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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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APRIL 2020 Issue
In Memoriam A Tribute to Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

William Breeze

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, New York, 2005. © Carl Abrahamsson.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, New York, 2005. © Carl Abrahamsson.

Throbbing Gristle—the band I consider England's answer to the Velvet Underground—had a 1981 live album Mission of Dead Souls, with a track titled "Looking for the OTO"—referring to Ordo Templi Orientis, the magical fraternity led by Aleister Crowley. When I heard, in the late ’80, that Genesis P-Orridge was visiting New York, I sent him (as s/he then was) a copy of our recently published journal The Equinox , with a note: "I understand that you are looking for us?" Before long we met and became fast friends.

Genesis was an unofficial roving British Council, an inveterate networker who generously shared resources and contacts to promote the creative work of others. For example, s/he owned an important William S. Burroughs literary and media archive, including masters for Antony Balch’s William Burroughs vehicle Towers Open Fire (1963) and other films, and s/he had collaborated with the poet-filmmaker Derek Jarman, both then virtually unknown in America. He/r good offices led to their US release through my label, Mystic Fire Video. Scores of people could provide similar examples. He/r influence was far wider than the projects to which s/he attached he/r name.

In early February 1990 I stayed with the P-Orridge family in Brighton, sleeping in the Burroughs archive room. I was impressed by Gen's devotion to he/r daughters, and their coherence and cohesion as a family; our talks centered around family, counter/culture, and community. Their dream was to establish a manageably small intentional community in the Devonshire countryside.

Genesis had formed Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY) in 1981. It attracted brilliant young people from around the world, all utterly dedicated to doing their own thinking. Their tongue-in-cheek “recruitment film” featured Derek Jarman delivering the TOPY manifesto. TOPY developed a sophisticated magical methodology, codified via xeroxed books and zines written by Genesis and field organizers like Tom Banger (aka Coyote 2/12). While somewhat indebted to Crowley, they deliberately subverted—even reversed—some of his teachings. They actualized many of the theories of William S. Burroughs, but especially those of Brion Gysin. They were also influenced by the British artist Austin Osman Spare and his quasi-Surrealist, irrationalist approach to harnessing the power of the unconscious through a combination of deep trance meditation, sigilization, and art. TOPY is today sometimes classified under the rubric “chaos magic” because of this debt to Spare, but the term was never Spare's, and has always struck me as an oxymoron. TOPY transcended its many inputs to become a unique system all its own, and it might be more accurate to situate chaos magic—at least as a body of techniques—as a subset of the broader TOPY methodology.

1990 was the height of the collective religious hysteria that scholars now called the “Satanic Panic.” The Bay Area OTO had suffered a fundamentalist-inspired police raid the year before, reminiscent of a Home Office/Met Police raid on the British OTO 75 years earlier, and equally groundless. On behalf of the OTO I had sued, or was suing, most major New York book publishers for libel. While these succeeded, and inspired a newfound respect for fact-checking in New York publishing circles, at the time the “panic” was still underway, with the outcome far from assured.

As TOPY had grown, its administrative demands had as well, and the stresses on P-Orridges had multiplied, with their time increasingly being consumed in troubleshooting issues with field organizers and members. As Gen's hero Marcel Duchamp once remarked, “From a distance these things, these Movements, take on a charm that they do not have close up—I assure you."

Sh/e asked for my advice about TOPY. I asked whether it had fulfilled its original objective as an experiment, as a proof of concept; it had. I then suggested that s/he faced a choice. Unless sh/e was willing to devote he/r full energies to the organization—very possibly the rest of he/r life—s/he should wind it up. We both sensed that a storm was coming—the social hysteria was still mounting. Above all, I advised he/r to take steps to protect h/er family. Sh/e closed TOPY the following year.

With Krishnamurti and Werner Eckhart, Genesis was one of the very few so-called “cult leaders" to voluntarily relinquish leadership and close their organizations. And the decision proved prescient—the Home Office and Scotland Yard raided he/r Brighton home the following year house, over spurious allegations of "ritual sex abuse." They did so while the P-Orridges weren't home—they weren't even in the country—and drove the family into exile.

Gen's life followed the basic pattern of Joseph Campbell's “hero's journey,” with elements of the Dionysian as described in the ur-text of the British counterculture, Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy (1872). He/r origins were unremarkable. As Genesis P-Orridge, s/he told me that s/he was “born” while living under a kitchen table in a squat, named “Porridge” due to he/r steady diet of oats—I had asked whether s/he acquired the name in jail, as in “a stir in porridge.” H/er influence was initially marginal and underground, its significance unrecognized at the time but later judged hugely influential. He/r life followed the familiar pattern of someone coming from nowhere special, their initial foolish impulses towards a spiritual quest, various ordeals, a confrontation with authorities, and often exile and personal transformation, leading ultimately to acceptance and lionization.

Gen's gender transformation began long before he/r well-publicized surgeries. After he/r enforced exile s/he went to the US, where s/he split with Paula (Alaura). S/he became a single parent—a model Volvo-driving, PTA-attending dad-mom raising a family in a ranch-style home in the Northern California woods, near Cazadero.

I found myself inducted into Psychic TV after Gen noticed my Zeta viola synthesizer system in a corner of my house. I don't recall ever actually playing for he/r; there was never an audition. S/he just invited me to bring my equipment when I visited Cazadero, where s/he had set up a studio with Larry Thrasher. I did, with my new wife and baby in tow. It was a family-friendly studio, perfectly comfortable for them. Gen even became Ian Angus’s godparent. I laid some improvised tracks to a click track or a bass line, but these were all single takes with little playback, and no mixing or editing; just a few hours in the studio. These became several of the tracks on Trip Reset (1996). The material, including the MIDI data, was repurposed several times for use on other albums, a remix, Cold Blue Torch (1996), the Splinter Test side-project Spatial Memory (1996), and the spoken word album Thee Fractured Garden (1996).

We played one live show—at the Trocadero in San Francisco—before Gen’s injuries in a fire, at a Laurel Canyon home owned by Rick Rubin, ended that incarnation of PTV. I recall Gen saying “You're a very lucky young man—you're starting at the top.” I thanked he/r and smiled, knowing that s/he often teased, but sensed that s/he was really serious. Surveying the modest audience from backstage, I thought “this is the top?" It initially struck me as a hyperbolic, even slightly egotistical thing to say. But I have rarely been so wrong. That brief stint in PTV led to my joining Coil—the band founded by Gen's Throbbing Gristle cofounder Peter Christopherson with his partner John Balance—and to working with David Tibet and Current 93. All were former members of Psychic TV. Without realizing it at the time, I had joined an amazing, sprawling, creative family—indisputable geniuses all. So Gen was right—it was indeed the top.

Very much like Crowley, Genesis had the power of "magnetic repulsion"—drawing people into he/r orbit, collaborating intensely, and spinning them off into their own unique trajectories—something that is natural with extremely creative people. S/he was a cultural programmer who courted controversy, embedding multiple levels of meaning in he/r code. One of the COUM Transmission postcards that led to he/r 1976 conviction for obscenity under the British Post Office Act had been mailed to he/r heteronym Ted Glass at 210 W. 14th Street, NYC—the last New York address of another cultural forebear and one of h/er personal heroes, Marcel Duchamp. With Colin Naylor, s/he edited the reference book Contemporary Artists (London: St. James Press, 1977)—the only desk job s/he ever held—and made it a condition for taking the job that s/he could sneak in an biographical entry for he/r Ted Glass alter ego, whose invented accomplishments occupy nearly half a column on the page.

Musician, artist, videographer, polymath, trickster, provocateur, communitarian, mythographer, button pusher, occulturalist, husband, wife, father, mother—he/r output was vast and deep, and will provide material for generations of like-minded experimentalists and scholars to mine and interpret. In the end, he/r greatest creation was Genesis P-Orridge he/rself.

Adapted from Aleister Crowley, "O.T.O. Liber XV, The Gnostic Mass":

Unto Genesis P-Orridge, from whose eyes the veil of life hath fallen, may there be granted the accomplishment of he/r True Will;
whether s/he will absorption in the Infinite,
or to be united with he/r chosen and preferred,
or to be in contemplation,
or to be at peace,
or to achieve the labour and heroism of incarnation on this planet or another,
or in any Star,
or aught else,
unto he/r may there be granted the accomplishment of he/r Will;
yea, the accomplishment of he/r Will.
Aumgn. Aumgn. Aumgn.

Contributor

William Breeze

William Breeze is an editor-publisher, non-profit administrator and musician. He was an archival assistant for Larry Rivers and the editor of 93 Publishing, and befriended artists and film-makers like Kenneth Anger, Jordan Belson, Cameron, Leonora Carrington, Derek Jarman, and Harry Smith, releasing many seminal avant garde films through Mystic Fire Video, which he co-founded.

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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

All Issues