Director: Beth B (USA). Year of Release: 2019
Lydia Lunch is stood by the side of the road, telling an anecdote about when she was 13. She was stood outside the porn cinema in the middle of town. A car driver, looking like “Robert Blake with a cheese grater face” came round the block 3 times, offering her a lift. The first 2 times she said no, she’s waiting for the bus. The third time when he said that the bus isn’t coming, she got in. On the way to her home, he stopped in a park, telling her it’s not about sex. She replied, damn right it isn’t. In the park, he went to the boot of his car and pulled out a shotgun, ordering her to lick the tyres of his car. It wasn’t about the sex, she tells us. It’s about the power.
Like many of Lunch’s anecdotes, it provokes a series of anecdotes, not least “what the fuck was that about?” You also ask yourself, how much of this was literally true? (at the beginning of the story, she says that she only lived a mile away but the journey feels much longer). Whatever, there is the truth of the righteous anger of a woman who spent too much of her early life being pushed around, and is not going to take any more of that shit. Above all, the story is confrontational.
We’ll come back to the anecdotes later, but first the personal history. Lydia Lunch left her abusive father in Rochester, New York when she was 16 or 17. She arrived in Manhattan just as punk was starting to break. One of the first gigs that she attended was by Suicide, who were in the process of rewriting what was possible in rock music. It wasn’t long before she was fronting her own band – Teenage Jesus and the Jerks.
The music was confrontational and ahead of its time. It dared us to like it. If it sounded like anything, it was the Post Punk music which developed in Britain a few years later. But, says Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore – one of the several contemporaries of Lunch, brought on as a talking heads – this wasn’t post punk, it was while punk was already happening. It was as if Lunch was already anticipating the direction in which alternative music was heading.
We see footage of her, both with her band, and also reciting poetry that owes an awful lot to Patti Smith’s “Piss Factory”. This is not a criticism – if you’re going to steal, why not steal from the best? The poetry is – that word again – confrontational, conraining a righteous condemnation of the patriarchy. It has the attitude that it doesn’t need you to like it – if you don’t, you may as well just piss off.
Lunch explains the nihilistic politics of her generation, the people who felt let down by flower power. Instead of Peace and Love, they had Nixon, Vietnam, racism, and recession. “We felt the Sixties failed us”, she says. “Our parents failed us, our country failed us.” Punk fit this feeling of infantile despair like a glove.
Lunch had more to complain about than most of her contemporaries. Since she’d been a kid, her father used to “visit” her bedroom in the middle of the night. But instead of causing her to have suicidal thoughts, she said, she developed homicidal thoughts. Her music provided a way of exorcising her anger. “I never turned the knife inward. I turned the knife outward.”
Lunch’s feminist rebellion was, shall we say, iconoclastic. She appeared with then boyfriend JG (Jim) Thirlwell, member of bands like Scraping Foetus off the Wheel and You’ve Got Foetus on your Breath, in a film called “Right Side of My Brain”, which she called an hommage to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. The Polanksi connection is not the greatest problem. Looking at the excerpts shown in this film, it was basically porn.
Lunch refused to let people join her band unless they had sex with her. She performed poems about her father’s abuse of her, telling her audience about her mixture of fear and pleasure. She had a 2-day sadistic sexual encounter with someone in a support band from Scotland, which left him traumatised. But at the end, says her bass player Tim Dahl, who’s telling the anecdote, she gave him a hug, so everything was ok.
After a while, you wish for just one talking head who is not such a devout member of the Church of Lydia. She, many of her opinions, and most of her life, are exceedingly fucked up. She contradicts herself, at one time saying that dropping bombs is exclusively a male trait, on another saying that Hillary would do it in an instance. Because she’s railing against everything, she sometimes comes across as an old (wo)man shouting at clouds. An incredibly articulate woman, mind.
You notice I haven’t said much about Lunch’s music? That’s because although there are a few clips, there are way too few. This is a great shame, as Lunch’s music can be breath-taking. She’s played Berlin a couple of times in the last few years, and has always been astounding. If I say that, at about 80 minutes the film is too short, this does not mean there are not enough hagiographic talking heads. But I’d love to have seen much more concert footage.
By treating Lunch and her opinions as sacrosanct, the film does her a disservice. There is so much about her scatter gun attacks on society that makes you unconvinced by her arguments, just as you’re revelling in the intensity of the way she delivers them. I’m not sure I’d like her as a friend, but she is a fascinating woman to observe from a distance. And her music is remarkable.