“Nice to see everyone—thanks for coming out!” Lydia Lunch chirped. Of course, that didn’t actually happen. Only two things could make such a hardcore contrarian revisit her old band for a one-night-only extravaganza: Thurston Moore and Byron Coley’s impressive oral history No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976–1980 (onstage, she called the book “a fucking love poem”), and the sheer absurdity of a No Wave reunion.
Thirty years ago, her metallic guitar strums, monotone yells, and pounding rhythms defined a scene that seized the outcast trappings, brief songs, and basic instrumentation of punk, twisting it into an extremist art-world deconstruction of the music. Convinced that her band had run its course, she killed off TJ after three years and lived the bohemian life, bouncing around the U.S. and Europe, tirelessly crafting numerous nefarious art projects. But where Lunch was anxious to be the dominatrix here in an S&M show, attacking with noise and words instead of whips, the crowds for these two sold-out shows played along somewhat passively, even after a barrage of Lunch’s insults. You might chalk up that mostly rapt response to typical indie lethargy, but in this case we were also gawking at the elaborate, bizarre, nostalgic spectacle of it all (many folks in the crowd were born after TJ expired). Even as she effectively tore through the whole TJ catalog in 11 songs, no one seemed pissed about a 20-minute set, which was actually double the length of their old shows.
As such, the Dadaesque humor of the music didn’t connect. The sight of the relatively tiny Lunch sandwiched between the towering, stone-faced pair of former TJ bassist (now drummer) Jim Sclavunos and TJ fan Moore on bass was hilarious enough. But compare her 1978 TJ performance on the recent Video Hysterie compilation to this one: On top of a modified proto-goth/death-metal sound, her voice now has several more layers of slapstick bile, though her crazed slide solos on “Red Alert,” “Baby Doll,” and “Orphans” could still make a dead man (Elmore James, say) cum. But if the music didn’t quite convey the comedy and confrontation she intended, her abusive exchanges with the fans (who perversely enjoyed her taunts) got the point across. A few hecklers challenged her, but her skills as a lifelong provocateur didn’t make it a fair fight: “You suck!” rejoined by “I do, but not for you!” was as edgy at it got. She even had harsh words for Moore and Sclavunos when they missed their cues. Usually, she answered the applauding audience with venom, ordering us to “Shut up” more than Little Richard does, replying to “It sounds fucking great!” with “Like I don’t fucking know that!”, and just throwing punches out of nowhere: “You’d love to fuck me, but you can’t afford it,” “You have no fucking clue,” “Don’t expect a fuckin’ encore ’cause you’re not getting one,” and her concluding retort, “Thanks for nothing!” Whether she intended it or not, that too was part of the evening’s entertainment. As she left, a so-called admirer yelled, “Fuck you, Lydia!”, which went unanswered this time. It was the best compliment she could have hoped for.