Here’s to the Lady Who’s Lunch: A Punk Icon Documented



My first encounter with the recorded work of Lydia Lunch took place a little over 40 years ago, when a compilation album titled “No New York” caught on in the San Francisco Bay Area punk scene that I was a part of in the early 1980s. The album, produced by Brian Eno, featured four so-called “No Wave” bands from New York City whose jagged minimalistic musical stylings placed them outside of any of the familiar musical genres popular at the time. Lydia Lunch sang and performed with one of those bands, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Soon after that, she released “The Queen of Siam”, her solo debut LP, which featured her on the cover, glaring into the camera with an expression equal parts sexy and intimidating. Still in her early 20s when those records were released, Lunch made a strong impression on me and many of my peers through her intense persona, incendiary lyrics and confrontational attitude. 

I never had the chance to see her perform live when I traveled in those circles, and within a few years I decided to hit the reset button and put my punk rock phase behind me as a way of life.  But the impact of her early work stuck with me, and when I saw that Kino Lorber released a documentary titled Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over, my curiosity was piqued. “What has Ms. Lunch been up to over these past four decades?”, I wondered. As the film’s title implies, she hasn’t given up the fight, and over the course of a swift 78 minutes, viewers are given plenty of information to better understand what drives her to face the world with seemingly limitless reserves of defiance and outrage. 

As a performer, Lunch built an extensive catalog as a musician, a spoken word poet, a screen actor, podcaster and writer. Her themes focus on the darker aspects of human nature – lust, hatred, the appetite for revenge, the refusal to conform to moral standards, the rejection of conventional moral constraints. If there are any filters applied to her expressions or taboos she’s reluctant to violate, they aren’t very obvious or frequently invoked. By her own account, her artistic work emerged from her experiences as an abused child who had to leave home in her early teens just to protect herself from the predatory behavior of her father. That foundational influence of trauma and terror permeates her work, and the rawness of her delivery, fueled by profanity, insults, explicit sexuality and ferocious vocal delivery, will enthrall some audiences and alienate others. To her credit, Lunch has never sought to operate within the familiar formats of commercial entertainment, releasing most of her material on small independent labels and performing in settings more characteristically “underground” than “mainstream”. 

So while the Kino Lorber release of Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over (the title is a quote from one of her spoken word pieces) may appear to contradict what I just wrote, there’s no way that this documentary should be regarded as a sellout move on her part. Though I don’t think Lunch is anywhere close to retirement or has intentions of watering down her scathing attacks on abusive and exploitative power structures, this may be the most comprehensive overview of her career that we’re likely to get. 

Director Beth B, with whom Lunch has collaborated since she first emerged in the late 70s, has compiled a wide range of archival performance materials, animated sequences and more recent interviews with Lunch and numerous co-creators. The cumulative effect is to demonstrate both the persistence of Lunch’s pissed off fury throughout the decades as well as a determination to press her rebellious stream of consciousness into the eyes and ears of observers all over the world, whether or not they are prepared to withstand her sensory assaults. Though her caustic, blatantly offensive delivery inevitably limits the reach of her message, she has important things to say. Her perspective skews more deliberately toward pessimism and sensationalism than I care to regularly consume in my media diet, but the rhetoric is powerful and effective in its ability to strip away the conventions and niceties that make us all too complacent about the horrors and tragedies we’ve become accustomed to in so many aspects of life. The targets of her wrath range from our loftiest cultural institutions on the collective level down to the gnarliest assumptions and biases that are drilled into us at the earliest stages of life, that we subsequently carry around and protect as our cherished beliefs and opinions. 

Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over functions effectively as an audio-video “greatest hits” collection for the artist’s core fanbase and admirers, and an engaging introduction or re-acquaintance (as in my case) with those who may be new to or only partially familiar with her work. The Kino Lorber release (available in DVD and streaming formats) nicely rounds out the main feature with deleted scenes, an extended interview, a short film and additional live performance recordings from the 1990s. I recommend it as a brutally candid wake-up call and a valuable artifact of raw American subculture to anyone who hasn’t been put off by my description of her uncompromised, blistering presentation.