Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Lydia Lunch Chronicles

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, September 23, 2007)

I first became aware of Lydia Lunch (http://www.lydia-lunch.org/ & http://www.myspace.com/lydialunch) during my trip to New York City in 1977. My friends Marcy, Brian (later to rename himself Kid Congo) and I decided it was time to get out of Los Angeles and check out the music scene of another big city for a few weeks, so we took off to the Big Apple. There we saw lots of up-and-coming bands, including the Dead Boys, Johnny Thunder's Heartbreakers, the Tuff Darts and a whole lot more that I can no longer remember. Elvis Presley died while we were there and I was amazed when the whole city seemed to shut down in mourning for a day. New York was quite an experience.

I think I first heard Lydia's name at a Dead Boys show I was enjoying at CBGB'S. They did a song called "I Need Lunch" and someone told me it was written about a notorious young girl on the scene named Lydia. Then, a few days later, I was looking at an ad for upcoming shows in the city and I noticed a band called Teenage Jesus & The Jerks (http://www.myspace.com/teenagejesusandthejerks) were playing; although the date was after I was leaving the city. I loved the name of the band and wished I could stay around to see them, but I had to get home. After I mentioned them to someone at a show that evening, I was told it was Lydia's band and that they were noisy and great. I was very disappointed that I would miss them. A year later, the "No New York" compilation came out and I discovered for myself just how great they were. Unfortunately, I never got to see them live.

I didn't get to see Lydia play live until around 1980 or 1981, when she toured with her third band, 8 Eyed Spy, and played at the Hong Kong Café in Chinatown. They were very different from Teenage Jesus (as was her second band, Beirut Slump), but I loved their reinvention of classic blues. I could tell I was going to be a fan for life.

It must have been around 1983 when Marcy called me and said she wanted me to join her for lunch, as she wanted to introduce me to a new friend of hers. Once I arrived at the restaurant, I was surprised and pleased to find Lydia sitting at the table. Marcy introduced us to each other and we settled in for talk and sustenance. Lydia had quite the reputation of being somewhat abrasive, so I was a bit on edge, but she was pleasant, talkative and very funny, and I relaxed rather quickly. Just as I completely relaxed, a woman sitting next to us leaned over and asked,

"That sandwich that you're eating looks delicious. Do you mind if I ask you what it is?"

Lydia turned to her with sandwich dripping out of her mouth and said, "Yes I do mind. I'm eating" and then turned away from the woman like she never existed.

The woman was shocked, of course, but I suddenly realized that I loved Lydia. In those post-punk years, she was the perfect woman. So, we became friends and I started hanging around with her and Marcy whenever I could.

Early in 1984, Lydia approached me about doing a show with her. She was in cahoots with Henry Rollins, who she had just filmed a movie with ("The Right Side Of My Brain") and they wanted to do a performance piece at a new club in Hollywood called the Fetish Club, run by our friends Joseph and Henry, who also ran the very popular Veil Club. For this performance, I had to dress up in a suit and tie, but I would have a ski mask over my head. The idea was that I would walk through the crowd and randomly pick people out, grab them and force them into a dark room. In that room was Lydia and Henry with flashlights. They would verbally terrorize the person while shining light in their eyes, without touching them, until they cracked and wanted out of the room. I would stand guard outside the room, refusing to let anyone in until told to do so by Lydia. This went on for quite some time and the reaction was mixed. Some people got really scared and came out of the room crying and shaking. Others just laughed and thought the whole thing was a joke.

After a while of this, I was approached at the door by another local performance artist, Johanna Went (http://www.johannawent.com/), who at the time was mostly known for performances where she would dance around in a suit made of dildos. She decided that she was going to disrupt our performance and with her musician sidekick, Mark Wheaton, she approached the door and tried to get into the room without Lydia's or my permission.

Keep in mind that they didn't know who I was, although I was a friend with Mark at the time. She kept trying to force her way by me, but I held the door against all invasions. Angry words were exchanged and finally she tried to grab the ski mask off my face. At that, I had had enough and just smacked her across the room. That's when it all came down on us. Johanna was pissed off that I had hit her, although to this day I still say it was her own damned fault. She and Mark went out to the audience to find like-minded fellows and planned to jump us all with the crowd and turn the tables by beating us all up. Club owner, Joseph, came to us and told us that we needed to get out of the place because a mini-riot was brewing up. Lydia, Henry and I made it to a side exit and out of the club just as an angry mob were coming down the hall to get us.

I would say the evening was a success! For several months afterward, I kept hearing people talk about that event. Several people wondered who the big guy at the door was. To tell you the truth, I couldn't understand how anyone couldn't figure out it was me, especially someone like Mark, who actually knew me. But I never came clean about it, preferring to keep people wondering. I had just taken part in my first performance art piece and I loved it.

One day in 1985, Lydia told me that she was doing a spoken-word show at the Anti-Club and she wanted to know if I would be interested in helping her out. She had already roped in another friend to help out and needed me due to my large stature. What she wanted was for me to stand on the stage dressed (again) in a suit and tie, with wrap-around, mirrored sunglasses over my eyes. I was to be her bodyguard. She explained that her other friend made movies and would be setting me up with some special effects for the show. On the day of the show, she introduced me to her friend, Richard Kern (http://www.richardkern.com/) and we got down to business.

The time for the show came and it was rather packed with people. Lydia walked out on stage with me right beside her. I was never introduced to the audience. I just stood there, looking over the audience and acting menacing. Every now and then someone would heckle and I would motion at him or her to stop. But halfway through the show, the audience was beginning to get loud and unruly. That was when Richard stood up in the audience. He yelled and screamed, saying he was sick of Lydia's bullshit and he wanted her to get off the stage. The audience was quiet and watched the action. Some of them began moving away, expecting the worst. I went into action and approached him on the floor. I made to grab him so I could throw him out of the place. That's when he pulled out a long butcher knife and began hacking away at me. The blood bags he had planted on me burst and blood was flying everywhere. I was screaming and bit into a blood bag in my mouth, throwing up blood all over. I remember one young woman screaming, "Not in my hair!"

The audience went apeshit. Most headed for the doors to escape. Others were just running around not sure what to do. Everyone was screaming and yelling. It was complete pandemonium.

Richard and I stopped what we were doing. He headed backstage and I took my bodyguard position on the stage again. I just stood there, drenched in fake blood. Slowly, the audience who were left began to notice. Lydia told everyone that they should take their seats again. A few people called out to those who had headed out the door, but it was too late for most of them. A good two-thirds of the audience was gone. I was half-expecting the police to arrive, but they never did, so either no one called or the police just didn't feel it was important enough for their time. Knowing the Hollywood police at the time, it was probably the latter.

After everyone was seated once again, Lydia looked them over and said, "Now that I have your undivided attention…" and finished her show. The audience listened at attention and didn't say another word.

One incident I never forgot was going with friends to the Veil Club and seeing David Lee Roth try to pick Lydia up. She played along with him for a while, before dismissing him with some insult or other. Seeing the normally cocky guy stand there looking thoroughly dejected was something I've never forgot. There was also the time we went to see the demented opera singer, Diamanda Galas (http://www.diamandagalas.com/home.htm) where Lydia gave Skip some sort of drug that has never been identified. He was freaking out during Diamanda's performance, but said he ended up having a great time.

Sometime around the end of 1985, Lydia told me that she had written a movie and had a part for me in it. The movie was the second part of a trilogy. She had already done the first part, " The Right Side Of My Brain", with Henry Rollins. This one was to feature Marty Nation, a local tattooed hairdresser on the LA music scene. Like the first one, it was to be directed by R. Kern, the same guy who had stabbed me to death earlier at the Anti-Club. The film was called "Fingered" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091052/) and the story of the film followed a phone sex operator (Lydia), who has a sexual encounter with one of her clients (Marty) that leads the two of them on a murderous rampage. I play a guy who tries to pick Lydia up on a street corner, where I end up getting my throat cut for the effort. Of course, I was totally in to it.

We filmed my scene on a corner in East LA. The locals were all out in force, excited about having a movie filmed in their neighborhood. It only took a few takes to get the scene. I approached Lydia on the corner and said "Hey Baby. How much?" She rebuked me with an insult and I went apeshit on her, screaming about "her and her faggot boyfriends". Marty came up behind me, grabbed my head and sliced my throat. The scene ends with me lying on the sidewalk with blood pouring out of my wound. When Marty cut my throat, the crowd of local families burst out in applause. I didn't know if it was funny or frightening. After they kill me, Lydia and Marty's characters go on to stab and drag a man to death and beat and rape a hitchhiker (Lung Leg), before being stopped by the police. In between, they have several real sex scenes.

The movie was all set up to exploit, disturbed and offend. It's not for the weak-hearted. When it opened in 1986, it quickly became Kern's most notorious film, even to this day. I still get recognized every now and then for being in the film. I'm pretty proud of it. I find the whole thing to be so over-the-top that I don't understand why some people can be offended by it. Even my parents have seen it to my initial horror, hard-core sex and all. My 70-year-old grandmother was laughing while watching it. I think they were smitten just by the fact that their son was in a movie, never mind that it was a low-budget art piece that has never been seen by a mainstream audience. Still, I now have my own IMDB page because of the film: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0422314/. I was listed in the film as "Jet", which was a punk rock name I used in the 70's and early 80s, before dropping it in disgust after Paul McCartney named a song after me.

In early 1986, Lydia approached me again about doing a show. This time it would be with her then boyfriend, Jim Thirwell, better known as Foetus (http://www.foetus.org/), and instead of playing in the background to her performance, she wanted me to devise one all on my own and open the show with it. This performance would also feature Lung Leg, an actress and New York scenester who was also in "Fingered", and a showing of the film as well. I was a little worried about carrying a performance on my own, but finally said yes and the show was on.

On March 19, 1986, I found myself in the early afternoon at the Farmer John's meat processing plant with Lydia and Jim. We were buying about a dozen pig's heads. The idea was to hang them all over the stage at the Roxy Club, where we would be performing that night. Seeing Lydia and Jim wearing their Farmer John paper hats while looking for just the right heads was a sight that has stayed with me for years. (The only other memory I have of them that comes anywhere close is when I went bowling with them. For some reason, seeing them in bowling shoes was a particularly disturbing sight for me.)

I spent the afternoon stringing wires through pig's ears and snouts so they could be hung from the rafters. The effect was affectively frightening and gave the show even more of a dangerous edge than it already would have had. I believe the show ran with me opening, with help from Skip and Lung Leg. That was followed by a spoken word performance by Lydia. Then "Fingered", and it all ended with an intense musical performance by Jim, billed as Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel for this show. On Jim's website, it claims that there were two shows that night, but I only remember one show.

The night of the show came and I was unsure how ready I was to do it. I had decided to map out a general idea and then improvise as the performance went on. Lydia actually warned me against doing it like that. She thought I should have a complete script for what I was going to do. But I like the idea of improvisation better and decided to stick to that. But now with the show not far away, I was wondering if I was making a mistake doing it that way. Not that I could do anything about it now, as it was too late. Plus, doing the past performances helping out Lydia was fun, but I wasn't in the spotlight. I was just a sideman on those. Being in the main spotlight was a whole new thing and I wasn't sure I was going to be able to handle it. So, I was nervous as we approached show time.

The general idea behind my show was based on something that was going on in my life at the time. When I met Skip, he identified as straight. Six months later, we were lovers, much to both his and my surprise. But now, after several years, he was beginning to wonder just what he was and wanted to have a relationship with a woman to see how he would feel about everything. I reluctantly gave him permission to do so, but I was also worried that he would decide he really was straight and leave me. Plus, the woman he started a relationship with, a friend named Reina, was obviously hoping he would stay with her, so I didn't trust her in any way. After several months of this though, Skip was beginning to realize that he wanted to be with me and was preparing to end it with Reina once and for all. I based the whole show around this conflict, much to the horror of many of our friends. In fact, the only person we knew who came to the show was a friend named Merril. She was horrified after the show. She just couldn't understand how I could talk about this stuff in public, in front of an audience of people who I didn't know. I've never felt I have much to hide and I'm not ashamed of much that I have done and have few regrets. Because of that, I have no problem discussing anything in my life with people. But people sometimes don't want to hear about those things, considering them private. I just don't feel that.

So, the show opened with me on stage and I started a monologue about how much I loved Skip and how he has betrayed me with this woman, giving people the whole history of what had been going on. Skip and Reina were both in the audience, right at the front of the stage. I got increasingly more insulting towards Reina as the monologue continued and I finally said that I had had enough and threw a drink in her face. At this, Skip got pissed off and climbed on stage to protect her honor. A scuffle broke out and then I had a knife. I stabbed Skip several times and blood poured everywhere thanks to Richard Kern's effects once again. Skip dragged himself across the stage moaning and then finally died. I gave a final speech about how my life was over as well and left to commit suicide as Lung Leg appeared on stage in a nurse's outfit and started mopping up Skip's blood. The curtain came down.

The problem with this is that I was extremely nervous and my dialog was hesitant and not very convincing. Lydia and Jim were standing off to the side of the stage and kept screaming, "Who's the man in the relationship?" and things like that, hoping to get me upset and spark up the performance, but it just made me more nervous. The audience was also hooting, especially when Skip was dragging himself across the stage. So, I left the stage feeling that the performance was stupid and I had failed. Lydia tried to consul me, telling me it was fine for a first time, but I wasn't buying it.

It wasn't until a few weeks later, when Skip and I were at a show at the Santa Monica Civic, that some kid in the audience approached us. He asked us if we were the ones who opened the show with Lydia and then told us that he thought we were great and he enjoyed the show tremendously. I still wasn't convinced that I had done a good job, but I calmed down a bit. All I can ask is that I entertained people and while the show wasn't what I wanted it to be, it was obvious that people were entertained by it in some way. So, I was fine after that, and I've actually come to be proud of that performance as well. But I never did anything like it again. I decided that performance art of that type was not for me.

Sometime later, I formed a band called Jes Grew. There's a whole story behind that that I will get to someday, but I used the same idea with that band of sketching out a plan and then improvising the music for each performance. And we used a lot of performance art ideas as well, with films, costumes and the like. That worked out much better for me, but again, I wasn't onstage all by myself. I was surrounded by equipment and other musicians, and that made it a lot easier to deal with.

Despite the fact that Skip had decided he wanted to be with me instead of a woman, we were still having a lot of tension in our relationship and it was decided that we needed to take a break from each other. Lydia stepped in with a solution. She had moved back to New York earlier, but now she was going to Europe on tour and she needed someone to watch over her apartment and her cat. She would be gone for three months and I had until then to decide what I wanted to do, either move back to L.A. afterwards, or find a job and re-establish myself in New York full time.

My friend, Karl, was going through a lot of confusion in his life as well, so he decided to accompany me there and in the summer of 1986, we made the move. We arrived to find her apartment to be in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. It was in Spanish Harlem and was one of the worst streets for drug trafficking in the area. Lydia had left a note telling us about the neighborhood, basically warning us of blocks to avoid at certain times due to gang activity and the like. When Karl and I arrived, we were nervous and the locals were treating us with a lot of suspicion. But after a week or so, it all calmed down and we were accepted into the neighborhood with little problems. We got to know the feel of the place. You could actually sense when something was going down and you knew to stay in the house until things felt right again. I met a lot of great people there and look back on this period as one of the great experiences of my life.

Lydia's apartment was nice, although it was on the fifth floor of a walkup and it took us a while to get used to that hike up the stairs. Her cat, Death Chuckle, was a terror. But he was a sweet terror. His favorite thing to do was to start at one end of the apartment and race to the open window, looking like he was going to jump out. But he would land on the windowsill and stop there, scaring the crap out of me every time.

Both Karl and I decided we needed jobs and found them rather easily, especially since people had told us it was next to impossible to find jobs in the city at that time. I ended up working in the bookstore at Baruch College in the Village. I helped them get set up for the new semester and then worked in sales for the rest of my time there. I loved it there. They treated me well and I felt like I was wanted, something I wasn't used to feeling while working in retail were I had worked almost my whole life.

Karl and I had a great time there. We saw lots of great bands, went to some great parties and just generally had a blast. I loved the city and was starting to wonder if I really wanted to ever go back to L.A.

Richard Kern got in touch with me and wanted me to come visit him at his place in Alphabet City. At the time, this area of New York was terrible, nothing but junkies and crime. Karl and I found his apartment and went up. Sitting there was three goofy guys who seemed to be in awe of Kern. He introduced them as one of his new favorite bands, Dinosaur Jr. It wasn't the last time I would run into J. Mascis in my life. We talked for a while and then told Kern we had to go. He wanted to pay me for what I had done in "Fingered", but he didn't have any money. So he gave me a giant bag of psychedelic mushrooms and asked if that would be okay. I was very satisfied with that form of payment and Karl and I spent several days happily tripping in various areas of the city, avoiding police and street performers as much as we could. We did get caught in a pizza parlor by a clown once though, which caused quite a panic until we escaped onto the street.

But despite how much I was enjoying myself in New York, I realized that I was missing Skip terribly and found myself on the phone with him several times a day. I still was unsure of what I wanted to do though, but a phone call towards the end of the three months made up my mind for me. A friend named John Silva called up and offered me a job. At the time, he was managing a band called The Three O'clock and he needed a tour manager for them. I knew the guys in the band and they all liked me, so he thought that despite how much I hated my first tour with Choir Invisible, I would still be perfect for the job. And it was a job I really wanted.

So, my mind was made up and I decided to return to L.A. I quit my job at the bookstore and they weren't happy about it. They offered to almost double my salary and while it was tempting, road managing a working rock band was a dream and nothing could change my mind. Karl decided to move back as well and as soon as Lydia got back home, we were on a plane back to the West Coast.

And it was about that time that I lost contact with Lydia. I don't know what happened. We just stopped calling and I got busy touring with various bands. We just faded away from each other.

Years later, I had stopped working with the Three O'clock and was now managing and touring with Thin White Rope. We had a show scheduled in Ebensee, Austria. We were really looking forward to it because many people had told us that it was one of the most beautiful areas of Europe. We knew that the show was going to be a festival, with lots of bands, but we had no other information about it.

So we arrived early, thinking that we would be playing early in the day and then we could relax and watch the other bands. But when we arrived, we found out that we were headlining the festival, much to our surprise. Also on the bill was Nikki Sudden, a friend we had toured with in Holland a few years earlier and Die Haut, a German instrumental art-surf band, who used various guest vocalists on their records, such as Nick Cave. For this tour, they had brought along Kid Congo Powers, an old friend I hadn't seen in years, and Lydia Lunch, who I was very much looking forward to seeing once again.

But in the meantime, we had hours to kill before our show. We were shown to our trailer and it was full of food and every type of alcohol you can imagine. Being that this was Thin White Rope, we were very happy and started drinking right then and there, much to the disapproval of drummer, Matt, who didn't like how much the band drank at all.

The location of the show was extremely beautiful. It was nestled by a lake in a valley in the Austrian Alps. The weather was gorgeous and we were just enjoying sitting around outside and drinking some of the alcohol the promoters had been kind enough to provide us. Lisa, from Frontier, had also arrived, as did our friend and booking agent, Christof and his artist friend Joe Sacco, so the company was perfect as well. Matt kept bitching at us about controlling the drinking, which really should have been my job, but I was enjoying ignoring that job for the time being. I knew I was being unprofessional, but I needed to blow off some steam and the setting and the time just seemed right time to do so.

Later in the afternoon, Die Haut arrived and I hunted Lydia down. We had a nice conversation and she told me she had heard a lot about TWR and was eager to see them perform. She pulled out a bottle of Jagermeister, an alcohol that I was unfamiliar with and we started drinking that. I was on the road to ruin and the rest of the band was heading there with me. There was talk with Lydia about "Some Velvet Morning" which she had already recorded herself and we played around with maybe someday rerecording it with her or doing it live. That never came to anything, of course.

Die Haut played a great show that night and it was really a pleasure to see Lydia and Kid perform again. To tell you the truth, I remember little of it, except that I really liked it. I also don't remember much of TWR's set that night, except again, I knew they played an amazing set. I remember Matt screaming at me about how drunk the band was and then Lydia yelling at him to stop being such a nag. I remember TWR leaving the stage and then the next thing I remember is waking up in my hotel room with one of the worst hangovers I'd ever had. My room was huge and beautiful and I immediately felt guilty about wasting such a great room and not remembering staying in it. But the worse was yet to come.

I crawled downstairs to find an argument in full swing. The owner of the hotel was pissed off. It seemed that all hell had broken out the night before. Guy had gone into Lisa's room and started jumping on her bed. The bed broke. It was an antique and the owners weren't happy about it. On top of that, Stoo had joined up with Nikki Sudden and the two of them had stolen a boat and went out in the lake with it. Again, people were not happy. As usual, it was my job to clean this mess up and I roped in Christof and the promoter to help me. Somehow we managed to calm everyone down. In fact, the owner of the hotel decided he liked us after all and invited us back anytime we wanted to stay there. I'm still unsure exactly how that happened, but I have lots of tour stories like that, where it looked like we were doomed and then suddenly everyone was our friends again. It was something I always expected. It must have just been my charm!

Nikki, Lydia and all the other bands had left earlier for other shows they had. We eventually had to leave as we had a show with Babes In Toyland in Munich that evening, but the drive wasn't that bad, so we wanted to relax in the beauty of the place for a bit.

It was then that I realized that I couldn't remember getting paid the night before. I ran up to my room and opened my briefcase. Not only was the full payment there, but all my bookwork had been done neatly and correctly as well. I couldn't remember doing it at all. I went back downstairs and asked the band how we got to the hotel. They told me I drove and when I told them I was extremely drunk and couldn't remember it at all, the seemed surprised. They said I didn't seem drunk at all and drove with no problems at all. The promoter agreed that he couldn't tell I was that drunk either.

I was quite a bit horrified by all of that. All I knew was that I had a horrible hangover. It was so bad I couldn't even watch Babes In Toyland at the show that night because my head hurt to bad, and I loved the Babes. I couldn't remember anything and I have to admit I was highly disturbed by that. It amazed me that I still did all the business and got the bookwork done. I guess I was on automatic. But I don't think I've ever allowed myself to get that drunk again, ever. Especially on Jagermeister. I still have no idea what's actually in that stuff.

That was the last time I ever had any real interaction with Lydia though. I've seen her around L.A. every now and then and we always say HI when we do. But we haven't really talked or done anything together for years now. Both of us have moved on to other things. That period of my life was special and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I would have picked myself up and continued with the performance art thing. But I'm happy with the direction I went in, working with a band I loved and seeing a good portion of the world while doing so.

It was a strange period of my life, but I have lots of fond memories. And I have to thank Lydia for what she did for me. My life wouldn't have been the same without her.

1 comment:

  1. That's such a fantastic story, ML. Glad I had my small role in it (when you let me in to the room to be verbally abused by Henry & Lydia).

    Great to see you and Skip at the PTP Festival too. It's good to know there are kindred souls like you guys out there. The music is obviously deep in all of our souls and will never die.