Genesis and Revelations: From the Midlands to Manhattan

Simon Warner

(I)t soon became apparent that the Megsons took a slightly less conventional approach to life.

In the heart of the '60s, 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, 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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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