Cosey Fanni Tutti. Getty
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Cosey Fanni Tutti's memoir ends with an unexpectedly conventional romance

Art Sex Music by Cosey Fanni Tutti reviewed.

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 first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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If you don’t know who Willy Vlautin is, you should

Vlautin is one of literature’s greats: so why is he still not a big-hitter in contemporary American fiction?

Over four previous novels Willy Vlautin has quietly crafted a body of work a world away from the perceived big-hitters of contemporary American fiction. Yet any one of his books offers as valuable an insight into the day-to-day grind of existence in a country whose dream has long turned sour as anything published this century.

In small scenarios he tackles big themes such as loss and loneliness, almost always against backgrounds of transience, poverty and the endless battle of simply getting by. His characters are not restless wanderers, but rather survivors questing towards the chance of a better life. Their situations are harsh but, crucially, never entirely devoid of hope. Vlautin’s debut The Motel Life concerned two brothers on the lam after a tragic hit and run accident, while Lean On Pete (adapted for a forthcoming film by the British director Andrew Haigh) beautifully explored the relationship between a teenage boy and a failing racehorse. As in his songs (as a musician Vlautin is best known for his work with the band Richmond Fontaine) these are lives that pivot on luck or resourcefulness, with reviewers drawing comparisons to Steinbeck and Carver, though I’d stir Denis Johnson, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen into the mix too.

Don’t Skip Out On Me tracks the journey of 21-year-old Horace Hopper, a half-Paiute Indian, half-white Nevadan ranch worker who was abandoned as a child to a “a grandmother who drank Coors Light on ice from 11am until she fell asleep on the couch at nine, who chain-smoked cigarettes, who ate only frozen dinners, and who was scared of Indians, blacks and Mexicans”.

Horace is also an aspiring boxer. He finds employment and surrogate love from good-hearted ageing rancher Mr Reese and his housebound wife, who want to gift him their family business, but his ambitions in the ring prove too great. Reasoning that all the best fighters are Mexican he moves to Tucson, Arizona, where he reinvents himself as “Hector Hidalgo” by adopting Hispanic clothes, eating spicy food that he dislikes and finding a Mexican trainer, who rips him off.

Fights come his way, brutal undercard battles in which Horace/Hector takes frequent beatings, but is often saved by his big-punching abilities. Rarely has the aftermath of boxing been so well portrayed: the sobbing in the shower, the reset noses, the constant need for codeine. And the emotional scars too.

For at the core of Don’t Skip Out On Me lies a deep well of existential emptiness that is distinctly American. The expansive mirage of the country – “Texas is just a line in the dirt,” shrugs one character – and the empty promise of consumerism found in drab retail parks and fast food diners amplify the young Horace’s solitude and his slim chances of success. Vlautin is hardly the first to note the overwhelming sadness of a neon sign flickering in the darkness or miles of empty car parks where fields once stood, but his are scenes bathed in pathos. Alone beside a strip mall Hector watches the cars pass by: “Every single person in every single car had a TV, a phone, a bed, and ate chicken and got the runs. How many chickens got killed every day?”

Food features heavily throughout, but it is only ever cheap and functional, consumed for quick gratification and always with a nauseous belched-back aftertaste. Stifling heat plays its part too; the pages of this book almost feel slick with the border states’ sweat. The prose smells of synthetic sugar, salt, frying oil, locker rooms and desperation.

Vlautin is particularly adept at fleeting encounters and sorrowful glimpses that add a Homeric dimension. An immigrant shepherd tending to Mr Reese’s flock has a complete mental collapse high in the mountains. A pregnant woman and her toddler are stranded at a Greyhound bus stop, her diaper bag and the child’s stuffed rabbit continuing the journey without them. When he discovers two teenage stowaways in the back of his truck en route to Mexico, Mr Reese sees that their maltreated dog has worms, an eye infection and an injured paw, and buys it off them for $50. A desperate life is made a little better. Such moments are what elevate Vlautin to literary greatness: he understands the necessity for compassion through small acts of kindness.

Ultimately, Horace’s core strength is engulfed by his overwhelming alienation when he washes up in Las Vegas, the vulgar end-point of America’s briefly glorious boom-time. Vlautin’s characters are the walking wounded yet manage to carry themselves with dignity, and only a reader with a heart of anthracite could be unmoved by their situations. They continue to live on long after Don’t Skip Out On Me has ended in devastating style. 

Don’t Skip Out On Me
Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game