“The job of the artist is to suggest the incredible in order for the possible to happen,” says Genesis P-Orridge, influential musician, countercultural icon, and — soon, hopefully — a completely gender-neutral human being.
A few seconds ago I phoned up P-Orridge's hotel room in Athens, Greece. The whirlwind Psychic TV concert tour of Europe (15 countries, 20 days), the singer and his band's first in almost 10 years, is about to come to a close. And while this is a notable event, there are other issues that threaten to steal the attention.
Jaye Breyer — aka Lady Jaye, who is in charge of playing the tambourine and triggering samplers for Psychic TV — answered the phone and giggled slightly when mistaken for P-Orridge, because that's kind of the point. Lady Jaye is married to the musician, and the pair have embarked down an odd road together — a painful one, involving cosmetic surgery — that will one day make them appear to be the same person, neither male nor female. The effort officially began on Valentine's Day of last year, when each received breast implants.
“We call it pandrogyny,” remarks P-Orridge, who prefers the pronoun s/he. “We want to get away from it being about gender, because it's about identity, and ultimately the real issue is the right of every human being to create their own narrative and be the author of the story of their life.”
Ever the saucy novelist, P-Orridge is currently writing his most recent chapter, and it's quite the page-turner. It mashes up sex and intrigue beyond recognition, and includes the re-formation of the once very influential industrial rock outfit Psychic TV. But will P-Orridge's latest round of shock tactics breathe new life into his music, or overshadow it completely?
Genesis P-Orridge is famous for being both a musical innovator and, in the words of a former member of the British Parliament, one of the “wreckers of civilisation.” He formed the band Throbbing Gristle in the U.K. in 1976 and proceeded to write the prototype for what would evolve into full-throttle industrial music, a term P-Orridge invented with artist-friend Monte Cazazza. Revered throughout Europe and America, Throbbing Gristle experimented with guitars, found-sound constructions, and the new technology of the times, i.e., samplers, influencing everyone from contemporaries like Einstürzende Neubauten to industrial stars of the '80s like Al Jourgensen (Ministry, Revolting Cocks) and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails). Radical visuals were assembled to go with the music right from the beginning; bloody tampons were strewn on the ground at TG's very first gig. Five years after it started, the band imploded amidst growing artistic differences and a love triangle among P-Orridge, guitarist Cosey Fanni Tutti, and keyboardist Chris Carter (the latter two eventually married and started the techno outfit Chris & Cosey). Throbbing Gristle's last performance took place at Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco in 1981.
P-Orridge's second major musical endeavor, Psychic TV, was formed less than a year after TG's demise, but really came into its own in the late '80s, during the formative years of the British rave scene, when it interfaced rock guitars with the burgeoning house and techno sounds of the day. Choosing quantity over quality, the band was honored in the Guinness Book of World Records for releasing 14 albums in 18 months. Live performances were known for being highly unpredictable, with a near absence of structure short of P-Orridge singing and guiding a communal freak show that dissolved the line between audience and performer. The band grew into a sort of Grateful Dead for ravers, eventually moving its home base to the Bay Area.
Living in Marin County for a few years in the early '90s, Psychic TV became a fixture in the lively, rapidly growing local rave scene, playing all-night hallucinogenic freakouts and helping San Francisco get back in touch with its Merry Prankster side. The band itself has been relatively silent since those times. But P-Orridge, now based in Brooklyn, decided to revive it this year (as PTV3 to reflect a third incarnation of members) to counteract what he calls a new “Dark Ages” enshrouding the world. Psychic TV's return is marked by both a tour and a “director's cut” rerelease of 1986's Godstar, an acid-rock soundtrack to a proposed movie about late Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, the fallen icon whose sexy androgyny helped get some gears turning in P-Orridge's head in the early '60s, when he was still a schoolboy called Neil Megson.
So Psychic TV and all its grand ambitions are back, but there's now a significant difference: Genesis P-Orridge is no longer a man. Setting off for Europe, the band was unsure how this would be received. Thankfully, longtime fans have so far been receptive.
“We've had people, like, a thousand or whatever boys that dress in black … if you just saw them in the street you'd think, 'Pretty macho male-oriented persona,'” says P-Orridge. “And then not one person has said anything other than a supportive or encouraging word to me. … It's just, 'That's Gen. Gen is the voice of thoughts, Gen is not the body,' which is the whole point. And I am so much more optimistic about the human species in general to realize how tolerant people can be and that we're helping to create a very sort of pro-different, pro-transgender, pro-gay sexuality strategy and have it be taken as completely reasonable.”
Of course, there remains the question: why? Like that of all transgenders, P-Orridge's reasoning is not merely capricious, as the more ignorant members of our society are wont to believe; s/he genuinely feels as if s/he was born in the wrong body. But, in typically P-Orridge fashion, there's more to it than that.
“[P]eople say, 'I felt that I was a man trapped in a woman's body,' or that, 'I was a woman trapped in a man's body,'” says the singer. “Myself and Lady Jaye say, 'I just felt trapped in a body.' And if there's a difference, it's not that anything is more or less valid, it's just, we find being physically and biologically alive in a body mysterious and limited. And we resent being limited. So that's one aspect of it.
“Another one is that I used to work a lot with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin before they passed away, and you probably know about that idea with the third mind where you cut things up.”
S/he goes on to explain the Beat poets' method of literary collage, in which words and phrases are cut up and reassembled at random to produce something new. If two writers are collaborating, the end result belongs to neither author but to what Burroughs called “the third mind.” Genesis says that s/he and Lady Jaye are simply applying this technique to their own bodies in order to become one.
“We just take the cut-up literally. We just cut ourselves up!” s/he laughs.
In the abstract, this all makes sense, particularly for those who embrace recombinant methods in creating music and art. But in reality, it doesn't seem as good of an idea. There's a danger that, in attempting to be a master engineer, the creator is overtaken by the creation. And, in this case, the creation may just overtake an essential part of the equation, i.e., Psychic TV's music, simply by being more shocking.
“William Burroughs used to say to me, 'How do you short-circuit control?' And that's been one of the basic things that I use as a map when I'm thinking about new concepts and new projects: How can I short-circuit control? Have I got habits that I need to break? Do I assume that whatever was there yesterday is the same tomorrow?
“For example, I had my face peeled off and rebuilt and put back on. So one day I woke up with a new face after 54 years. And that was amazingly powerful and difficult psychologically.”
It sounds like a lot of highfalutin rhetoric, perhaps, but P-Orridge gives no indication of being anything other than pleased with the results so far, especially given the warm reception that the Psychic TV gigs met with throughout Europe. Now the group is on its way to America to perform its “post-pandrogynous” interpretations of songs from Godstar.
“People have talked about it as being the Velvet Underground or the New York Dolls combined,” says P-Orridge of the band's performances. “It's about pleasure. Pleasure is the weapon. In a time of darkness, to enjoy is radical. So it's a very happy, sometimes funny, but very hard-edged psychedelic rock-out.”
A few moments later, Lady Jaye reminds her hubby that s/he has another interview scheduled. I throw out one more question: Does the physical pain involved in these operations ever make you question the need to make these modifications?
“Nooooo, no, no no. Painful, but fabulous!” s/he exclaims, referencing both a book and the title of an art show s/he held last year that presented P-Orridge's personal photographs of recovering from various cosmetic surgery procedures. “I'm sorry, I'm afraid I really must go now.”
Nervous and rushed, I conclude the call by accidentally blurting out the absolute last thing one should say in parting to a pandrogynous rock star who's just attempted to provide an enlightening take on gender neutrality.
“Thank you, sir!”