For nearly two hours on a recent afternoon, Lydia Lunch sat in her bright Brooklyn apartment and spoke with bracing speed, and at an alarming volume, about rape, murder, incest, genocide, racism, sadism, torture and — for a thunderous encore — the apocalypse. Because she has spent more than four decades broadcasting her belief that such brutal subjects lie at the heart of the human experience, critics have often cast her as a nihilist.
“It’s the problems that are nihilistic, not me,” said Lunch, 62. “I’m the most positive person I know. To me, pleasure and joy are the ultimate rebellion. For some reason, few people seem to know that.”
“The War Is Never Over,” a new documentary about the artist opening Friday, will offer more people the chance to get a fairer sense of Lunch’s life and work. Directed by her longtime ally Beth B, the movie provides enough context and nuance to counter a common view that Lunch’s output hits just one note: a deeply discordant one.
Not that her oeuvre has made such broader assessments easy. From the start of Lunch’s career with the beyond-abrasive no-wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks through her psycho-ambient and jazz-noir recordings, spoken word pieces, essay collections, film performances and visual art works, subjects like chaos and ruin have obsessed her.
By contrast, hanging out with Lunch is a delight. She’s a doting host, offering a well-appointed cheese plate while regularly checking on a guest’s hydration and comfort. Her home is decorated to look like a tasteful bordello, with overstuffed red-and-black furniture that mirrors the color scheme of the dress she wore. While the subject matters covered in our interview toggled reliably between cruelty and catastrophe, her delivery of many lines along the way had the timing of a skilled comedian, suggesting that a finer description of what she does might be stand-up tragedy.
“With a comedian, the audience waits for the punchline,” she said. “In my work, the audience waits for me to punch them in the face.”
Yet, as the film makes clear, a sincere heart beats behind even Lunch’s most gob-smacking declarations. She traces the source of both her righteousness and her rage to two formative events during her childhood in Rochester, N.Y. Though she was just 5 and 8 years old when that city experienced the racial uprisings of 1964 and 1967, they had a life-changing effect on her.
“We were one of only two white families living in a Black neighborhood, so this was happening right outside my front door,” she said. “I had a reckoning that something was not right with the world. Consciousness came into me in that moment.”
At the same time, something was very wrong within her own family. Lunch said that her father, a door-to-door salesman and grifter, sexually abused her, and her parents fought constantly and bitterly. At 16, she ran away to New York, making her way to the downtown clubs she had read about in rock magazines, where she saw the shock-tactic bands Suicide and Mars. “They were so extreme and so perverse,” Lunch said with awe. “They directed what I was to do.”
She hoped that would take the form of spoken word pieces but, at the time, music provided a far more welcoming audience. “I am not, nor have I ever been, a musician,” she said. “I’m a conceptualist. To me, a chord is something I put around somebody’s neck if I want to throw them out the window.”
Still, the sonic assault she devised altered the musical landscape. With Teenage Jesus, she subverted the common purpose of rhythm — to create a groove that moves the music forward — to instead favor a static series of hellacious thuds. The result made the music feel less performed than inflicted. To achieve her trademark beat she said, “I had to imprison the drummer to make him play his instrument like a monkey would.”
To up the ante, she made sure the guitar she used was only tuned once a month, “so it would develop these harmonics that made it automatic art,” she explained. “Amazing guitar players could not play my parts.”
Her next group, 8 Eyed Spy, mixed West Coast surf music with groundbreaking punk-jazz, but she broke the band up because “we were becoming too popular. My ideal audience would be reduced to one,” she said. “Because that would be the right one.”
In 1980, her debut solo album, “Queen of Siam,” created the audio equivalent of an early John Waters film, displaying an equal genius for sleaze. Still, music couldn’t contain the scope of her verbiage, so she began to publish books and to stress spoken word pieces that centered on her main theme: the universality of trauma. An early piece, “Daddy Dearest,” detailed the extremes of the physical and sexual abuse she experienced from her father. But part of what made such works stand so far out was that, instead of cowering from the violence, she used it as fuel, recognizing the power she had over those who desired her and, then, relishing the chance to use it against them.
“I was never having suicidal dreams,” she says in the film. “I was having homicidal dreams.”
In a parallel way, Lunch co-opted the role of the sexual predator, both in the brutalism of her work and in a period of ferocious promiscuity in her personal life which she now views as a point of pride.
“Lydia totally turned the tables,” Beth B said in an interview. “She figured out the power that comes from owning your sexuality as well as your trauma. It can empower you to create new fantasies for yourself that free the female psyche and challenge the societal norms put on women.”
Lunch said her ability to pull this off psychologically hinged on her “understanding that the abuse didn’t start in my house and that mine was not the worst.”
“Abuse is endemic,” she said. “It goes back to the cave. I’m talking blood trauma. Every nationality has had war, violence, murder. It’s just that some of us are more astute at decoding it.”
She considers it key, as well, that she forgave her father years ago. (He died in the early ’90s). “When I told him that my rage came from him, he said ‘I know,”’ Lunch said. “You never get that. They always deny.”
Her processing was aided by the fact that “there are certain emotions I just don’t experience,” she added. “I have never experienced shame or humiliation. I have never felt guilt.”
Lunch’s bulletproof persona has given many the impression that she’s devoid of vulnerability. But, she countered, “is it not vulnerable to reveal as much as I have of my life? Just because I’m not crying when I’m telling the story doesn’t mean it’s not there,” she said.
In a similar way, Lunch believes that “because of the aggression in my work, people tend to miss the poetry,” and that many people take her words too literally. “I might be speaking in triple tongue,” she said. “I might be speaking sarcastically. I might mean exactly what I say, or I might mean the opposite.”
Not that such misconceptions have a chance of stopping her feverish output. During the pandemic, Lunch recorded two albums and she will begin playing shows again with her band Retrovirus, which cherry-picks pieces from throughout her career, in New York next month. She has been hosting a podcast with her Retrovirus bandmate Tim Dahl since 2019, “The Lydian Spin,” which allows her to push beyond the metaphors in her writing and the hyperbole of her sound to speak more plainly.
She is also directing her own documentary about the relationship between artists and what she believes to be their common psychological issues, titled “Artists – Depression/Anxiety/Rage.” Creating so broad a legacy of work has been central to Lunch’s mission to drive home her multi-dimensionality.
“I am as male as I am female,” she declared. “I am as submissive as I am dominant. And I am as sublime as I am ridiculous. Good luck figuring me out.”