By Daniel Tucceri
Unbelievably Bad Contributor
“Even as a little girl. I remember, as a really, really little girl, I could barely talk. I remember being treated badly and thinking: ‘I hate you, and I know what I know and I’m hanging onto it and you can’t take it away from me’. I remember as a three-year-old thinking that. I was raised on hate.”
From day one, Lisa Carver has been up against it. In some ways, she still is. A cursory glance at any one of the many articles about Lisa Crystal Carver invariably begins with a who’s who of male outsider artists. Indeed, they have played a role as collaborators, lovers or interview subjects, but it is frustrating when considering Carver’s formidable and incomparable body of work.
Spin Magazine called her SUCKDOG record Drugs Are Nice “one of the best albums of the ’90s”. She created seminal underground zine Rollerderby, regularly promoting artists and musicians who would’ve likely toiled in obscurity. A prolific writer, she has published everything from a treatise on the work of Yoko Ono to economics. To this day, she continually tours and performs with SUCKDOG on a level that is less performance art than a big slap in the face to performers and artists alike. At the end of July, SUCKDOG will tour Australia with the Kuzak Sisters and Lisa’s 14-year-old daughter Sadie in tow. Along with that, she’ll be giving a talk at the State Library of Victoria to raise funds for the YWCA.
The brutal honesty which pervades all of her work and has seen her scorned and celebrated in equal measure. Whilst her harshest detractors have accused her of confabulation, her most ardent supporters view her as a bona fide ‘voice of a generation’. In any case, her voice represents that very portion of a generation that has at best been ignored and disregarded, and at worst, been abused and subjugated.
Carver’s reputation precedes her, although she has never shied from fuelling that fire. Where I had expected a confrontational interview with an intense subject, I hung up the phone feeling I’d spoken to an old friend. Despite everything she has endured, self-inflicted or otherwise, the recently married mother of two has emerged a stronger and happier person for all her experiences. After our conversation, she wrote to me and wanted to make a final thing clear. “I’m not just happy NOW. I’ve been happy all my life. Because I’m a reader and a dreamer. There’s always something to be happy about, always. Don’t you think so?”
During the course of our interview, Lisa occasionally turns the tables and plays interviewer. When I introduce myself as a “young metalhead who plays piano”, Lisa asks me about myself before I get a single question in. She is a person who remains fascinated by other people, as demonstrated by her novel 25 Lives, a study of 25 of the most interesting people she knew or could find.
“Let me hear some of your stuff!” she chirps from nearly 10,000 miles away. “Do you play metal piano?” With that, I answer with a mess that resembles Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.
“Most of my listening to classical music has been watching violent cartoons in my youth, so that’s what I’m picturing,” Carver tells me with a giggle. I lament that kids today were missing out on the thrill of seeing a cat turned into an accordion in favour of sanitised non-violent slush. “And look how well we turned out!” she replies with cheerfully sarcastic drawl.
On the morning of our interview, real-life violence confronted America with yet another police shooting. Before our conversation started, Philando Castile had been murdered by police during a routine car check. After we spoke, five police officers would be shot dead in Dallas out of retaliation.
“I always listen to National Public Radio and my daughter just told me that when she was little, she always thought that if a car backfired, she thought it was someone being shot,” recalls Carver. “Because I was listening to the news, she was always hearing about murders because it was always in our town. It was worse than cartoons.”
Performing as part of SUCKDOG has seen Carver treading a fine line between cartoon and real violence. In its earliest incarnation, SUCKDOG shows invariably involved wanton acts of destruction, simulated rape and copious amounts of bodily fluids. Given the inherently dangerous and lubricious nature of SUCKDOG, I ask her how it feels having her pubescent daughter join her on the road for the newest incarnation of SUCKDOG.
“Oh, horribly embarrassing. I don’t know if it’s worse for her or me, but somehow we’ve survived”, she laughs.
In truth, the post-millennial SUCKDOG has been toned down in a big way, but that isn’t to say Carver and her troupe are shrinking violets. These days, it’s more about having a lot of fun – although her daughter has occasionally met her mother’s enthusiasm with mild consternation.
“Throwing chairs in front of her,” Carver says, “She looks at me like: ‘What are you doing, Mom?’ I’m having a good time!”
For all their differences, she respects Sadie above all else for having a finely tuned bullshit detector. “So many people have come up to her and have gone, ‘Your mum changed my life, she’s like a hero,’ and my daughter is just like, ‘Oh please, you should see her in the morning before she has her coffee!’”
Like a living ying-and-yang, mother and daughter are diametrically opposed but there remains a fragment of one in the other. Where mother once revelled in the debauchery of the underground, daughter is relatively conservative. “She just doesn’t care about this life at all, the art life, or the interesting life. She’s really into pure math and Latin and I think she wants to be a corporate lawyer.”
Just as she answers, roughly 30 screaming kindergartners are marching in two chaotic lines down the street in front of my house. Their indiscernible chants break our conversation briefly and Lisa inquisitively asks what they’re screaming about. As much as I try to listen, the chanting remains little more than a cheerful din of nonsense and rebellion. “Do you think your daughter’s missing out on that spirit of ‘fucking the system’?” I ask. “It sounds like she kind of wants to be part of the system?”
“Yeah, she likes rules. It’s her personality. She believes that things are right or wrong and she wants to get it right and that’s the way she is. God bless her!”
I suggest that a lot of people in the underground seem to be thinking along the same lines in the name of political correctness. “Do you think within the underground, we’ve increasingly governed by rules for better or worse?”
“Well, people try to govern you”, Carver notes. “That’s the thing, everyone’s trying to police each other. It used to be that there would be these sorts of outside or overhead authority figures trying to boss people around. Now it’s all these poor plebeians trying to police each other.
“It’s divisive and boring. I don’t care for it.”
For Carver, boredom is nothing short of her worst nightmare. Getting a reaction, whether positive or negative, motivates her massively. “What else could you want out of doing a show? The shows are really interactive – we jump off the stage a lot, and we’re dancing with people. We’re throwing chairs, getting people to chant stuff, it’s really involved. We just toured Europe… the only show that was uncomfortable was in Berlin. Everybody was just standing there, blank faces, not saying anything, not interacting at all.
“Eventually, someone came over about an hour after and he gave me this really complex, intelligent analysis of the performance and what it meant. And I just realised, these guys have to intellectually conquer something before they can take part in it, if that even is taking part. There was no reaction at all. There was no physicality. It was really strange, like people don’t have bodies or something.
“But moving around in fear, and laughing, these are all reactions, everything I do is to get a reaction because that’s what I want; I want to have a reaction when I go see something.”
Off the stage, a thirst for reaction has also defined her personal life. Where Carver may disapprove of what you say, she will defend to the death your right to say it. “I try to surround myself with people like that because I already know what I think. I don’t want to be in an echo chamber all day. It’s nice to be offended. It feels good, it keeps me alive.
“I’m curious about someone who thinks something I know is just not true. I need to find out how they can possibly believe that.”
As in the case of her daughter, it is no small irony that her husband is the complete opposite of her. “I just got married for the third time and my husband is like that. He’s very offensive to me!” she declares with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
“The relationship you’re in now is a loving one…” begins my next question before I’m abruptly cut off. “It’s not a loving one! No! We love each other, but, I’ve been with him off and on for nine years and it was plenty abusive! Oh yeah, it was awful, it was really terrible for eight years!”
Naively, I respond without quite thinking her answer through. “This is what gets me confused! What is the role of abusiveness in a relationship? I can’t handle it if I’m in a relationship, the minute there’s an argument or any drama, I just walk. I don’t understand why people have to argue about nothing, or everything! What do you think is the purpose of that arguing, or abusiveness or all of that crap?”
Without hesitating, she gives me a simple answer that speaks volumes. “It’s just familiar. It felt like love”. Unexpectedly, Carver turns the tables and I become the interview subject. “What was your childhood like? Were you talked to nice?” I pause and she breaks the silence with a gentle laugh. Undeterred, she asks me with the equally calm, but insistent, tone of a high school counsellor. “Were people gentle with you? Caring and supportive, encouraging?”
I surprise myself by answering without thinking. I tell her the good parts of my childhood and that I had good parents. “I would get spoiled rotten with the most amazing surprises…” However, I tell her one thing I’ve told only ever told a couple of people in my life. Unlike Carver though, I don’t have the courage to say it in front of a live audience, on record or in print, but only in confidence.
“Whoa!” she exclaims. For a fraction of a second, I’ve surprised myself by shocking the unshockable Lisa Carver. Normally, I would feel extremely uncomfortable revealing something so private, let alone with a stranger, but I feel an unusual sense of calm and relief in giving myself up.
“Well, I guess you’d had enough and you don’t want any more”, she points out. “So as soon as you see it coming, you say, ‘No thank you’, and that’s really healthy’”.
At this point, we’ve gone beyond seeing eye-to-eye intellectually and are on level ground emotionally. Essentially, I’ve trusted her and she rewards me by being brutally honest about her own abuse. Occasionally, her voice falters and she hesitates, but Carver doesn’t once shy away from the truth as she experienced it.
“I think for me, I just don’t understand people who didn’t grow up like I did. I’m more attracted to that kind of person and that kind of person’s just trouble. And I was too. I’ve been no treat, I’m sure”, she admits. “And so that’s who I had to put up with and they had to put up with me. Everything else in my life was good, except for my romantic life. My romantic passionate life was sicko.”
With her current husband, the mutual realisation that they could count on each other caused a polar shift within both their relationship and themselves.
“I think we just finally gave up trying to… we just gave up… trying to feel like we wouldn’t be left. Once we gave up trying to get security, we just felt secure and we’ve been really nice ever since. All the time I’ve been nice to him and he’s been nice to me. I don’t know why I didn’t do this a long time ago, it just didn’t occur to me.” She laughs.
A casual tone understates the significance of what has been an emotional breakthrough after having endured unthinkable sexual, physical and emotional abuse in her lifetime. Before she had even hit double digits, she had been molested, raped, prostituted and forced into child pornography by her drug dealer father. Through therapy and painting, Carver recovered a series of memories that she confesses are still difficult to accept. Intrinsic to recovering those memories, she explains, was the need to not necessarily believe her own memories and to question them as thoroughly as possible.
“I think someone with a relatively normal, loving childhood, probably if they really examined memories and probably questioned them, especially when you’ve been told what happened didn’t happen and things that didn’t happen did, of course, under those conditions that’s like mental torture. So, of course, I’m going to go on questioning it”.
Did she reach a point where she felt like she’d learned enough and the experience would’ve have tipped over from therapeutic to traumatic? “Yeah, I did,” she admits before pausing. “There are certain things I know where I’m not going to spend the time… I’m really happy now… I needed to when I kept on doing destructive things. It was like, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s so stupid?’ I kind of needed to figure out what happens. Now, I don’t need to… I don’t know… I’m so happy with myself!”
Brave as she is, the subject is clearly a difficult one for her to talk about. Not once does she speak detachedly, but she never loses her composure. It is a cruel irony that the only evidence she had throughout her life was the damaging imprints those experiences left on her psyche. I tell her I’m genuinely glad she’s at a point in her life where she has healed.
With a perky “thankyou!” the mood lightens once again. I can’t help but wonder at this point about her relationship with her parents. Currently, she enjoys a harmonious family life with her son, daughter and husband. Toxic parents like hers have the capacity to poison the very people they are supposed to nurture. Did she try to understand her parents and perhaps even excuse them, or does she simply want nothing to do with them again?
Again, her inflection comes across as vulnerable and hairline thin cracks of hesitation occasionally mark her sentences. “I’ve tried a lot with my mother. I was actually more hurt by her that she didn’t protect me than I was by my father, who was harming me, because my father was like this monster god to me. Like, he wasn’t even human to me ever, whether I worshipped him or hated him.
“He was just this looming figure. But my mother, I loved my mother and my mother loved me and I thought: ‘Why would you… let… him… have me. Why would let that happen, and why would you not believe me, and why would you drive your car away after I’m chasing you and saying, “Please don’t leave me?”’ With her, I really tried to figure it out. I was angry with her.”
Consequently, trying to explain her mother’s inaction led her to conclude she likely experienced a similar degree of trauma herself. “I think she was probably molested herself and it was just beyond her capabilities to be self-aware and you have to be self-aware to be other aware.
“I think she was just a sick, tired woman and she gave me her best, but it was this little thing. I’ve come to realise that all you can ask from someone is their best and she did give her best to me. That part was hard, but my father… ugh.”
Interrupting her sentence with a post-cough syrup retch, she saves her harshest words for the man that gave her life and in turn, nearly ruined it. “I don’t know if he’s dead or not, but I hope he’s not. I’m just hoping somebody’s gonna call me and tell me he’s on his deathbed and I get to go there and torment him a little bit as he’s dying.”
Justified as her sentiments are, it’s saddening the way his cruelty has engendered such hatred within her. Equally sad is the tragedy of her mother’s life, which Carver was able to at least rationalise and be at peace with. “I think there are a lot of people out there just doing their best, but it’s just so little,” she acknowledges. “I think the social structure needs to change. If there’s a woman in an abusive relationship and they own a home together, she can’t leave. If the guy is paying half the rent and she has kids and everything, how do you leave? You can’t just move into a homeless shelter, your kids need to go to school. I think if women were making more money, they would not be dependent on these guys as much.”
Throw mental disorder into the mix and escaping an abusive relationship becomes incredibly difficult. Having been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, Carver achieved the impossible and managed to break the cycle of abuse whilst raising a daughter and disabled son as a single mother. All the while, she has remained true to her art and herself. Typically, Lisa downplays the condition and explains that it is nothing more than “a coping mechanism for imaginative children in unbearable circumstances”.
“I was diagnosed with DID, but I don’t feel like I have it now. I feel like I’m just a person. Quitting drugs and alcohol really helped, a lot of things really helped. It’s just helpful to point you in a direction of ‘if you might have this, this might help’ or to make you feel like you’re not alone. But, you have to revisit it every few years and see if you still believe that you have it.
“It’s not who you are, it’s just something you go through. Of course, if you have schizophrenia that might be something that you really have in the wiring of your brains.”
Despite being a victim of circumstance, Carver is first to admit to her role in exacerbating her illness. “People who tend to go through that kind of childhood tend to abuse drugs and alcohol. I also abused myself. I would go without eating for days, I would go without sleeping for days just to see if I could survive, to see how tough I was, or not talk for days, and so the combination would enhance that disorder. So, I think anyone could go into a trance and have a different outlook and goal and physical being.”
I counter that it’s perhaps not so unusual to undergo some form of deprivation to embolden oneself or at least gain a better understanding of our limits. Consider the Catholic tradition of Lent, or the Moslem practice of Ramadan, which require self-discipline and specific abstinence be maintained for weeks on end. On a religious level, most devout participants wouldn’t think beyond acting merely as their God wishes them to. For people like Lisa Carver, it is about not being controlled by one’s own biology. Where it is comparatively easy to circumvent controlling people, behaviours or situations, we are all effectively at the mercy of our own bodies and our ability to manage pain and deprivation. I relate to her that I’d done similarly for days on end with food and sleep. For months, I’d gone without alcohol, meat or sex in any form whatsoever.
“Well, you are a heavy metal pianist!” Quick as a flash, she nails me with that one liner and we’re both laughing our arses off. When we settle, she elaborates on the concept of deprivation.
“I also think all those deprivations and things are probably people with a spiritual quest and they’re not finding any organised method of doing it. We don’t go into the Native American huts and take magic mushrooms and go three days as psychedelic warriors who go and survive in the forest. There’s no coming-of-age thing and we have to grow ourselves up and grow ourselves into God or whatever. I don’t think it’s bad at all.”
These days, Carver feels little need to push herself to extremes in a manner that border on self-destructive. “I think I could go without anything, but I don’t go without anything now,” she reveals. “Every pleasure there is, I want it given to me. I don’t think there’s anything I would not be OK with.”
I have one more question for Lisa. After all the deprivations and indulgences, what is the single thing she could not go without?
“I love to get up every morning with Cheerios and coffee with milk, I love that. Every morning of my life I would to have that. I don’t know any reason on earth why I would not have that!”
SUCKDOG Aust/NZ dates:
Jul 27 – Junky Comics, Brisbane (arvo). The Jaywalker book signing/portrait drawing party
Jul 27 – Bearded Lady, Brisbane w/ Scraps and Amaringo
Jul 28 – Red Rattler, Sydney w/ Dispossessed, Angie (solo), Terminal Infant, Phone and DJ Del
Jul 29 – State Library of Victoria, Melbourne. YWCA and RACK OFF! Presents TINA TALKS #5 – (Lisa’s only speaking engagement on writing w/ Jenny Valentish, Adalita and Michelle Law)
Jul 30 – Tote Hotel, Melbourne w/ Sky Needle, Shrimpwitch and Smoxed
Jul 31 – Format, Adelaide w/ EN.V, Terminal Infant + more
Aug 2 – Whammy Bar, Auckland w/ Terminal Infant, File Folder and Ragged Veins
Aug 3 – Pyramid Club, Wellington w/ Hex and Terminal Infant