By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
Lydia Lunch has stories, and she’s happy to share them. The wildly prolific singer/poet/writer/actress/etc. ran away to New York City as a teenager, where she launched her career as a no wave provocateur with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. That’s an early example of Lunch’s willingness to live with abandon; her forthcoming book, So Real It Hurts, is filled with many more. In one essay, she recounts waking up mid-surgery after the anesthesia wore off. In another she details with grim humor the various toxins she’s unwillingly or unwittingly ingested over the years. Another serves and a history and a take-down of the t-shirt, the popularity of which she blames on Marlon Brando, “the original slob.” The collection is personal, it’s political, it’s self-indulgent, it’s empathic, it’s wise, its funny. It’s totally Lydia.
On July 12, she brings her Verbal Burlesque tour – an experimental performance which will feature improvised music by bassist Tim Dahl and spoken word by Lunch – to Cattivo. On the Fourth of July she spoke to the Current about the tour, her new book, and what she’s afraid of (spoiler alert: nothing).
Can you start by telling me a bit about Verbal Burlesque?
Well, it’s Weasel Walter on drums and Tim Dahl on bass. They were part of my band Retrovirus and have been in numerousother bands. And its improvisational music and spoken word. So the music kind of drives the words forward, but it’s not a rock show, it’s not a jazz show, its just highly propulsive words and music.
So how improvisational is it for you?
My part is not very improvisational, I have certain texts that I want to get across. The music changes all the time. It’s very interesting that way: the music influences not what I’m saying, but maybe the way in which I’m saying it. It’s kind of an exciting format as opposed to just a standard speech or a monologue. And it’s broken down into different chunks. It’s very experimental, it’s an interesting format. After having done both rock music — all kinds of music, and just straight-up spoken word, it’s very interesting for me to participate in, especially with the caliber of musicians that I’m bringing to this. In Pittsburgh it’s only going to be Tim Dahl: It will be bass, effects and vocals, and Weasel is going to join me on the rest of the tour.
It sounds like it would create an interesting relationship between you and your work as a writer, specifically.
Absolutely. I do come with a certain text, it changes every night, depending on my mood. I kind of shuffle the text in accordance with whatever the music is, and there is room for verbal improvisation.
Your writing style seems like it would be conducive to this kind of setting, there’s a jarringness to it which I can see becoming musical in its own way.
What’s great about the book coming out is that, you know, I have many different styles of writing. If I was doing a straight monologue with no music, it [would] have a certain tone. But then when you’re breaking things down into chunks there’s more variety in how you can express it.
Anthony Bourdain wrote the introduction to the book. Were you friends?
No. He read something that I wrote for somebody else, and then the last special that he did was on the Lower East Side and he had asked me to do that.
I’d been trying to think of somebody for months and months — a woman, preferably, preferably someone more political, who would get what I’m doing — to write the intro. And I just failed to come up with anybody.
I was hoping to get someone who would take me out of the literary ghetto and expose me to other people but I just failed to find anyone who I thought could do that and still get what I’m doing. A lot of [the book] is sarcastic, there are diverse forms of writing, sometimes I’m saying the exact opposite of what I really mean. You have to understand the sarcasm and the humor and I think some people just don’t fucking get it. Hence why I’ve had 26 rejections by American publishers. Until the publishers at Seven Stories, who published Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis. I was like, you know what, Fuck all the rest of y’all. I’m with the right people.
When I asked them why they wanted to publish this they said, “Because we laughed.” And I’m like, thank you. Thank you. Because a lot of it is deadly serious, but at the end of it, you have to fucking laugh, or you’re going to shoot yourself.
Well, Bourdain’s introduction ended up being very fond and familiar.
We only met a few times, and it was the last thing that he wrote. I was fortunate enough to be on the last special that he did, so it was kind of incredible. His participation did not help to get the book published by any stretch of the imagination [laughs].
And when I asked him about how he went from being a heroin-addicted low-life on the Lower East Side to being as successful as he became, he quite simply said, “It was a fucking fluke.” He just did what he did. And as we do what we do, whatever happens to it, happens to it. You can’t predict. You just do what you do.
I’m still thinking about the part in the book where you wake up on the operating table.
Horrifying, horrifying. I pray that for no one. And it wasn’t until years after that experience that I actually saw a special, and [learned] that it is called operational awareness. And not that I thought I was the only one who ever had that experience, but it has ruined some people’s lives because they lose all sense of trust in anything. It’s an absolute fucking nightmare. It really does feel like you’re in hell and hell is pain with no voice.
But everything is fine now, I’m glad I had that experience once, and I’ll never have it again, thank you very much.
Are you afraid of anything?
Hell no. Maybe death is afraid of me!
That’s a joke of course.
You’ve said that you’ve never experience shame, which is an interesting concept because so many cultural problems are the result of people either feeling too much shame or not enough shame. I mean you think about people in power …
No shame, no integrity, no empathy. I have a lot of empathy, I just don’t have any shame. I think shame is really destructive and it’s really an American curse. There’s a lot of feelings like that I just never experience. Jealousy, envy, cancer-causing emotions. I think they’re very cancerous. And I think that what I do … the individuals who come to my work, I hope that they take some power from me striving to thrive and not just survive. I hope that’s what I can impact people with, to relinquish some of these unnecessary emotions placed on you by no will of your own, quite often, as children.
I just feel that whatever the enemy has put upon you, whetherits parents or society, poverty, racism, or religious fanaticism, that it has to be rebelled against. You have to be your biggest fan, you have to be a pillar to yourself because we are born that way and we will die that way, and I think that the stronger anybody is, the stronger they can be for other people, and the more they can encourage other people. I think that’s really important, especially for women.
And it doesn’t mean that you have to be hard, I don’t feel that I’m hard. I may be hardened to some things, but I wouldn’t write what I write if I was so hard to all of it.
The first essay in the book is about the 2016 election. Are you feeling any hope this time around?
Things have to change, it can’t get much worse. I was just watching a news special before you called, and it was an expert in presidents throughout history, and his theory was, you know, there have been worse times, it just seems like this is the worst because we should know better by now. We’re so spoiled in America, anyway, as much poverty and desperation as there is, we’re still pretty privileged compared to a lot of other countries. But we should not be in the position that we’re in. The immigrant crisis is just so awful. I mean, this has gone on, it’s not like Trump started this, but he’s making it worse.
As Kafka said, there’s hope but not for us …
… That’s just a joke.
I don’t know what the answer is to unseat this insanity,because it’s not just [Trump]. It is so deeply ingrained into the power structure of the patriarchy.
[But] that’s why we have to create, that’s why we have to write, that’s why we have to release books, that’s why I have to get on the fucking stage. There’s got to be an alternative to the bullshit that we’re fed every fucking day.
VERBAL BURLESQUE with CLONING, MORTIS, BRUISER BEEP. 8 p.m. Friday, July 12. Cattivo. 146 44th St., Lawrenceville. $16-20. www.cattivopgh.com