"In the Beginning was the word" Lydia Lunch reads William S. Burroughs

Monday 13 October 2014

Lydia Lunch & William S. Burroughs

After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say 
“I want to see the manager.” —William S. Burroughs

Lydia Lunch is one of the primary instigators of contemporary spoken word performance. Her earliest performances saw her prowl and strut across the stage, pages of text clutched in hand, recounting personal narratives through stories often simultaneously hilarious and utterly dark. These were celebrations of being an outsider, of sexual obsessions, social dislocation and even criminality. In these readings she turned the moribund poetry scene into something that occasionally resembled a challenge to brawl or a brutal roar.

Developing the form over the subsequent three decades, Lunch’s readings and spoken releases are now frequently accompanied by psycho-ambient music and in a performance environment of projected images, the better to punctuate and illustrate the increasing gravitas of her texts that explore themes like power, war, flesh, sexuality and gender. 

Her sonic and visual collaborators are drawn from a global network of equally powerful and unique artists. While all of these elements add power to her work, its true strength remains in her writing and articulation, her books Paradoxia, Will Work For Drugs and Incriminating Evidence tear a savage whole in most people’s realities.

Listening—really listening—to William S. Burroughs read, his voice is dry, clipped, his mid-western accent precise. It’s no wonder he wanted to be the commissioner of sewers and briefly worked as an exterminator. If, in the earliest recordings he sounds like a fake realtor selling a graveyard to a mark, in later recordings, his voice rehearsed to meticulous perfection, the humor becomes more apparent, the delivery more social, now the listeners are in-on-it, they’re Johnsons.

When Lydia Lunch reads Burroughs his voice, once so distinct for any reader or listener, recedes behind her beautifully ravaged interpretation of his work. Now the words are delivered in a voice that sounds like a film noir sex kitten all grown-up. Each line sounds as if it comes from the back of a smoke filled boudoir. Lunch’s delivery is experienced, quick witted and New York street-smart rather than Burroughs’ Harvard clinical, her voice finds new cadences to his work, she draws out new depths to these texts.

Lydia Lunch— no wave musician, writer, actress, performer, and photographer—was central to the New York Downtown scene. Like Burroughs, her work extends beyond its original description, unlimited by the generic or aesthetic confines imposed by dominant society, her influence extending to musicians, artists, philosophers and sexologists. 

Burroughs understanding of control society was extensive, and Lunch’s work shares these concerns. Both understand addiction – respectively narcotic and sexual – both chart personal and social compulsions, the violence of daily existence, and the understanding of the outsider as the individual who seeks to exist free of restriction.

Hearing Lunch reading Burroughs sounds natural. Natural like viruses spreading, like tectonic plate movements annihilating entire species, natural like the death of the entire universe.