Click above if you’re one with a strong stomach. If you’re brave, play it on good speakers, and turn the lights down. It’s the most horrific three minutes you’re likely to hear (inb4 “that’s just bullshit I could do better with my ass lol”).
Hamburger Lady is a legendary track by a legendary group of “destroyers of civilization”, who are currently in the midst of a very small set of reunion tourdates. If you’re in Glasgow as I write this, I believe, you’ve still got a chance to see this historic group live. Now then.
Here is the backstory of the track, from the sleeve of “DOA: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle,” the album whence comes this track:
“…By far the worst is the hamburger lady, and because of shortage right now of ‘qualified technicians’, e.g. technicians who can work with her and keep their last meal down, Screwloose Lauritzen and I have been alternating nights with her, unrelievedly. If you put a 250-lb meatloaf in the oven and then burned it and then followed that by propping it up on a potty-chair to greet you at 11pm each night, you would have some description of these past two weeks. Which is to say the worst I seen since viet napalms. When somebody tells you that there is a level of pain beyond which the human mind cannot retain consciousness, please tell them to write me. In point of fact this lady has not slept more than 3-5 minutes at a stretch since she came to us – that was over two weeks ago and, thanks to medical advances, there is no end in sight; from the waist (waste?) up everything is burned off, ears, nose etc – lower half is untouched and that, I guess, is what keeps her alive. I took one guy in to help me change tubes and he did alright, that is alright till he came out, then he spotted one of the burn nurses (pleasant smiling zombies) eating a can of chile-mac at the desk, and that did it: he flashed on the carpet. It is fucking insane is what it is.”
-part of a letter sent by Al Ackerman from Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. 1978
A lot of TG’s material, in my opinion, is merely obsessed with shock value; the descriptions of Genesis P. Orridge & Cosey Fanni Tutti’s early COUM Transmissions performance art shows, so far as my admittedly unsophisticated art perceiver’s mind can tell, show nothing in the way of genuine social commentary or artistic value, other than an underlying nihilistic desire to break down all semblance of pro-social behavior. TG tracks like Slugbait continue in this vein, revelling in the death ov civilization.
But Hamburger Lady is a different matter entirely; where the psychopathic imagery of Slugbait is defanged by its very extremity, Hamburger Lady meditates on, and evokes, a horror that is all too insidious, and impossible to ignore, by vice of its very banality. People are burned in fires every day, and in the bad cases, their lives turn instantly from whatever regular boring existence they previously endured to an endless and unendurable pain… a pain which, due to a far-too-literal interpretation of an oath (“do no harm”) that all doctors take, medical professionals then set out to preserve and extend indefinitely, indeed, for all intents and purposes, to inflict upon the victim until they die – potentially not for years, or decades.
The protagonist of Slugbait, a killer who murders a young family and revels in the retelling of his actions, is an outsider. The protagonist of Hamburger Lady, a caregiver who sees to her “tubes” which presumably deliver medicines and pain drugs, is an agent of society’s care. The Slugbait killer’s spree, no matter how horrific, lasts only a matter of hours. The Hamburger Lady’s keeper, on the other hand, acts with society’s blessing to prolong her pain for as long as he possibly can.
Considered in the light of this policy of our modern, clean, civilized,
“enlightened” society, one does have to wonder whether the accusation
that TG were “destroyers” of civilization could really be considered a
criticism, as such. And in context, even TG’s more extreme material, no matter how repellent and useless on its own, does seem to serve an artistic purpose in the context of the overall body of work.
It is tempting, in light of the fact that Orridge and Ackerman were in the habit of trading “mail art,” to retreat into the notion that this narrative is merely an invention of an artistic mind, that the Hamburger Lady exists only in the dark corridors of Ackerman’s imagination. I don’t personally know whether he really spent any time working in a burn ward. But once you accept the premise of the song, such comfortable bliss is impossible to attain, because even if the story is fiction, stories just like it play out in real life, as you read this, in every city in the world. I deliver blood and blood products at my job, and on one of my routes, I ride an elevator, and sometimes it stops to let people on or off on a certain floor, and there’s a sign on the wall – “Burn Ward” with an arrow – that gives me chills every time. By the sign’s presence, I’m reminded of what’s taking place down that hall. The door closes and I soon go back to my boring job, subtextually grateful that my life is indeed so boring, because there are any number of ways that it could be interesting which I would not enjoy.
What inspired me to write this entry, though, was Boing Boing’s recent interview with the band, which led me via a google search to this fellow’s account of his first, and seemingly last, exposure to TG. His description of what happened by the end of Hamburger Lady is, true or not, an inspired piece of storytelling, and an illustration of how a horrible thing like this can get under your skin.