Perfect Sound Forever


How To Not Meet Mark E. Smith
by John Dougan
(February 2018)

I don't have an "I met Mark E. Smith story," but I do have an "I could have met Mark E. Smith story."

In the summer of 2015, I was visiting Manchester, England and was fortunate enough to have dinner with author/historian/DJ Dave Haslam. Dave is as well-connected and knowledgeable about the Manchester music scene as anyone and knows nearly everyone involved in its gestation, birth, and growth. His friendship with Mark E. Smith goes back 30-plus years and, on roughly a half-dozen occasions, he's interviewed him at length. As we chatted, I managed to move the conversation to the MES and the Fall and Dave told stories that portrayed Smith not as some cantankerous, bellicose, pain in the ass (which to be fair, I'm sure he was at times), but of how witty, funny, and charming he could be. Then, semi-seriously (or at least I assume was the case in retrospect), Dave said "Why don't I ring him and ask him to join us?" I recall being stunned by the suddenness of the question. Again, he might have been having a laugh but, in the end, and for whatever reason, I demurred. Now, on the occasion of Smith's passing, I realize what a fool I'd been. I should have said, "By all means, ring him up." Had he arrived pissed and argumentative, insulting me for whatever reason I'm an American, he hates my shirt, thinks my taste in music is crap and dumped a pint on my head, it would have doubtlessly been my most memorable and cherished encounter with a musician.

After receiving a promo copy of 1979's Live at the Witch Trials from a label rep who called it "the worst piece of shit I've ever heard," the Fall became a permanent part of my musical life. Strangely, I often found myself binge listening to them. The release of a new album would prompt me to dive deeply into their vast catalog and revisit old favorites irrespective of decade (though I'm especially fond of the so-called "Brix era," 1983-89) and ever-shifting lineups. While some 40 (or is it 50?)-plus musicians can claim membership over the band's career, the lone constant was the indefatigable Mark E. Smith. "If it's me and your granny on bongos," he famously quipped, "it's the Fall." Many reading this brief encomium have read numerous others detailing his life and punk/post-punk bona fides: former shipping clerk on the Manchester docks, voracious reader and autodidact the band's name came from a 1956 novel by Albert Camus fan of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, attendee at the Sex Pistols 1976 gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall, who he dismissed as worse than his nascent version of the Fall.

As I parsed through these eulogies, the descriptors used to create an index of the Fall's sound and Smith's unique worldview were all-too familiar: cranky, uncompromising, confrontational, irascible, tempestuous, intransigent, discordant, disorienting, and, my favorite, possessing an "astringent sound and attitude" (h/t Jon Pareles). And while such terminology is appropriate, I was struck by a Guardian headline that poetically referred to Smith as "an agent of chaos fueled by fire." Similarly striking was a summation of Smith's aesthetic by ex-wife and former Fall guitarist Brix Smith Start, "He was singularly talented, groundbreaking, [and] free-thinking. He came at everything from multi-dimensions and odd angles." This was especially true of Smith's lyrics and idiosyncratic "singing," which was mostly semi-tuneful ranting he was perhaps best known for adding "uh" or "ah" to words ("the man whose head-uh expanded-ah"). Attempts at narrative linearity gave way to gnomic bursts of sarcasm, vitriol, and comedy, often all at once. As he aged and his enunciation became slurred, his voice thickened from years of smoking and drinking, figuring out what he was on about became more difficult, but the website The Annotated Fall is extremely helpful in that regard. And, on a tangential note, no other band in the history of popular music has used exclamation points in their song titles more than the Fall!

Fan that I am, I never loved them unconditionally as did their biggest champion, the late John Peel, who dismissed any attempt at distilling the band's daunting recorded legacy into a tidy, truncated playlist. He admonished those writing to him asking what one Fall record he would recommend they get, to which he replied, "I never have any hesitation in telling them, you must get them all, because it's impossible to pick one, you have to have them all." Adding, with great surety, that anyone who can list the best Fall tracks, "has missed the point." I wouldn't go that far, especially when it comes to some of the excruciatingly lo-fi live bootlegs, but he does make a good point that, in the main, it's nearly impossible to be so selective, you would be better served by an "in for a penny, in for a pound" approach. The recently released 7-disc Cherry Red singles box set of A sides and B sides is a formidable introduction for the benighted (and a great asset for longtime fans) for those intimidated by such a massive undertaking there is also a 3-disc version of A sides. But one box set, no matter how comprehensive, represents the tip of a very deep iceberg that includes Hex Enduction Hour, This Nation's Saving Grace, Fall in a Hole, Reformation Post TLC, The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, The Infotainment Scan (a chart topper!), and an obscurity that is one of my favorites Austerbaejarbio: Live 1983 recorded in Reykjavik, and about a dozen other releases, all of them testament to Peel's assertion that the Fall were "always different, always the same."

When their most recent album New Facts Emerge was released, I once again listened to it and went binging. I'd read reports of Smith's ill-health and cancelled gigs so the announcement of his death was less a shock than it was grim resignation. His lifestyle choices were not the best, but for Mark E. Smith to be answerable to anyone other than himself seemed ridiculous. "We are Northern white crap that talks back," he barks at the audience on the Fall's 1980 live album Totale's Turns (It's Now or Never) , "the difference between you and us is that we have brains."

Despite the recent efforts of others, Smith's invective is still the most trenchant assessment of himself and the Fall with or without your granny on bongos.

Return to the MES tribute

Also see PSF's site about The Fall

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