Prophet for Our Times
Suckdog's Sex Priestess Lisa Crystal Carver
By Ada Calhoun
AUGUST 14, 2000: "You're doing a sex issue and you called me?" Lisa Crystal Carver laughed with mock astonishment when I spoke with her by phone.
Lisa Carver is all about sex. For more than 10 years, she has been writing about sex and doing sex-drenched performance pieces she calls "operas" under the troupe/band name Suckdog. Carver writes like she talks. Adventure sticks to her like stretch lace. She has been called a lot of things -- stupid, a slut, more recently a sellout -- and in keeping with her proud white-trash heritage, she just doesn't give a fuck.
While the 31-year-old Carver isn't a household name, she has acquired a cult status in the course of her illustrious career as zinestress and performer, a run she described in her endearingly depraved zine Rollerderby as "10 years, 25 issues, four CDs, and 10 American and European tours of debauchery (tightly woven with a Puritan work ethic that could not be killed or made to pass out)."
Rollerderby is best-known for its enthusiastic medley of confrontational interviews with rock stars, sex discussions, religion roundtables, found love letters, and articles such as "Why I Want to Rape Olivia Newton-John" and "The Brutality of Little House on the Prairie." Sex/death photos and cartoons pervade, as do quizzes and polls such as "How many partners have you had and what does your number say about you?"
Carver started Suckdog with a friend in high school, but it evolved into a touring sensation with an ever-changing cast of misfits. While music always factored in, the shows were more like cabarets (Carver doesn't go for the term "performance art"), with Carver and company acting out songs, doing skits, and dancing and/or making out with audience members.
Then, less than a year ago, she abruptly quit doing both Rollerderby and Suckdog in order to settle down (after a fashion) back in her hometown of Dover, New Hampshire, with her new husband Dave (whose new band is called, of all things, The Texas Governor) and her 5-year-old son Wolfgang.
But as musician Coz the Shroom, who lives in Austin and has toured with Suckdog twice, points out, settling down for Lisa is not the same as settling down for most people.
An understatement. While Carver recently wrote in her Nerve.com sex diary that she is buying a house and "becoming her enemies," in fact she has been married nearly all of her adult life. At 19, she married French musician Jean-Louis Costes, but she says, "I've always been married, and I've never acted married." Carver believes that the only thing marriage will change for her is that she probably won't have a heart attack because "people that have regular sex with a regular person tend to have less heart ailments." For her, "the institution of marriage is just showing really good manners to someone who's been waiting for you."
At her first weekly sex chat in "The Lisa Lounge," she even created a contest whereby the two winners would get to have sex with her and her husband. It's totally on the level. She and Dave might meet the winning contestants halfway, but then they have this great house they want to show off, so she'll probably try to talk the winners into coming (er, meeting them) there. Plus, she says, at the new house, "there's a big walk-in closet they can hide in." (The contestants, not Carver, who is as fearless as they come.)
As might be gathered by such an unorthodox tournament, boundaries between the public and the private are nonexistent for Carver. "My private is my public," she says. "It's my job, and I like it that way, because, having grown up Protestant, I feel guilty about pleasure that isn't work. So, slowly through the years, my job has turned into anything that is pleasurable. It has become work, and in my mind, as long as I get paid for it, then it's okay; I'm working hard and then I can just totally enjoy it."
At the end of our phone interview, Carver said, "Come to the chat if you can on Monday. Maybe you'll win my husband!" I didn't enter, in part because I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to get my significant other to sign the permission slip that Carver required. As it turned out, the actual winners were mighty disappointing. The "5'7" blond" woman who won Dave turned out to be a man, and the Brooklyn man who won Carver backed out right after he won.
Carver's sympathetic analysis in the face of being turned down for free sex? "I understand that the idea of having sex with an aggressive stranger who will then write about it in great detail for everyone to see might be a little intimidating ... but aren't we all revolutionaries here?"
Clearly, few are as revolutionary as Carver. When she was 18 years old, Carver started touring with a band called Psychodrama. In Carver's words, "They were really offensive performance artists. They used the word 'nigger.' They had me washing pots and pans 'cause I'm a woman. They did a video of me hanging clothes on the line. They had this song called 'hebe kike something.' All they wanted was to upset people, and I thought that was really amusing." While Carver was touring with them, Psychodrama never managed to finish an entire show without being shut down, and they never got paid.
A year later, Carver met Costes and they started doing their own tours "because he was a Communist and he did not find Psychodrama amusing," she notes. So they did more operatic and more naked shows, then Carver started getting her own friends to do shows with her when Costes was in France. They toured all over America and Europe six times, usually performing in rock clubs.
One Austinite who saw a Suckdog show several years ago at Maxwell's, a rock club in Hoboken, NJ, describes it as an assortment of drunken, violent one-act plays set to "fairly horrible music." Costes was the "drunk, dirty Frenchman" who kept mock-raping Carver and a willing audience member. But when Carver and Costes wound up staying at the "raped" audience member's house later, they were "the nicest guests; they made the bed!"
In Carver's performances with Costes, they often simulated sex, but "it wasn't real poop and it wasn't real jism," she says. And how did they simulate the latter? According to Carver, "One time Jean-Louis had a whole carton of milk. So to prove his manliness, that would shoot out of a turkey baster that was inside of his striped tights." She has, however, had overenthusiastic female audience members go down on her onstage a couple of times, which she says she is not averse to.
Coz the Shroom says that when he's along for Suckdog tours, they tend to be a little more subdued because he is happily married, "weird but not wild," and "asexual." Coz, who does solo work and is lead singer of local band the Girl Robots, met Carver after she read a small review of one of his cassettes. Along with her order, Carver sent a letter and some drawings she'd made. "I was completely enamored with her at that point," Coz says. Correspondence and "cerebral excitement" ensued, then Coz did music for the 1991 and 1998 Suckdog tours.
All the tours had themes. The theme of the 1991 tour was, in Coz's words, "suicide and three-way sexual obsessions that never work out right." Coz played Lancelot. Lisa was Ophelia. Eventually, all the characters killed themselves by ODing on opium, but then they were resurrected at the end by disco music. Other operas have also included themes of resurrection, sexual obsession, and suicide. Carver says that another element was "different classes jutting against each other, like the king rapes the peasant, but it turns out she was the empress in disguise."
The 1998 tour, Suckdog's last, was supposed to be less opera than Carver's "attempt to sing and dance and be nice and keep our clothes on." But the peace-and-love vibe lasted all of "two or three shows." By the end of the run, which lasted two and a half weeks and 13 shows (including two that were "disasters that wound up not actually being shows"), tensions were so high that when Dame Darcy (the cartoonist behind popular zine Meatcake) was supposed to be dancing with Coz, she instead took to whacking him with a pitchfork.
Carver blames her insomnia for turning the Love tour into the Hate tour. All Coz knows is, "It got ugly towards the end. What ended up happening was Lisa biting people, getting really messed up, blacking out; there were fights. There wasn't any planned nudity; nobody wanted to take off their clothes, but with Lisa that's just something that happens."
In Columbus, Ohio, Dame Darcy, who is "not the type to do this," took off all her clothes, and a crowd of lumberjacks started to drag her to a pool table. Lisa intervened and there was broken glass everywhere, says Coz. "It was rather chaotic. Lisa bit some more people that night."
Bickering reigned. Coz felt like he was made into a scapegoat because he was "the rube from Texas; I was the one with the loud clothing who stank the most and had the most ill manners. I got in trouble for pissing in someone's bushes in Columbus." Coz thought this smacked of some hypocrisy. "Yeah, Lisa, you're biting people and taking off your clothes, and I'm being ostracized for peeing in the bushes."
During the last tour, which featured Carver, Coz, Ohio, and Dame Darcy, the whole Kentucky wing was a disaster. Wing is an apropos metaphor, too, because their incredibly shady Kentucky promoter threw a dead chicken onstage during their first show there. He'd intended it to be a live chicken, but he'd kept it in an ice chest for 14 hours before the show. Then a drag queen dropped a bag of cocaine in the club the next night (planted, Coz suspects, by the promoter). At the third show, they had to change venues because there were two rumors going around (again, Coz thinks, planted by the promoter): "One, that Lisa was going to shoot someone from onstage; and the other, that Lisa was going to shoot someone up from onstage."
In the last Rollerderby, Carver quotes Dame Darcy as saying: "I love being on tour. We don't have to call anyone. We're just demented, roving hedonists, going from town to town, making out with girls, drinking whiskey, then we get back in the van. And every once in a while, we have to go to the hospital." Everyone except Lisa had to make a trip to the emergency room at some point along the way.
Luckily, no trips to jail, though. Aside from the Kentucky episode, they didn't encounter that many cops, except once when the van stalled as they were entering the highway on their way out of Boston. Some cars got in a collision behind them. Coz was dreading the cops' reaction to the beat-up old van with SUCKDOG spray-painted across it. Of the van, Coz says, "We called it the Millennium Falcon because there was trouble the whole way." But when the cops finally came, they just said, "It's not your fault. You guys can rock & roll out of here."
So rock & roll they did, to still more performances at which their audiences ranged from throngs of early Eighties-style punks in Cleveland to a bunch of blue-collar drug fiends and drunks in Columbus. Any celebrities? Apparently, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore saw the show in New York, and the dwarf from Time Bandits ("the one that ate the rats") was at an Ohio show.
While Carver's fans transcend some of the usual social boundaries, Coz insists, "There is nothing in it at all for the mainstream. Nothing. Ever." What the shows amount to is something like well-structured, diligently rehearsed insanity, far more like revivals (or perhaps de-vivals in the spirit of the Church of the Subgenius) than the average performance art piece.
One skit had Coz putting a girl's shoe in his mouth. Then she beat him with a baseball bat, and he chased her around. "They chose the fetish for me," Coz insists, though he says that whenever he does performances, he tends to get typecast as "someone who gets beaten up by women." He's not sure why.
For the most recent tour, the playlist included: a song Carver wrote about a guy who played softball and smoked Doral cigarettes and a girl who couldn't get his attention because that's all he wanted to do (The last line was: "You make my stockings run when you look my way."); a song called "Mayonnaise Fistfucker," based on a real incident involving a sleazy girl at a divey club, also written by Carver; covers of "a creepy David Cassidy solo song about love," Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," and Bad Company's "Feel Like Making Love"; and a finale in two parts, one with karaoke and air guitar to a G.G. Allin song containing the line: "We're living like sewer rats," then another couple of G.G. Allin songs, one of which is titled "Hard Candy Cock."
So what the hell is this about? Coz says the theory behind it all is that "Lisa gets plastered and starts trouble." Carver's indignant response to that is: "I don't have to be plastered to start trouble." Her belief is that "the truth is sort of halfway in between what different people are upset about, and you're never going to find it unless you fight ... I don't believe in accruing knowledge and truth. I believe in you just shoot off all your engines and you hope someone else is shooting off theirs and then, bang!"
Coz describes Suckdog performances as something like a communion, whereby audience and performer are joined in the spirit of the performance's theme (such as love, or in the 1998 case, love at its most cranky and sleep-deprived). There is something so pure about Carver even, or perhaps especially, at her most debauched. It's as though she's working and searching really hard for something real. She is so not prefab. And if she comes across as a badly behaved freak, well, she is that, but all the bad behavior has a remarkable affection behind it and is almost devoid of affectation. "There's nobody that's more interested in human beings than me," says Carver, and she means it. In her interviews, writing, and performances, she asks all the tough questions and listens really hard to the answers.
Flailing, the haphazard pursuit of truth, takes many forms, but drug use, promiscuity, and being completely nuts onstage and off are popular flailing vehicles. "Pushing boundaries" is the cliché, but the people who are actually testing the limits don't describe themselves that way; they just make everyone really nervous, the way Carver does with her performances and her "win sex with me" contests. And while it sometimes seems like the people who are flailing aren't getting anywhere, Carver says, "I think smart people recognize the value of flailing and never really want to stop."
Carver is a divine figure in our midst, albeit more on the order of the holy whore in the Lars Von Trier film Breaking the Waves than Mother Teresa. When I ask Carver about the spiritual nature of her flailing, she replies, "Oh, yeah, my adventures are all totally spiritual quests, but I don't think anyone would believe me. I always look bad when I start talking like that anyway, so I try not to. But that's one of the reasons I can look at motherhood as not precluding me setting myself (my son's mother!) up as sex prize of a contest ... because I know what I am doing is truly good, in my own alternate, not yet real (and maybe never will be) universe. I know what I am doing is trying to find out what is real, and trying to help others discover what is real to them. That's a secret."
It's a secret because, like God and often sex, why Carver does what she does is nearly impossible to do justice to verbally without being either reductive or dismissive. Theory fails, as Carver's shows embody the spirit of adventure and the experience of the present, the punk rock mantra "this is really happening," the ecstasy of finding yourself late at night someplace you couldn't have imagined when you got up that morning.
Carver believes "You don't have to be loud and active to be changing. Sometimes you do, but not always, not at all. To exist within the question, rather than to be crushed by it, and not to come to the answer and have the answer -- that's what my rabbi said is the goal of Judaism, to teach people how to live within the question."
Carver's long, hard search for what people are really like and her preference for interesting times over good times gives her a certain authority. Her lifestyle is borne of a profound quest for an uncompromised life, which makes her a threat to those who follow strict guidelines about what is acceptable behavior, be they the confining mores of the moral majority or those of hipster culture.
In fact, if they don't agree on anything else, those subgroups ought to be able to unite in their opposition to Carver. And neither is likely to think the fact that she has a kid is cool. Even her fans may wonder how she can get away with being so wild and free when she has a child to raise. Carver says, "I'm no earth mother. I kiss Wolfgang and tell him he's handsome and brilliant and all that, we hold hands, but a lot of times my thoughts are far away. I think he likes me, though." It should also be noted that Wolfgang has no exposure whatsoever to his mother's adventures. During the tour, Wolfgang stayed home with his father (the legendary co-founder of industrial music, prankster, and notoriously "bad man" Boyd Rice). Even Dave wasn't allowed to sleep over until he and Carver were married.
Carver's Puritan work ethic and penchant for responsibility blend uncommonly with her taste for chaos: "I guess I just like weirdos, but I think I have one foot in actually being a weirdo and one foot in just being a businesswoman and being able to use it sanely. And I tend to really like the people that have both feet in being nuts, like our friend Coz, who doesn't have one ounce of sense." In her business guise, Carver has helped call her fans' attention to many talented misfits who might otherwise still be skulking around their basements. And she routinely takes down bands or movie stars who are all show.
Shortly after I hung up the phone with her, Carver interviewed a band called Lolita Storm, a girl group that exemplifies the kind of empty posturing for which she has no patience. "Lolita Storm describes themselves as for anarchy, against the status quo of what women should be, rip up the rules," Carver says. "They think they're so nuts because they have shoplifted and they wear high heels and they pose with a gun ... They're just like cheerleaders, except instead of a pompon, they have a gun and a stiletto, but it's the same exact thing." The problem with Lolita Storm and their countless hipster counterparts, Carver suggests, is that they've bought into an idea about what an adventure is supposed to be.
Carver, by contrast, finds adventure everywhere, even in the supposedly mundane. "I really don't see anything boring about a house," she says. "My God, it's exciting! I'm going to have a worm bin! I'm going to be sleeping right over the writhing worm bin! To me, that's a lot more exciting than posing with a gun. Like they're really going to shoot someone. Those girls are not really going to shoot someone. They're just flashing their big boobies. I can really see adventure as a worm bin. I can also see adventure as doing cocaine and staying out all night."
Adventure and excitement, in other words, are where you find them. The thoughtful and full-steam-ahead nature of Carver's search for truth and adventure (and how often do those two things wind up in the same sentence?) is what makes her an icon and a prophet for this era in which completely contrived reality-based television passes for innovation.
Even though Coz claims that he had "nothing to show for it [touring] except a van that went ballistic after 7,000 miles," he says that he would still be ready to play music again with Carver anytime. But don't hold your breath for a "We're baa-aack" reunion tour to come along in 20 years. On the subject of the recent comebacks of "Die Young, Stay Pretty" (yeah, right) bands like Blondie and the Go-Gos, Carver says, "It must be so strange to say all the words that you once meant and couldn't possibly mean today, posing as fresh young things when ... I much prefer, say, Vanity, who got born again and now she only does gospel. It seems a much more attractive life, to reflect something you're still struggling to become, not something you once so effortlessly were and are no more."
So for now it's writing, raising Wolfgang, house-buying, watching soap operas, and having adventures with her husband, worm bins, and Internet strangers. In addition to her diaries on Nerve.com (a site which bills itself as "The Community of Thoughtful Hedonists"), Carver also writes astrology columns for modo (a handheld digital thing coming out at the end of the month), movie star interviews for iCast, and book reviews for the Toronto Globe. A couple of years back, Feral House published a big glossy compilation of past issues of Rollerderby. Carver is the author of a book of essays called Dancing Queen, which covers everything from the sexiness of Russian leaders to the exquisite pain of visiting the hairdresser.
When asked what she'd teach if she ever went into teaching, Carver says, "Well, it would be a writing class, and I would stage real-life performances, like a kidnapping or a fire, I'd tie my students up except for one hand and I'd hold a secretly unloaded gun to their heads and make them write what they really mean or I'd blow it off. Maybe I'd stage a kidnapping and fire at the same time, and tie them up all at once. It would be a one-day class. Which is good, because I'd be fired in about four seconds."
"But what I really want to be," Carver wrote once on iCast, "is a writer for Days of Our Lives, since that's where myth and dream merge, and everyone comes back from the dead."
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