, November 23rd, 2012 05:47
At the live preview of some of Desertshore at Newcastle's AV Festival in March this year, there was in the room a sense of remembrance ritual for Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson. As I wrote here, the set by Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, film screenings and performance by Attila Csihar created "a portrait of who [Sleazy] was (and always will be): the questing spirit voice and adventurer, a great wit, a transgressive explorer." It suggested that what was to come from the sessions then underway at Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti's Norfolk studio would have a significance beyond the mere practicalities of finishing off a friend's album.
This idea of a commemoration is reinforced in the tangible sense via the packaging for Desertshore and The Final Report (how often are we able to say that mere packaging has emotional heft?). A white, shimmering tablet, you open it to find on the left a card on which is written "A celebration of the longstanding, treasured friendship and unique creative partnership between Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti 1975 - 2010". The booklet that accompanies the release reads "Dedicated to Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson," while opening it fully reveals a gorgeous photographic portrait where he looks like a professorial building site foreman, a steady gaze above salt-and-pepper beard and moustache and firm, tattooed arms.
This is so clearly a deeply personal project intended uniquely to pay tribute to a departed friend and artistic voice that to approach Desertshore, as some have, as a mere Nico covers album or sad product of the final disintegration of Throbbing Gristle would be a crass and disingenuous error. Instead, like the Buddhist Endless Knot symbol embossed on the sleeve, with its perpetual, interwoven band, Desertshore is an exploration of undercurrents that flowed and flow around the work of all involved.
Musically, initial parallels between Throbbing Gristle, Coil, and Nico as experimental artists are self-evident. Desertshore was a startling album for its day, fierce and uncompromising. With Nico's vocals, John Cale's turbulent and see-sawing drones accompanied by crackles and knocks of abstract sound, it was arguably far ahead of its time. Yet for all the supposedly difficult sonics, Nico, just like Coil and Throbbing Gristle, was an artist of contrasts, who delved into the very flesh and stuff of which we and our emotions are made.
Nico, because of her gender, was always cruelly treated by posterity. In Lou Reed's case, an unusual voice and an enthusiasm for heroin made him a canonical hero, oozing the cliches of rock's glamour. Not so for Nico, who refused to fit the limited roles then allowed to women in pop - doe pretty or soulful. In the eyes of most, she became a harridan outcast, wandering Europe, a drug-addled, easily exploited mess.
You only need listen to her Desertshore (or, indeed, The Marble Index or The End) to understand that rather than a wailing Teuton, Nico brought into her music bright flares of light against the dark, in a journey to discover what it is that makes us human. On 'Afraid' she sings "you are beautiful and you are alone". I've always found it one of the most heartbreaking lines in popular music, sounding as it does so cruelly internally directed. This doomed musing is pop's equivalent to Ophelia walking slowly into the water, scattering flowers. Or take 'The Falconer', where a beautiful piano part rises out of the murk, or the unaccompanied choral lullaby 'My Only Child', or Nico's son Ari's innocent vocals on 'Le Petit Chevalier' - I always believe my ears can pick out her whispering his cue, an unbearably intimate moment.
These are the subtleties that also elude so many when approaching Throbbing Gristle, or Coil. Too often the myth has obscured the truth of what they were trying to achieve - a journey towards an essence of the human via music, art and sound, an awareness that transgression can lie at the very core of beauty. Therefore by these two entities of Nico and the remnants of Throbbing Gristle meeting in this ether, a sort of understanding is achieved, an exposing of detail, a strange magic (with a 'k' on the end, if you like). What's that pulse at the beginning of X-TG's 'Janitor Of Lunacy' if not a heartbeat? The music from the death factory has become a celebration of what life unfettered can achieve - what Sleazy did achieve.
Sharing this celebration, and opening it up to become universal, are the guest vocalists, who take Nico's voice and song somewhere new, hymning to Sleazy as they do so. After the initial Throbbing Gristle installation at the ICA in June 2007, it was Sleazy's idea to feature these guests (who at one point might also have included Oliver Postgate, creator of Bagpuss). He then worked on music back in Thailand, which after his death was expanded by Chris and Cosey to create these tracks as they collaborated with Antony Hegarty, Marc Almond, Blixa Bargeld, Gaspar Noé and Sasha Grey.
Musically, anyone who saw later performances with Throbbing Gristle or the brief glimmer of X-TG will be familiar with the potent sonics at play here. There's a lot of low end, half-tangible wisps of sound that are suddenly whisked away; hulking, powerful rhythms and cutting brass. There are lighter textures too, strings and what feels like a bouncing Jew's harp. It's fair to say that Nico's original album is hardly the most libidinous record in existence, but some of the success of this Desertshore is that much of its humanity is sexual - rightly so, for Coil, Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey have always been sex people. It's to this rich backdrop that the vocalists - arguably all also sex people of varying types - bring Desertshore to life.
'Janitor Of Lunacy' is utterly compelling, one of Antony Hegarty's finest ever vocal performances. There's an unholy drama to it, a high note tracked against his own backing vocal in a lower register. The music makes a virtue of restraint, quiet drones and the occasional report from brass. Its partner comes in Marc Almond's performance of 'The Falconer': warm, red and glorious, a similar turn to that which I saw him do at another tribute event, for Jacques Brel at the London Barbican. Perhaps the most traditional song arrangement here, the schizophrenia of the Nico version is smoothed by strings over a simple electronic thrum, a melody picked out at the end. The whole effect is of the sense of decadence and loss - you can easily imagine both both featuring in a Derek Jarman musical set at the end of the world.
In opposition to these comes Blixa Bargeld. The Einsturzende Neubauten singer is an inspired choice, obviously able to capture the correct emphasis of the two German language tracks 'Abscheid' and 'Mutterlein' in a way that a non-native speaker never could. On Nico's original these are relatively flat. Here, Bargeld teases the latent poise and portent out of the former, while the latter becomes at once hectoring and curiously jaunty as anguished noise plays in the background.
The film world delivers the most unusual vocal interpretations, perhaps because actress Sasha Grey and director Gaspar Noé are less accustomed to being recorded singing. Noé, present on the most violent backing track (and the most reminiscent of the stomping force of late-period TG gigs) is guttural and barely human for 'Le Petit Chevalier', the little boy of Nico's song grown up to realise all the monstrosities that our species has created. Seemingly the most controversial of the performers (a repellent air of misogyny has greeted her contribution) Grey violently subverts 'Afraid'. Her odd, cold, slow vocal twisting "you are beautiful and you are alone" so it no longer feels sung into a mirror, but becomes a cruel domme taunt.
Which leaves us with Cosey Fanni Tutti. Firstly, 'All That Is My Own' is one of the most potent tracks on this album, a dense and heady backing reminiscent of Carter Tutti Void's Transverse with a heavily processed Cosey vocal that becomes an incantation. By violent, dramatic contrast - which makes it even more affecting - is 'My Only Child'. When I interviewed Chris and Cosey for the Stool Pigeon back in 2011, Carter remarked that Sleazy "started out as the baby of TG, and then he became like the daddy." Cosey then added, "It's funny, he always used to call me 'mum'," This couldn't help but come to mind when considering this record, with Nico's lyricism so concerned with motherhood. Perhaps the sweetest we've ever heard Cosey sing, the lyrics of encouragement to an infant to understand the potential of their life ("My only child be not so blind / See what you hold / There are no words no ears no eyes / To show them what you know") emerge, startlingly, from abstract murmur. Followed by a track where many of those who knew Sleazy repeat the line "meet me on the desertshore," there's a powerful emotional punch to the end of the album.
Desertshore is a monument to Peter Christopherson and Nico alike. In a way, the fact that this isn't coming out under the Throbbing Gristle moniker makes this even more pure. TG were an idea, not a mere band or group. By fulfilling their dear friend's wishes, on Desertshore Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti have paid him a glorious, beautiful tribute that, like Nico's original album, celebrates the glowing eddies of sex and life and death. In this, and by redefining Nico for our own age, we remember two human souls whose like we may never see again, but whose art and spirit endures for all time.