Siren Magazine - 1992
TO THRILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Lydia Lunch, currently doing the rounds with a collaborative
Rowland S. Howard, is really in action Stateside . . .
standing in opposition to the Ku Klux Klan.
Susan Compo interviews Lunch and Howard, researching the latest developments.
A CHORD PLAYED by Rowland S. Howard evokes a night in a mossy, swampy desert, condemns one to a mosh-pit entangled with healthless creatures wearing snake-trailed black Western shirts (sweat soaked, of course). One note across the crowded gloom brings back that old familiar chill and makes the blood race cold, the way it should.
A word sung, a phrase spoken by Lydia Lunch brings on the noise. If domination, if damnation had a voice...
Combine Lydia and Rowland and the result is like a marriage between heaven and well, hell.
The inner stoned circle that comprised the Birthday Party and its offshoots has offered up surprisingly few burn-outs and the Lunch/Howard asterisk is no exception. Their first collaboration, 'Some Velvet Morning' was as sloshed and soaked as whiskey-absorbed bar coasters and about as immobile. Their latest release, Shotgun Wedding, is lush and spare, riddled with Rowland’s pent-up guitar playing and Lydia’s wry, impassioned wails. The album opens with 'What is Memory?' a chilly piece of no-nonsense that is as close to Hitsville as you can get using your own maps, your own inroads. And the cover of 'In My Time of Dying', amnesia-inducing.
Before, separate and yet parallel to the Birthday Party, was the performance persona of Lydia Lunch, unleashed onto the world as part of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and then potlatched in the no-trend of ‘80s unmelodic darkness.
Lydia emerged, the flipped-side of Siouxsie Sioux, an embittered, far less starstruck Patti Smith who wrote like a reversed Sylvia Plath with only the soul remaining the same. Except that when Lydia protests, she rails. Hers ain’t pleas, they’re orders.
A performance artist who despises the term, singer who considers music a distraction, showperson who vies the audience as a by-product, actress who convincingly deals with jealousy yet denies she’s experienced it, Lydia is back with a new album, tour, the re-release of 1980’s Queen of Siam and a platform as lofty as Lady Miss Kier’s shoes: opposing former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke’s 1992 state senate campaign.
Lydia Lunch running for office?
"Running doesn’t really impress me. Running off at the mouth impresses me," she announces from her home in New Orleans. The spectre of that city brings to mind languid trees, genteel mint juleps, racial blending, spiral shade, Mardi Gras day-glo—hardly the lap of luxury for a Spartan artist.
"Here there’s absolutely no alternative music scene," Lydia explains. "That’s very attractive to me. Plus I don’t know anyone here."
Not even that other darkside New Yorker who passed on recently?
"As someone I know once said, Johnny Thunders died ten years ago—why didn’t anyone notify the corpse? It was no great loss in my book."
The re-release of Queen of Siam was prompted by the lack of distribution that attended its initial appearance, and not by the rash of remixes that have cropped up, right?
"I don’t work in the same way that other bands do in that you release your big hit for this month—whatever techno dance hiphop rap trendy act that might be—and then to work that fashion trend into it. I consider myself first and foremost to document certain periods of time. Writing keeps it alive."
So you have no affinity with the overall music scene in the UK?
"I think it’s absolutely atrocious. First of all, they’re too incredibly fucking English and second, they’re just a fashion. Take the skate fashion, put a limp backbeat to it and add some sampling. I’m not really impressed by any of it. It’s just another fashion statement made by the English press. They have a high turnover, people grow exceedingly bored with nothing of substance."
However, she does feel a kindred spirit with rap. "My spoken word is as close to rap as it gets without a beatbox and a baseball cap. I like all of the groups except for the white ones."
Another artist as steeped in her career might be attempting a crossover at this juncture, yet Shotgun Wedding falls short of smacking as sell out.
"I would be humiliated if I found out that anything I did actually became a commercial success—that I had reduce my vision to mass popular appeal. This is the first time in my so-called career that I’ve done an album and then gone on tour after it. It’s sot of my last laugh. Plus, playing it live is going to change it drastically. And working with Rowland Howard is a great honour in my opinion."
Does the effort mark a swan song?
"It’s a definitive statement indeed but I think we still have a few years left in our sourpusses. Shotgun Wedding is my interpretation of living in the South—that’s the feel of this place, this time, these songs. This is a state where even if you don’t see racial inequality, it’s still the South. It seems very nice on the surface but the dichotomy and hypocrisy are far more blatant than a place like New York, LA, Detroit or Chicago where you see the racial problem. Here they try to hide them and keep a happy face."
Lydia also doesn’t seem any up and coming performance artists following her stiletto steps. "Young people are too ambitious. Why don’t they just get into a white rap band? Performance art is not a high profile, high paying, high caliber position. One throws themselves into it because they have no other way to vent their spleen. But you can’t pick who you speak to and that’s what drives me away from the spoken word ghetto as it is. It’s the same art fags over and over and I’m not using the word ‘fag’ in a sexual connotation. That’s why using the political platform is interesting to me."
"I’m doing a campaign against David Duke in 1992 and I’ll be speaking against the ever increasing atrocities being committed by the American Government when their bid for re-election comes up. I intend to sort of beat that bandwagon and also to coalesce myself with a more pro-black militant feel along the lines of the black activists that are coming up in America right now such as Michael McGee out of Milwaukee, who claims that if that city isn’t straightened out by 1995, there will be urban guerilla warfare. Whether it’s art scam political consciousness or running off at the mouth, other than black rap groups who are already tainted because they come from such a hard-assed, hard-nosed ugly environment where compassion is not the essence—I’m not necessarily taking it on for me to be the main banner-wagger but I think someone’s got to do some pro-black enlightenment.
"I think I can say things in a way that might give people hope, to take thins into their own hands and not sit on their fucking fat asses like the white people have done while this country has fallen to shit. Like I say I’m not calling it a political campaign or an art scam—you can choose for yourself—but that’s where my inclinations are drawn. I have a social conscience because I can take the weight of every victim. That’s my burden in life. Whether it’s talking about depressed white teenage girls who live in the Midwest and making albums that suit that kind of dystopia or whether it’s now with this, my only job is to try to relieve the tensions of those not articulate enough to complain themselves."
It’s a long way from The Uncensored Lydia Lunch. Or is it?
"It’s about my own emotional, sexual and physical abuse at the hands of the white middle-aged male from all sectors of life. It was just time to go on. You can only speak out so much about a specific type of abuse—now there’s the whole picture to look at. People get caught up on their own petty sexual inhibitions because they swear, become aggressive, because I’m a hot white fucking white babe and they can’t deal with it. They hear the swear words and they see the bad attitude and they’re not listening to what the fuck I’ve been saying.
"Which of course does not deter me. It doesn’t matter. My only responsibility is to articulate frustration, bottom line, period. It’s like a prostitute, that’s what a prostitute gets paid for, relieving frustration. They’re honourable tasks much overlooked, neglected and misaligned.
"But I’m not going to do a rap record. I’m not against being sampled by rap bands. I would love it. Ice T, yo, sample me. I’m there. If my work can get out there in that community which I have no access too they can sample my whole 'Conspiracy of Women'. Market it under Bitches With Problems and let all those fucking stupid people who are now just getting in on the gangster tip, give them a dose of alternative reality."
In a Spanish bar in London, Rowland Howard is explaining to me about how in New Orleans, where Shotgun Wedding was rehearsed, the landscape is so flat educations have constructed artificial backdrops depicting mountains so schoolchildren will know what natural wonders look like.
He’s emphatic about this, animated when telling me about his favourite books or the travails of EastEnders’ Nick Cotton but he remains dispassionate when addressing the past, These Immortal Souls, or the present music scene. He speaks of Lydia with a brand of bemused yet intense affection, a wary, wizened, fondness and respect. And he disagrees with Lydia’s assessment of Johnny Thunders.
"I didn’t like a lot of the things he did but equally a lot was great. He was a perfect example of a person who was not particularly articulate, but articulates through his guitar playing. You hear one note and know it’s Johnny Thunders."
He listens to music by his former colleagues, T. Rex and Roxy Music, but very little current stuff. "Today music lacks artistic innocence. It’s too arch and knowing, the fans are too arch and knowing. At one time music was an inexact science."
Rowland views Shotgun Wedding as Lydia’s project and considers himself less a collaborator than a presence. He admires Lydia’s ability to be so readily influenced by what’s around her but disdains spoken word in favour of music. "Ninety-nine percent of music comes through feeling, not lyrics. It’s possible to be political without lyrics."
If the album represents a commercial break-on-through for them Rowland wouldn’t mind a bit. Stadium shows and festivals are probably out of the picture, however.
"I can’t imagine playing in daylight," he says, with trepidation.