Tuesday, August 19, 2014

From Kerouac to Crass: A Conversation with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: Part 2 of 3

photo courtesy of www.genesisbreyerporridge.com

As clearly demonstrated in Part One of this interview, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is one of the most fascinating subjects ever featured on this website. As our interview earlier this year carried on, the talk became less of a structured question-and-answer session and more of an organic, flee-flowing chat. I always love when that sort of thing happens...

In the '80s with Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth and even before that with the mail art, you were very much into using conventional mail to spread a message. We're in a substantially different world now, where a postcard or letter is now a status update on Facebook. Things are so much more immediate now. Do you see that as an advantage, or a hindrance?


How so?

Well, in 1966, my English teacher told me to come up after class. It was, 'Oh, no. What have we done wrong?' He goes, 'I think you would find this writer really interesting and up your street.' He gave me this bit of paper, and it said, 'On The Road. Jack Kerouac.' We had never heard of Jack Kerouac. We said, 'Thank you, sir.' When we got home, we gave [the paper] to my father, who traveled up and down England a lot in his job, and said, 'If you ever come across this book, would you get it for me?' He said yes.

A few weeks later, he produces a paperback of On The Road that he found in the bargain bin on the motorway. We read it, and it blew my mind; I was just like, 'Whoa!' We already loved Dada and Surrealism because they lived interesting lives; they didn't just make interesting work. Their lives, to me, were equally exciting – if not more so – than the artwork. So we already reached this point where lives and art were all intermingled and life was in a way more important. The art and books were just clues to the result of evidence of a life lived, but not the thing itself.

We read the book, and at that time we thought it was amazing. We realized that they were real people, that Bull Lee was William Burroughs. Somehow, we found that out. So then we wanted books by Burroughs, but there were none in Birmingham. We went to all the book shops in Birmingham, and no one had anything by Burroughs or Kerouac or anyone. So we hitchhiked down to London. We lied and said we were going to visit my friend's grandparents in Purley, and off we go. When you're hitchhiking and you're 16 and reasonably cute, you never know who's going to pick you up. There's a man in a Rolls-Royce who keeps asking for a blowjob, and we say no. Then, there's a man who's a firefighter who's just done a check on a Mormon Temple and said, 'Did you know there are eight floors below the ground because they don't need planning permission for that? And in those eight floors, they've got a big water reservoir, and it had a library and a school and enough places to live for the entire local community of Mormons, so if a bomb goes off, they can all continue to live and come out again?' And so on. So you get all these amazing stories for several hours – sometimes 10, 12, 14 hours – from people you'll never meet again. And then you arrive in London, and you know the only way to find somewhere to sleep is to go to Piccadilly Circus where all the junkies and people with long hair are, but also because of that, you know that they’re the hip community. You meet somebody who's got long hair, and they say, 'Do you want to crash on my floor, man?' You go, 'Yeah, that will be great.' So you go visit them, and they're living in a macrobiotic commune. You sleep on the floor, and they give you brown rice in the morning, and you don't really like it at the time but you go, “Oh, thank you.” Then, you think, 'Where do we get books?' You go into London, you go up and down to Tottenham Court Road and no, no Burroughs, no Gysin, no nothing. Then you go into Soho just because it's the porno area, and you're still young and horny. Lo and behold, in the first shop, you're looking along and there's Naked Lunch! It was once banned and obscene, so therefore they stock it. Then, you look a bit more, and there's Henry Miller's Tropic Of Cancer – because it was obscene... And suddenly, all the books you really want are there in the obscene Soho book shops...You head back and you meet a little more people, and you go back to school. Or, as it happens now, you go to Amazon.com and click.

I'm so glad you made that point!

Which is more enriching? Hello!

There's such a loss of discovery now.

Exactly. That's really hitting the nail on the head.

I was grade school when I discovered TG. There was an indie record store that took about 45 minutes to get to, so I would have to get a family member to drive me there. All the way in the back, the store had Psychic TV, TG - at import prices, of course. I saved up a lot of money for me in those days, being 12 years old. But to find those things was such a magical thing, as was finding Wreckers of Civilisation on a bookshelf somewhere. Discovering an artist to where you really had to dig. And then you find the dozen or so other people who happen to be looking in the same section of the store. That seems to be gone, and I miss that so much.

Well, that's why we've always used logos. The TG flash, the Psychic cross. It's so that even without the need for words, with simple little telegraphy, you know that person has to be at least on some level closer to you culturally than other people. It's a recognition sign. It's almost like having a flag over your head saying, 'Look at me! Look at me! I'm a little bit like you.' Personally, to me, that is a really essential service. The logo is to further maximize contact with others that are similar.

What were your thoughts on the Pussy Riot phenomenon?

We don't know enough about it; we've really not followed it at all. All that we know is that they did their performance in a church and got arrested and thrown in a miserable jail. Being thrown into a jail for any kind of performance is just totalitarian sadism. Having said that, what do we think of Pussy Riot? The question really was, were they doing it for notoriety or were they purely and simply doing it to make a statement? The odds are high, given the state of Russia at the moment, that they knew the risks. If they knew the risks, then they were serious enough to take the risk. But beyond that, we're not sure. We'd have to know more about what they've written down, if they have a manifesto, what it is and so on. One thing is for sure: They really got fucked.

We're going to Russia in May, to Saint Petersburg and Moscow. We've already had people writing and saying, 'Are you scared to go because you might be labeled as 'transexual' or sexually dangerous or whatever given all the new repressions that are happening?' That makes you start to re-think Pussy Riot...Did they push it in a negative direction accidentally, or did they take far more of a risk that we all realized? That seems more likely. Now that we know a little more about what's happening with the authority there, then they probably knew they were taking a hell of a risk - especially for women in Russia.

We all know this: Whenever biological males get the chance and women are vulnerable, the majority will rape them – like 90-something percent. We know this because of previous occasions – wars, civil wars, uprisings, the Russians coming into Berlin. The first thing they do – sadly and pathetically – is rape, because they can without any kind of punishment...By being pandrogynous, we've separated ourselves to a degree from the male of the species. We do not feel akin enough to the biological male of the species to want to be associated with them. There are so many aspects – the violence, the viciousness, the rape, the dominance, the thoughtlessness.

What do you think of Pussy Riot?

Anything that holds people's attention for this long has to have something powerful behind it. Everything goes by so quickly, but the Pussy Riot discussion has been ongoing for a couple of years now. I think depending on where a person is in the world, he or she might get a different message. Perhaps in America, young women might look at that as an empowering message: “We can do something if we see something that is upsetting us. If we want to voice what we feel, we can do what they've done.” That's wonderful. In another part of the world, they're addressing very specific things; Pussy Riot exists to address evils perpetrated by a particular world leader. So the Russian context might be different than the American context, but they're instilling something in the audience, regardless of where that audience might be. Two of the members who were jailed appeared at a benefit concert for Amnesty International in New York a couple of weeks ago – I believe onstage with Madonna. So there is that side of people who perhaps look at that and say, 'Ugh. A fucking sellout,' but they're raising questions and drawing attention to issues on that wide of a scale. I can't see that as negative in any way.

No. And of course maybe Madonna will sign them and project them into the mediasphere. Then, we hope they remember what it was they wanted to say. (laugh)

With everything being so short attention spanned these days, I like the fact that people are still talking about them. The jury is still out on what effect they'll have. Were they just rambunctious young ladies causing a stir, or are they going to effect change? Maybe we won't know until they're gone. Maybe we won't know until another generation comes out of that.

It's like the 'wreckers of civilisation' and the tampons and Prostitution. That was seen as disgusting and who knows...all the different possibilities. Many people just though we were just craving publicity, which we weren't. But now, almost 40 years later, the Tate Britain has bought the tampon boxes for its national collection of fine art.


It's re-assessed [as] culturally significant, regardless of the quality of what the work is, [in] its effect and its triggering of a debate, which is ongoing. A very, very serious debate about the nature of what art is allowed to be, and the sponsorship of art and so on, and what's taboo and what's not taboo. It's been finally admitted into the dialogue of the art history story – and the cultural story – of Great Britain. To me, that's vindication, and we're happy about that. So that could be what happens to them. It could be 20, 30, 40 years before Russia gets it and goes, 'Oh my God! They were so right!'

From what I've studied about late '70s Britain and some of the things that were going on, I think there were some parallels between TG and Crass. What are your thoughts on Penny [Rimbaud] and Crass and their impact on culture during that time?

We began very skeptical of Punk in its entirety in England in the mid '70s. You probably know the whole Sniffin' Glue thing where Mark Perry said, 'Learn three chords and form a band.' My response was, 'Why learn any chords?' There was a certain friction at the beginning. I can't speak for Chris and Cosey and Sleazy, but we were fanatical about the destruction of Rock 'N' Roll and the prophetizing of an entirely new, far more relevant expression of the contemporary experience of its moment, of its time. Coming from Manchester, for example, and growing up around the cotton mills that were all closed, and seeing them all start to decay. Every day, going past the railway yards where they were cutting apart all the steam engines for scrap – just seeing clearly and vividly that the industrial revolution that had made Britain potentially or theoretically great and brought in its prosperity was gone. Economic power had shifted away from Britain. For me, that was much more vivid; we saw it literally all the time. We grew up playing in bomb craters in Manchester, so we also knew the fragility of the most substantial structures – meaning bureaucratic as well as economic or social.

There was still rationing when I was a kid. To get sweets, we had to have a little kind of token, and we were allowed meat once a week. We got rabbit, which was the poor man's chicken, until myxomatosis wiped out all the rabbits. (laughs) So my experience of Britain growing up, which is sort of the same era as Penny, was very much decay. It was decay, and yet there's Harold Macmillan saying, 'You've never had it so good.' Then we got to the '60s, where there was this moment, which is very idiosyncratic of apparent prosperity and the realization that the young people had money and could be exploited to spend it, which gave a brief respite from the decay and the collapse. That was the sort of picture that was happening, and then the '60s – in its brief, beautiful solar flare – sank back into itself into skinheads and the British Movement, and Punk, very quickly. One reason maybe that we were into it as 'Industrial Music,' and that my obsession with 'Industrial' was because [of] seeing “industry” as a symbol of the previous way that Britain was – the Victorian era, pre-Elizabeth 1 era – that there are these peak moments in society that sometimes trick the vast majority of people into imagining they're taking part in this great moment of England or of Britain. To me, it was always obvious that in fact we lived in a new feudalism; to me, it was quite insane that people would walk around wearing the logos of big companies like Nike and Adidas or whoever it might be. Why would you wear an advert for someone who's oppressing you? Why don't you get it? They're paying you low wages and charging you high prices so that you remain in poverty. It's just like the Middle Ages. You're serfs; you're raw material. They'll use you as long as they use you, and then they won't care at all. Why did you get free education and health care in the '50s and '60s? Because they wanted a healthy, well-educated workforce.

When technology and organizational factors came in, so that there was less demand for people who were well-educated and healthy, they started trying to reduce it and get rid of it. People are seen as the equivalent of cows and sheep – a disposable, inconvenient resource that requires a lot of attention to keep it as healthy or unhealthy as you need. And also to keep it ignorant enough not to want to rise up and be outraged by how it's being treated. So somewhere in there, we think we're close with Crass. A lot of people don't realize that Penny was kind of from the Sixties, too. Both of us were interpreting the same phenomena in slightly different ways. His was far more traditional anarcho-political; mine was more bull-in-a-china-shop. But our aims were the same, and a lot of our strategies overlapped. The logo, the slogan, the recognition by a symbol – 'Oh, there's Crass.' By just one symbol on somebody’s arm, you know who they are; they're probably part of your extended family.

We did meet with Penny; we went to the farm. In fact, it was Little Annie – Annie Anxiety – that took me to meet them. She lived there for a while, and we became good friends. One long weekend, she took me down there to visit with them, and we had some really great, sometimes slightly intense discussions. They were concerned that certain aspects of the TG look were too ambiguous. The flash with the red and black was being seen by so many people as Neo-Nazi, when in fact when I designed it, black and red have always been the anarchist flag to me. That's why it was red and black. The lightning bolt was copied from British Rail, where they had these signs that said, 'Danger. High-Voltage Electricity.' So rather naively, we added that, thinking that was a way of expressing the music – high voltage electrical music, not Rock 'N' Roll. With hindsight, of course you could see how it could be accidentally or deliberately misinterpreted – mainly deliberately.

TG did a concert once at the Filmmakers Co-Op, and we built our own PA system. We just stacked it up both sides, and then somebody did a review where they claimed that we set up the PA as two Hs for 'Heil Hitler.' That was a total lie; they were just in square stacks. I'm not even sure how you could make it look like HH. There's probably a way, but that would certainly never cross our minds. Basically, [the press] caused us years and years and years of having to re-explain that were not right-wing. We'd say, 'Look at what we do. We squat houses and give them to associations for artists with families. We do soup kitchens in Kathmandu for Tibetan refugees. And look at me. Do you think a right-wing government would leave me on the street? No, they'd kill me or put me in prison. Get real!' All I'm talking about is change and libertarianism and so on. You'd think that people would get it that that's not what a right-wing totalitarian government wants to hear. But people are very politically naive, and they're being trained ever more carefully to respond to cliches, to stereotypes.

Crass had problems, but not quite as much misinterpretation as we did. That was a discussion we had many times. As to the actual music and performances, we do remember seeing one performance where The Nipple Erectors [with Shane MacGowan, later of The Pogues] were supporting. He was immediately charismatic. Crass was not my cup of tea musically. It's ironic, but to me, the early music’s too abrasive and noisy! We can appreciate what it is and how it works, but it's not something we would listen to. Ironically, to this day and even then, my main musical library is almost all from '62 to '71. Actually, we rarely put music on at all. We don't even remember the last time we put music on to listen to.

Check out Part 3 of this conversation. 

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

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