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Limits Of Transgression: Remembering Genesis P-Orridge
Luke Turner , March 16th, 2020 11:34

Genesis P-Orridge was seen by many as a counter-cultural 'icon'. In the wake of their death this weekend, Luke Turner looks back at their radical life and argues that to see it honestly, the full story of their abusive behaviour needs to be told

Forty years ago this week, on 20th March 1980, Throbbing Gristle played one of the most remarkable gigs in musical history. At the request of one of the pupils, they turned up at Oundle Private School to perform a concert for the pupils, who reacted by spontaneously singing a rendition of 'Jerusalem', their school hymn. What's so striking about the concert is the sheer unified power of the sound emanating from the stage – the fractured rhythms, the unearthly wail of Cosey Fanni Tutti's cornet and Genesis P-Orridge's strident vocal performance. S/he dedicates the gig to the boys' absent, fee-paying mothers, and responds to 'Jerusalem' by telling them "England is a toilet". In the footage Genesis prowls, menaces, cajoles – every inch the rock & roll frontperson - ironic, in a way, given this was a group that supposedly destroyed rock & roll.

Without Genesis there would have been no Throbbing Gristle, one of the few groups in musical history who can genuinely be said to have changed the cultural landscape. Without the other three members of Throbbing Gristle (Chris Carter, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson) there would have been no platform on which Genesis could perform and disseminate their ideas. It's with this in mind that I look back on Genesis' life, following their death on Saturday 14th March after a long illness. It's been difficult, over the past 24 hours, to read social media post after social media post praising Genesis P-Orridge as a countercultural hero(ine) and inspiration yet ignoring the hideous side of their life, notably detailed in Cosey Fanni Tutti's memoir Art Sex Music. For those unaware, Cosey details years of abuse at the hands of Genesis, who (among other crimes) physically attacked her, stole credit for her work, and once threw a breeze block from a balcony that landed near her head and could have killed her. Perhaps the generous assessment is that people haven't read the book, though this article was widely shared when it was published a few years ago.

I don't think that bringing this up in a piece remembering Genesis' life is in some way poor form. This isn't a case of speaking ill of the dead. Genesis was after all someone who believed that their life, even the form of their own body, was part of their artistic practice. Therefore on P-Orridge's own maxim so we must acknowledge the abuse committed against Cosey and others. None of this is said to denigrate Genesis P-Orridge's own contribution to early 70s Hull art collective COUM Transmissions and later Throbbing Gristle. When the group first played 'Discipline', it was Genesis who took up the rhythm being laid down by Chris Carter and Sleazy and improvised the insistent lyrics - it remains one of TG's finest moments. Genesis' voice, a hazy quaver somewhere between an old crone in a terrible house in the woods and a sadistic 20-a-day bent copper, was the blade for Throbbing Gristle's potent sonic attack. Genesis' way with words (from their letters and long text Painful & Fabulous I've long suspected their true calling was as a writer not a musician) meant that they quickly became the spokesperson for the group, perceived as the leader.

When TG collapsed, P-Orridge went on to form Psychic TV and Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, a musical group cum social organisation that leant heavily on occultism and studies of manipulative control. While they didn't invent acid house (one of Genesis' frequently self-aggrandising claims), Psychic TV's continuously evolving psychedelia struck a chord, especially in the USA. In later years, P-Orridge introduced into more mainstream circles the current conversations around gender fluidity through their pursuit of what they termed "pandrogyny", or trying to become one creative, physical and spiritual unit with their partner Lady Jaye. The post-millennium Throbbing Gristle reunion was a fractious affair, though introduced the group to a whole generation of new fans (including myself) with infrequent but stunning live performances. It also heralded what I think was P-Orridge's final great musical contribution - the vocals for 'Almost A Kiss', a rich, romantic, Weimar ballad.

Aside from this, it seemed that Genesis P-Orridge's chief cultural significance in the first two decades of the 21st century was as a quasi-spiritual figure to many. Then again, there's certainly an irony that a person who created Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth as a satire on cult-like devotional behaviour ended up inspiring it. Or was the intent satire, after all? Perhaps, with rumours of a Genesis P-Orridge memoir circulating, we will find out.

P-Orridge's life certainly acted as a huge catalyst and inspiration to many of the artists who we've covered on The Quietus over the past 12 years. They set an example of self-determination and independent creativity that has been taken up by many to beautiful effect. For many people of these artists, Genesis also acted as a gateway to underground culture in a pre-internet age, opening them up to writers, philosophers, new ways of thinking. I was lucky enough to see Throbbing Gristle for the first time at Camber Sands in 2004. Wet behind the ears, I had no idea what was hitting me, how the music was at once quietly meditative and the most terrifying thing I had ever heard, how this blond-haired being at the front of the stage was feeding off the sonic mangling created by Carter, Tutti and Sleazy to deliver the most seductive and compelling onstage performance I'd ever seen. We might be lucky enough to have just two or three musical experiences that are genuinely life-changing, and that was one of them. That isn't altered because of what we all now know. Nothing will shake my belief that many of TG's actions, such as the Oundle School performance, are among the greatest achievements of 20th century British art and music.

Perhaps Genesis' death leads us to the heart of the problems with cancel culture. I do not believe that their abusive behaviour means we shouldn't listen to the music of Throbbing Gristle – to do so would be unfair on the three other members. The same goes for Psychic TV. But to discuss Genesis' life without also thinking of the trauma s/he inflicted on Cosey Fanni Tutti and others, as so many have been doing over the past 24 hours, makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Have any icons you care to follow, experience whatever art you choose, but at least acknowledge the truths of the lives of those who made it.

Might we also see Genesis themselves as a lesson in the dangers and futility of supposed transgression. Play too long with dark energies (P-Orridge's obsession with manipulation, control, fascism, abuse) and they might just end up consuming you. A few years ago, as part of Hull City of Culture, myself and The Quietus helped curate the programme to commemorate the work of COUM Transmissions. It was Cosey's decision to ensure that Genesis' contribution to COUM was recognised, and that s/he was present during the course of the art gallery show and events that bookended it. It was odd to encounter Genesis in later life, clearly unwell but in good humour – as the picture of them meeting Philip Larkin at Hull Station above clearly shows, and their cheeky amusement at ordering a pot of Porridge Of The Gods from a branch of Leon on what was World Porridge Day. Genesis' performance was identical to that which they were touring at the time, consisting of reciting poetry ("humanity is a virus! humanity is a virus!") over a backing CD and visuals. In the soundcheck I'd seen earlier that day in the empty dockside warehouse near to where COUM Transmissions had once 'scrudged' for free fruit and vegetables, Genesis had tested the mic by singing unaccompanied that funeral staple, Frank Sinatra's 'My Way': "and now, the end is near / And so I face the final curtain / My friends, I'll say it clear / I've lived a life that's full / I travelled each and every highway / And more, much more than this / I did it my way," s/he crooned. I have rarely heard anything that sounded so hauntingly honest, so broken and alone.