This week marks the 100th anniversary of William S. Burroughs' birth. In celebration, a group of dedicated Burroughs' acolytes in Bloomington have organized a series of events in tribute to the late writer under the banner of the Burroughs Century. One of the marquee events of the Burroughs Century will take place Friday at the Bishop Bar featuring a spoken word performance by no wave pioneer, writer and underground music icon Lydia Lunch. Local garage rock trio Thee Tsunamis will kick the event off at 9 p.m.
I recently asked Lunch about her connection to Burroughs' work via Skype from her home in Barcelona, Spain.
NUVO: Can you tell me about your connection to William S. Burroughs' work? What interested you in participating in this celebration?
Lydia Lunch: I was on a Giorno poetry record with Burroughs sometime in the early '80s. We didn't have much to do with each other. He probably was just wondering, "Who is this young female upstart and what is she doing hanging around here?"
But why I thought it was important to insert myself in the The Burroughs Century is because we talk a lot about the same things. We both talk about need a lot; he talks about the "algebra of need." Even though our obsessions were different — I was never a heroin addict, but I did do a lot of drugs and I was aways addicted to adrenaline. I thought it would be interesting instead of using his cut-up technique [taking a finished text and cutting it into pieces, then rearranging into a new text] to see what happens to cut-in Burroughs work to mine. That's basically what I'll be doing at the performance at the Bishop.
NUVO: Do you feel as though the combined works create a cohesive dialogue?
Lunch: It's pretty coherent. But I think the beauty of what Burroughs does is that it doesn't have to be coherent. That's what the cut-up technique was all about. Not necessarily making complete reasonable sense but trying to encourage another kind of sense.
NUVO: Do you have any thoughts on why Burroughs' work has consistently influenced rock music through the years?
Lydia Lunch: I think there's a few reasons. It's the nature of what he wrote about. The books were quite different, and if people go in and read four or five, they're going to find one that really impacts them.
It's also how he lived his life, how he refused convention, the concepts he's throwing out and the language itself. He... was a very unique individual. He was just such an odd creature who had an incredible style. In rock music people are looking for style. It was everything he represented, a lack of conventionality and complete rebellion. Burroughs was so unapologetic about what he did and he continued to do what he did and write about it until he was much older than I am.
NUVO: Burroughs has been accused of being misogynistic in both his work and personal views. Does that element of his character bother you?
Lunch: Well, he killed his wife. I don't know; people think I'm misogynist or that I hate men. I only hate men who are in positions of power, that are corporate kleptomaniacs and warlords. I don't hate the average man. It doesn't matter to me if he was a misogynist. It's not the person I judge; it's the work.
I'm misanthropic for the most part. If you're a misogynist I think "Oh, so you only hate half of the human race? Wow, I hate most of the motherfuckers." I say that with a great amount of sarcasm and a lot of fucking truth.
Most of my favorite writers were dirty old men in one way or another: Hubert Selby, Henry Miller, Genet and Burroughs, too.
NUVO: In addition to the Burroughs reading you're also giving a lecture titled Performance, Sex, and Punk Feminism?
Lunch: They can call it whatever they what, but I'm going to do exactly what I do. I don't consider myself punk rock and I never have. I consider myself more dada and no wave. I never did punk rock music.
But I always love to talk to classes. To break up the boredom of what school must be. To show an alternative, "You too can be a poor starving artist. Just drop out of school and don't get a day job." I like the format of talking at universities, especially because a lot of people there may not know anything about what I'm doing.
NUVO: I know you live in Barcelona. I'm curious if you keep up with American pop culture – or do you try to avoid it?
Lunch: Can you avoid it? Yes, I try to avoid it but how far away can you get? Something as repulsive as American pop culture is like a virus that circles the globe. You're lucky if you can duck to avoid the shit that comes out of it. Are you talking about anything specific?
NUVO: I was curious if you had any opinions on the way women artists are portrayed in pop culture. It seems every few months there's always some manufactured outrage directed against a female artist like Miley Cyrus, or whoever is hot at that moment.
Lunch: I recently watched Miley Cyrus' version of one of my favorite Dolly Parton songs "Jolene" which I thought was pretty amazing. I just think she's silly; she can do whatever she wants. I think the more embarrassing pop culture icons are decades older than her and still wearing leotards and making bad dance-rock music. However old she is she can do what she wants, as long as there isn't a corporate pimp there. But then again, there's also reverse psychology.
What I don't like about women who get attention in culture now is this petty, pop pornification of everything. I call it the Madonna Syndrome. Which is: show us everything, but tell us nothing about the psychology and intention behind it. It's a fake kind of sexuality. It's not deep enough to interest me.
I think a lot of it looks silly. Especially with Madonna or Lady Gaga putting all of this out but not really having the kind of sex or as much sex as they pretend they do. That's what's disappointing. If they were really out there cracking some dicks, I might be able to raise a glass and cheer them on. But I really don't think they are. This is for the alternative paper, right? [laughs] Go crack a dick, bitch.
I dealt with some of that with the films I did in the early '80s with Richard Kern. By some people's standards the films are pornographic. But they are not pornography. They were dealing with extreme sexual issues and trying to come to an understanding of knowing you're not alone in these feelings.
What really bothers me about Lady Gaga is that she's basically a cultural klepto. She's stolen from every art sub-genre and through stylists, she commodifies everything. She is commodifying what is a way of life for some people and turning it into a fashion statement. To me, that's cheap.
I guess I just come from a group of people who felt it was important to express ourselves and be who we were, not what we fucking wore. Not making music that's lyrically redundant and with no vision whatsoever, except towards commerce.
NUVO: Is there anything happening in the arts that's exciting to you right now?
Lunch: I like a lot of music out there now. A Place to Bury Strangers, TV Ghost, Phantom Family Halo from Louisville, Baba Zula from Istanbul. I'm listening to everything. Weasel Walter who's doing Cellular Chaos which is really extreme, glam metal no wave.
This week's Cultural Manifesto podcast features audio clips of my interview with Lydia Lunch mixed with a selection of tunes from Lunch's discography.
1. Lydia Lunch interview "connection with Burroughs"
2. Teenage Jesus & The Jerks - Orphans
3. Lydia Lunch interview "dirty old men"
4. Sonic Youth featuring Lydia Lunch - Death Valley '69
5. Lydia Lunch interview "Burroughs photo shoot"
6. 8 Eyed Spy - Run Through the Jungle
7. Lydia Lunch interview "Burroughs influence on rock music"
8. Lydia Lunch & Nick Cave - Done Dun
9. Lydia Lunch interview "Burroughs and misogyny"
10. Lydia Lunch - Gloomy Sunday
11. Lydia Lunch interview "women in American pop culture"
12. Omar Rodriguez-López & Lydia Lunch - Getting Rid of God
13. Lydia Lunch interview "Lady Gaga the cultural klepto"
14. 8 Eyed Spy - Diddy Wah Diddy
15. Lydia Lunch interview "contemporary music"
16. Teenage Jesus & The Jerks - The Closet
17. Lydia Lunch interview "current projects"
18. Big Sexy Noise - Kill Your Sons
19. Lydia Lunch interview "farewell"
20. Lydia Lunch & Rowland S. Howard - In My Time of Dying