Lydia Lunch’s career since deep-sixing Teenage Jesus and the Jerks has been an unpredictable path governed by boredom, sarcasm, romance, perversity and whatever musicians or collaborators are convenient at the time. Queen of Siam proves, at the very least, that she can do more than just scream (although her version of the Classics IV hit, “Spooky,” shows she ain’t exactly Beverly Sills, either). Half of the album consists of muted, somber variations on her Teenage Jesus fear-and-suffering dirges, but the real surprises are songs like “Lady Scarface,” in which the big band arrangements (by Flintstones– theme composer Billy Ver Planck) turn Lunch’s wry asides into a Billie Holiday nightmare. On the heels of Queen of Siam‘s release, Lunch formed 8 Eyed Spy with the ace bassist George Scott (ex-Contortions), Teenage Jesus bassist-turned-drummer Jim Sclavunos on drums, guitarist Michael Paumgardhen and saxophonist/guitarist Pat Irwin, who had worked on Lunch’s solo album. The lifespan of the group set a pattern for Lydia’s ventures: assemble a band, work with it for a while, disband it when she got “bored”; six months later some vinyl would appear. (One conglomeration, an alleged blues abortion called the Devil Dogs, didn’t last long enough to be documented.)
Perhaps the acme of New York no wave groups, 8 Eyed Spy — dominated by Lunch’s confrontational vocals and lyrics and Irwin’s insistent quasi-jazz sax — was considerably less shrill than other similarly conceived groups. On Live, Lunch’s style is mutilated blues (especially on the Beefheart-inspired opener, “Diddy Wah Diddy”); Sclavunos and Scott’s flawless collaboration is the band’s axis. The blend of influences (jazz/blues/rock) creates exciting music that is beyond description.
8 Eyed Spy contains much of the same material as the cassette and is split into a live side and a studio side. While the former (which includes a hilarious version of “White Rabbit”) shows the same gifted chaos apparent on Live, the latter proves 8 Eyed Spy capable of considerable restraint and polish. While the tone of the studio work implies an increasing reliance on jazz, the drumming rivets it to danceable rock. There is the hint of an impending breakthrough in these recordings, but the band dissolved in the wake of George Scott’s 1980 death.
13.13, concocted with a trio of ex-Weirdos, was hypothetically an attempt at new psychedelia; actually it revived the grind-and-caterwaul of Teenage Jesus as filtered through Metal Box-era PiL, all deviant guitar and rolling rhythms. Like her previous stuff, it manages to be simultaneously fascinating and annoying.
Lunch hung out in Europe for a while with Nick Cave and the Birthday Party, a sympathetic association reflected in a number of recordings. The Agony Is the Ecstacy (a record she splits with the Party) captures an impromptu London gig featuring Banshees bassist Steve Severin on feedback guitar and is easily one of the most extreme Lunches to date. On the other hand, a 12-inch single done with Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard of “Some Velvet Morning” (an old Lee Hazlewood song — Nancy Sinatra has been a longtime touchstone for Lydia) recalls the softer moments of Queen of Siam.
In Limbo is a six-track disc with an all-star supporting crew that includes Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and former Contortion/Bush Tetra Pat Place. With snail’s- pace tempos, Moore’s shards of acrid, harsh guitar and Lunch’s trademark ululations, it’s typically rough going, but recommended for anyone who has trouble contending with an entire album’s worth of her clamor.
The Drowning of Lucy Hamilton is the soundtrack to a film (The Right Side of My Brain) starring Jim (Foetus) Thirlwell and Henry Rollins. Lucy Hamilton herself is actually Lydia’s collaborator on the record, which consists of eerie instrumentals orchestrated with piano, honking bass clarinet (both played by Hamilton) and guitars that sound like they’re being played with ice picks and hedge clippers. Something rather different for Lunch, and less like background music than most soundtracks. Drowning in Limbo, as might be surmised, is the CD pairing of that record with In Limbo.
Having successfully launched the Widowspeak label, Lunch used it to release Hysterie, an ambitious ten-year two-disc career-spanning compilation, starting with Teenage Jesus, recapitulating 8 Eyed Spy (1980 live and studio tracks, all previously released) and the little-known Beirut Slump, and winding up with three recent collaborations (Die Haut, a pre-These Immortal Souls group and something called Sort Sol).
Honeymoon in Red was recorded with members of the Birthday Party, Thurston Moore and Genevieve McGuckin (later of These Immortal Souls) in 1982 and ’83, and was originally going to be a Birthday Party album. When that band split up, the record was shelved. After several years’ worth of tinkering, it was finally remixed by Clint Ruin (Foetus) and released on Lydia’s label. (The only BPers whose names appear on the record are Rowland Howard and the late Tracy Pew; Nick Cave and Harvey are credited pseudonymously.) Lunch and the Party are/were obvious soulmates, but her input here is too often predominant; her penchant for slow tempos dilutes the band’s brutal strength. Not a great album by any means, but of definite interest to fans of those involved. The CD adds “Some Velvet Morning” from the Lunch/Howard single.
Although her world view hasn’t changed, Stinkfist could be the first joint effort she doesn’t dominate; most of the EP’s tracks are primarily instrumental, as Foetus speeds things along with a thunder-drum/noise guitar assault akin to his solo work. But even these two can’t make this much noise without a little help; guests include ex-Red Hot Chili Pepper Cliff Martinez and ex-X D.J. Bonebrake pounding on things. Lots of noise and energy but nothing new, especially for the already Foetusized.
The Crumb EP is credited to Lunch, Thurston Moore and the Honeymoon in Red Orchestra, which consists of Lunch, Moore, Thirlwell and Howard. It’s not on your local soft-rock station’s playlist, nor is it perfect for the office. Moore shares vocals, and the sound is a fairly predictable, semi-defined sonic crunch. (The Crumb is included on the Stinkfist CD.)
In recent years, Lunch has occasionally foregone musical accompaniment entirely and chosen to share her muse via the spoken word. The Uncensored tape is in this format, as are Hard Rock (done with lead Swan Michael Gira) and Oral Fixation. The last-named captures a full- length solo rap at the Detroit Institute of Art from January 1988. As venomous as her song lyrics can get, this format allows her to take a giant step further. Sometimes clever, frequently condescending and always relentless, she spits out her observations about sex, death, middle class values, etc. with plenty of nihilistic passion, but never offers any reference point: everything in the world just plain sucks. Lunch never runs out of things to say, but as a speaker she is less an original artist than a type. The Oral Fixation CD also includes The Uncensored.
Harry Crews is a Southern novelist and professor whose name and work supply the inspiration for a band Lunch formed with Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon and a drummer. (The trio toured Europe in September ’88.) Naked in Garden Hills, recorded live in London and Vienna, is not unlike previous Sonic Lunches, but with quicker tempos than Lydia’s usual and a bit more noise than either might employ without this symbiotic provocation. “The Gospel Singer” is especially interesting, with a hard bluesy backing to almost rapped vocals.
In addition to all that, Lunch has appeared in a number of underground films and collaborated with Exene Cervenka on a book of poetry and a spoken word album. She is also the star of a comic book, Bloodsucker, drawn by Bob Fingerman. Throughout, she continues to project the most negative charisma since Johnny Rotten.
Lunch spent the first half of the ’90s taking it easy, so to speak. While continuing her spoken-word activities apace, Lunch put in guest appearances with Thrill Kill Kult and Lab Report, but cut back on her collaborative musical projects. Still, she made a full-length album with Rowland S. Howard and an EP with Clint Ruin (aka Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell).
Lunch first crossed paths with Howard in the early ’80s when she shared a live album (Drunk on the Pope’s Blood/The Agony Is the Ecstacy) with the Birthday Party. On Shotgun Wedding, which was produced by Thirlwell employing a rhythm section and a second guitarist, Howard and Lunch go after gloomy atmospheres more than rock grit, casually messing up Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” and breathing clammy life into Alice Cooper’s “Black Juju” (props to drummer Brent Newman) while also pulling together dreamy, occasionally rip-roaring originals (Lunch’s lyrics, Howard’s music). Casual, raspy, well-played and at its best when Lunch exhales her husky words rather than makes to sing them, Shotgun Wedding manages to set and keep an effective end-of-the-road mood with lots of pulsing circulation and invasive exploration but a minimum of bloodshed. Neatly done.
Memorable mainly for its dirty cover snap, Stinkfist — Lunch’s first documented date with Clint Ruin — is the primally percussive end result of a convoluted and protracted recording/performance process involving Cliff Martinez (ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers), D.J. Bonebrake (X), Roli Mosimann and others. What actually made it onto vinyl is the clattering all-but-instrumental title track (plus a bonus-beats version, “Son of Stink”) and the three-part “Meltdown Oratorio,” a Lunch recitation and sexy moaning session over rhythmic Ruin-ous noise adventures. A party on the precipice of perdition. (Stinkfist was later combined on CD with The Crumb, her noisy squonk party with Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, Bush Tetras guitarist Pat Place, pianist Kristian Hoffman, drummer Richard Edson and sax torturer Jim Sclavunos.)
The four-song Don’t Fear the Reaper contains two originals (the total overload insanity of “Clinch” and the jazzily appealing “Serpentine”), a rough’n’tumble but essentially respectful version of the titular Blue Öyster Cult hit and a demolition derby version of the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” Inconclusive but intermittently entertaining.
Other than those efforts, Lunch has been concentrating on non-musical expression. Her growing spoken-word catalogue now includes Hard Rock, Oral Fixation (the CD of which includes The Uncensored), Conspiracy of Women, Universal Infiltrators and a three-CD box, Crimes Against Nature. In addition, Lunch fills one side of Our Fathers Who Aren’t in Heaven, a double studio album she shares with Henry Rollins, author Hubert Selby Jr. and San Francisco writer Don Bajema.
Of course, Lunch can be equally frustrating and irritating with or without notes and noises. Rude Hieroglyphics finds her onstage in Florida with Exene Cervenka, the X singer with whom she had previously published a volume of poetry (Adulterer’s Anonymous). Working in tandem and encouraging each other’s worst excesses, the two tick off sneering, indignant, self-righteous opinions about O. J. Simpson, women, welfare, abortion, the surgeon general, reproductive rights, parenthood (something to which Lunch is violently opposed), the Catholic church (ditto), masturbation (very much in favor), the information highway (against), Courtney Love (against), museums (for), germ warfare, Nazi doctors, yadda yadda yadda. As current-events art, this is a total waste, a boring double-barreled harangue only occasionally broken when Cervenka stops to read an actual piece of prose. Lacking the appealing self-effacement of Henry Rollins or the standup wit of Jello Biafra (two rockers active in spoken word), Rude Hieroglyphics is bad lecture night at the poli-sci club.