Lydia Lunch resists labels. A protean force of nature, she deals in spoken word, poetry, film and photography, though she's probably best known for her ferocious musical contributions to New York's No Wave scene. Few bands forged in that late-'70s crucible of aggressive and untrained expression survived intact, but some of the animating spirits of those short-lived groups were disproportionately influential in decades to come, like Thurston Moore, Glenn Branca, Arto Lindsay – and Lunch herself.
Lunch's Teenage Jesus and the Jerks was one of only four bands on the seminal No New York compilation recorded by Brian Eno in 1978. A Teenage Jesus show was a rapacious yowl, propulsive, brutal, and above all, terse: Songs clocked in under a minute; full sets could sometimes resemble "seven-minute shankings," as David Todd put it in his book Feeding Back (Chicago Review Press, 2012).
Lunch, who arrived in New York a 16-year-old runaway, always had a bit of a horrorcore aesthetic (those lyrics: "Little orphans running through the bloody snow," "The garbage screams at my feet"; that dead-black hair and dead-white skin). Horror-movie fans are familiar with the trope of the final girl, the last one standing who lives to tells the tale – Lunch may not be the sole survivor of No Wave, but it's hard to think of another scene veteran who is still telling stories with the same level of vitriol, style and total commitment. "It's a clever analysis, but in the typical horror film situation, the movie would be over in 30 seconds because I would rush at the maniac and slit his fucking throat," Lunch laughed in an interview last week.
Still, bearing witness is an ongoing thread through all of Lunch's work. In her first spoken-word piece, 1992's "Daddy Dearest," she accused her father of sexual abuse starting when she was 7 years old (which may go some way toward explaining the ferocious rage of her music from the very beginning).
"I came [to New York] to do spoken word, but it didn't really exist yet," she told Flavorwire in May. "So, here I am wanting to be a spoken word artist, and my first group is half instrumentals – because it was a primal, precise, screaming temper tantrum of anger and hatred against all that was wrong."
"I knew my situation was not unique and I wanted to give voice to other people who didn't have the wherewithal to speak for themselves," Lunch says now to Orlando Weekly. "It's not narcissism. I'm not the only one in these predicaments. ... We need to shine a very bright light in those dark corners where the soul can moulder and rot."
As unquestionable as her punk bona fides are, however, Lunch isn't here as Teenage Jesus or "Lady Scarface" (or 8-Eyed Spy, Beirut Slump, Harry Crews, or even her latest band incarnation, Retrovirus). Fresh from its rapturously received run in New York, she's bringing to Orlando her multimedia exhibition So Real It Hurts. The show consists of three parts: a collection of ephemera spanning 40 years including posters, fliers, letters and other stuff from Lunch's archives; work from her photography series, The War Is Never Over; and, if it can be fit into the Gallery at Avalon Island (fingers crossed), a powerful installation called You Are Not Safe in Your Own Home, an "X-rated scene of the crime" bedroom scene, a sort of answer to Tracey Emin's infamous My Bed installation.
Lunch began photographing in 1990, sometimes using the images as backdrop projections during music or spoken-word performances. "I was looking for another language to express what are my continuing obsessions: repression of the individual, whether that's political, economic, familial," Lunch says. This current series, montaged images combining war and brutality with humanity and tenderness, is "about the never-ending war – a way to express my concerns about man's homicidal tendencies."
She continues, "Everything I do is based around the word, whether a song, a photo ... they're all tools to get the point across." She dubs the photographs "more tender," adding, "They [the viewers] don't have to deal with my energy, my passion, which is at times too extreme for people."
That passionate energy will be on display in her two Orlando performances with one of her many collaborators, multi-instrumentalist Weasel Walter (Flying Luttenbachers). Though he, Lunch, Bob Bert (Sonic Youth) and Algis Kizys (Swans) have recorded and toured together as Retrovirus, this performance will consist solely of Walter on drums and Lunch spitting spoken word.
But she's not all evisceration and machine-gun fire: Lunch has a nurturing side as well. In fact, before she ever got up on a stage, she earned her nickname by stealing food for her friends in bands. "People love you when you feed them," Lunch laughs. (In 2013, WFMU DJ James "The Hound" Marshall told the New York Times that "She was famous ... as the first person everybody slept with when they got to New York." "Do you know how many teenage boys thanked me?" Lunch responded.)
The one-time lunch thief has even published a cookbook, The Need to Feed. Its genesis was due in equal parts to that caring earth-mama aspect of Lunch and to the discovery that Michelle Forbes based her True Blood character Maryann, a Dionysian maenad who was forever whipping up food-, wine- and sex-fueled orgies, on Lunch herself. Lunch was delighted. "Yes, it comes full circle eventually. ... Once you can afford to, you buy some food and start cooking for your friends."
That nurturing side is also evidenced by her recent sideline in workshops on writing (including a stint this summer at Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, teaching with Thurston Moore), stage performance and self-empowerment.
"I'm one of the most optimistic people I know," Lunch says. "In spite of the insanity of this planet, where we're surrounded by so much horror, at the end of the day, I wanna laugh, I wanna party, I wanna have a good time and look into people's eyes."
The woman who has famously insisted over the years that "pleasure is the ultimate rebellion" concludes: "There's no other way I can get it but through the utopia I create. We have to carve out a safe and delightful place to say 'fuck y'all.'"