Something To Make Me Go Fast: Mark E. Smith of The Fall at 65

This bloke left us far too soon, and we miss him

Mark E. Smith painted on the side of a chippy in Prestwich, England (Image: Twitter)

I can’t say I was shocked, but I was slightly startled (and later bemused) when Mark E. Smith. the lead singer-songwriter-provocateur of The Fall, came up to me backstage at a Boston club show and asked if I had any drugs, “something to make me go fast, you know, coke? speed?”

He recognized me, vaguely, as someone he sorta knew. We’d met previously, done interviews and once had both gotten a bit tipsy together over beers one lazy afternoon at a Boston bar. 

Or, maybe he’d mistaken me for his Boston drug connection. Or, perhaps he was just taking a flyer: I think I know this guy, maybe he can help me out and if not, fuck it. Alas, I could not, though I did point him in a direction of somebody who might be able to. I’m pretty sure he scored.

It was a great gig. And, no, not all of them were. There were times when The Fall was a bloody mess. And rarely have “great gig” and “bloody mess” nestled up to each other so closely.

Smith would have turned 65 on March 5, though, realistically I don’t think anyone would have predicted that to happen given, well, you know. Aside from whatever else he imbibed, Smith was a prodigious smoker. Two months after his ill health forced a postponement (ultimately, cancellation) of a U.S. tour in 2017 – it would have been The Fall’s first in a decade – he took to the stage in Newcastle’s Boiler Room in October, strapped into a wheelchair. 

 

VIDEO: The Fall live at Boiler Room 

As to scrapping the U.S. tour, it came after he was hospitalized for what was referred to in a post by Pamela Vander (aka Pam Van Damned), The Fall’s manager and Smith’s girlfriend, as “bizarre and rare medical issues connected to his throat, mouth/dental & respiratory system.” 

He died January 24, 2018 from lung and kidney cancer. When I penned an obit/appreciation I wrote: Mark E. Smith’s death was likely caused from complications of being Mark E. Smith. I didn’t mean to be flip and I didn’t mean it unkindly. His lifestyle was what it was. As irascible, contentious and confrontational as he could be, I liked him. In large part, that’s because that particular mindset produced music that I also liked a lot. For decades, really. Though I do remember in the early days – 1979, the Live at The Witch Trials album – thinking, “Is that bloke singing? Talking? Both?” and “What the hell is he going on about?” and “My god, this is repetitious and abrasive – but the further I burrow into it, the more I dig it.” 

When Smith was ambulatory, he would prowl the stage like a (sometimes drugged) caged lion. Charismatic anti-charisma. In his youth, he looked part Malcolm McDowell, when he played Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” and part Anthony Andrews, when he played the alcoholic junkie Sebastian Flyte in the 1981 TV series, Brideshead Revisited. (I told him that once and he was pretty chuffed.) 

 

VIDEO: The Fall “Totally Wired”

Few singers had a stage presence like Smith. With his back often hunched and turned away from the crowd (a la Miles Davis), his head buried in the mic, Smith would be looking downward, his hand riffling in a pants pocket for no apparent reason, projecting mostly indifference or irritation as the band – and there were many Fall guys and gals over the years – pounded out these riveting riffs.

Yet, what Smith expressed in the music – his voice pitched somewhere between singing, ranting and declaiming – ranged from tongue-in-cheek misanthropy to boredom to gleeful exuberance. Sometimes, this happened in the course of the same song, as when the Fall covered Sister Sledge’s disco anthem “Lost in Music,” where Smith exclaimed, “Lost in music/Feel so alive!” Yeah, well, sorta …

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPLIb_r8l-4

In The Fall’s swirling, revved-up version, Smith sounded dispirited and sardonic at the onset, but actually seemed to succumb to the music’s giddy charm by the end. Or was there yet another layer of a joke? “I’ve done a lot with it,” Smith told me back in 1993, of that song. “I like songs that are triple-edged, almost.”

The Fall was dazzlingly prolific – 32 studio albums from 1979 to 2017 – with 66 different musicians playing parts at various points. Was The Fall really just Mark E. Smith plus random others, as he maintained in his hilarious, scabrous 2008 memoir Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith. 

The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan called it “a relentlessly splenetic piece of work. It may also be the funniest music book ever written. … [with Smith being] the ultimate indie-rock misanthrope, who slipped free of his moorings and let rip at everyone and anything that had ever annoyed him.” 

Renegade: The Life and Tales of Mark E. Smith by Mark E. Smith (Image: Penguin UK)

Or was he a tempestuous, mercurial band leader? I mean he did fire musicians; I guess the question is “Were they part of a band called The Fall?” I always thought so. I think they thought so. (I have no idea what the contracts said.) Those ex-members have told many a gnarly tale, penned their own takes about their Fall days. There’s a quote attributed to Smith that runs: “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.”

Going way back, Smith used to take delight in dissing other bands and I used to look forward to picking up a copy of Melody Maker or the NME to see who Smith had slagged off this time.  Even if I liked the bands in question, Smith’s cutting remarks were often a hoot. This being the case, one English critic called Smith “the most feared man in the full-colour dream of pop-rock Britain.” Another opined Smith was “a fractured madman whose fractured visions of life are often coloured by paranoia and delusion.”

Well, then. 

In 1985, I asked Smith about these well-tuned phrases. He was not displeased and had a laugh. “I think it works,” he said. “Keeps vampires off your back.”

Brix Smith – first Mark’s girlfriend, then his wife and Fall guitarist-songwriter – told me, “He’s not mad at all. Of course, there’s a side to every artist that’s kind of loopy, but mostly he’s a very stable, moral and warm human being – probably what everybody least expects him to be.” 

There are certainly Fall fans who look down on the Brix era as a low point in their career, the most “poppy,” “melodic” and “disciplined,” if you will. I am not one of those people and think Brix brought a lot to the mix, including “No Bulbs,” a co-write from 1984’s Call for Escape Route EP. 

I had a hard time hearing all the lyrics – not unusual in Fall-land – and even after I asked Smith it took me a while to parse ‘em. “They say damp records the past,” Smith sang. And then what? Sounded like mumbled sounds to me. Turned out to be “If that’s so I’ve got the biggest library yet.” Huh? He meant ghosts, that he had a library full of ghosts.

 

VIDEO: The Fall “No Bulbs”

Brix left The Fall, when she and Mark divorced in 1989, though she rejoined for several years in the mid-90s. She currently plays with Brix & the Extricated alongside two former Fall members, brother Steve Hanley, on bass, and Paul, on drums.

The Fall was a shambolic, heavily percussive band that loved chaos and repetition in equal parts, was the favorite of John Peel, the esteemed late English DJ. Peel famously, and truthfully, said of the Fall’s records: “They are always different, they are always the same.”

Some songs were topical, serious and scabrous, others more mundane and whimsical; many times, the Fall shuffled the cards. Smith often addressed the crumbling of his own country. Part of what made The Fall’s music sound ever-current was that Smith sounded like an articulate, if cranky, old man back in 1980 and he sounded the same in 2017 on their final album, New Facts Emerge.

 “Yeah, a lot of people have said that to me,” Smith told, when I brought that up nearly 30 years ago. “I sounded about 50 when I started out, didn’t I? I was world-weary at 18. It’s an advantage when you think about it.”

While Smith was in love with words and wordplay — he said he edited out 90 percent of what he wrote to fit the song — he had mixed feelings about how important lyrics should be, what role they should play in the music.

“A lot of the times, in the past, I’ve deliberately obscured the lyrics, mainly ’cause I don’t like to put too much of a point on it,” he said. “What I don’t like about a lot of rock music is it’s like you can just look at the title of some songs and you know what it’s about: Why even play it? I never liked to put it all on one plate. I really do want to stimulate.”

The music itself existed in a strange sphere – disconnected both from usual melodic notions of pop music and from the more accessible side of post-punk rock. Nothing was too sweet, or too gloomy, but all of it was cut with tense textures. The Fall’s music often had a casual intensity – moderate tempi, a mix of long and short songs, clean, disciplined rhythms and guitar playing that ranged from a subtle, country-ish twang to a dissonant, gritty clang. Riffs surged and then dropped back, stinging and soothing as rhythms surged forward.

Both in person and in the music, Smith could be intimidating. He kept his Mancunian accent when singing, sometimes slurring, often adding an added grunt – “-ah” – at the end of a line. He was funny, too, but you had to get beyond the confrontational, sometimes combative, exterior. Taking the piss was Smith’s stock in trade — the English music paper NME once dubbed him “the most feared man in Britain’s pop-rock” scene — and The Fall (in most any incarnation) was the crankiest, most caustic band in the UK. 

Once, in reviewing The Fall for the Boston Globe – it was 1994’s Middle Class Revolt LP – I used the terms “cerebral” and “caustic” and sure enough Cerebral Caustic turned out to be the title of the next Fall album. I felt like I was in good company. An English critic had once called The Fall “This nation’s saving grace” and Smith nicked that phrase for a 1985 album.

At the 15-year/22 album break, I asked Smith if he could make any sense of their long, strange trip: “It’s sort of cyclic, really. We are very much like we were when we started out. We still write really abrasive music and we try to get more intelligent lyrics over it.”

Cynical, acerbic, relentless, witty, obsessive: That was Smith. Here’s a sample of a Smith rant from a Boston stage, 1986, as the song “Bombast” began: “All those whose mind entitles themselves, and whose main entitle is themselves, shall feel the wrath of my bombast!” 

 

VIDEO: The Fall “Bombast”

And from a song called “It’s a Curse,” Smith intoned, “I do not like your tone/It has ephemeral, whinging aspects — it’s a curse . . . Their sandwiches stashed under their side seats/Their froglike chins ready to burst/I tell you, it’s a curse, it’s a burden. Trying to get over . . . bargain vampires.” (Whinging is British slang for moaning.) 

 

VIDEO: The Fall “It’s A Curse”

“I never want to be seen as doing a Dylan type of thing,” Smith told me. “That’s what I’m always trying to avoid. If I wanted to be a poet, I’d write poetry books. I just look at me writing and edit me-self; that’s the excitement I get out of it.” 

“A lot of the lyrics, of course, mean a lot to me,” he continued, “but also, I’m conscious of being in a rock group.” That is, Smith loves sound, noting “a sound can kick off as much as a lyric.” As a lyricist, Smith favors repetition and slang; moreover, he’s willing to submerge the words in the pummeling pulse of the music — his jagged bits and pieces will fly out, much like sparks from a grindstone.

Smith credited the smarts he brought to the music to his education he got and to a fierce reading habit, “not a lot of newspapers, but books. Philip K. Dick, a lot of history books, Saul Bellow.”

And, of course, Albert Camus, the French existentialist who wrote the dense novel that gave the band its moniker.

“Camus, yeah, sure,” said Smith with a shrug. “But, you know, I went back to read it a year ago and I couldn’t get past page one! When I was 18 it seemed great.”

Still, the provocative, wordy and noisy Fall seemed to share Camus’ belief that the world is absurd. “Freedom comes from the recognition of that fact,” Camus wrote, “and such freedom in turn allows humans to live lives of dignity and integrity.”

Put in the Fall’s rock ‘n’ roll terms: Life’s absurd, let’s have a good, nasty rave-up while we rant about the conflict.

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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