Melody Maker - July 17, 1982
Steve Sutherland (words) and Tom Shehan (smudges)
watch and admire as superstars
LYDIA LUNCH and BIRTHDAY PARTY
live the life of...
FEAR ON THE AUTOBAHN
Bingo had felt on the outside most all his life. At school, he avoided the grossest HM, even in the crack Marines he'd styled his hair long under his beret and turned on after lights out to the Pistols and Patti.
When he fled his priviledged post as a helicopter captain's batman, quit the wife and kid in Plymouth and set his sights on self-discovery, he had little to show for his 21 years beyond numerous tapes of the John Peel show, memories of Rotten live, two nerve-steeling stints on the Belfast estates and the sort of physique only a certified psycho would think of tangling with.
Drifting from job to job, flat to flat, he felt in aimless command of his desired free destiny, but somehow missing his spiritual goal. Then, one fateful night last year, he hit upon The Birthday Party and neither Bingo nor band were ever the same.
"I'd read this interview where this bloke Nick Cave was saying that all English audiences were stupid, like sheep, so I went along to the Rock Garden to prove him wrong," Bingo said.
What he saw and heard that night were his road to Damascus; what he started to do shocked even him. Stunned by their power, command and commitment, obsessed by the way their bold confrontations turned his bottled-up tensions into fierce self-expression, Bingo became a stage-front familiar, regularly roughing Cave up, becoming more and more embroiled in an escalating ritual of machismo and pride. He'd force Nick to beg for release from frequent vice-tight grapples' he'd bite through drumsticks and microphone leads, he'd even been bruised and scarred by Tracy Pew's bass for pinning Cave to the floor of a stage at the North London Poly. As audience expectation warped and waned with the band's notorious reputation, so Bingo's role became more perverse.
"I had to force if further and further," he explained. "The Birthday Party lost me loads of girlfriends, but I just had to do it, had to push further until, at Hammersmith Palais, I blew fire at them from the crowd. I'd never done it before, practised a couple of days in advance with meths but still burned my mouth badly - lost a whole layer of skin inside but it was worth it!"
Backstage, Cave demanded to meet his maniac fan that the blistered Bingo became the band's new minder. Love and hate are so often the same. Fear, of course, is another dimension so when he stalks in the room with a furrowed brow, shakes his head and mutters: "Uh oh! They're really mad out there!," you know he's not talking 'bout showtime at Butlins . . .
. . . Koln's Stollwerck Club makes the set of "Escape From New York" look like some neatly designed suburban retreat. A disused chocolate factory crumbling behind two 12-foot wire fences, gutted of anything remotely plunderable, vandalised windowless and wantonly graffitied, the harsh concrete corridors stink like urinals.
Many corners are puddled with vomit and a uniquely psychotic breed of Euro-punk-hippy wanders around in straggling tribes, begging, gobbling, and scratching their asses.
The last time The Birthday Party played here there was trouble. Subtly billed as "the most violent band in Britain", they'd drawn a mangy crowd of mutants so intent on upholding the image of outrage that one of their glue ga-ga-ed rabble had clambered onstage and pissed down Tracy's leg. Strangely enough, his head wound up split open by the machine-heads on Tracy's bass.
Tonight looks like it's going to be even worse. A welcoming posse of Nazi punks, anti-nazi punks and good ol' unaffiliated hell's angels are scrapping outside in the refuse tip of a yard. A scarcely less volatile cocktail of motiveless rebels are sardined inside the sweat-fungaed walls, and, as one of the weary Party accurately complains: "It looks like a gas chamber out there!"
Rowland S. Howard, the Party's tubercular poet, is pacing the backstage cell in agitated anticipation of a hostile reception for his opening slot, slashing feedback guitar over industrial tapes while his sweetheart, New York punk-poetess Lydia Lunch, screams her indecipherables.
"Two minutes at most, Lydia."
She gestures theatrically, brushes her auburn hair off her ring-punctured nose and coos like some spoiled movie queen: "But I've absolutely nothing to say."
"Well say that!" He snaps back half way out the door. "I've got nothing to play!"
"Well play that!," she sarcastically screams, flouncing after him, momentarily turning to shrug a long-suffering sigh. "Honey, sometimes you get so uninspired . . ."
Within a matter of minutes she's back through the door, flushed and soaked but beaming.
What a pit, eh, Lydia?
Won't be coming back here in a hurry?
"No, but I like to try everything once - they seldom ask me back anyway. Did you see? Boys touched me tonight! I like that! Usually they don't, they're scared I'm gonna kick them or something. Rowland! Boys touched me! One finger first, just to see if I'd bite!"
Lydia's brief nightly performance consists of a totally improvised ten minutes or so ear-bashing an audience who don't understand one word of her babble and a frantic rendition of Iggy Pop's "Funhouse" at the end of The Birthday Party's set.
"I never get psyched up," she drawls, "I just charge out on stage and say the first thing that comes into my head."
Tonight on stage, this is what she came up with: "It would be so much easier to walk out and go home/Don't just stand there/Rip it up/You're so uninspired/Does it hurt?/What did you do to deserve this?"
Tomorrow in Frankfurt she'll say: "Don't just stand there stoopid!/Don't you love me?/I doubt it!"
Profound? Profane? Piffle?
Last night in Hamburg was a stunning success. One punter clapped.
The organiser delivers a breathless bulletin: "There is much fighting in front of the stage."
"Good," Nick Cave sneers. "I hope the pigs kill one another." The organiser flees.
Lydia started to explain that ten minutes is not only enough but "perfectly too much" for her to express herself, and that she'd like to write a book called "101 Concepts Of Art" for other people to implement so she wouldn't have to put herself out turning theory into practice. Bingo wanders by just in time to catch her decadent swansong . . .
. . . "Honey, I'm the laziest girl in town."
"But you're always mentally active," he chides.
"Yeah, my brain's always working but my body would rather do something else; like lying down. Ten minutes is too much - I think I know when enough is enough."
The organiser rushes back, flushed with panic: "Would you go on stage now PLEASE! They're all going totally wild!"
"Okay, okay," Nick snarls, annoyed. "Maybe they'll all piss on us tonight like the scum that we are. Hey! We can't go on yet - there's too many punk girls licking the microphones."
No matter what the obvious associations and dubious attractions of the Teenage Jesus, 8-Eyed Spy and 13.13 founder touring with The Birthday Party, no matter how deeply they share the same macabre fascination for death and self-indulgence, no matter how little their audience seems to mean to them, the crucial difference between Lydia Lunch and Australia's most intoxicating export since Foster's is that The Birthday Party don't give a hoot about enough being enough.
The gnarled and brooding 'Kiss Me Black'is barely beginning to unfold it's dark paranoia when Cave whiplashes his boot into the crowd and a girl reels back, nose bleeding. As he cowers beneath a shower of fists and attempts to make his apologies, a barely human lump of muscle and mange slips a claw inside it's coat. Bingo's uncoiled; up and on him like a startled cat. He struggles back stage left, moments later, brandishing an eight inch piece of metal pipe.
Meanwhile, Tracy's getting riled. Three dope-smoking mexican girls are gobbing on the ex-con's fresh-polished slacks, tarnishing his brand new spurs. "Beer, beer. Give us beer," they demand.
Suddenly, his patience snaps and a flurry of kicks catches one of the girls in the thigh. We winces as his privates grind against the penknife he keeps in his front-trouser pocket to make his meat-hustling swagger look better equipped. She gobs back, unhurt but visibly shaken that a simulated performance should break the bounds of ritual and explode into real pain.
And the Party play a blinder. Nick collapses and writhes in epileptic fury. Tracy struts and sweats, never smiles. Rowland glowers like an animate death's head. The spittin' image of a deranged door-to-door bible-seller who sleeps in his suit, Mick Harvey plays with one hand in his pocket, carves out vicious chords with the other. Phil Calvert smiles and drums like a butcher . . .
Back at the hotel, they demand a late-night interview that turns into a squabble. Where they agree, they sound weary.
"I'm afraid you're flogging a horse that's very long in the tooth on this tour," Nick begins.
"To be honest, I didn't want to do this tour. Most nights I get something out of it though - even if it's only exorcising my anger." This is from Rowland.
"I'm surprised you're still together" - this from the hack.
"So am I," Rowland concludes.
A second interview requested the next day, to clear up the carnage from the first, only contributes further to the public misinterpretation of a widely misunderstood band.
"Our public image is inaccurate in that it takes the very obvious aspects of the group - which I suppose is inevitiable - and makes it seem like that's the only thing to it." What Rowland is talking about is violence and, more specifically, the way Nick and Tracy say and do things for effect that the others often regret. "Personally, I think our band is a real battle of personalities," he says.
"It's definitely a clash of ideas rather than a cohabitation of ideas," Nick agrees.
"The band's just a little monster we've created that we don't seem to have any control over any more," Tracy sneers.
"It's like the nerve reaction when you pull of a spider's leg and it keeps on kicking . . ."
I think back to the morning when Rowland, Mick and Tracy exchanged punches over who should sit in the front of the van and wonder if there's any point in The Birthday Party doing interviews at all.
"Not a lot," muses Phil.
"They're so ofter misinterpreted either by the reader or the writer . . . just like when we play. It's inevitable for any group that hasn't got a really formulated idea of what they're supposed to be . . ."
The confusion and conflict, the inter-band bickering that brings this group to the brink and gives it that edge, will eventually blow it apart.
Here's the drunken bones of the first night's confrontation.
Nick: "Personally, I think there's still far too much humour in our music and I'd like to make the stuffiest, stiflingest, depressingest record out."
Tracy: "Would you? . . . Well you can get yourself a new bass player . . . I wish you'd told me in private."
Hack: "Does working with Lydia alter the way you work?"
Lydia: "Well, they always wear my make-up."
Nick: "There may be some influence . . . that's yet to be seen."
Lydia: "Yet to be obscene."
Hack: "What's your link?"
Lydia: "Brilliance . . . no, I didn't say that . . . Extreme passion."
Hack: "I hear you're going to be doing an album with The Birthday Party as well as writing a book of 50 one-act plays with Nick?"
Tracy: "That's for us to know and you to find out, buster."
Hack: "Okay, tell me about your new album then, Tracy."
Lydia: "I think 'Junkyard' is the best album ever recorded in the history of the world."
Bingo: "I second that."
Nick: "It makes a stand for violence for its own sake and violence as a profession . . . it's irresponsibly violent. Eeeech! There's blood on the end of my boot. I just think, occasionally, maybe tonight, we can be irresponsibly violent . . . so there!"
Hack: "Do you feel answerable for it?"
Nick: "Personally? No . . . people get killed quite often at concerts by people like The Rolling Stones."
Hack: "So one more person getting killed doesn't matter, is that what you're saying?"
Tracy: "Well, if people come to our concerts and fight, it's nothing to do with us, stupid! We haven't made them fight."
Hack: "Yes, you have. By behaving the way you do and playing music that's irresponsibly violent, you incite them."
Tracy: "Who's irresponsibly violent, you fuckin' asshole?"
Hack: "Nick said you were."
Rowland: "Nick was being irresponsible."
Nick (wearily): "Okay, I take it all back. I didn't mean it."
Hack: "I think you did."
Tracy: "You fucking crud!" (He ups and storms out.)
In Frankfurt, a cooler explanation is forthcoming. Lydia, in attempting to articulate the soiled ins and outs of her latest release, "13.13", her formidable and volatile output and why she never develops a project, puts a painted finger on the pulse of the Party's problem.
"Just because you make a piece of work that takes a ceetain stance doesn't mean that you're advocating it. I mean, when I'm up there wailing, I don't expect other people to start howling in the background."
"I think The Birthday Party are very passionate as opposed to nasty. True passion may or may not be something you've experienced, but it can get so exceptionally heated that it turns almost into an act of violence."
"I never take into consideration how people are gonna react to what I write, if people can't get into the joke then fuck 'em! I do what I want to do and hope it'll upset all the people who think they know me from the recordings before. I'm not like the Banshees - doing the same thing for five years to please other people. I express myself so why should I repeat myself? I get bored to death"
"Everything I do is exceptionally momentary. I don't feel I've ever needed any band for more than ten songs and if people think my ideas aren't developed fully enough they should reform the band and do it themselves. I please myself."
So why externalise your stuff at all?
"It's nice to think about fucking, but isn't it better to really fuck?"
Nick echoes her sentiments a couple of hours later: "I think there's a certain irresponsibility about the group in that we can incite a violent reaction or incite an energy into a crowd and just leave it at that without giving the crowd any aim or purpose or channel to focus their energy and violence upon. See, you're assuming our main objective's stimulation - it's not. Our main objective is to record for ourselves."
The artistically fortuitous, morally fascinating, mutually appreciative and musically stunning marriage of Lydia Lunch and The Birthday Party lurched to a halt at Frankfurt's Batschkap and headed back to Berlin - the band's new base - to finish Lydia's next quickfire project and complement her duo single with Rowland - in your shops now!
A brutal version of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood's 'Some Velvet Morning', it typically strips even the most fanciful innuendo down to sordid reality.
Backstage, Rowland slaps a punk for throwing beer in his face and Tracy floors the same punter outside for harassing Minnou, the tour manager.
"See! Me and Tracy knew he was a bad sort," Rowland grins in the back of the van. Mick turns to me somewhat sheepish and sighs.
"Personally, I find it offensive and embarassing if either the audience or the band starts throwing punches or kicking - and I find the idea behind it offensive as well . . ."
I remember Tracy's earlier comment that bands whose members are prepared to sacrifice their personal identities to toe a corporate line are "disgusting spineless fish" and it occurs to me that, for The Birthday Party, art and life are one and the same. They mean the noise they make and the noise they make means business.
We live in dangerous times.