in 1976. She moved to New York City in part because she was a big fan of The New York Dolls: “I felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body, and here were men trapped in women’s clothing.” Her confrontational attitude served her well in her new home of late-70’s downtown Manhattan. She fell in with some like-minded creative types—like Alan Vega and Martin Rev of Suicide—and it didn’t take long for her to start making music. This recording of “My Eyes” is from 1977, though it wasn’t released until 1980:
Sharp, jagged, stuff. Lydia was playing guitar on that track, almost as a percussion instrument during the verses. Bradley Field didn’t play drums—he played one drum and one cymbal. That’s how a lot of drummers did it in rock and roll’s early days, which is ironic, given the fact this new form of music—No Wave—was determined to exorcise all of the past musical tropes out of punk rock and see what was left behind.
That was James Chance on saxophone. He would soon leave to start his own band, James Chance and The Contortions. The disc I found in the Archive was recorded and released in 1978, making it the very first official Teenage Jesus and the Jerks recording. The video is not for the faint of heart, so consider this NSFW if your workplace frowns on stock footage of shooting victims and war atrocities. Here’s “Orphans.”
More sharp, percussive guitar work lining up with the drums, only to have it completely explode in sonic fury in the outro. The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s very rightly cite her as an influence; she was doing the job of both Karen O and Nick Zimmer, after all. Her influence goes even further back to Sonic Youth, who wouldn’t release any music for a good three years after this single’s release.
“Less of Me” follows a similar musical structure as the A side, to not quite as successful effect. Then again, the whole thing is done in under 90 seconds, so there almost isn’t time to notice the similarities or differences.
This single was produced by Bob Quine, a revered figure in the Punk/No Wave/Independent Music world. He played guitar with Richard Hell, Lou Reed, and a ton of other New York City luminaries.
Bass player Gordon Stevenson left the band before the next single could be recorded. Jim Sclavunos (currently the drummer for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds) wanted in, but, “She said there were some requirements…one was that I lose my virginity to her. I did become the bass player in the band.” Lunch was a very sexual person, and has since recognized that some of her need to have complete agency over her desires comes from having that power taken from her as a child. “Baby Doll” hints at the sexual abuse that Lunch had endured as a child with lyrics like,
“Daddy slaps your hand, he’s the only man
I’m a little girl in his little girl world
Teenage Jesus and the Jerks broke up by the end of 1979. It was hardly the end for Lunch, though. She continued to release solo work, like this eerie number from 1981’s 13.13. This is “This Side of Nowhere.”
She seems to have left No Wave behind at this point for an almost Gothic sound. It works, particularly with her almost-spoken singing style.
A number of strong collaborations would follow. This 1982 recording with Nick Cave sounds like what would happen if Johnny Cash and June Carter had decided to record with Robert Smith. That, of course, is a compliment.
One of Lydia’s better known collaborations is her vocal turn on Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69.” Her Demented echo of Thurston Moore’s slightly more straightforward singing ups the crazy on a song that was already chock full of it before she helped. This video, courtesy of experimental director/provocateur/pornographer Richard Kern, is also NSFW, unless you happen to be on the editorial staff at Fangoria magazine. Enjoy.
Over the course of the 80’s and 90’s, Lunch followed her muse wherever it lead. Musical projects with J.G. Thirlwell, Rowland S. Howard, and Marc Almond were joined by spoken word performances and film appearances and screenplays, memoirs, novels and even graphic novels. In 2013 she curated a three-day workshop in Ojai, California called Post-Catastrophe Collaborative, with the purpose of understanding and fostering artistic collaborations between women. And she is still making music. Big Sexy Noise is the name of the band that she formed with former members of Gallon Drunk, and to me, their 2011 cover of Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons” is the most satisfying song of this bunch. Hope you enjoy it as well.