High Times Greats: Genesis P-Orridge

Genesis and revelation.
High Times Greats: Genesis P-Orridge
Wikimedia Commons

In honor of the one-year anniversary of their death on March 14, 2020 at age 70, we’re republishing this January, 2004 High Times story about the late icon—and iconoclast—Genesis P-Orridge, written by Chris Simunek.

In the 50 years that he’s been inhabiting this planet, Genesis P-Orridge has lived many lives. He’s been an artist, a rock star, a cult leader, a father, an exile—perhaps it’s best just to call him an explorer, the psychic equivalent of a war journalist, dodging bullets in hostile territories in the hopes of bringing back a story that might open the eyes of the world.

My favorite story in his latest book, Painful but Fabulous: The Lives and Art of Genesis P-Orridge (Soft Skull Press, 2003), concerns a night back in ’76 when his performance group, COUM, was appearing at the University of Antwerp. Next to the performance hall, there was an exhibit of poisonous plants. Not content to lay his usual psychosexual visual assault on a bunch of stoned college yobs, Genesis decided to teach them a lesson on life, death, and the precarious relationship they both have with the human body. He stole some poisonous plants and bark from the exhibit next door, washed them down onstage with a bottle of whiskey, then started speaking in tongues and carving messages into his flesh with a rusty nail. He woke up in an emergency room shortly after the attending physician had pronounced him dead.

But a near-death experience comes with the territory Genesis is surveying. For him, the spiritual mandate of the artist is “to go to the moon first… to find out what’s coming next, what it’s made of, and what it might mean.” His methods are often grotesque, but when you realize how many times over the past four decades the man has appeared ahead of the cultural curve, you have to admit that they work.

I’ve known Genesis for several years and was invited over to his house last February, right before the war in Iraq started. I’ve always had a bit of a Job complex, so my feelings of impending doom were nothing out of the ordinary, but this seemed like the beginning of a new kind of darkness, and as Genesis led me on a tour of his archives—a sprawling collection of his work that takes up half of his Brooklyn brownstone—I asked him if he felt it too.

“This is the first time in my entire life I have not been optimistic,” he said. “I’m very disturbed by the depth of ignorance that has pervaded people through television and the mass media. And it’s a controlled, deliberate, pinpoint ignorance. You know how they’ve got those very intelligent smart bombs going out there destroying buildings? They’ve also got very intelligent smart media bombs destroying the minds of the masses.”

Before Johnny Rotten gathered the balls to say “fuck” on Bill Grundy’s show, Genesis was being hauled into British obscenity courts to answer for his outrageous COUM performances. His band, Throbbing Gristle, invented and named the genre known as “industrial music,” but it was during the Thatcher years in England that Genesis’ paint-, blood-, and Ecstasy-encrusted star shone the brightest. One of the pioneering acts of the whole MDMA/rave scene was his band Psychic TV. Through the use of drugs, sex, music, ritual, magick, and body modification, Genesis taught the sons and daughters of British Parliament that, despite the negative transmissions they were receiving from the world around them, there were other worlds out there where they could still live life to their hearts’ content.

It all fell apart after Genesis took his dedicated fan base and formed his own cult, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. After a series of tabloid stories in the London dailies demanded Genesis be brought to trial for corrupting the minds, orifices, and central nervous systems of Britain’s youth, Scotland Yard raided his home, confiscated his property, and told him that if he ever came back to England, he’d be sharing a cell with the Kray brothers. Far from being involved in any Satanic-type activities at the time, Genesis was working at a soup kitchen in Tibet when he got the word. He moved to America and there met and married Jackie Breyer, who these days goes under the name Lady Jaye.

I informed Genesis that it was Brian Jones’ birthday, figuring it would be a date of particular significance on the P-Orridge calendar, for it was a chance meeting with the fair-haired Rolling Stone back in the late ’60s that transformed a nerdy British schoolboy named Neil Megson into the ever-evolving art project known today as Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.

“My dad worked for a company, and one of the things his company did was clean the television studios in Birmingham,” he remembered. “And one week my dad said, ‘I’ve got these complimentary backstage passes to go and see Thank Your Lucky Stars.’ As God would have it, the Rolling Stones were on that day. Brian was my hero, and I hung out with the band before the show. That was the moment when I thought, ‘This is all possible. The universe is kind. And if you daydream strong enough, then everything you really want to have happen is possible.’ After that, I was either a lost or saved soul, depending on where you looked at it from. There was no way I was going anywhere but that life: bohemian beatitude.”

But beatitude is hard to maintain in these vicious times, and as Genesis showed me the various art pieces he’s constructed over the past four decades—a wolf’s head with a knife for a tongue, a glowing neon Psychic TV cross, hand-painted postcards that depict the queen of England in the most compromising of positions—both of us lamented how powerless we felt staring into the face of the cultural void of the 21st century.

“Culturally, this is the most insidious coup I’ve seen yet,” he continued. “My theory is that they no longer announce that there’s an enemy. If they see someone doing stuff that they don’t like, they co-opt them. They take you, they milk you, and they get rid of you before anything germinates.”

“It seems to me,” I interjected, “that they’re more than happy to give you your fifteen minutes of fame, because they know that in those fifteen minutes, you won’t be able to say anything.”

“Exactly,” he affirmed. “And also there doesn’t seem to be a sense of authenticity in terms of people’s understanding of their own musical lineage or cultural lineage. They don’t seem to understand where it comes from. God knows how many kids remember the Velvet Underground. They’re erasing and editing, via MTV and VH1, the history of popular culture and youth culture with this massive meat cleaver. And they’re getting away with it. These kids just go ‘yeahh’ and take their bikinis off. We’re beaming out these 300 channels of godlessness, and they wonder why people in Iran think that we’re decadent. We are decadent. And there are no ethical statements in school, there’s no metaphysics, there’s no manners.”

“It seems like a joyless decadence,” I continued. “It’s not an indulgent decadence like that of the Romans. This is a miserable, ‘Give me a TV show or a car, just something that’s going to make this feeling go away’ kind of decadence.”

“Well, it’s addiction, y’see,” Genesis explained. “It’s that classic problem that Burroughs really pinned a long time ago when he said, ‘Control needs time like a junkie needs junk.’ No product can complete our existential hunger to feel fulfilled and at peace. Consumption, being a consumer, is exactly the same personality equation as being a drug addict. Repetition never satiates, it merely addicts us to forever seeking that which we felt the first time. It’s an insidious control system designed to distract us from critical thinking and to trap us in a lifetime’s loop of wanting stuff instead of creating new perceptions. It’s corporate feudalism, and the logos and the brands are the flags of the new feudal lords. All the rest of us, make no mistake, are just raw material, like cattle or chemicals or coal.”

We retired to the living half of the apartment, where Lady Jaye was busy making preparations for a flight they were taking to Montreal later that night, the two having been invited to be artists-in-residence at Concordia University. Lady Jaye is now fully one half of Genesis, and together they like to be called Breyer P-Orridge. Just how far they had gone to affect this metamorphosis had yet to be revealed to me. However, as I sat in the kitchen watching Genesis prepare chips and toast (an old English favorite), I did notice that his pectoral muscles were remarkably developed.

I asked him what he was working on now, and he mentioned a short film he was making where he was starring as both Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, an upcoming Throbbing Gristle reunion show, and finally that he was writing a book on what he called “pandrogyny” or “positive androgyny.”

“Chris, haven’t you noticed something different about me?” he asked with a Cheshire grin. His hair was cut in a silver bob; his teeth had been filed down and replaced entirely with gold caps, but the only change I noticed from the last time I’d seen him was his protruding chest muscles. I’d just assumed he’d been hitting the gym.

I was wrong.

Lifting up his shirt, Genesis revealed two B-cup breasts. Now, I consider myself to be a pretty sophisticated guy, but I admit that I just stood there with what must have been a silly expression on my face.

“Lady Jaye and I both got matching breast implants on Valentine’s Day,” he explained, “to celebrate 10 years together, our ninth wedding anniversary, and the birth of our new identity, Breyer P-Orridge.”

I took a closer look at the results of this radical recombination. Both his nipples were pierced, and there was a large pagan snake tattoo covering his right bosom.

“I take my stuff very seriously, Chris,” he said.

“Why are you pursuing this?” I asked.

“Because I feel deep in my heart that it’s incredibly important to the species. I think that we’re just supposed to evolve. I think that includes physically as much as in terms of consciousness. And perhaps there are ways to play with our consciousness by working with our expectations and inherited bodies just as we did with inherited moral systems and inherited cultural systems. They can all be remanipulated. Everything is malleable. And whatever I can utilize to really empower my senses—the malleability of consensus reality—is helpful. It has opened me up to speculations that I might not have otherwise come up with… Plus, I think it’s sexy.”

And that’s what I love about Genesis. No matter how jaded you might think you are, he will always drop your jaw low enough to stop you from pronouncing the words been there, done that. Crazy? You bet, but history has proven that when times get rough, the craziest person out there is often the man with the plan. The mutant, as Darwin described him: a genetic missionary sent by God to give us that extra thumb or eye or chromosome we’ll need to make it through to the next 10,000 years. I can’t say Genesis is that new piece of DNA we need, but he is sending out a beacon, a flesh-and-blood bat-signal, to the creator who so often forgets we’re here.

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