Sam Pryce explores the new memoir from pioneering industrial musician Cosey Fanni Tutti.
‘Yours was a difficult birth,’ my mother told me. I was born with my left elbow bent and my fist firmly wedged against my chin like Rodin’s The Thinker. Then she added, with a smile, ‘You’ve been difficult ever since.’
Born as Christine Newby in 1951, artist and pioneer of industrial music Cosey Fanni Tutti began her career in avant-garde music and performance art with the Hull collective COUM Transmissions under the name Cosmosis in 1969, before adopting her current moniker Cosey Fanni Tutti in 1973 – a mischievous pun on Mozart’s misogynistically-titled opera Così fan tutte (usually translated as ‘Women are like that’). She is perhaps best known for her membership of the legendary experimental art-rock band Throbbing Gristle, who are responsible for some of the most terrifying and mind-blowing music ever created.
However, Cosey’s other artistic efforts – such as her daring artworks exposing the sex industry, using pictures taken of herself when working as a glamour model and porn actress – have gone largely unrecognised for almost half of her life. Now, in this refreshingly frank memoir, Tutti takes the opportunity to dispel any myths and misconceptions about her career, from her tumultuous (and at times abusive) relationship with fellow TG-member Genesis P-Orridge to the risks she took in using her body and life as art.
We begin in Hull, as Christine Newby is raised by a caring mother and an emotionally distant, occasionally abusive father. Scattered throughout her childhood, there are little seeds of inspiration that inform the art that she would go on to create. At age 7, she and a friend found photographs of Belsen victims in one of her dad’s books. At age 10, the Cuban Missile Crisis hit and she was told in her junior-school assembly that they ‘could all go home early to [their] families because the world might end tomorrow.’ Years later, her band Throbbing Gristle would make Music from the Death Factory, putting up posters emblazoned with pictures of Nazi concentration camps.
Growing up in the 1960s, the hippie counter-culture – a psychedelic cocktail of mind-expanding drug use and music – is what nurtures her inherently rebellious and curious nature. Then, at the end of the decade, she is approached at the students’-union by a university dropout calling himself Genesis P-Orridge (born Neil Andrew Megson). He christens Christine as Cosmosis (which she later changes to Cosey) and the pair move into a dilapidated commune known affectionately as the Ho Ho Funhouse. Alongside a cast of colourful characters and friends, the pair form the Hull-based collective of experimental artists, COUM Transmissions, whose surreal (but relatively peaceful) street performances around Hull pale in comparison to the shocking nude displays of sex acts, bodily fluids and offal that the group performed when they later moved to London in the 1970s.
Obsessed with occultism, magick and Charles Manson, Genesis P-Orridge is, as Tutti describes, ‘a charismatic prankster with an intellectual bent and a great line in telling people that they needed to access and be their true selves – while not practising what he preached.’ The details of their volatile relationship makes for uncomfortable reading. At one point, Cosey comes home from a good night-out to find Genesis sat up in bed waiting for her, then threatening to throw her out. In their sex life, he would refuse to wear condoms (Cosey would later have a traumatic abortion as a result) and insisted upon an open relationship, practising group sex at his will but becoming furious whenever she did not adhere to his wishes and whims. ‘Gen says to gain more power I am to screw each cock that I don’t want,’ reads one of Cosey’s particularly disconcerting diary entries from 1976. Mentally and emotionally abusive, Genesis would become violent towards her too, throwing everything from a breeze block at her head to their pet cat down the stairs.
Meanwhile, Cosey was fulfilling her own artistic ambitions, becoming interested in exploring the 70s porn and sex industry. She obtained various jobs as a model, porn actress and stripper on London’s subculture sex scene, making it difficult for her to relate to second-wave feminism and their campaigns against the industry emerging at the time. She explains:
I was a free spirit and didn’t want yet more rules and guilt thrown at me about my actions. […] Yes, by doing my sex work I was contributing to, but not necessarily endorsing, the thing they were fighting against. But I was no ‘victim’ of exploitation. I was exploiting the sex industry for my own purposes, to subvert and use them to create my own art.
Following COUM’s outrageous 1976 show Prostitution at London’s ICA, in which Cosey’s porn-magazine spreads were shown (alongside a 5ft, double-ended dildo and her own soiled sanitary towels crawling with live maggots), a Tory MP in the House of Commons branded the group ‘wreckers of Western civilisation’ – probably the best review they ever recieved.
Then came Throbbing Gristle—consisting of Tutti, Genesis, Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson (who would later form the band Coil) and electronics whizzkid Chris Carter—a band who invented a whole new philosophy to complement their new genre of music: industrial. In the band’s synthesist Chris Carter she would find her ‘heartbeat’ – her partner in both love and music, forming the duo Chris & Cosey once TG had disbanded. As their romance blossomed in the early days of Throbbing Gristle, it provides a relieving contrast to the abusive power-play that characterised her earlier relationship with P-Orridge. The couple now live together, still regularly collaborate and have a son, Nick. Their partnership is now considered hugely influential in electronic music, most recently collaborating with Nik Colk Void of Factory Floor. So, a conventional happy ending for a profoundly unconventional life.
Rock autobiographies, especially those written by men, can often appear as conventional tales of excess and egotism, from John Lydon’s relentless rant Anger Is An Energy to Morrissey’s self-proclaimed ‘classic’ Autobiography. However, Art Sex Music is the latest example in a string of unapologetically candid music memoirs written by women in rock, reclaiming their narratives in music history, refusing to be marginalised. There’s ex-Slits guitarist Viv Albertine’s book Clothes, Music, Boys, which reveals not just the glorious disorder of the punk era but also the harrowing experiences Albertine faced in her post-band career. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon addressed sexism in music with her 2015 book Girl in a Band, as did Carrie Brownstein in Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, detailing her time in riot grrrl group Sleater-Kinney. Cosey Fanni Tutti’s story adds some more fuel to the fire, while exploring the unique career of an avant-garde artist who refused to be side-lined – a woman living and working in the spirit of creation, expression and rebellion.
Featured image courtesy of dailyredbull.musicacademy.com
Sam’s spotify playlist featuring some of Cosey Fanni Tutti’s best music: