The world first encountered Lydia Lunch in 1978 as the “star” member of the anarchic New York “No-Wave” band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. If anyone would have suggested that she would still be around thirty years later, I would have laughed in their face.
But here we are in 2008, and MVD has recently issued a career-spanning compilation of videos, film clips, and live performances covering not only TJ&J live at Max’s Kansas City in 1978 as well as her almost-as-fabled band, 8 Eyed Spy, from 1980, but numerous solo performances and collaborations from the 1990’s and 2000’s as well. The impression that the viewer is left with is that of an uncompromising, ever-evolving artist who may or may not have begun as a poseur, but who has developed into a artist of strength, purpose, and imagination.
One thing that needs to be acknowledged right off the bat is that many of these selections are primarily of documentary significance. The Teenage Jesus material in particular is shoddily filmed with poor sound. But when historians wish to get a real feel for what the late 70’s New York scene was like, these clips will be found to capture the story much more effectively than controlled studio recordings ever could. Who on that scene could afford major productions, anyway? In any case, there is Lydia shouting anti-melodically in her highest register over an explosive warped-power-trio backdrop of anti-music, looking as deadpan as can be imagined given the urgency of the performance. I find it fascinating, though I’m sure not everyone will agree.
With 8 Eyed Spy, Lydia put down her guitar and worked with a band resembling real musicians, blending elements of punk, pseudo-funk, pseudo-blues, and avant-garde jazz. The band is loose, yet energetic, and the music holds up surprisingly well. Lydia’s vocals had dropped down an octave or so to a talk-shout closer emotionally to Iggy Pop than to commercial pop. Visually, her blank, yet belligerent attitude is priceless. Bad-girl wannabes can still learn a lot from watching her performances here. By the way, there’s a rare cover song here, John Fogarty’s “Run Through the Jungle,” though you’d hardly recognize if it weren’t for the guitar riff.
Cut to 1991, by which time I personally had lost track of Lydia Lunch’s activities. Thus, everything from this point on is a surprise to me. We find a matured and mellowed Lydia whose declamations over a musical backdrop are closer to poetry-with-music than to rap. But unlike too many recorded poetry/music collaborations, one has the feeling that Lydia Lunch and her accompanists had a real feeling for each other’s artistic expressions and worked together to present a unified, fully compatible whole. Her two 1991 performances with the neo-surf, neo-psychedelic Shotgun Wedding are very strong, and she displays a swaying sensuality much more captivating than her former lack of expression. Alas, her words are largely obscured. It should be noted that she actually sings a bluesy melody here.
Fortunately, most of the recited poetry on the rest of the DVD is far better recorded and certainly understandable. Actually, the term “recitation” may be inappropriate, as the body language and emotionalism she puts into these pieces place them into the category of “performance art”, however ill defined that term may be. A particularly interesting collaboration comes on the bluesy “Doggin’”, with the German post-punk instrumental band Die Haut. Others range in style from blues/r&b to cabaret-jazz to more definably avant-garde jazz, with frequent collaborators Terry Edwards, Joseph Budenholzer, and Ian White, among others. “Violence Is the Sport of God,” the most recent piece, from 2006, suggests that she is now as much a theatrical performer as she is poet or musical artist. Lydia Lunch, punk shouter, is still in there, but the transformation to ever more unique forms of expression is ongoing.
“Bonus Materials” include pictures of her many CD/DVD/book covers (I had no idea she has been so prolific through the years), a slideshow with well-chosen photos from various segments of her career, and a 14-minute film collage called “Flashpoints”, which incorporates quotes from reviews, more photos, and film clips. (This film duplicates a few images from the other bonus features, but in a different context.)
As with all Lydia Lunch material, this DVD is not for everyone. However, if I’ve made it sound at all interesting to you, it most likely will be.