November 1969. “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies is number one for the month. The Beatles’ Abbey Road is just out, the band’s beautiful swansong. At a Hull students’ union, an 18-year-old girl spots a 19-year-old boy. She is ferociously bright, getting into the late-Sixties swing. He has the look of a Greek Orthodox priest and carries a “wooden staff, the full length of which he’d carved by hand into a continuous interwoven spiral which converged at the top with the yin-yang sign, above which were small horns for his thumb to hold the staff firm”. His mother named him Neil. He is now known as Genesis. He decides that her name is Cosmosis, abbreviated to Cosey when they become a couple. It is helpful to note that they meet at an acid test, where people are playing with a bathtub full of coloured jelly and where someone’s skronking free jazz on a saxophone makes Cosey run away.
Rock autobiographies are generally conventional tales of excess but Faber has published some properly alternative takes in recent years. And the great thing is that many of the most recent ones have been by women on the margins of pop culture, such as Viv Albertine of the Slits (who unwrapped the messy world of punk in Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys) and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, who described the death of her relationship with Thurston Moore in Girl in a Band. And now comes Cosey Fanni Tutti, a founder member of the radical music and art collective COUM Transmissions and later Throbbing Gristle, an important influence on the darker side of electronic music. She is far from a household name but her book Art Sex Music arrives laying out huge concepts in its title, confidently, as it should.
We begin with a story of an ordinary, ramshackle family living in the north-east. Christine Newby is born with her left elbow bent and fist wedged against her chin, like Rodin’s Thinker, at a hospital standing between a prison and a cemetery. Her female role models are caring and strong; her cold and detached father certainly isn’t.
This section is full of other seeds of portent, but buds of creativity, too. Hull’s bombsites become playgrounds where stories are made among “toys, pianos, kitchens left almost intact”. Aged seven, Christine and a friend find photographs of Belsen victims in a book. (“We should not have been looking at those images,” she states. Years later, Throbbing Gristle make Music from the Death Factory and put a picture of a Nazi death camp on the cover.) She is ten when the Cuban missile crisis reaches the Humber: “It was a frightening, life-changing moment to be told in my junior-school assembly that we could all go home early to our families because the world might end tomorrow.” Cosey’s tone throughout is full of such matter-of-fact tenderness.
Despite fascinating details, this part of the book is a tough read. The timeline darts haphazardly and it is hard to keep track of prominent and incidental players alike. The feeling extends through Cosey’s early forays into art and music: we are left with scattershot impressions of lives, moments and ideas. But perhaps that was the point. COUM’s work was about rejection of conventions, after all – they sent art through the post by direct mail, and proclaimed seven years before punk that “the future of music lies in non-musicians”. Still, their work was also about being accessible, and a firmer editing hand would have helped.
But then comes the sex. Cosey was a pornographic model and stripper in the middle of the 1970s and second-wave feminism, using her body in artworks to comment on the sex industry. “I was no ‘victim’ of exploitation,” she writes of that time, persuasively and fearlessly. “I was exploiting the sex industry for my own purposes . . . I wanted a purity in my work, to push against existing expectations and my own inhibitions, and to understand all the complex nuances and trials it imposed on everyone . . .” COUM’s 1976 exhibition at the ICA in London also featured her bloodied sanitary towels in installations, more than two decades before Tracey Emin’s much gentler, Turner Prize-winning My Bed. You boggle at how bold Cosey’s work is, even when its extremity puts it on the edge of parody – unless you and your boyfriend have ever ended an onstage performance by being penetrated with either end of a nail-studded pole.
The boyfriend (yes, the same one we met earlier) gets his comeuppance. Genesis P-Orridge throws a breeze block at her head and cats down the stairs, and reminds us of the darker sides of sexual liberation (“Gen says to gain more power I am to screw each cock that I don’t want,” reads one of Cosey’s particularly grim diary entries from 1976). But she rebels, settling down with her fellow bandmate Chris Carter (“my heartbeat”, as the dedication to the book reads) and continuing her avant-garde explorations in music and art with him, and their son, by her side. If there is any conventional narrative to this memoir, it’s this: here’s a life in art spurred by a meeting with a manipulative man, over whom the heroine triumphs. But it is unquestionably Cosey’s story, however radical and riotous a read it may be.
Jude Rogers is a music critic and broadcaster
This article appears in the 26 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On