DOC NYC, documentaries, Donita Sparks, film festivals, JG Thirlwell, Jim Sclavunos, L7, Lydia Lunch, Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, movies, music, New York City, Retrovirus, reviews, Sonic Youth, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Thurston Moore
November 18, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Beth B
World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 9, 2019.
Lydia Lunch has been serving up her unique brand of angry, sarcastic and unapologetic feminism ever since she was a teenager who escaped from her abusive home in Rochester, New York, and fully immersed herself in New York City’s punk scene in the late 1970s. This in-your-face documentary, which was made with Lunch’s participation, shows how she’s been able to survive on her wits and attitude, while being an underrated influence on her peers and subsequent generations of punk-influenced music artists. The riot grrrl movement that became popular in the 1990s owes a lot to the road that Lunch paved two decades earlier, at a time when it was still pretty rare for women to be lead singers of punk bands.
Back in the 1970s, Patti Smith and Blondie’s Debbie Harry represented what can happen when female punk singers have mainstream pop hits. Lunch (whose birth name is Lydia Koch) wasn’t interested in appealing to the masses. She wanted to stay underground and writhe around in the creative and sometimes twisted alleys of her pain. Throughout the documentary, Lunch repeatedly talks about her anger; how she uses her sexuality to channel that anger; and how she has a sadistic side that’s often had fantasies about murdering people. What’s the reason for all this rage? It might not be a surprise to people who’ve listened to Lunch’s song lyrics and spoken-word art over the years, but in the movie, she candidly talks about being sexually abused by her father when she was a child. (She describes her father as a “petty criminal and pretty insane.”)
Edgy sexuality and sexual abuse are ingrained in Lunch’s DNA, she says, but it’s impossible to know how she would be different if she weren’t a survivor of abuse. It’s such a big part of her identity that director Beth B chose to start off the documentary with a close-up scene of Lunch telling a bizarre story about how, at the age of 13, a stranger (whom she describes as looking like “Robert Blake with a cheese-grater face”) lured her into his car to give her a ride. He then drove to a remote area, and forced her out of the car at gunpoint, and ordered her to lick the car’s tires. When telling the story, Lunch said that when that incident happened to her, she knew: “It’s not about sex. It was about power.”
It’s clear that Lunch’s art is an expression of power. And, just like in her love life (she’s never been married and has no kids), she’s not the “settling down” type when it comes to bands, because she’s never stayed in just one band for most of her career. The movie includes early footage of Lunch singing and playing guitar in Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, the first band that got her recognition in the New York club scene. The bands Suicide and Mars were two of her biggest influences in becoming a punk-rock singer/musician, she says.
The documentary also has footage of her performing with other bands she’s had over the years, including the surf-punk group 8-Eyed Spy, the psychedelic rock group 1313 (which Lunch said was partly inspired by serial killer Richard Ramirez), Shotgun Wedding and Retrovirus, as well as footage of Lunch performing as a solo artist. Nicolas Jaar, a DJ/musician who’s obviously a star-struck fan of Lunch’s, talks about how he was able to introduce Lunch to a whole new audience of electronica fans by playing Lunch’s 1990 “Conspiracy of Women” spoken-word album over ambient tracks.
Having grown up around the ’60s counterculture movement, Lunch was part of the generation that rebelled against hippie culture. “We felt the ’60s failed us, our parents failed us, our country failed us,” she snarls. Punk appealed to her because, as she says in the movie: “I wanted to make the angriest, most precise, bitter music that was like a caterwaul, a scream from the walls. It was me exorcising my anger.” She later says in the movie that what makes her different from most other trauma survivors is that she felt homicidal, not suicidal: “I never turned the knife inward. I turned the knife outward.”
And Lunch says she wasn’t going to play nice. She bluntly says in the movie that she became promiscuous “in order to wash the taste of my father off my hands.” But beyond being promiscuous, Lunch also talks about the extreme aggression that was part of her sexuality, where she harassed and used abusive tactics with her lovers. The documentary mentions “Right Side of My Brain,” the 1985 explicitly erotic art film starring Lunch as a woman whose sexuality involves violence, power and control. “Right Side of My Brain” director Richard Kern and co-star JG Thirlwell are interviewed in the documentary. Lunch called “Right Side of My Brain” an homage to director Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychological horror film “Repulsion.”
Jim Sclavunos, a former drummer of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, says in the documentary that Lunch wouldn’t let him in the band unless he had sex with her. She was even more intrigued when she found out he was a virgin, and he described what happened on the date where she took his virginity. According to Sclavunos (who’s also worked with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds), she ordered him to bring “supplies” to the date: whipped cream, Coca-Cola and chewing gum. He nervously thought it would be a kinky encounter, but it turns out she that the food and drink items he brought were her dinner. Sclavunos adds with a laugh by saying that “there was no kinkiness whatsoever” and that Lunch “was very gentle and understanding with the act of seduction” and “successfully accomplished the deflowering without any trauma.”
In this #MeToo era, what Lunch did would be considered sexual harassment, but based on how Sclavunos told the story, the encounter was ultimately consensual, and he was okay with what happened. The documentary doesn’t take sides either way, and allows people to tell their Lydia Lunch stories from their perspectives.
And the anecdotes continue about Lydia Lunch being mad, bad and sometimes dangerous to know. Bass player Tim Dahl, a longtime collaborator with Lunch, told a more disturbing story of Lunch humiliating a musician whom she had a brief fling with from another band who was an opening act on one of their tours. Lunch’s S&M ways were too much for the unlucky guy. With tears in his eyes, Dahl talked about witnessing Lunch physically abuse and psychologically torture the man, and ordering him around like a slave, until the man couldn’t take it anymore and pleaded her to stop because he was being traumatized. Dahl said that even though Lunch clearly has a taste for sadism, she also showed a tender side by stopping the abuse she was inflicting on her lover and hugging him.
Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore tells a hilarious story (illustrated by animation in the documentary) about being shocked to see Lunch squat down and urinate in an abandoned building when they first started hanging out and barely knew each other. Moore describes Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ first single “Orphans” as both “a masterpiece” and “the worst-sounding thing I ever heard on record.” He also said the band sounded like “cats howling before they’re killed.”
L7 lead singer Donita Sparks remembers going on a Coney Island roller-coaster ride with Lunch, whom she says was probably on acid, and feeling both terrified and elated by the experience. Singer/filmmaker Kembra Pfahler describes the No Wave movement that Lunch helped pioneer as “a contrarian gesture against classic rock.” Lunch herself describes No Wave as “very user-unfriendly, very discordant, and based on personal insanity.”
Although director Beth B thankfully doesn’t have pretentious music journalists as talking heads in the documentary, the film could have used a better variety of perspectives, other than those who are clearly Lunch’s admirers. In her career and in her personal life, Lunch is obviously a divisive personality, so why not interview people who were part of the same punk scene but aren’t fans of her? Lunch herself confirms that she has a “love her or hate her” persona, when she says of former collaborator Nick Cave: “We couldn’t agree on anything,” compared to her “Shotgun Wedding” albums collaborator Rowland S. Howard: “We agreed on everything.”
Has Lunch mellowed with age? No. As the documentary shows, she won’t hesitate to go off on an obscenity filled-rant against Hillary Clinton or anyone else she sees as a sellout or a hack. She hates how today’s female artists don’t seem to be as fearless as they used to be. “We used to be warriors. How we devolved from Medusa to Madonna … I don’t get it.”
And she’s not one of those old-school punks from New York who’ll talk about how much she loves the city, because she’ll be the first to tell you that she hates New York City now. She moved out of New York back in the early 1990s, she says, because she knew that the city was headed toward more gentrification and corporate takeovers that kill off affordable housing and small, independent businesses.
Lunch continues to tour and make music, and she has a vast catalogue of albums as testament to her longevity. As drummer Bob Bert (who’s played in Sonic Youth and Retrovirus) says what is very evident in this documentary: “Lydia’s greatest work of art is herself.”
UPDATE: Kino Lorber will release “Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over” in select U.S. cinemas and through the virtual cinema KinoMarquee program on June 30, 2021.