Cine Suffragette
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Cine Suffragette

Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over (2019) — Portrait of a warrior on fire

Photo: Annie Sprinkle

[This review contains spoilers and information about sexual assault and/or violence that may be triggering]

WATCH THE DOC HERE.

I remember when I got into Lydia Lunch. Just as it happened to many of her fans, her debut album, Queen of Siam (1980), became a favorite when I was a teenager. Lydia was 21 when it was released, but she had already gone through a lot up to that point. On the cover, Lydia’s defiant look and bustier with nails sticking out (made by Glam Rock and Punk photographer Paul Zone) send a “don’t fuck with me” message and it’s actually been her battle cry since a very young age. Lydia Anne Koch was born in Rochester, NY, and came from an abusive home. Her father sexually assaulted her multiple times while her mother was out working as a nurse. This also happened during the civil rights movement times, when some of the protests would take place right in front of her house. She fled home to The Lower East Side, in New York City, in her teen years, and found her voice through various forms of art. At that time, the city looked like a war zone, with high crime rates and lots of abandoned buildings due to a fiscal crisis, and experiencing chaotic scenarios would be essential to develop her “one-woman protest machine” personality.

In NYC, Lydia would temporarily work in a bar so she could steal food for friends, who were as poor as her, and that’s how ‘Lydia Lunch’ got stuck. When she befriended some musicians at the iconic CBGB, her first band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks would be formed. Inspired by acts such as Mars and Suicide, the group led the Avant-rock movement called No Wave. Despite punk and No Wave sharing an anti-establishment vein and the same venues in NYC, No Wavers didn’t aim to sound like punk or anything else, and they created unique dissonances that could be unlistenable but transgressive as well. For Lydia, being immersed in a reactionary movement like that was natural as it dialogued directly with all the turbulence she was going through. Lydia’s compositions for the only Teenage Jesus and the Jerks release, a compilation album from 1979 by Migraine Records, evoked images of the desolated city and of herself. Her poems became songs and her chaos, art. She wouldn’t become limited to a temporary artistic expression (No Wave didn’t last long but you should totally check out Brian Eno’s No Wave compilation) and all of her other works have paved the way for women to be their most authentic selves in whatever art form they take. Her career which spans over 40 years and has opened the doors for women in Grunge (Babes in Toyland and Hole) and Riot Grrrl, was documented by No Wave director and Lydia’s long-time friend, Beth B, who showed why Lydia Lunch will always matter for women of any generation.

14-year-old proto-goth Lydia Lunch circa 1973. Photo: Her official Facebook page.
Lydia Lunch, photo by Eugene Merinov, Max’s Kansas City, NYC, 1978. Lydia would play her guitar with things like glass and experiment with new sounds. She defied the assumption that men are the only ones who innovate in guitar playing.
Lydia Lunch on the front cover of the 1979 Teenage Jesus compilation. She penned the song ‘Babydoll’ that seems to be about the abuse she suffered and it surely inspired Hole’s Pretty on the inside (which features a song of the same name) in many ways. Photo: Reproduction
One of the best album covers by women artists, without a doubt! Photo: George DuBose

Lydia Lunch — The War Is Never Over (2019) starts with a snippet from Vivienne Dick’s Beauty Becomes the Beast voiced over by Lydia’s report on a predator who told her to lick his car tires when she was 13. She concludes that when she did that she was in power and that it was not about sex. This quote pretty much resonates with what Lydia’s art has been about. She explores her nuanced relationship with sex by being in charge of every choice, including sexual choices. The documentary mainly focuses on Lydia’s active role in navigating through various art forms so she could survive and help others survive as well. When Richard Kern, a cult underground filmmaker, says that he was called a misogynist for filming Lydia in his erotic short movies, he questioned that because it was Lydia herself telling her story and this much is true. Her sexuality in front of the cameras is not for consumption. It’s Lydia in her odyssey, searching for peace in her body, taking any road she could to get there and so encouraging other women to do the same. For her restless spirit, she’s become the underground heroine for artists interviewed in the doc like L7’s Donita Sparks, Sonic Youth’s Thruston Moore and multiartist Kembra Pfahler. It’s interesting that each interviewee has a different story about how Lydia was intimidating and whenever she appears on screen and says something, you can’t just look away. We have to acknowledge that the 80s United States saw Ronald Reagan’s misogynistic approach to feminism as second-wave feminists were mocked and stereotyped and there were a lot of women who despite owing much to feminism, refused to claim themselves as feminists. Lydia’s spoken word pieces of the era fought against the conception that feminism was not necessary anymore and she defied the place reserved for women in the Reagan period by railing against men’s wars which consisted of any way that patriarchal society has oppressed others, or in Lunchian’s terms, fucked. Her words ring as true as ever and I confess that I missed more of a focus on her spoken word pieces that were released by the company she created in the 80s called Widowspeak. The documentary is one hour and seventeen minutes long but I don’t think this is enough time to discuss every contribution she has left to the world of Arts. In 1985, she contributed to one of Sonic Youth’s most important songs Death Valley ‘69 and partnered with the band’s bassist Kim Gordon, and Sadie Mae on drums, to form the all-female thrash band, Harry Crews; but her best collab was definitely with influential guitarist Rowland S. Howland, releasing the alternative rock gem Shotgun Wedding which includes my favorite cover of all times, Alice Cooper’s Black Juju. I was a bit disappointed at how fast her discography is discussed because I find it highly relevant to recognize her as one of the few women in music who shifted musical genres a lot once men always get more credit for that.

The War Is Never Over is accompanied by Nick Soulsby’s book that includes the full interviews from the documentary and some things about Lydia that I could only learn from it like that she loved Dead Boys and they wrote a song for her called ‘I Need Lunch’ — if you are interested in knowing more about Lunch’s idols, read this awesome interview from 1999. I don’t want to start the ‘the book vs the film’ discussion because I don’t know how was the production. It was brave enough of both Beth and Lydia to touch on very complex topics and I’m glad Beth B did this job because although Lydia Lunch is controversial, we are provided a humanized portrait of her and thus a different understanding of what really is controversial. Lydia Lunch talked about her abuse decades before #metoo and explored her sexuality in front of the cameras resignifying the idea of female pleasure. What should really be controversial is that even after #metoo, women continue to be discredited by their abuse stories and that women’s sexuality is still taboo. Lydia’s works are a reminder that the war against patriarchy is not over and that she’s still up to smash it, and her getting old should never be an obstacle to that.

Harry Crews. Photo: Reproduction
Nick Cave and Lydia’s collab timeline can be found here. Photo by ookami_dou
In 1982, Lydia and punk icon Exene Cervenka from the band X released a book of poems called Adulterers Anonymous and in 1995, the spoken word record Rude Hieroglyphics. Photo: David Arnoff
Beth B and Lydia Lunch Photo: Curt Hoppe
Seven months ago I recorded an edition of my radio show, Cidade das Mulheres, on Lydia’s career. You can hear it here.
In 2019, Lunch began a podcast named The Lydian Spin, which she hosts weekly with her Retrovirus bassist, Tim Dahl. Listen to the episodes here.

A Portuguese version of the article can be found here.

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A multilingual Medium publication about empowerment and representativeness in film.

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Larissa Oliveira

Larissa Oliveira

Brazilian teacher, writer and zinester. I write about women in Arts. I also write for https://medium.com/@womenofthebeatgeneration_

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