When edgy urban filmmaker Beth B—of Scott B and Beth B renown—first met her future Vortex and Black Box star Lydia Lunch in mid-’70s New York City, they were both on the identity-seeking lam. Lunch was ditching a physically abusive father in Rochester, and desperate to dive into the then-nascent punk scene—she quickly did so by forming the sonically brutal no-wave outfit Teenage Jesus and The Jerks with James Chance, thereby launching a colorful four-decade career that would go on to include poetry, spoken word, short stories, graphic novels, self-empowerment lectures, tell-all memoirs, countless additional film roles, a new podcast dubbed The Lydian Spin, and a veritable cavalcade of diverse bands and musical collaborators leading to her current dissonant quartet, Retrovirus. B was simultaneously racing away from family ties, too. “And I found this new kind of home in New York City, amongst like-minded misfits,” recalls the director, who finally compiled her friend’s convoluted life story into a streamlined—and remarkably entertaining—documentary with Kino Lorber’s new Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over (available on DVD/VOD August 31, later on Blu-ray, after a limited theater run).
“We were all very different, but it seemed like a lot of us were running away from something, trying to find something really different,” she continues. “And at that time, New York did represent that, because it was a completely demolished, restricted landscape of ruin—in Times Square, there were burning cars, amidst the pimps and prostitutes, triple-X movie theaters, and people dealing drugs and shooting up on the street. And I found a richness there, a richness in what other people might see as grotesque and perverted.” The first time the two met, B was 23 and in the slam-dancing crowd watching a then-19-year-old, ebony-garbed Lunch snarling through a blitzkrieg Teenage Jesus set. She was suitably stunned. “I had never seen females displayed in that context before—black camisole with a black leather miniskirt, screeching on guitar and vocals, and screaming about things that we were told to shut behind the door and hide, to be ashamed of,” says B, who, with her husband Scott, had already begun making the experimental Super 8 indies that would make them cult-artist famous, like 1978’s G-Man.
Fellow forward thinkers B and Lunch bonded over the anarchistic, anti-patriarchal, environmentally conscious mindset they shared, along with a strong belief that art should always reflect its creator’s politics. Like Lunch, B, as a solo auteur, went on to express her ideas in several different mediums, like photography, sculpture and assaultive multi-media installations. It has to start with serious content, she insists, when folks ask her why she felt it was time make The War is Never Over, which combines scratchy early footage with recent Retrovirus clips and talking-head commentary from peers such as Jim Sclavunos, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and L7’s Donita Sparks. And in candid new interviews, Lunch—at 62—is still as in-your-face feisty as she ever was, and the answer to why she had such a long, controversial career suddenly comes into sharp focus: Nobody ever dared tell her she couldn’t. “In our 1978 feature Black Box, Lydia was cast as the Torturess, wearing a police cap and really flipping the tables upside-down,” says B. “But I was actually trying to bring a sense of the violence that America causes throughout the world into our homes, because it was really based on fact—there was a real torture device, a steel sensory-deprivation tank called The Refrigerator, that the U.S. government was exporting out of Texas, and I wanted to question our culpability.”
In a telling Retrovirus concert that closes War, the eternally raspy-throated Lunch—in an opening spoken-word segment—loudly challenges two separate, seated crowd members at their tables, a guy who laughingly plays along and a deer-in-headlights girl who just doesn’t get it. B sees the segment as bullet-point crucial. “It’s such a brilliant performance, because Lydia’s going to entertain them with this commercial Retrovirus music, but her opening message is all about violence and war,” she notes. “So she’s playing with the audience, seducing the audience and then giving them the hardcore political stuff along with their entertainment. It’s a complex package, which I’m sure people will be thinking about long after they’ve first seen it—the film doesn’t give you any easy answers.”
For B, The War is Never Over is a true labor of love, an extended ode to her old no wave-era co-conspirator. But the undertaking came with a surprising benefit: Kino Lorber will not only be including lots of DVD/Blu-ray bonus footage (including extended concert scenes), but it will also be remastering most of B’s film catalog, starting with 1987’s Salvation and Two Small Bodies from 1983. “This stuff doesn’t come to me easily—I don’t get funding, I don’t do Kickstarters, my career has really been tough,” she summarizes, before surrendering the stage to Lunch for an invigorating, gamut-traversing hour. “But I’m making these films for people who need these kinds of films. They’re not mass-culture movies. Although I must say, mass culture could learn a lot from them … ”
Paste: Opening on a more cosmic note, have you been receiving any messages from the universe over the past year and a half? Or special signs?
Lydia Lunch: Oh, I don’t know if there are any special signs. They would be like, “Oh, I saw a black squirrel outside my window the day I was speaking to the last person I saw a black squirrel with.” There are simple things like that, but they’re very rare. I have my own coven, and in it are top psychics—and I’m one of them—and we see signs all the time. And this is the connective tissue of everything I’ve done and what it’s leading to, but I’m now making a documentary on artists’ depression, anxiety and rage. And I’ve interviewed 35 people, so it’s kind of the diametric-opposite continuation of The War is Never Over, but it’s about their feelings and how they’ve been traumatized. And it’s really important to do this thing now, and it’s one of the things I’ve been doing during the pandemic. And it’s very poetic, by the way. But also, having my podcast The Lydian Spin—which is now two years going—that’s been really helpful during the pandemic, because at first, we were interviewing people in person, and then via Zoom, but we still have managed to have 104 episodes now, with all these different kinds of people.
And again, it’s just a continuation of what I do—collaborate, curate and try to expose people to other ideas. So I think it’s basically a very creative time. I’ve finished two albums, as well, in this time, so it’s been interesting. I don’t know when they’re coming out, but I finished one with Tim Dahl, my Retrovirus bassist and my cohost on The Lydian Spin, and we’ve made a kind of sexy, psycho-ambient soundtrack where I’m reading pieces, and it’s an overview that starts with the lockdown and goes backwards in the history of New York, to a dark time of of desperation and loneliness and sex. So that’s one record. And then with Sylvia Black, this amazing musician and chanteuse out of L.A., we’ve made one of almost forensic jazz-noir—each song should have a TV show made after it. So I was lucky, because I wasn’t planning on touring at all. I had already gone with Retrovirus to the West Coast, Australia, the West Coast again, and we played the last show in New York just before it closed down. And then we just played New York Friday, as everything is opening again. But I had been planning on doing other things during that period, so I really only had one show canceled.
Paste: With all the artists you talked to so far for your own film, did you find a common thread? And does great art necessarily have to come from a damaged soul?
Lunch: Well, according to some studies, 73%—and I think it’s an underestimate—of musicians have some kind of, I don’t like the term ‘mental health issues,’ because I think it then goes into the body, and we’ve all been traumatized by something, you know? Especially in this society, as it is now, whether it was in childhood or adulthood—this is a traumatic time to be alive. So for persons with anxiety, so many of them say the same words—that they have felt panic attacks that become like heart attacks, and with depression, there’s the word “rage” that they always mention, along with “justice” or “injustice.” So it’s been very poetic, and again, it’s just my next continuation. And I’ve already talked about this stuff, but so many other people are feeling it right now, so it just became the next step in my journey, or my calling, to do this. So it’s very heartbreaking, too, because I don’t suffer from depression or anxiety. And rage? I take that to the stage. So I am not afflicted by any of that. And strangely enough, I’ve always known that with whatever problems I’ve had, there are far bigger ones out there. [She pauses, gasps.] I am now seeing a fucking black squirrel! Right now, outside my bedroom window! So there’s another sign for you, my friend. You asked me about signs—you got one! I am telling you, there is actually a black squirrel out there, jumping around in the leaves, followed by a gray one.
Paste: What’s it like looking back on your career, with this cavalcade of images of yourself available, in photos and film? That’s quite a career document.
Lunch: Well, what’s interesting is that I knew from a very early age that I was going to document everything. I was going to find a way to make all of my musical concepts into a record, each time I had a concept, and I was going to find a way to get stuff videotaped. I just knew from the beginning that I had to document all this stuff, considering myself, always, as more of a journalist or a documentarian. So I dunno. “Wasn’t she cute?” “Wasn’t she ferocious?” “Do they see my soft side?” It’s just time. It goes on for one long second. But we are still here now.
Paste: There was consistency to everything, too, like your continued variations on the same colors, black and red.
Lunch: Always. And I had black hair, and I started wearing a lot of red. What are you gonna do? And by the way, right now on TV was just—I swear!—a red screen with a black skull on it! It’s talking about decrypting infected systems, so there’s another sign for you—a black skull on a red screen, because some rebels were demanding $70 million to decrypt infected computer systems. Sorry—I was watching the news with one eye. I’ve got one eye on the news, one eye on the squirrel!
Paste: And you kind of set the fashion mold for every Goth girl that’s come since.
Lunch: Well, I could show you a picture of me when I was 14 years old, which would have been ’73, ’74? And I was very into glam, but I’m in all black, with a huge black rosary around my neck and black, slicked-back hair, looking almost Cabaret. So I guess you could call it Goth, but really, I’ve only done one Goth-sounding record, 13:13 . I always called my stuff no wave, but you can’t patent a look, you can’t patent a look there. What are ya gonna do? Buy up all the black hair dye so nobody else can have any? But hey—better they look like me than, oh, I dunno—take your pick! But did you know that The Cramps originally asked me to be their drummer, because I had red hair back then? But I was like, “I’m starting my own band!” Which I did, quickly afterward. I still stayed in touch with them occasionally, but they moved out of New York, and I was always moving around, too. They were very private people if they weren’t onstage.
Paste: And the weirdest twist is, a lot of musicians from that era, like Pat Irwin, are now composing the soundtracks for all the new children’s animated shows on TV.
Lunch: Yeah! Including Jim Thirlwell, Foetus. He’s done the music for The Venture Brothers, Archer. And another musician who’s gone on to do an incredible number of film scores is Cliff Martinez, the drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Captain Beefheart. I had [him] on my podcast a couple of months ago, and he’s just an incredible musician who’s had a really amazing career.
Paste: Are there lessons from your no wave experiences that you can apply today?
Lunch: Yeah. Don’t give a shit about how many people fucking like you! Start there. This Like-Me society is such bullshit. I don’t do Twitter. I have somebody else run my Facebook and my Instagram, because I have to put billboards up for what I do. But I don’t accept comments because I don’t care, like or loathe. People have got to get that through their heads. So maybe if they liked themselves more, they wouldn’t need so much approval from other people.
Paste: Thurston Moore in the film references your friends and enemies. Did you actually have many enemies?
Lunch: Well, if I did, I didn’t notice ‘em. And they wouldn’t approach me, that’s for sure. But I don’t think it was all love, either. In my personal life, I don’t piss people off, and I don’t get pissed off at anybody. But my art has certainly infuriated quite a few people—people who didn’t get it, who couldn’t take it, because it was too aggressive, too unprecedented. But in my personal life, I never get mad—I have much bigger demons to fight than somebody who’s being a temporary asshole. We’re all allowed that.
Paste: Any that drifted into Cancel Culture territory?
Lunch: Nah. I’d cancel the audience before they had a chance to cancel me! I don’t pay attention to any of that. What are they gonna do? Cancel my life? We’re talking about my life here—you wanna cancel my life? Fuck off, get off my back, step away. Cancel this!
Paste: It’s a weird conundrum—you went through abuse as a kid, and yet surviving it made you the strong, singular artist you are today. So do some people kind of wrongly accept it as part of your mythology?
Lunch: Well, what I don’t like is people that aren’t that familiar with what I do, because the big thing that they want to call attention to is my specific familial trauma, which is not the point. The point is, I use that to try to get to the bigger picture, which is that we are all suffering some kind of trauma. It was just that nobody else was talking about it when I started talking about it, and the point was, the father, or God, the Father, and the father of our country, were just three total fuckers, for the most part. And I don’t like it when people just try to paint that as the dominant card. I mean, it is, but you don’t have to reduce it to the thought of incest when it’s trauma. And that is a general malaise, a plague that infects so much of the population, no matter what it’s from—poverty, religious abuse, bullying, “You’re too weird,” “You’re too queer,” you’re too … whatever. This is life’s cruel reality. I’ll give you one bizarre example. Having lived in Barcelona for eight years, when you see a bunch of teenagers getting out of school, they would be laughing, hugging each other, holding hands, boys and girls. But if you see a gang of teenagers here? You’d better cross the fucking street. So there’s one big difference—children are treated like kings and queens over there, and they grow up loving each other, and loving themselves. As opposed to having been fed constant bullshit about how great this fucking country is, while it shits on you, every step you take. So reducing that to its most basic element, while they’re arguing about minimum wages here they’ve merely expanded the plantation. Which means that most of this country that’s already working for that crap kind of pay is already living in poverty. And I’m sorry, but there is so much poverty in this country, and they’re crying about giving people an extra $300 a week? Get the fuck outta here.
Paste: Well, at least you wound up in New York City, right when punk rock and no wave was happening. I was out in the Midwest, just reading about it. And I remember when I finally did make it to town, after romanticizing CBGB’s after all those years, I was stunned to see and smell that urine-stained place for the first time.
Lunch: Well, one of my regular lines is, none of us would have thought that 1977 had that much in common with Marcel Duchamp’s urinals until they walked into CBGB’s. Right? Because the whole place was a friggin’ urinal! And it’s interesting, because when we had to search, prior to the internet, and we had to go by word of mouth, or go to the library and look up certain publications, I think we had a greater understanding of—and a passion for—seeking these things out. And now that everything is so available? This is why kids have been reduced to a one-song imagination. Next! Next! Next! You know? It’s too convenient. We had to actually search and discover things, and there was joy in that, and in stumbling across the things we might’ve stumbled on occasionally. But it was just a way of going deeper into things, because we understood that they really mattered. But before [New York City], I was really lucky, because growing up in Rochester, every concert came through there. And I had the House of Guitars, and every record came through there, and we had incredible college DJs. And I remember—I think I was maybe 12, 13?—there was this great college DJ, and I just found the address and went knocking on the door of his radio station, and I’m like, “Hey—I need to get to some concerts! Can you give me free tickets?” And the DJ said, “Uhh … alright!” He looked like Gregg Allman, but he was playing the best music, and so he introduced me to a promoter, and then I would just get into every concert for free. But as I used to say, “It was all for my career.” So I was really lucky with music being available. And as far as books, I don’t even know how I came into contact with Hubert Selby or Henry Miller or Grove Press or any of the translations of De Sade that I read, because my parents didn’t really read a single book. Music? I understood how it came into my life, because there were other kids or the House of Guitars, or I was bold enough to go demand free tickets. But books? I’ve got no idea how I found those, but to this day, they remain my favorite books.
Paste: Years ago, you turned me on to Harry Crews’ Feast of Snakes.
Lunch: Have you ever read any Clarice Lispector?
Paste: I just discovered her during the pandemic. And she’s totally unique, like no one I’ve ever read.
Lunch: I just pulled that out of your head! Nobody knows her! Again, we know so little about anything, and … the black squirrel is back! But first of all, we’re living longer than we ever did now, and so many of our recent problems—Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, autism, spectral autism—I think they’re both poison-related and electrical. We’ve been microwaved! Our nervous system is being nuked by all the electricity, and we’re just surrounded by it. And just because you shut something off , the electricity is still there, and we are being bombarded. At one point, when I lived in London, I thought I had electrical poisoning—I had to unplug everything for a while. And I found a doctor and said, “Look—I’m feeling like I’m electrically spazzed out.” And he put me on a vitamin regimen, and I was like, “Okay—I guess that helps!” But when I went to get another appointment with him, they said, “He’s no longer with us.” And I said, “Well, where is he?” And they said, “No. He’s no. Longer. With us.” And he was the only doctor that ever listened to me. I just think our systems are nuked by so much radiation, so much electricity, and then for things like autism, there’s so much heavy metal poison in everything in this country, and pollution is just astronomical. I mean, I come from near one of the first SuperFund [cleaned] sites, Love Canal [in Niagara Falls, where years of Hooker Chemicals-dumped landfill waste spread via rainstorms throughout the community in the mid-‘70s]. And there are now 1,900 similar sites that the government admits to in this country alone, just toxic no-go zones, so everybody living within 50 miles of these supposedly eradicated, life-killing zones is still affected. I mean, I guess we’re just lucky that none of us are living in Flint! And that’s one thing about New York—I may live between three of the most polluted waterways in this country, but the water that comes from the Cascades? It is damn good, praise be! But look, there are worse things that are happening out there, every second, things that are so unbelievably ridiculous that you wouldn’t imagine them unless you were Harlan Ellison. So the question isn’t whether you’re paranoid or not, it’s whether you’re paranoid enough. As I’ve said, “Freedom is just an hallucination of a pathetically distorted mind.”
Paste: But at least technology—despite its social-media downside— has advanced so exponentially throughout your career that it can be of great use to you now.
Lunch: Absolutely. And speaking of technology, I’m very happy that so much of what I’ve done is on YouTube, and people can watch it if they want. And I didn’t start doing music and creating and doing spoken word and all these other things that I do, thinking this was gonna make me rich. And YouTube is more like a public service, and there are some really great things on there that you can find., so I’m very happy. And I sold my archives to NYU two years ago, and they’re doing a digital museum of everything., so I’m very happy that one place will have accumulated it all, so then it’s all there and accessible to people if they want it. And if they don’t? Hey—it’s in a digital library! Leave me alone! I’m not forcing this down anyone’s throat—I charge extra for that!