Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over Finds the Anti-Punk in Full Fury
Beth B blows it all up in new documentary
"The following film discusses assault, child abuse, and mature situations." That disclaimer opens Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, the new documentary screening at AFS Cinema this week about multimedia anti-artist Lydia Lunch (who'll likely cringe at that description, as she does any classification) by veteran NYC indie filmmaker Beth B.
Lunch leans into an anecdote from the beginning of her adolescence. She's 13, living in Rochester, N.Y., awaiting a bus home, and she accepts a ride from a predator. He drives her to a park close to her home, pulls over, and removes a shotgun from his car's trunk, ordering her to lick the tires. She does, naturally. "He said, 'You know it's not about sex,'" she recounted. "And that's when I knew: No, it wasn't about sex. It was about power. At that point, I had the power!"
Lunch first appeared in the thick of punk as the Anti-Punk – a dark-hearted Lolita wraith shrieking atonal slide guitar across pioneering No Wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, bent on truly delivering on punk's broken promise to destroy rock & roll and society with it. The former Lydia Koch's work as, in Wikipedia's terms, a "singer, poet, writer, actress, and self-empowerment speaker" has had some abiding themes. B – who's worked with Lunch for 40 years, going back to early films like 1978's "Black Box" – pinpoints some of them: "Abuse, incest, and domestic violence."
"Nobody was talking about these things then," said B. "It was considered shameful: Hide it in the closet! Don't let it come out." She furthers the therapeutic value of preventing the festering of these poisons. "Otherwise, it stays in the closet, and it gets darker and darker."
"It was a universal disease of the nuclear family, imbalance of power, sexual insanity," Lunch added. "You've got to get it out of you, because that trauma lives inside your body. Trauma is greedy. Once you think you've dealt with it, it finds numerous ways of reappearing. It wants to be fed more trauma."
Lunch and B met in the decaying New York City of 1978, when Lydia was 19 and Beth was 23. The director joked that her first sighting of the former onstage at either Max's or CBGB induced "fear at first sight!" That fear swiftly became love, because the junior performer granted her permission "to tap into the kind of rage and denial I had been walking around with."
"Her message was very much a personal one," B continued, "and mine started out as a rage against the politics of that time. It was New York City, it was a wasteland of demolished buildings, people were on the streets. We had nothing, so in a way we had nothing to lose. All the rage and angst and feelings of being an outsider – that's what informed my work. We felt like there was no future: 'Blow it all up anyways! Why not?' It was metaphorical, but it was also looking at the power structure, and this constant moving between power and control, submission and feeling like in that place – New York – we had no power. So in some ways, in creating there was a sense of gaining power. It was very idealistic. I thought it was going to change the world right now. Today, if I can change the ideas of one person in the audience – or in some ways, inspire or eliminate them – then that's greatly successful."
That lengthy shared history and intersection of ideas made a Beth B documentary on Lydia Lunch a natural choice. True, there are the necessary retrospective elements of vintage film clips, archival material, and interviews with collaborators ranging from Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore to transgressive director Richard Kern. But B demonstrates Lunch and her message's continued relevance through recent footage of both European spoken word dates and packed houses witnessing current band Retrovirus.
"What keeps bringing us together is that we are both interdisciplinarians and contrarians," said B. "We continue featuring very hardcore content in our work, personal and political. There's almost an unspoken community we have together. I thought it'd be really cool to make a documentary about her. Lydia said so many people have approached her about making a doc about her. She always said no. But she realized that I completely get her and why she's doing it."
"I would only allow Beth B to do this documentary, because she knows me," Lunch added. "Hopefully it isn't looking back, as relevant as everything I have ever fucking said still is today. These things are very pertinent to talk about."
"You were the original #MeToo movement," I offered.
"Yeah," she chuckled, "and now I'm the #You'reNext movement!"
Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, Sept. 9, 11, 13, AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35. Tickets and info at austinfilm.org.