All week this Christmas week we countdown the best six books of 2017. Number four: Art Sex Music, the memoir by musician Cosey Fanni Tutti, whom reviewer Kiran Dass describes as ‘a staunch, fearless woman with backbone’.
“I don’t like acceptance. It makes me think I’ve done something wrong.” – Cosey Fanni Tutti.
In the last few years there has been a welcome wave of vigorous autobiographies from strong, independent pioneering women in music who are finally telling their stories. The best ones have come from Viv Albertine, Grace Jones, Kim Gordon, and this year from my favourite woman in music, Cosey Fanni Tutti. I love that these books are enjoying a wide readership across age and gender. A friend recently told me he loved Tutti’s book so much that he gave it to his teenage daughter in the hope that it would inspire her to form her own band.
Cosey Fanni Tutti is a musician, artist, former striptease artiste and pornographic model. I have to say, in my job as a bookseller I lost count of the times I saw middle aged male customers pick up this book and flip straight to the photos. A few cracked spines there. When Steve Braunias invited me to write this review he asked if I’d read the book “by the woman in awful 80s band Throbbing Gristle.” But I think he was just being funny because Throbbing Gristle (which Tutti played guitar, cornet and sang in) was a brilliant, exciting group – confronting, reactionary, uncomfortable and sonically adventurous. Their record 20 Jazz Funk Greats is an absolute blinding classic, and hilariously, is neither jazz nor funk. To this day, I still crack up about the time when I saw a book about that album shelved in the jazz section when I used to work at Unity Books in Wellington. I like to think it was just somebody being subversive, in the spirit of the group.
I first got into Throbbing Gristle and Cosey’s work when I was still living at home in Ngaruawahia as a teenager. Probably via the Hamilton Public Library. It wasn’t long before I made friends with a chap from Lancashire, who bizarrely enough used to be Throbbing Gristle “leader” Genesis P-Orridge’s (now Genesis Breyer P-Orridge) butler. His responsibilities included feeding P-Orridge’s pet snake and walking his daughter Caresse to and from school. When she was six-years-old, Caresse, with her father’s later group Psychic TV, recorded a mildly disturbing version of Jimi Hendix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ It’s on YouTube if you’re interested.
But out of all the members of Throbbing Gristle, P-Orridge was the least interesting to me. And, an egotistical, lazy diva, he does not come off well in Tutti’s book. He was the “frontman” and I have an aversion to frontmen. It’s always the band members behind them who are more interesting. It was Tutti who I thought was cool.
Who is Cosey Fanni Tutti? She was born Christine Newby in dreary suburban post-war Hull, England. She has been working in art and music since the 1970s in avant-garde/experimental circles and she’s had a singular, influential career right on the edgier margins of popular culture. Her first art collective COUM Transmissions was influenced by the Dada art movement and they constructed incendiary performances which straddled the line between music and art. As they gained more popularity and showed their work in some of the most prestigious galleries in the UK, people started getting pissed off. They famously provoked the uptight Tory MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn to declare them as being “the wreckers of civilisation”.
Art Sex Music is frankly written with such stunning forensic detail. The detail is extraordinary and she explains that when she was researching for an art exhibition and went through the diaries she had meticulously kept throughout her life, it was all there, laid out chronologically. A story waiting to be told. It’s a great insight into her life, and the diary entries benefit from the lack of hindsight and retrospection. In that way, it feels very immediate, immersive and raw.
The first half is enlightening because we learn so much about her growing up in bleak Hull in the 1950s, and what was an especially difficult family dynamic. Her firefighter father had rejected her. There’s an upsetting scene where years after he has thrown her out of the family home, he turns up to put a fire out at the squat where she is living.
Tutti is a proactive do-er. But for all their right-on commune squat living, it’s apparent that the misogyny and patriarchy of the times dictated things. She was the only one in her gang of friends who would hold down a full-time job in admin or some other spirit-crushing mundane job, while hand-making all the props and costumes for their art shows, do the admin and bookings, as well as all of the domestic and emotional labour of keeping a home. And what comes through clearly in Tutti’s book is that typical scenario that comes to light: the woman being the engine room and enabler of getting stuff done, but not necessarily being in the limelight or being the frontperson. Tutti writes about the tensions in the group Throbbing Gristle, the control that her then partner P-Orridge had over her, becoming a mother and balancing domestic life with her art and music practice.
Tutti writes in detail about her work as a striptease artiste and pornographic novel, and how she used these as platforms to challenge people’s perceptions and assumptions about morality and erotica. And remember, this is in conservative pre-punk Britain.
I loved this book. It’s my favourite non-fiction book of 2017. I ripped through it but didn’t want it to end. I love Tutti’s voice, warmth and sharp observations. Art Sex Music is hugely inspiring, endlessly fascinating and it doesn’t matter a jot whether you are interested in her music or art. It’s a strong story that stands alone. Personal, anecdotal and invigorating, it’s a clear-sighted (and importantly, never bitter) narrative of a staunch, fearless woman with backbone who isn’t interested in being liked or accepted by any establishment, and who has created some of the most groundbreaking art and music to emerge from the last four decades. And these are exactly the kind of positive and exhilarating stories that we need.
Art Sex Music by Cosey Fanni Tutti (Faber, $40) is available at Unity Books.