Art Sex Music

Art Sex Music
By Cosey Fanni Tutti
[Faber & Faber]

Throbbing Gristle is/was definitely one of those problem bands – or should I say it was a “problematic musical collective”? I mean, what is/was Throbbing Gristle, exactly?

The moniker Throbbing Gristle describes, well, the penis in its turgid state. And, as is explained ad infinitum on countless Viagra and Cialis ads, priapism (the state in which a penis remains erect for hours in the absence of continued stimulation) is a problem in and of itself. If priapism is not treated immediately, by a physician, no less, permanent damage can result.

Throbbing Gristle is/was the UK noise ensemble that existed from 1976 to 1981 (later reassembling for a few years beginning in 2004) that set the template for what would become industrial music. And one might assert that the, ahem, “band” did indeed inflict permanent damage on the popular culture of the late 20th century. Certainly, participation in TG’s on again, off again reign of (anti)musical terror permanently damaged its, ahem, members (pun intended – sorry).

Nicking a page or three from the Warhol canon, TG “manufactured” its sound – a sound that oftentimes mimics the cacophony of industrial production and/or the destruction of said products. In other words, the TG sound is glaringly ugly, an infinitely distorted, hyper-amplified form of musiqe concrete. If you added a couple or three pieces of Harry Partch and John Cage’s brains into an atomic powered reanimation of Ed Gein’s corpse, shot it up with an unholy combo of speed ’n’ steroids and gave it a bunch of instruments and huge amps, maybe the beast would make some kind of racket that is/was something like TG.

But then again, maybe not. TG was/is essentially four sickly, sallow, po-faced British art snobs who were as or more adept at boring people with flaky theories and manifestoes than making an unholy rumpus. Yeah, their “music” was ugly and grating. They might have fancied themselves as Wreckers of Civilisation and musical totalitarians, but their campaign neither wrecked civilisation nor yielded a holocaust. I mean, it’s not like anyone was forced to listen to their stuff, right?

Basically, what TG produced was a sonic equivalent of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. And that’s praise, right? Not exactly.

A lot of people own Naked Lunch. It certainly looks cool on any hipster’s shelf. And a whole lot of people have probably tried (and failed) to read Naked Lunch in full. Yeah, it’s “genius.” And such genius is insufferable.

Likewise, a lot of people own recordings by TG. It certainly looks cool to have them in your collection, located betwixt the genius works of similar artistes like Einsturzende Neubauten and The Residents. And a lot of people who claim allegiance to these acts have probably tried (and failed) to listen to these recordings in full, in one sitting. Yeah, it’s “genius.” And, again, such genius is insufferable.

So I guess now is the time for total disclosure. As always, I have become what I claim to despise. I have a copy of Naked Lunch that looks really cool on my shelf. I have tried (and failed) to read it in full – several times over, in fact. Likewise I have copies or recordings by TG, Neubauten and The Residents. And every couple of years it’s good for a few laughs to dust them off and give them a listen – for like 10 minutes, that is.

I’m not really sure whether I actually “like” TG or not. Maybe I’m just giving them lip service as yet another symptom of an endless, futile campaign to be cooler than you. Honestly, I’d rather wear a TG shirt and/or claim to “know” their “music” than to listen to their recordings. This is to say that my dalliances with TG over the years have been more of a minor, recurring irritation than a terminal illness.

Still, the Throbbing Gristle story is a hell of a story. The group (yeah, “group” seems more fitting than “band” or “collective”) is as motley a cast of characters as, uh, Motley Crue. TG boasted a drug-scarfing, bass-playing windbag who pretty much called the shots (or at least thought he did, when he was a he, that is) and another member who was known primarily for, uh, “sex stuff.” So, Genesis P-Orridge is/was TG’s Nikki Sixx and Cosey Fanni Tutti was/is the group’s Tommy Lee. Following this tack, I’ll further analogize Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson as TG’s Vince Neil and the comparatively staid, contemplative Chris Carter as Mick Marrs.

At this point the Motley Crue/Throbbing Gristle analogy is getting derailed just a bit, isn’t it? And the Naked Lunch bit has all but decomposed into a pile of cut-up snippets of text, right? Well, yes and no. TG isn’t/wasn’t exactly a rock ’n’ roll band, but sex ’n’ drugs are two of the three main elements of the story here. And then there’s art. Oh yeah, and then there’s porn, and “obscenity” and outrage and moral panic.

Thankfully, instrumentalist, vocalist, conceptualist and former sex worker Cosey Fanni Tutti has seen fit to realign all of the aforementioned shards into a cogent, autobiographical narrative with Art Sex Music, a thoughtful, engaging memoir of her tumultuous life in and out (and then back in, and then back out) of Throbbing Gristle – and as an instrumentalist/vocalist with techno/trance/house innovators Chris (that’s TG’s Chris Carter) & Cosey.

Art Sex Music is a lengthy (500+ pages) but never boring retelling of Cosey’s artistic metamorphosis as a spaced-out ’60s flower child, a hellraising, Dadaist performance artiste (in Coum Transmissions), a hellraising noisemaker (in TG), a sexworker, a groundbreaking techno music innovator (in Chris & Cosey) and as a wife and mother. (And isn’t it funny how the majority of envelope-pushing, anarchistic, boundary-breaking artistes seem to, in the final analysis, wind up becoming stanchions of monogamy and family and conventionality?)

From the ’60s to the present covers a lot of cultural/artistic shifts – and Cosey’s story is far too convoluted to attempt synopsizing here. In brief, Cosey was Genesis P-Orridge’s girlfriend (or something) until TG imploded the first time in 1981. Of course, being P-Orridge’s muse/fuck buddy entailed a lot of bed-hopping with a host of people including (but not necessarily limited to) other musicians, entertainment biz types, and any other old troll that stroked P-Orridge’s fancy for whatever reason. This was all part of P-Orridge’s campaign of Machiavellian mind-fuckery modeled after those of likeminded exploiters Charles Manson and the Church of Satan’s Anton LaVey. Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.

“Gen tested my love and commitment to him by demanding me to do things [sexually, with a multiplicity of partners] he knew I really didn’t want to do,” writes Cosey. “His reasoning was: if I’d hurt myself for him, that would prove my love and dedication to him beyond doubt. These ‘tests’ were a self-serving ploy presented to me under the twisted notion that submitting to his demands was a way for me to gain strength.”

Although Cosey eventually sees P-Orridge’s “emancipation through submission” ruse as the scam that it is, it seems as if she was simultaneously laying groundwork for the recurring pattern of abasement and self-erasure that would become, more-or-less, her life’s work. Cosey became a stripper and porn model for around a decade. And the money Cosey earned as a sexworker was used to support the men in her life. Cosey would later display imagery of her photo spreads from porn magazines in art galleries as a kind of backhanded, self-referential commentary that art is commerce is prostitution. A clever premise indeed – but at what cost?

Therein lies the stunning bundle of purposive contradictions that is Cosey Fanni Tutti. She is a talented and sparklingly intelligent woman: a feminist, a musician, an artist, a loving mother and a doting wife who simultaneously continues to sow the seeds of her own dissolution. There’s an underlying sadness here – or maybe I’m just projecting.

I’m not a prude – or at least I don’t think that I am. But I’m having a hard time equating subjugation with empowerment in the ways Cosey posits in Art Sex Magic. I’m trying not to – but, admittedly, maybe I’m just being paternalistic in my assessment here. Cosey is a smart and cool person who needn’t be pitied.

Granted, the sexworker stuff is by no means the whole of Cosey’s story, either. Of course, the bits about Throbbing Gristle are the most interesting parts.

At the time of the group’s resurrection in 2004, Genesis P-Orridge had become (or was at least in the process of becoming rather than being) the grotesque, pangender Frankenstein collision of Jack Klugman and Courtney Love she is (or is in the process of becoming rather than being) today. P-Orridge always was/is kind of a Psychick nutjob. And with the reanimated TG (which lasted, incidentally, until around 2010), he was a bigger diva than Axl Rose. Cosey found herself, yet again, in the role as diplomat/intermediator. And her bandmates in TG, Chris and Sleazy ended up hating Genesis as much as Nikki Sixx hates Vince Neil. This is some funny stuff.

Sure, Art Sex Music has a lot in common with the usual rock tome. But Throbbing Gristle and Cosey’s other projects were/are not exactly rock and by no means usual. And Cosey herself is a hell of a lot smarter and more interesting (and conflicted) than the usual rock dudes portrayed in the usual rock books. With stunning clarity and forthrightness, Cosey examines what motivated her bizarre career and kinda/sorta reconciles its paradoxes. And this is heady stuff.

Throughout her career, Cosey has deftly bestrode the liminal spaces between pop music, high art and sleaze to create a body of work quite unlike any other. Here she tells all – but the book not a “tell all.” Somehow, Cosey projects a sense of order and rationality onto a life that might otherwise seem squalid, immoral, or at the very least icky and unpleasant. For Cosey, the transgression-as-empowerment thing is more than the overly conceptualized, carnivalesque bluster of both rock books and hifalutin art criticism. Art Sex Music is an engaging, artfully wrought and philosophically rendered read. Cosey might have indeed been a wrecker of civilisation, but her journeys through the corrupt and sordid back alleys of pop music, high art and porn have certainly not wrecked her. She offers no apologies and doesn’t insult herself or her readers with a hoary old sin and redemption narrative, either. This Cosey is one tough and authoritative woman. I’m convinced. Count me in.