In the heart of the 1960s, when the tsunami of Beatlemania swept over Britain and then the US, I was living in the English Midlands. Solihull is a prim and proper town, located just a few miles from the city of Birmingham. I was maybe eight years old, residing in Links Drive, close to a golf course, that lush symbol of middle-class aspiration. I liked Paul and John for sure, but I had a friend who liked the Dave Clark Five much more. At the time, drummer Clark and his mindlessly upbeat combo were probably as big as the Fab Four were in the States.
I also remember, bizarrely, a visit to our street by an Australian crooner named Frank Ifield. He had novelty hits with songs that featured an Antipodean yodel, modeled on the country singer Jimmie Rodgers, perhaps. Ifeield came to Solihull one Sunday to visit a cousin or an auntie who lived at the other end of our cul de sac.
But there were stranger revelations to come. Two doors away, a family of four made their home. There was Dad and Mum and two teenage children. Although my parents knew our neighbours really quite well—we were all from Manchester it soon became apparent that the Megsons took a slightly less conventional approach to life.
With the Beatles hailed as gilded stars in the new cultural firmament, it came as something of a surprise to discover that this adjacent family, all four of them, were off to see a TV recording of the Rolling Stones nothing less than the bêtes noires of the British scene. The Stones were the anti-social bad boys to the angelic Mersey beatsters, or so the tabloids painted it.
I got to know the 16-year-old son a little. Neil had a magnificent train set in his attic. On occasions I was allowed to climb the ladder into their roof and gaze across this world in miniature; hills and valleys, tracks and stations were re-created in the gloomy garret under the eaves. Whether my teenage host saw this as an unwarranted intrusion I can’t remember, but he seemed polite and welcoming enough.
Years, as they do, went by. More than a decade later as I was completing my university studies, my mother contacted me to say that her friend Muriel Megson had been in touch and that Neil was now making a success in the rock world. As someone who, by now, was avidly consuming column miles of the music press each month, I was a bit shocked that I couldn’t immediately place this new, young star.
It soon transpired, however, that the adolescent Megson had taken on a fresh persona, and that the individual dubbed Genesis P-Orridge, and leader of a band called Throbbing Gristle, was the adopted alter ego of the teen who had long before offered me a guided tour of his model railway.
Genesis’ move into rock music had been preceded by a number of years as a rising performance and installation artist with an ensemble named COUM Transmissions. In the mid-1970s, with the punk furor at its height, Genesis gained notoriety for a show at the prestigious ICA the Institute of Contemporary Arts on the Mall in London. The event, called Prostitution, incorporated elements of sado-masochism and a stripper into the group’s set. It raised the ire the House of Commons, with one MP dubbing the architects of the piece “the wreckers of civilisation”.
By the 1980s, Throbbing Gristle and a subsequent band, Psychic TV (that released a tribute single to hero Brian Jones entitled “Godstar”), had further entwined Genesis with the outer fringes of the radical new wave. Art anarchist and then rock terrorist, Genesis’ unique and unsettling noise earned the tag, “industrial music”. The style would garner a small but devoted following and, by the end of the century, American acts as significant as Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson were regarded as the heirs of this transgressive musical experiment.
But Genesis was always more than a mere rock visionary. Painter, novelist, poet, and actor, he saw the many parts of his unconventional activity as a whole; a life as art, we might say. He held a long affection for the Beat ethos, particularly William Burroughs, with whom he collaborated. Through a series of curious accidents, rather than design, he even became the official curator of a large collection of avant garde home movies by filming Burroughs and his circle.
Yet his reputation in the UK made life uneasy and unnerving. A series of salacious allegations in the British tabloids in the early 1990s followed. The allegations were that Genesis was the principal of a corrupting religious cult. His home in Brighton was raided and work materials, including the extraordinary Burroughs archive, were confiscated, never to be seen again. At this point, Genesis decided it was time to leave and, since then, has based himself in New York City.
Genesis and I have made sporadic contact in recent times, picking up on those almost thread-bare recollections of our lost childhoods. He continues on his determined and idiosyncratic course: he remains as active now as he was as a writer/performer/musician before his enforced exile. Nothing better reminds us of his versatility, his industry, and his originality, than a new volume celebrating almost 40 years of his diverse output.
Painful but Fabulous: The Lives and Art of Genesis P-Orridge, published by Brooklyn-based press Soft Skull [November 2002 (US)/January 2003 (UK)] is a comprehensive reminder of the multitude of avenues this artist has pursued. Painful but Fabulous constructs an extraordinary matrix of the graphic, the verbal, the written and the aural. In Genesis’ homeland, that legacy is largely ignored, but in the US, a nation with that most Janus-like of countenances censorious in the extreme but also a fanatical protector of the freedom of speech Genesis’ rose has, in all its thorny mystery, blossomed.
In Painful but Fabulous, a gallery of the influential pay tribute to Genesis’ picaresque odyssey. Timothy Leary says that he has been “an invaluable pioneer in developing a new language, a tremendous influence”. William Burroughs calls him “an artist not a pornographer”. Performance artist Karen Finley speaks of his “genius”. Bridget Riley, the British Op Art painter, describes him as “an artist of integrity and dedication”.
But the volume is more than a hagiography. Painful But Fabulous also includes the acid attacks by the establishment which have dogged him from the start. It is in the essays by Douglas Rushkoff and Richard Metzger among others, alongside the plethora of illustrations, that the substance of this man’s often disturbing, always challenging, world-view takes shape. Legendary British DJ John Peel proposes that Genesis and his other agents provocateurs were “madmen, but constant exposure to mankind forces me to believe that we need more madmen like them”.
Madman or misfit, revolutionary or guru, satirist or satanist, subversive or subterranean, dangerous demon or fallen angel, Genesis P-Orridge’svast oeuvre suggests that, at the cutting edge of contemporary culture, he might just be its renaissance man. But it is hardly a title he seeks or would value. Like most seriously consumed in a career of creativity, the work in publications, in the recording studio, on the live stage with his spoken word troupe Thee Majesty just goes on and on and on . . . . Check out the book, and his website www.genesisp-orridge.com, to see how he moved from adolescent railway modeler to a venerated place in the global underground.
Note: TG24, a boxed set of archive Throbbing Gristle material, was released by Mute Records in January 2003.