Books

And If You Think I’m Hostile, You Have No Fucking Clue: Venting Poison With Lydia Lunch In “So Real It Hurts”

“I am like, begging for you baby
Makes you wanna party, wanna wake up
Baby it’s violence
–Grimes “Violence”

This week, computer-fused singer and one half of my favorite meme-generating weirdo couple Grimes released a new song and video “Violence.” Like Lana Del Rey’s “Ultraviolence” before her, Grimes too is blessed with beauty and rage as the song explores the near-romantic draw to violence coupled with visuals of women wielding swords and bows, and Grimes dancing in a red allergy mask miming gun blasts. Coupled with her previous single “We Appreciate Power,” Grimes sings from the perspective of A.I.-driven fembots coming for their revenge or at least, learning to express their bloodlust.

Watching the video, all I could think was: What would Lydia Lunch think of this? While Grimes and Lana’s more ethereal takes on violence miss the bite and the bile of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, it also contains a similar thread that Lunch has explored since the late 1970s: women who are stuck in a cycle of violence within patriarchal society, and who, rather than rejecting it or becoming pacifists, strike back. I mean, Lunch has always been filled with poison.

“It’s all about getting fucked. That’s what it’s all about. Getting fucked up, fucked over, fucked around with or just plain good old fashioned fucked.” Those first few lines of Lunch’s spoken word film The Gun Is Loaded exist, at least for me, as a not-so-Zen mantra, a mantra for women sick of being a part of a diseased society that are ready to start tossing bombs. And throwing bombs is exactly what Lunch excels at. Of course, these bombs are verbal rather than a jumble of wires and metal, though it has always seemed as if she was screaming at audiences before climbing the stairs to a clock tower.

Emerging as a teenager in the trash-riddled New York No Wave scene, howling about “little orphans running through the bloody snow” with her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia’s voice is unmistakable–caustic and cutting, slicing through the bullshit of our misogynist, masochistic, and yes, violent society. Through music, roles in Cinema of Transgression magnum opuses like Fingered and Right Side of My Brain, spoken word, visual art, books, and more recently, podcasts, Lunch has sustained a long career as the black-haired, red-lipped voice of female rage. She’s fearless, a believer in the big things in life-truth, beauty, love, filth, and the only person I’ve ever seen take the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s television show Parts Unknown right out of his control with just one dinner conversation.

Lydia and Anthony Bourdain (via anthonybourdain’s instagram)

It’s no mistake Bourdain penned the introduction to Lunch’s recently released essay collection So Real It Hurts, published by Seven Stories Press. I saw the dual admiration and terror in his eyes when sitting across from her at an East Village restaurant, and recognized that same look in mine as I’ve watched Lunch perform, perched over the stage as if ready to tear the audience limb from limb. Beginning with three lovely words–bitch, cunt, whore, Bourdain gives Lunch a fitting introduction, writing: “If one accepts the common usage definitions of these words as meaning ‘a woman who is unsatisfied with current circumstances and makes that dissatisfaction known–frequently,’ ‘a highly evolved and quite beautiful female sexual organ,’ and ‘a person who has accepted money or other things of value in return for sex,’ then I think Lydia Lunch would proudly cop to all three…If you mean something else by these terms, she might well shove them so far up your ass that your ears leak brain matter.” You’re damned right, Tony.

Not that Lunch needed an introduction. Just the cover of the book should suffice. Beyond the front image of Lunch’s mouth–the source of this venom, the back announces with pride and more than a little defiance: “The book rejected by twenty-six American publishers.” I fear for their lives. I mean, what could it have been? Her discussion of poisoning two frat boys in Istanbul with “Spirit of Philosophical Vitriol,” a “poetic name for Algarot, a trichloride that induces vomiting?” The account of a former boyfriend who then killed his girlfriend before turning the gun on himself? Her deranged fantasy about beating International Monetary Fund creep Dominique Strauss-Kahn in his hotel room? Or simply the chapter titled “Drunk on Fuck”?

Twenty essays fill out the volume, some of which are new and others published elsewhere, including in her own cookbook The Need To Feed. Read together, though, it feels like you’re outrunning bullets. And Ms. Lunch doesn’t miss. Just the essay titles themselves are arresting: “Motherhood: It’s Not Compulsory,” “Death Defied By A Thousand Cuts” and my personal favorite, “Slobathon: One Size Doesn’t Fit All.” Through the book, she explores a plethora of perverse and peculiar topics, including her unlikely role as a baby whisperer (“I understand children. It’s their mother’s I can’t fucking stand.” Amen, Lydia), her lifelong issues with insomnia (“And what the hell, I’ll sleep when I’m dead becomes the young psycho’s mantra, screamed into the crack of an unforgiving Dawn who is always able to creep up on you faster than you could ever dream of outrunning her”), and her fetish for policemen (“I hate to play snitch, but I penned my own version of ‘Fuck Tha Police’ four hours later”). There’s also a eulogy for Beat junkie hero Hebert Huncke and an account of that grungy, grimy and now heavily romanticized 1970s NYC era for no wave obsessives (“A drug-fueled, no-holds-barred, blood-soaked pornucopia of art terrorists documenting their personal descent into the bowels of an inferno the lunatics had taken over the asylum”).

As a writer who tends to meander with various asides and tangents that are meant mainly to amuse myself more than anyone else, I am envious of Lunch’s searing directness. She’s got a way with words like a stab to the heart. “Life is a sexually transmitted incurable disease,” she writes in her first essay “Insurrection.” Indeed.

Overall, though, the collection paints a picture of one woman screaming at the edge of the abyss, which seems fitting as our American society continues to unravel and disintegrate into a dangerous parody of itself. Now, in 2019, it’s become such a hackneyed trope to insist that something is needed “now more than ever.” I refuse to play that game with Lydia whose perspective has always been forever needed and timely. But I will say that her interrogation of our society’s undercurrent (and increasingly obvious) violence is wholly relevant as we barrel headfirst toward climate change, increasing xenophobia, and American irrelevancy.

Take, for example, the essay “Insurrection,” which in many ways could act as a manifesto for the entire book. “Violence,” Lunch observes, “was the first act of creation. The big fucking bang. I admit it: the American way of life has turned me into a death-defying murder junkie where all the killers are heroes.” Same. While she mentions the 2016 election briefly (“We did not need an election. We needed an insurrection”), she sets her sights on bigger societal topics: “Man has turned the world into a ghetto, a whore-house, an orphanage, a refugee camp, a sweatshop, a slaughterhouse, a bomb factory, a landmine, a butcher shop, a shooting gallery, an insane asylum, a gas chamber, a toxic dump…The way I see it, Mother Nature is getting pretty pissed off. Earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, tsunamis, monsoons, droughts, famines, floods, mudslides, hurricanes. Maybe she’s trying to tell us something. You reap what you fucking sow. You get what you deserve. Maybe she’s sick of being gang-raped by dictators and torn to shreds by tyrants.” I’m rooting for Mother Nature.

The social violence Lunch skewers in her prose is paired with dark black-and-white images at the beginning of each essay that may be familiar to anyone who caught Lunch’s 2015 exhibition of the same name as the book at Howl! Happening. Lunch’s war-torn photomontages pose images of Lunch, disasters, war, and scarred bodies, creating a jarring sense of panic and threat interspersed between her narratives. One image, for example, placed before her essay “1967” on her experience of the Rochester race riots as a child, features a soldier holding an assault rifle juxtaposed with Lunch’s face. It’s as if the world outside is burning while Lunch speaks.

Lydia Lunch, Blow Me Away, 2015, photographic print (Courtesy the artist and Howl! Happening, New York)

Naturally, Lunch isn’t just going to take this man-made violence. And it is man-made, as Lunch says in “Real Pornography,” name-checking Nick Zedd’s film, “Maybe war is just menstrual envy.” In that same essay, she exclaims, “When it’s time to kill, or be killed, I know what end of the barrel I’m going to be looking down.” I don’t doubt it.

But, it’s not all reveling in violence. Lunch has always, through her rage, fought for pleasure too. Like the radical pleasure-seeking advocated by the faggots, fairies and women who love women in The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions, So Real It Hurts also advocates for decadence as a form of resistance: “Pleasure is the ultimate rebellion,” Lunch writes, “The only too rebellion is pleasure. Pleasure at the brink of the apocalypse. Ecstasy at the mouth of the volcano. Pleasure at the brink of disaster.” And I don’t think she’s kidding, if her erotic essay “Drunk on Fuck,” or her history of ancient psycho-tripping “Witches Brew” are any indication.

In many of the reviews of David Wojnarowicz’s retrospective History Keeps Me Awake At Night at the Whitney, several art critics, whether because of a collective mindset or they just plagiarize off each other because nobody has anything new to say, compared Wojnarowicz to the mythological Cassandra, as if his rage and all that pressure was akin to a Grecian oracle foretelling the woes of society beyond his death. But, I’d disagree. Not only because comparing Wojnarowicz to Cassandra makes him more of a myth than a man, a profitable position for certain galleries and institutions, but because another more feminine figure better fits the role of our Cassandra. Lunch has been howling out her prophecies for decades now–not much has changed socially but she’s still warning us of her premonitions.

I know, Lydia isn’t for everyone. As Lunch explains, “NO ONE MADE YOU BUY THIS BOOK–YOU BOUGHT IT BECAUSE YOU NEED TO VENT SOME POISON TOO.” And she’s right. Those that need Lydia’s acidic spew shot into the abyss feel that cathartic need to vent. And if you don’t, well, I don’t think I could say it any better than she does: “And if this is all too brutal for you to bear, forget I ever mentioned it. Just go out and drink a craft beer, take a hundred thousand more useless photos of non-experimental bullshit, get blitzed, binge-watch some Netflix, smoke a bong, hang out at a lousy overpriced bar, and just remember: it’s going to get worse before it gets any better.”

One thought on “And If You Think I’m Hostile, You Have No Fucking Clue: Venting Poison With Lydia Lunch In “So Real It Hurts”

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