Anyone can be a provocateur for a day. All it takes is a single inflammatory word to ignite the frenzy of distractible dopamine junkies, who quickly move on. Maybe you can spin another day or two out of the pushback. Maybe you live on in the digital stockades after you burp up a few mea culpas that no one believes. But real sustained provocation, the kind that sears and twists and deepens over years, is another matter altogether.
Lydia Lunch has been stirring shit up for over four decades across every medium available—in music, as the leader/dictator of the assaultive 1970s No Wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (she hit her bandmates with a wire hanger if they made mistakes during rehearsals); in scuzz art-porn films by Richard Kern; in spoken word tirades and frontal-assault monologues; and in collaborations with dozens of musicians, artists, filmmakers, and underground lunatics. The consistent thread through all this is an unnerving nihilism that excoriates every societal foundation and norm. The message is always the same: we are sick, we are fucked, the world is hell, and pleasure is rebellion.
Lunch comes precancelled, unrepentant, inevitably problematic. A feminist whose aesthetic lineage is populated by misanthropic male writers; a punk icon who hates punk and hates iconography; a loudmouth political ranter who has never voted, except when Hustler publisher Larry Flynt ran for office (she left the United States after George W. Bush’s reelection and lived in Barcelona for eight years; she has since returned, living a nomadic life on “rent strike”); a contrarian who doesn’t give a damn, except when she does.
So Real It Hurts, her latest missive, is both an overview and a new configuration—a collection of previously published and new essays (plus a smitten introduction by the late Anthony Bourdain, with whom she dined in the final episode of his Parts Unknown). It delivers the same blunt force message in a variety of ways.
“We did not need an election. We needed an insurrection.” Thus opens the collection; from there, Lunch launches into her usual diatribe mode. Part swaggering bravado (“And when––not if but when––they decide to drop a drone on my head, I plan on dying with a smile on my face, laughing in delight, smoking a fat joint, blowing a dozen lines of coke, tripping on MDMA, and gangbanging––that’s me gangbanging them, half a dozen returning Iraqi War veterans, because somebody has got to take care of the wounded and war-torn”) and part accusation (“And if all of this is too much to bear, forget I ever mentioned it. Just go out and drink a craft beer, take a hundred thousand more useless photos of non-experiential 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 better”). It’s a kind of bluster that is easy to dismiss or be shocked by, but for Lunch, it is dark comedy. In five pages, she fiercely compresses the essence of her spoken word schtick. You were warned.
The jeremiads are punctuated by cultural observations on motherhood, insomnia, pollution, poisoned land, and food. “Death Defied by a Thousand Cuts” catalogues her near-death experiences, courtships with death, and insatiable thirst for life and more of everything. Her prose is incantatory––a point is made, made again, sharpened, and stabbed. She delivers dark sermons of death, perversity, and need with relish. In “1967” she revisits and expands her origin story, with an endnote detailing the race riots in Rochester, New York, and confronting her childhood––“the war that raged in my own home as the favored daughter of a door-to-door salesman who couldn’t keep his hands to himself.”
“No Wave” traces her role as an instigator of that short-lived and furious movement, from the moment of her arrival in Manhattan, in 1976: “I had two hundred bucks in my back pocket and a notebook full of misanthropic rantings, sporting a baby face that belied a hustler’s instincts and a killer urge to destroy everything that had inspired me.” The writer and musician Vivien Goldman called punk “a music for and by outsiders”; Lunch and her cohort were closer to John Waters’s line about “minorities who can’t even fit in with their own minorities.” Punk sounded like corny sped-up Chuck Berry riffs next to No Wave’s atonal cacophony. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks played brutal and abrupt sets (the longest lasted thirteen minutes). The music was angry and abrasive; Lunch describes it as “a collective bowel-cleansing caterwaul . . . a form of psychic self-defense against our own violent tendencies.”
Lunch doesn’t shy away from these tendencies, or from her own horrible behavior. She doesn’t excuse or apologize. “I don’t remember ever feeling guilty,” she writes, “Ever. But I’m sure I am, of just about everything”––an echo of Herbert Huncke’s collection titled Guilty of Everything. She isn’t flashing some sociopathic sheriff’s badge. She isn’t proud––or ashamed. She’s simply honest. She wanders different cities trying to blunt and postpone homicidal instincts, a predator on the prowl. She overhears “two outstanding specimens of hypersexed American stupidity” in a restaurant in Istanbul bragging about their conquests (“She’s a gaper,” one says looking at a video of the encounter) and picks them up. At their hotel, she turns the tables, spiking the men’s beer so that they end up vomiting and shitting themselves, which she gleefully records on one of their phones. In “It Takes One to Know One,” she recalls a stint as an underage hotel maid with a fake ID (“Betty Lou Harris”) and fantasizes about revenge against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French politician accused of sexually assaulting a maid.
Two homages at the center of the So Real It Hurts pin down Lunch’s aesthetic: an appreciation of Huncke (“gutter scribe,” raconteur, thief, hustler, and the Beat-poet inspiration who gave William S. Burroughs his first shot of dope and a fair chunk of his worldview) and an interview with Hubert Selby, Jr., in which Lunch acknowledges the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream as an inspiration, alongside Henry Miller, Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet, Michel Foucault, and E. M. Cioran (whose aphoristic breviaries of estrangement and misanthropy make perfect genealogical sense). In an endnote she describes nervously hustling the actor Harry Dean Stanton into performing in a lineup with her and Selby.
For all her restlessness and innovation, Lunch works in the traditions of the moralist describing rot and the con artist working an angle—stances that she demonstrates are alike enough to generate friction and discomfort. The moralist has to con her own conscience to move forward and interact with the rotten world––in short, to eat––and the con artist has her code, which shifts and bends to accommodate the chaos of life but is never not there.
Lunch points out injustices, homicides, rapes, and wars and says “So what?” and “What now?” But her nihilism isn’t a way out—it’s a dare. And what are you—the readers, the listeners—going to do about it? This frustrates those who want answers. But the answers, the available platforms, the consensual realities, have come up short again and again. The easiest solutions lead to the bluntest desires for control; all institutional power is built on this longing. What is traded away and lost is freedom, not the feeble kind, with nebulous talk of possibility and hope, but the real kind, with choices that have consequences, with the fact of not having it all––or even much of anything–– with decisions whose outcomes are unknown and possibly unknowable and built on one hard fact: everything is meaningless, you give it meaning—and still know it’s meaningless.
So Real It Hurts makes it obvious that Lunch has always been more than a heckler. She is a journalist at heart, a documentarian of the darkest impulses, unafraid to catalogue ugliness, to be ugly, and to mock.
So Real It Hurts
by Lydia Lunch
Seven Stories Press; 112 p.