PRINT April 2013


X-TG’s Desertshore/The Final Report

Publicity still for Throbbing Gristle (Industrial Records, 1981). From left: Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, Chris Carter, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Genesis P-Orridge.

WHEN A SONG OR A PIECE OF MUSIC is reimagined, we find ourselves in a loop, where points in time echo one another and reverberate, as if the original and the interpretation simultaneously emerge from speakers positioned to our left and right: the auditory as a form of mnemonic stereo. So it is with X-TG’s “reimagining” of Nico’s 1971 album Desertshore, a project with a circuitous backstory. X-TG comprises the trio of Chris Carter, Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, and Cosey Fanni Tutti. Together with Genesis P-Orridge, in 1975 they formed Throbbing Gristle, the pioneer of industrial music. As with many highly charged collaborations, theirs was thrilling and tenuous, and produced works that lasted even as they themselves did not. Over the course of thirty-five years, the group united, imploded, improbably reformed, then went their separate ways once more. Following the unexpected death of “Sleazy,” Carter and Fanni Tutti, minus P-Orridge, completed Desertshore in tribute, pairing it with The Final Report, a second album of music drawn from the trio’s last sessions. This event is thus an occasion to consider musical translation among generations, and the fault lines that run below the surface of all artistic collaboration.

One of the more elusive icons of the 1960s, Nico is closely associated with the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, who brilliantly introduced her to the band in 1966. His instinct, as always, was visual, but the interplay of manic rock ’n’ roll and a resolutely aloof “chanteuse” of polar opposites who could embody the s/m of “Venus in Furs” opened up a psychological dimension where grit and glamour played off one another. While Nico only sang three songs on the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut—“All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “Femme Fatale,” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the last written for her by Lou Reed—they triangulate the era’s Velvety, Warholian remove.

Desertshore was Nico’s third solo album, produced by John Cale, who provided nearly all of its musical accompaniment. Cale, along with the Velvet Under­ground’s first drummer, Angus MacLise, was that band’s link to the avant-garde—to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, and to Tony Conrad—playing a pivotal role in the band’s introduction of Minimalism and drone music to rock, driven by his eerie electric viola. After Nico’s departure from the Velvet Underground, it was Leonard Cohen who suggested the harmonium, the instrument with which she subsequently accompanied herself. Nico doesn’t so much sing as project a determined, naked oration. While it is common to refer to the voice as an instrument, in the space between Nico’s lungs and the bellows of the harmonium there is the sense of a body doubled, a chest that resonates and is breathing, alternately wavering and steadfast. Placed within Cale’s rarefied arrangements, her work has a timelessness related to sacred and liturgical music, particularly Indian ragas. Given that he was her most empathic collaborator, Cale’s contribution to Desertshore—and to the releases that immediately preceded and followed it, The Marble Index (1968) and The End (1974)—is so essential that to call these solo records seems inaccurate at best. If the recordings they made together can be seen as a formidable triumvirate of art rock, The Marble Index remains, forty-five years after the fact, a masterwork.

When Christopherson conceived of Throbbing Gristle covering an album by Nico in 2006, he chose Desertshore over The Marble Index, with its imposing status, and The End, which includes a lengthy version of the titular song forever identified with the Doors and ’60s psychobaggage. Desertshore was likely seen as open territory, offering any number of permeable points of entry—a more available body, as it were. Listening to both recordings of Desertshore back-to-back, what Christopherson must have intuited is how Nico’s compositions form an evocative whole, a song cycle in its truest sense. Though the running time of Desertshore is barely thirty minutes, it has an expansive, cinematic quality, and in fact several of its songs appear in Philippe Garrel’s 1972 film La Cicatrice intérieure, as do Nico and her then-nine-year-old son, Ari. The title, which translates as The Inner Scar, is fitting for the beautiful but damaged Nico. And yet her sustained themes of gloom, romance, and longing are nowhere more tenderly imparted than in the closing moments of Desertshore, on “All That Is My Own,” as she pleads over and again, “Meet me on the desert shore.” One imagines that for Christopherson, haunted by Nico’s troubled passage and demise, this was a siren call.

Covering a song has served as a musical foundation since before the dawn of recorded music, with tunes performed and passed down from one generation to the next, evolved and reinvented in the process. Today, the cover has become a commonplace means to an easy hit, or a way to emotionally connect with influence and the past. Almost every performer at one point will cover a song, but almost no one attempts an entire album. It’s an audacious undertaking, fraught with the possibility of failure. In 2004, Throbbing Gristle reconvened after a break of more than twenty years; Christopherson’s idea to cover Desertshore was very much in the spirit of TG, meant to tap into their willingness to work together in a purposeful but speculative manner. Initial recordings for it were made in public, with an audience present on three consecutive days in June 2007 at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. These sessions would yield nearly a dozen hours of music (and a twelve-CD limited-edition set, which now commands twelve hundred dollars on the collectors’ market). Despite amassing an abundance of material, members of the group were not wholly satisfied, and a definitive recording was never assembled for release. Following the second dissolution of TG in 2010, Carter, Christopherson, and Fanni Tutti came together as X-TG, and Desertshore was discussed anew—this time with guest vocalists, since P-Orridge was no longer part of the equation. Pursuing the project between 2009 and 2010, the trio had plans to resume at the end of 2010, when Christopherson died suddenly in his sleep at home in Bangkok. For Carter and Fanni Tutti, the completion of his project, augmented by X-TG’s final studio recordings, would serve as a summation of their long creative adventure. Released last November, it arrived almost two years to the day of his passing.

With Desertshore/The Final Report, we are presented with a triple loop: between Nico and Cale’s original and this reinterpretation, between that recording and The Final Report, and also between TG and X-TG—for just as Nico, who died in 1988, “haunts” both versions of Desertshore, the spirit of TG inhabits these proceedings. Were we to consider Throbbing Gristle’s initial forays into Desertshore from the ICA recordings, a herculean task to be sure, comparisons might expand indefinitely. Legacies, however, are as much to be acknowledged as eclipsed, as is evident with Nico and Cale’s post-Velvet collaborations. On X-TG’s Desertshore, bereft of P-Orridge’s unmistakable, articulated persona—his voice always measured and unnerving—Nico’s vocals are performed by Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten, Fanni Tutti, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, actress Sasha Grey, and director Gaspar Noé. Their interpretations allow us to more fully appreciate Nico as a songwriter, someone who invested her lyrics with the resonance of lived experience and history. We might have thought that only she could have sung these songs. This, it turns out, is not the case. On the appropriately titled “Afraid,” when onetime porn star Grey intones, “Have someone else’s will as your own,” and “You are beautiful and you are alone,” her impassive vocals remind us that Nico, objectified in youth, determinedly made herself unattractive in later life. As performed by Bargeld, “Abschied” and “Mutterlein” find their ominous mood viscerally heightened in the transition to a diabolical male voice, underscoring Nico’s affinity with the tradition of Brecht and The Threepenny Opera. Most striking is “Le Petit Chevalier,” first sung by her son, Ari. With vocals handled here by Noé, we can imagine the song as if it accompanies a scene from his film Enter the Void (2009)—a young boy time travels forty years into the future, his fragility transformed into the gnarled exhalation of the battered, spat-out hulk he might have become.

Where Cale’s sparse settings for Nico on the 1971 original foreground her voice, as if meant to accompany a madrigal, X-TG’s soundscapes offer a reversal, as if harnessing the very weight of her voice to propel intense orchestral doom, a translation from flesh and bone to machine-driven vox humana. The music—rising, beating, and crashing down—is the sound of a hypnotic Velvet hammer. On The Final Report, with vocals and “vocal deconstructions” courtesy of Fanni Tutti and Christopherson, the sound is decidedly more instrumental. The apparitions they conjure, monstrous and otherworldly, drive the music’s darker mood and phrasing. Though one detects traces of TG, the audio fingerprints don’t exactly match, as if a recognizable genetic code had by necessity mutated, adapting to a new environment. The music is menacing and majestic, graceful in its lumbering and damaged procession, and sublime in the term’s truest sense: filled with wonder and dread.

Notions of sci-fi inform X-TG’s sensibility, leading us to locations that are hazily dislocated, where futures and pasts reconfigure, expanding and contracting upon the present. This was a specialty of Throbbing Gristle’s from the beginning—“What a day, what a dull day, all day, all day”—an uncanny ability to show us just how sad and desolate and lifelike this existence can be. And yet amid the dark matter of their universe, there was always inner resolve with outward resignation, something they had in common with Nico, for even with the Velvet Underground she had stood alone. Christopherson obviously identified with this connective tissue, and was able to conceive of grafting one body of work onto another. “Desertshores,” the closing track on X-TG’s version of Nico’s work, serves as an ethereal coda to the project, as a succession of Christopherson’s friends gently emerge and recede with the line “Meet me on the desert shore.” One has the eerie sensation of having entered that place beyond, where one day all those we knew and loved may join us once again.

X-TG’s Desertshore is much more than a doppelgänger; together, the three beautifully haunted records—Desertshore, Nico’s original, and The Final Report—inhabit one another. Spectral and celebratory, they acknowledge that life is a matter of fortuitous meetings and unexpected departures, coiled around themselves and recurring. Where Carter, Christopherson, and Fanni Tutti would have gone from here is anyone’s guess. As a stunning example, the well-oiled trio sinuously percolates on Nico’s “All That Is My Own.” Even while we may imagine a space station hopelessly adrift, the insistent throb of its humanoid disco will not be denied. “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” indeed.

Bob Nickas is a critic and curator based in New York.