Legendary Lydia Lunch, confrontationalist post-punk no-wave singer, spoken word artist, poet, writer, photographer, and actress, has never been one to hide the madness — that’s putting it mildly. Broadcasting her inner angst has always been her style as well as her gritty charm. A Lunch quote: “I’m a very sympathetic person, but that doesn’t always come across in my work because I’m too busy being mad at everything.” So it made perfect sense that she was hosting a spoken word event called Don’t Hide the Madness at the Pyramid Club on Thursday, May 30th.
Also on the bill was an intriguing array of artists and performers who were promised to bring “brutal, hilarious, and heartbreaking true tales from America’s dark side,” including Edgar Oliver, Bibbe Hansen, Bob Bert, Nicole Blackman, Zachary Lipez, Tony O’Neill, and Family Halo. Since that kind of funky assemblage of personalities is becoming scarcer on the Lower East Side, I figured I might as well go check it out. Although it was nighttime, I was looking for a little Lunch. The event was a kick off for the annual Howl! Festival that took place this weekend at Tompkins Square Park.
Lunch lives in Barcelona now but landed in New York City for a few days, performing at this show and the night before at the Bowery Electric with her new band, Retro Virus. “I don’t have time to talk to you now, I’m leaving tomorrow,” Lunch told me abruptly out on the sidewalk of Avenue A in front of the Pyramid. She was puffing on a cigarette and seemed very preoccupied with her friends. “Can I take some photos?” I asked her. She was looking good, almost precisely the same as when I met her three and a half years ago. “Just two, and that’s it!” she exclaimed impatiently. Of course, the first two were over-exposed. “I need a few more,” I cajoled and kept shooting.
There was some irony for expatriate Lunch to briefly abandon her European sanctuary and return to her roots at a venue where she had performed more than three decades ago. Lunch is not shy about expressing her dislike of New York City, which she calls the “fuckin’ asshole of the universe,” although it was her choice to run away from her parents in Rochester straight to New York as a teenager in the late 1970s and lived here for years.
Producer, performer, and writer Brian Butterick AKA Hattie Hathaway, co-producer of the Howl! Festival, was on hand. It was Butterick who had co-founded The Pyramid Club in the 1980s, along with Wigstock in the late 1980s. He recalled Lunch from the early days: “Pyramid was where I started in 1981, and Lydia did spoken word here for the second time ever in 1982, and it was amazing. The bootleggers, dead trannies, and Polish mailmen sang to me through the floorboards. A pity they only book ’80s and (gasp) ’90s tribute bands now. Maybe we will do the long awaited Pyramid reunion in December. I am thinking about it,” he told me. Butterick acknowledged Lunch’s beloved contrarian persona. “Lydia is a difficult woman publicly and artistically but not so difficult in real life. I am attracted to difficult females. I guess they bring out the difficult female in me. Lydia’s music show on Wednesday was a Master Class. Lydia at the Pyramid was a Master Class of how to trans-gress, trans- sex, trans-write and move literature and the literate into the 21st century… or even the 25th century. It was historic.”
Since I arrived at the tail end of the show, it was fun chit-chatting with the fabulous downtown performance fixtures like the lugubrious-voiced but ever smiling Edgar Oliver and Bibbe Hansen, one of the artists and daughter of Fluxus artist Al Hansen. She’s been active on the scene since Andy Warhol’s Factory days. She was positively glowing about Lunch and her event. “Lydia Lunch’s triumphant return to the LES and Pyramid Club with the “Don’t Hide the Madness” benefit for Howl was a total blast! What a wonderful mix of audience and performers! Lydia’s unparalleled and sublime taste pulls the most amazing and diverse talents together and these, in turn, draw equally wild and inspired audiences — the resulting mad tangle is always enchanting. It was a thrill to be part of it.”
Yes, there were plenty of familiar faces and old-timers in the audience, people who grew up going to downtown punk clubs, but the new generation was also in attendance. Performance artist and adorable twenty-something Max Steele was way enthusiastic. “I feel about Lydia Lunch the way certain other corners of the queer world feel about Judy Garland — she’s so overwhelmingly inspiring and influential. I saw her band Retro Virus play the previous night, reinventing songs from her earlier years, and was blown away.” Her new Retro Virus album has been well-reviewed and is sixty minutes of brand new recordings covering material from her entire musical career from Teenage Jesus to 13.13, 8-Eyed Spy to Shotgun Wedding, backed by guitarist Weasel Walter (Flying Luttenbachers), bassist Algis Kizys (Swans, Foetus) and drummer Bob Bert (Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, Chrome Cranks). Steele went on to say, “It was sort of surreal to see her hosting a reading featuring such iconic downtown art luminaries at the legendary Pyramid Club. So much of New York’s contemporary art/literary/nightlife culture owes a huge debt to Ms. Lunch’s voluminous contributions, and I feel very lucky to have been able to support the Howl! Festival in having her organize and host the Pyramid reading.”
The event was held as a benefit for The Howl Emergency Life Project (H.E.L.P.) to provide emergency financial assistance and social service support to artists. As for the title of the event, it was lifted from an Allen Ginsberg quote he gave to aspiring writers: “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” Her extensive, 30-year-plus body of multimedia work is characterized by its extreme obsessiveness with the darkness of the human psyche, often focusing on nihilism, rage, violence, eroticism, surrealism, and pornographic art as key points of topic.
Performer and writer Jennifer Blowdryer, one of those long-time Lower East Siders who still lives in the neighborhood, was on the bill with Lunch the following afternoon in Tompkins Square Park for more spoken word. “Lydia read after me in a recitation of war and that our sexuality is stolen from us in this country at a young age. It was a looooong day of readers and then everybody read [Allen Ginsberg’s] ‘Howl’ in a group, at which point Lydia was long gone.
I wrote an article about her for Penthouse Forum years ago when I was at the MFA program at Columbia University. It helped pay the back tuition. Lydia was stunning in a black dress with sheer sleeves. She reserves her right to be angry.”
Since she was too busy to chat after the show, I listened to the interview I had with Lunch on my radio show on WKCR FM in 2009. I had asked about her outspokenness.
“I’m amazed that I didn’t get into a lot more trouble than what I did, especially with the early spoken word stuff, because there was no precedent to this kind of spoken word. I mean, there was poetry before that. There was Lenny Bruce, which was 20 years before. And in New York at the time there was performance art; but really spoken word, I was coming up right on the ground floor of it. The beauty of New York in the late 70s was that clubs would have these nights, anything you wanted to do for 10 minutes, whether it’s music, performance art, or spoken word. I had some pretty aggressive diatribes, pretty harsh, before I had finessed my aggression, because it was just a primal tantrum. I was a mad baby, screaming my head off. I never felt as if I was talking about only my problems. I always felt that whatever I was attacking, whether it was a personal, sexual, or political subject, and I guess this too is what gave me the energy to start and then carry on, is I never felt my problems were so unique. I always felt that, hey, this a universal issue, this is a universal problem, a universal trauma, a universal imbalance of power. That’s always what I’m speaking about. To me, it had nothing to do with whether they liked me or loathed me. I felt I was speaking a greater truth, as opposed to just telling my own horrible, dirty stories. I felt like I was hooked into a larger truth that had to be told.”
Lydia Lunch hosted Don’t Hide the Madness at the Pyramid Club (101 Avenue A, East Village, Manhattan) on May 30.