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Review Wed Oct 01 2008

Laceration Nation: Atavistic reissues classic Lydia Lunch material

So, which one of you's Jesus?: Lydia Lunch with fellow Jerks
Bradley Fields and Gordon Stevenson, 1977.

With its recent release of the comprehensive CD anthology Shut Up and Bleed and the companion DVD Video Hysterie: 1978-2006, the Chicago-based experimental music label Atavistic aims to offer a chronicle of the early work that established Lydia Lunch as a doyenne of the underground NYC post-punk music scene of the 1980s. As a collection of recordings by Lunch's first two groups, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks and Beirut Slump, the CD's release follows on the heels of a one-off TJ&J reunion gig that took place at The Knitting Factory back in June, as well as the recent publication of Byron Coley and Thurston Moore's co-authored volume No Wave.

Admittedly, Lydia Lunch has had an unwieldy legacy. Cultishly iconic and influential, her status doesn't quite fit anywhere specific. Too art-damaged, amusical and nihilistic to be "punk," too snarlingly toxic to be "goth," too existential and misanthropic to be a precursor for Riot Grrrl-iness. Just plain difficult, in every respect. Which is how she'd prefer it -- i.e.: Up yours with your labels, your niches, your attempts to make everything 'fit' into some sense of accepted, make-believe societal order. Life, for many of us, just isn't anywhere near that easy or 'neat.'

This kind of difficulty was often the point of late '70s NYC No Wave coterie, especially the music of Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. Jagged and disjointed, off-puttingly raw, it involved a confrontational (if not antagonistic) relationship with the audience or listener -- deliberate guerilla-theater "it sucks to be you if you came here looking to be entertained" type stuff.

Collected on Shut Up and Bleed is the whole kaboodle of Teenage Jesus material -- including the early recordings with James Chance on accompanying sax-blat, the studio sessions crafted by (lately departed) Voidoids guitarist Bob Quine, plus numerous live recordings culled from bootlegs and such. Scattered throughout are what few recordings exist of Lunch's other band of the time, Beirut Slump.

The music of Teenage Jesus & The Jerks was stark, severe, and punishingly minimal. Their songs (to use the term loosely) were short serrated bursts -- almost entirely percussive in nature. As the band pounded away behind her, Lunch upped the agonistic ante, spewing shards of frenzied, clawing guitar and half howl/half yelp vocals. On "I Woke Up Dreaming," Lunch's phrasing sounds like she's almost gulping for breath in the midst of a sleep-shattering panic attack; and Quine teases out a world's worth of chilling atmospherics from her fretwork on the studio tracks, especially on the brief instrumental interludes "Red Alert" and "Freud In Flop" (which together sound like Sonic Youth's soon-to-follow Confusion Is Sex debut LP compacted into a scant 76 seconds). It's first rate club-clearing stuff -- nearly as off-putting now as it was then.

Beirut Slump was an animal of a slightly different pelt, though by no means any prettier by demeanor. Their sound was far sludgier than that of the Jerks; with the bass taking the lead and lots of haunted-house organ shadowing closely behind, fronted by vocalist Bobby Swope, who adopted the stage moniker of a certain ten-notorious NYC serial killer while channeling the rantings of neighborhood street people and ambulatory schizophrenics. Lunch steps in with her trademark string-scrapings from time to time, most brilliantly with some ascending and descending scales that eerily frame the narrative of "Staircase." Beirut Slump only released a solitary 2-song 7", played a total of three live gigs, and subsequently disintegrated. Everything that remains of them -- all eight tracks -- is to be found herein.

Lydia Lunch with Nick Cave, circa 1982.

The Video Hysterie DVD starts out with the usual footage of Teenage Jesus playing at Max's Kansas City in 1978, humbly shot with a single camera. The Jerks material is, admittedly, far less engaging to watch than to listen to; with Lunch standing defiantly numb and stoical, as if armoring herself from the hail of bottles that's likely to come her way. Next up is more solo-lens documentation of Lunch's later outfit, 8-Eyed Spy. In contrast to the Jerks' pointedly anti-musical fare, 8-Eyed Spy were a full-fledged rock band -- kicking out a garage-punk boogie spooled with tangling fretwork, tightly convulsive rhythms, complex chord changes, GUITAR SOLOS even (Sell out!! Sell out!!). Amidst the six live tunes captured here, the band digs deep into the delirium when they play their ace with the tightly-orchestrated gnarl of "Motor Oil Shanty," and then serve up a cover of CCR's "Run Through The Jungle" whereby they drag Fogerty's woodshed jangle through some Beefheartian hoodoo hoe-down swampiness, then frost the cake by throwing in some gratuitous surf-rock riffage. Quite nice indeed.

After the demise of 8-Eyed Spy in 1980, Lunch settled into her status as queen of the underworld; spending the rest of decade doing spoken word and performance art, acting in various films and videos, and collaborating with a laundry list of the musicians that included (to name a few) the Birthday Party, Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, Henry Rollins, Exene Cerzenka, Sonic Youth, as well as then-boyfriend Jim Foetus. The remainder of the DVD assembles various odds and ends from this second leg of Lunch's career, mostly in the form of miscellaneous live footage. Included are a few tracks from some of her collaborations with former Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard, a single song from a 1994 appearance with the German post-punk outfit Die Haut, and other assorted scraps. Truth be told, this latter portion of the collection leaves a lot to be desired, missing a great deal of better and far-stronger footage that apparently couldn't be obtained for the release. Some of it, especially the spoken-word fare, is much more likely to annoy than intimidate or enlighten.

Naturally, the music of Teenage Jesus & the Jerks still isn't for everybody, which was pretty much the point in the first place. The fact that this is still the case serves testament that the music still adheres to its original, uh, aesthetic intent. As with any documentation of the early output of an iconic band, this batch of reissued goods has a lot to do with hagiography and enshrinement. True, No Wave (especially the music of TJ&J) has been a source of inspiration for edge-seeking musicians and bands over the past 30 years, having been plundered and recycled numerous times by the likes of the Scissor Girls, God Is My Co-Pilot, The YeahYeahYeahs, Liars, and many others -- something handy and ready-made to reach for when aspiring young irritants want to go for a sound that's jarring, disruptive, "avant," or generally disagreeable.

All well and good perhaps, but it ultimately begs the question of context -- of where the music came from in the first place. In the case of Lunch and co., No Wave was (it seemed at the time) a newly mutant, necessary, and indigenous species to NYC in that city's pre-Disneyfied/"Rotten Apple" days. It was a natural upcropping of Manhattan's Lower East Side, that magnet for runaways who (like Lunch herself) fled to escape abusive families, broken homes, oppressively intolerant environs and the like; arriving to form new communities in low-rent, trash-strewn surroundings, learning to navigate the streets of a metropolis in the depth of decline, often getting by via dodgey and nefarious means. As the soundtrack for a specific sub-milieu, it was uncompromising, abrasive and, yes, noisy. Desperate music for desperate times.

[video]: Teenage Jesus & the Jerks - "Orphans"
[video]: Lydia Lunch & Rowland S. Howard - "Some Velvet Morning"*
[video]: Lydia Lunch - interviewed, circa 1983 & 1985

* Not included on the video anthology, unfortunately.

Shut Up and Bleed and Video Hysterie are both currently available via Atavistic Worldwide. Also still available from Atavistic is their 1997 collection of recordings by 8-Eyed Spy.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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