Back when I was a recent transplant from the deep suburbs to Boston, I worked at a Trader Joe's. While working there I wore a stupid shirt, tried not to cut yuppies with the box-cutters, and generally despised everything about the place. However, I did become friends with some charming weirdos who, like me, got a job there thinking it'd be a bunch of misfit freaks like ourselves. We were partly right: there were a lot of freaks, but behind all the team cheer and tacky Hawaiian shirts stood a rigid corporate infrastructure (of course), managed by ex-military drill sergeants, and overlorded by a remote dynasty of German billionaires, whatever hope we harbored that this was different from any other for-profit business was steadily abandoned. Not that there was any great hope to begin with, merely a passing wish that maybe there existed a part-time job requiring no experience that wasn't indentured slavery to a run-of-the-mill evil corporation.
The disillusionment brought us together. I befriended a tall, Nordic-looking neurotic named Mike. One day Mike picked me up after our shifts were over, saying we were going to see this crazy band called Psychic TV. I'd never heard of them, and from Mike's description I was having a hard time understanding what it was I was going to see. That's the first time I'd heard the name Genesis P-Orridge – a name I still find hilarious, and place in the hallowed pantheon of great adopted punk names like Jello Biafra and Lux Interior. My interest was downright piqued.
On our way to the venue, Mike and I stopped to pick up our friend – and also coworker – (are all workplaces so incestuous?) – Chris. He was a black-clad Morrissey who managed the wine section and was the only other person I'd met who was as into the Velvet Underground as I was. Naturally, we got on each others' nerves. We made it to the venue and waited around, as is customary. The stage looked like it had been ripped straight from the Factory floor of forty years ago, sparsely furnished and pulsing with colors. From the thickening gloom behind the standing room proper, a projector cast swirling images over every surface. In due time each member of the group – and there must have been at least six – appeared, one at a time, and added another layer of noise to the billowing monolithic drone. Eventually, leading entity Genesis P-Orridge assumed the stage, all smiles, looking like s/he was having a blast. Then, somehow, the music changed from an unapproachable din to what was, for lack of a better word, a groovy jam.
They closed the show with a raucous cover of The Velvet Underground's “Rock and Roll.” For the entire show it was clear that the band was making it all up as they went along, but perhaps because they all looked like they were having so much fun, they made it appear effortless. I won't say that even at the time I thought the music was brilliant. Brilliant music isn't necessarily the point of Psychic TV or its predecessor Throbbing Gristle (although they each had their moments). The music is an expression of a philosophy, which Genesis sums up in an interview for Bad At Sports1. Don't let the wishy-washy opening sentence turn you off, it gets comfortably more anarcho-punk further on:
The Native Americans that we worked with didn't have a word for death: they used the word “separation,” which we thought was highly significant. And we've taken just one thing to heart: if we're separated from nature, then something is dying in some way. If you're separated from love and the concept of love, then something is dying, either in you or somewhere else. And that's one of the great failings of the Western totalitarian materialism that we are now all falling under the spell of. We're no longer in a democratic capitalist society, we're in a totalitarian materialist society. And so is China, and so is Russia, and so is Cambodia, and so is just about every country that can manage to do it. The future is totalitarian materialism: a rigorous control from above, and an obsession with greed and exploitation at ground-level; and everything is sacrificed to that. Our reason for making art has always been to try and help save the human species from itself.
What I'd seen was a performance by Psychic TV, the amorphous collection of musicians centered around pandrogynous front-person Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Before Psychic TV, however, Genesis was co-founder of seminal “jazz funk” band Throbbing Gristle, along with then-partner Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter, and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson. TG was born out of a British avant-garde performance act called CUOM Transmissions, and the passion for performance art was certainly adopted into the new band. The art was the thing, really; they were never interested in making music in the traditional sense. Responding to a question about how TG rehearsed, founding member Cosey Fanni Tutti says, “I wouldn't say we rehearsed, because we don't write 'music,' so we couldn't run through the 'songs.'”2 Despite that their music was more about sounds than structure, they listened to and worked with each other to create crushing walls of noise, all loosely framed by Chris Carter's unforgiving motorik beats.
Many people accept Throbbing Gristle as the vanguard of industrial music, but delineating where this genre begins and with whom is impossible to prove and irrelevant. If TG invented a genre, it was a happy accident. They were always about questioning: about confronting society's obsessions and conventions straight on – particularly a Western obsession with “delineating, separating, specializing, fragmenting, reducing things down more and more into separate little units”1 – and seeing how those status quos might be altered or destroyed. True to their performance art background, every action of theirs was intentional, everything was an experiment, and critical judgment was irrelevant – therefore no second takes, straight-to-tape. Think of a life of unbounded interconnectedness: now even the mundane attains significance. Despite the pervasiveness of their philosophies, however, the members of Throbbing Gristle still managed to reconcile to the world around them and avoid the fate of becoming simply boring tortured artistes. After all, living an artistic life never had to be about abjection, loneliness, and existential crisis. At least, I saw nothing of the sort in Genesis' face that night. I saw an artist, through-and-through, who also knew and valued the act of having fun and enjoying life.
Nathaniel Hoyt is an inconceivably complex system of sentient organic materials dedicated to eating poorly and playing video games frequently. He has a Tumblr account that he doesn't quite know how to use, which you can view at dedolence.tumblr.com, although admittedly there's probably better ways to waste company time. As a do-er of many things, feel free to seek Nathaniel out if you have any things that need doing, like bicycle fixing, coffee making, artwork drawing, or opinion giving. END COMMUNICATION.