“As oft the clashing sound
Of arms was heard, and inward groans rebound
Yet, mad with zeal, and blinded with our fate
We haul along the horse in solemn state
Then place the dire portent within the tow’r
Cassandra cried, and curs’d th’ unhappy hour
Foretold our fate; but, by the god’s decree
All heard, and none believ’d the prophecy.” – Virgil, “The Aeneid”
Like the infamous doomed prophetess of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, art-punk poetess Lydia Lunch has forged a lengthy career out of showing and telling citizens of our global village things they’d rather not see or hear. Indeed, she seems most comfortable residing in those dark regions of human interaction, where societal and cultural niceties – and hypocrisies – forbid truth-telling of any sort, in lieu of imagined fantasies of control and command. If William Gibson’s invented cyberspace was, as he wrote in the canonical novel Neuromancer, a seamless “consensual hallucination,” then Lunch’s thankless job in our burgeoning virtual reality is to remind us of the high price of being flesh-bound creatures of desire, something she has executed with aplomb in her latest noir-infused exercise in hard-boiled electronica, Smoke in the Shadows.
“I think that any obsession is good,” Lunch asserts. “If it’s not obsessing you. In other words, you’ve got to learn how to control your desires. You don’t have to deny them; you just have to keep them in check. We are as a culture addicted to violence. The problems start, especially in culture, when you add sex to that mix. You can show as many dead bodies as possible, but God forbid you show some rough fucking. And I don’t get that.”
Lunch’s avant-garde prophecies about sex, violence and the desire for both that frustrates the normal course of everyday life – on disturbing display in her latest album as well as past masterpieces like Queen of Siam and Drowning in Limbo – are generally avoided by the sexuality-shy American mainstream. But it is also because of those unpopular but dead-on estimations of the aforementioned that she’s chosen exile in Europe, at least for now.
“One of the reasons I left this country and I’m living over there is that, after 20 years of talking about this stuff, I just can’t live under it anymore,” Lunch confides. “I do most of my work in Europe because I can’t get even ten shows a year in this fucking country, and I don’t even know why that is. But if I want to do photography, pornography, spoken-word, poetry or whatever, the Europeans just understand that I’m trying to articulate the passions of the time. They’re not frightened by it, and they don’t need it to be housed in the cloak of entertainment.”
Whether it’s because Europe possesses histories extending thousands of years past what still remains our relative American infancy, or because they just aren’t as afraid of their own sexual energies, the countries across the pond from our own FCC-surveillance society are more willing to engage in spirited debate about their own drives, rather than live in a constant state, such as ours, of double-consciousness and double-talk.
“On one hand,” Lunch argues, “we’re showing more pornography than ever. On the other, we have a fascist government that’s trying to take away a woman’s right to an abortion. Under repression, extremity is going to blossom.”
Unless you deal with extremity head on, which Lunch has attempted to do ever since she formed the vital New York No-Wave outfit Teenage Jesus and the Jerks back in the late ’70s. Ensuing collaborations with everyone from Sonic Youth to Swans to the Birthday Party found Lunch patiently carving out her particular punk poetics for an audience hungry for anything but the glorified strippers that have graced the screens of MTV addicts worldwide. The moderate success she has enjoyed has allowed her to build a catalogue of over 20 potent releases, many of which have been released on Lunch’s own music and poetry imprint, Widowspeak. Add that to Lunch’s various exhibits and rants on everything from underrated Beat poet Herbert Huncke to the vagaries of the Bush administration for outlets as diverse as Rolling Stone and Hustler, and you have one busy muckraker.
And from where she’s standing, nothing much has changed in America since she took the fight to Reagan back in the early ’80s. “When I went to give my speech ‘In Our Time of Dying’ about the impending war in Iraq in 2002,” Lunch confides, “I could have gone back and taken huge portions from my speeches from 1984 and reapplied them. Because there is no fucking difference between Reagan and Bush, except that Bush is worse. His regime is more arrogant, smug, concerned with the people who put money in their pockets and less humane than Reagan’s. Those are the only differences.”
What also hasn’t changed is Lunch’s penchant for unmasking America’s hyper-masculine fear of sexually threatening females, a motif she explores at length in Smoke in the Shadows, which she recorded with avant-gardists like Nels Cline, Adele Bertei, Niels Van Hoorn, Carla Bozulich and more. Whether it’s the various interior photographs of a semi-nude Lunch – who walks the walk when it comes to involving herself in her own sexually-charged work – downing a fifth of whiskey, wielding a pistol or sprawled across a bullet-ridden bed, or her seductive lyrics about dime-store Johns falling prey to femme fatales they abuse more than alcohol, Smoke in the Shadows is a Lynchian fever dream at times more jarring than Mulholland Drive or Blue Velvet. The fact that it’s wrapped in such an addictive electro-jazz cloak is just icing on the film noir cake.
“It’s a very listenable album,” Lunch says. “Very groovy, very jazzy, very soundtrackish. But if you listen to the words, it’s pretty threatening. It’s much more aggressive live. I just wanted to do a record that sucked you in quietly – and then slit your fucking throat.”
That mean streak is something Lunch feels is all too lacking in our current consumerist fantasyland of unattainable feminine ideals and abstinence-only education. But, in Lunch’s view, ignoring the cultural history of had-it-up-to-here womanhood is just avoiding the obvious in favor of a self-serving disconnection from a vital part of feminine – and masculine – desire.
“Female revenge – it’s our fantasy, you know? I didn’t set out to do Smoke in the Shadows as a concept album, which I usually do. Rather, it’s just going off on a film noir, femme fatale tangent. Because what’s pathetic to me is the real lack of any threatening female music. I mean, there’s constantly so much homogenized pop princess bullshit thrown in our faces these days. Not that there aren’t any some alternative females out there; there are. But there are more aggressive women in performance or visual art than there are in music today.”
Why that is still the case is something that Lunch cannot answer, but, to mangle Dylan, she doesn’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing. In a pop culture where virginal Mouseketeers like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera can turn into hyper-sexualized pole-dancers in the blink of an eye, Lunch isn’t expecting much in the way of mainstream sexual enlightenment.
“I really think it sets women back,” Lunch argues, “because it’s such a generic image. It’s an ideal of beauty that no woman is going to be able to live up to: utterly manufactured, surgically enhanced, stylized to the N-th degree. One step shy of the worst kind of homogenized pornography that exists today.”
Not that she’s against pornography: Anyone familiar with Lunch knows that she would rather see more, not less, of it. The devil is, as always, in the details.
“I think the problem with pornography is not the pornography itself,” Lunch asserts, “but rather the type of pornography that gets the most attention. There are so many different kinds of pornography floating around now, but I still think we need more different kinds of it. Because the kind that gets attention is that made by middle-aged white guys or asshole frat boys for the same audience. We need more diversified pornography made available to us, because people have and want sex. We can’t pretend that they dont. One of my lines in In Our Time of Dying argued that things were better when we had blow jobs in the White House. A president with a blow job is a happy man. Now we have a man in the White House who wants to butt-fuck the entire planet. It’s obvious as hell.”
In the end, Lunch is fully convinced that Bush’s America is in deep trouble if it doesn’t align its antiquated notions of sexual evolution and practice with a reality separate from the virtual one proffered by teaser exercises like Britney Spears and The Bachelorette. To paraphrase the famous Anais Nin line about sexuality, the day will come when the risk to remain tight in a bud will be much more painful than the risk it takes to blossom. What exactly America blossoms into is up to a simulacrum-hypnotized populace that seemingly has no problem interrupting its football games for ceaseless commercials about limp-dick medicines but can’t stand the sight of Janet Jackson’s bared, black breast.
“I don’t think I’ve ever used my sexuality as just a taunt,” Lunch admits. “By my very nature, it’s been used more as a threat. But why is it so threatening? Because I admit I want it? Because I like it? Because I’m going to do it? I think that’s the difference from what we see on TV, which are these untouchable icons that stimulate all this desire you just know they are never going to satisfy. We must remember that sex is not dirty. It’s normal. Even when it’s dirty.”