The New York City of the 1970s is portrayed as some type societal breakdown, a massive and densely populated urban area spiraling around the drain of poverty, crime, and anomie. Drugs, prostitution, garbage all over the place and buildings on fire due to arson, all that was left was to wonder about was what the bottom would look like when the city finally hit it, or if the sheer weight of NYC break right through the bottom and keep going. I mean, the police force, who were in a labor dispute with the city government, put out a pamphlet called Welcome To Fear City that they’d hand out to tourists, a booklet that literally recommended people don’t walk around on the sidewalks after 6PM and to not use any public transportation.
Was it truly that dystopian? I don’t know – I didn’t live there. But I did drive through Queens a couple of times with my parents when in town to visit family, and even to my young eyes looking out the car window it seemed impossible to believe that people actually lived in some of these areas, with their boarded up buildings and endless piles of garbage and stripped cars. It sure seemed pretty bad.
Of course, like modern-day Detroit, these situations also attract a lot of young people. The rents were impossibly cheap, and squatting was a viable option. You didn’t need to make a lot of money to get by, and if your expectations were low (like no hot water… the inevitable break-in…) you could live a type of life. You could also pursue whatever artistic endeavors you wanted. And that’s the NYC that Lydia Lunch moved to in the mid 1970s as a 16 year old. By 1976 she’d founded the no wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks with James Chance, pioneering the short-lived no wave movement that seeped out of the “no future” ethos of the city and contributing four songs to the genre-defining No New York compilation. By 1980 she had her first solo album, the well-regarded Queen of Siam, and that was followed in 1982 by 13.13.
Even sitting here in my clean and warm home, with a huge TV playing silently across the room and a kitchen full of food, I can still get a sense of that version of 1970s NYC when listening to Lunch on 13.13. There’s an almost plodding resignation to the music and vocals. Yes, the frustration is there to be heard, but in the way people express it when they know it isn’t going to get any better. Holly hears similarities between Lunch and Mudhoney‘s Mark Arm, and that’s a very reasonable comparison both sonically and lyrically, though Lunch lacks the disdainful sneer you can feel in Arm’s voice on recent Mudhoney records. Trouser Press described the album as “simultaneously fascinating and annoying”, but lest anyone think that the annoying aspects of 13.13 are due to a lack of talent, in fact it feels quite intentional. If “Suicide Queen” doesn’t make you want to start searching your junk drawer for a razor blade it’s only because you’re not absorbing the song, the drone-like quality of Lydia’s voice feeling like a slow cut on your own skin. It’s probably not something I’m going to listen to on a regular basis, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. The length of the last three songs, a combined 18 1/2 minutes, do perhaps strain the brain with their relentlessness, but I suspect that’s the point.