The world is a sadder, poorer place to have lost Mark E Smith, The Fall’s eternal Hip Priest. Here is what Mark E Smith meant to me. I am also pleased to share some words from my friends @brokenbottleboy, Helen Reynolds and Julie Joyce on what he meant to them.
“We watched The Fall, too. Weren’t they great?” Kim Deal of the Pixies has the coolest speaking voice. You hear her talk and want to be her friend. She spoke those words about The Fall at the start of the Pixies’ bill-topping Reading Festival set in 1990. It seems odd now that such an esoteric, singular band as The Fall were second on the bill, playing to tens of thousands of folk.
The Fall’s singer Mark E Smith (MES hereafter) – who died this week at age 60 – certainly didn’t compromise for the audience. That day or ever. As always, Smith was the antithesis of showmanship at Reading. But he was spellbinding, commanding. He ambled on stage, hunched over with a plastic bag full of his lyrics on scraps of paper. He placed them on a wooden lectern. The hip priest at his pulpit. When the wind scattered those worthless but priceless scraps of paper later in the set, he commanded the band to stop playing and gather them back up for him.
The band had already commenced the pounding, apocalyptic Bombast when MES first took the stage. A song from 1985 with dire warnings of Middle Eastern conflict that was suddenly up-to-the-minute as the pieces fell into place for the imminent Gulf War.
Psychic and he knows it
Bombast wasn’t the only time MES showed his remarkable premonitory powers. His former wife and bandmate Brix Smith Start describes numerous instances of this in her excellent book The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise. These include his foreseeing a horrible accident that was about to happen when they visited Disneyland. She says:
“Mark is psychic and he knows it. He’s a precognitive psychic, able to pick up snatches of future events before they happen.”
You could see MES as a kind of warlock, some of his songs as incantations. The words of MES conjure the uncanny in the everyday and the everyday in the uncanny. His words are always both conversational and densely literary. The surroundings of poverty-stricken Northern English life seen through a magical realist lens, a view of the world simultaneously distorted and crystal clear.
MES was all that and so much more. This tweet from @brokenbottleboy puts it perfectly:
“Mark E Smith would tell me I’m talking shite but he was a comedian, a satirist, an artist and a provocateur. Most of all, he was one of the greatest rock and roll stars Britain has ever produced.”
Like any great comedian, satirist or artist, MES created an immersive and addictive way to see the world. This is why ultra Fall fan John Peel always said to people who asked which of The Fall’s dozens of albums they should get first:
“You must get them all.”*
Here’s @brokenbottleboy’s current favourite Fall song: Powder Keg.
Cantankerous, spiky and contrary. MES may not seem the most approachable character, when you first encounter him. Yet as you grow to know MES and immerse yourself in his wonderful and frightening world, you can’t help but love him. I asked my friend Helen Reynolds if she might share a few words about her MES. Helen says:
“Mark E Smith’s voice has become like an imaginary friend, reminding me not to give a shit about the standard way of doing things.
“In his lyrics, music and interviews, he never said the expected, made hilarious statements, and gave no shits about what common opinion might be. He was a role model to me in that way.
“Thanks to the universe conspiring against me (and MES), I’ve never seen The Fall live, despite having tickets three times in the past ten years. So for all these years I’ve listened to them on record alone, and they feel like they’re mine.
“This might be why I usually hate talking to proper Fall fans, plus they know more facts about the band and want to relive their live experiences, and I’d rather just listen to the music, preferably on my own.
“That way I can sing alonngg-uh.
“I was at the last gig-that-never-was in Bristol when he couldn’t leave the hotel because he wasn’t well. My lovely boyfriend Steve made a print for me for Christmas to make up for the disappointment.”**
And here’s Helen’s current favourite Fall song: Bill Is Dead.
Forest fire raging destruction
I wish Helen had got to see The Fall. I saw them more times than any other band. They played some of the best shows I’ve ever seen. But they also played two of the worst.
I was beside myself with excitement to have tickets for The Fall’s two-night residency at Dingwalls in London in 1998. What I didn’t know until curtain time was that The Fall had violently imploded onstage in New York the previous week (amazingly, it’s on YouTube). Almost the whole band had walked out on MES after his persistently drunk, drugged and deranged behaviour pushed them too far.
But the show went on at Dingwalls. I still can’t believe these shows actually happened. The Fall for those two shows comprised just three people – MES, his girlfriend Julia Nagle on keyboards, and a visibly nervous, very young and seemingly under-rehearsed woman on drums. The stop-start set comprised semi-improvised, skeletal and chaotic sketches of some Fall songs. An electric guitar was occasionally handed down from the stage for random audience members to play or hit. The first night I was wondering if this was some elaborate and arch piece of high conceptual art. What the hell is this crap? Maybe the band proper will come on any minute? The second night brought home the truth. This dismal spectacle really was The Fall.
The Fall went on to rise again, as they always did. Smith fired and hired dozens upon dozens of musicians over the 40+ years of The Fall (there’s even a great book by Dave Simpson entitled The Fallen, in which many former Fall members are tracked down and interviewed). Brix writes in her own book about the impact of these personnel changes:
“These line-up changes, although traumatic, would often have a positive effect. They were like a forest fire raging destruction, but leaving fertile earth primed for new growth. Bringing new people in would reinvent and reinvigorate the band.”
Here’s what my friend Julie Joyce from North Carolina has to say about her MES:
“Last night as my husband and I were discussing Mark E Smith’s death, we were talking about how similar he and Shane MacGowan are in terms of being just absolutely brilliant and fairly nuts. Shane’s just more accessible, I said. I find few Fall fans over in the US but those who know them LOVE them. They actually covered Pinball Machine, which was written by Lonnie Irving, a great friend to my husband’s Uncle Mack who is no longer with us. Just imagining them covering something written by someone from rural NC is absolutely lovely to me. Mark was such a rascal!! I’ve been reading about his antics and loving him even more now.”
I love that Julie has highlighted Pinball Machine here, and I’m delighted to learn of the family connection to the song. Pinball Machine is the second track on Seminal Live, the first Fall album that I bought. Turns out that it was Julie’s first Fall album, too.
A door-opening, bag-carrying, sweet gentleman
Pinball Machine shows the rarely-glimpsed gentler, tender side of The Fall (as does Helen’s pick, Bill Is Dead). This side was always there in MES. But he so rarely showed it in public.
Speaking to The Guardian yesterday (Friday 25 January 2018), Brix described her MES:
“A lot of people claimed to have known him, but they didn’t really know him. I fucking knew him. He was my husband, and deep down he was a door-opening, bag-carrying, sweet gentleman. Creating at that high a level, you’re going to get seriously complex, intelligent people. You can’t do that without all of the complexities.”
MES showed his gentle side (his truest self?) in his final communication to the outside world during his lifetime. Right after the cancellation of that Bristol gig, MES issued a message to the fans he felt he had let down. It included the following words, wrenchingly direct and heartfelt:
“From head patient to you, the patients. I love you all but cannot embrace you all, Mark E. Smith.”
If The Fall have ever meant anything to you, please listen to your favourite Fall song as soon as you can, as loud as you can. Think back to your favourite memory of MES.
He is not appreciated.
* Here is the dear departed John Peel explaining exactly why “you must get them all” (From the documentary
** This is one of the prints of The Fall by Helen’s boyfriend, Steve Tarry. You can see this and more of his work here.
The black and white picture of MES and Brix is from an ancient 1988 edition of Sounds magazine that I came across in a cupboard the other week. As soon as I found it, I tweeted the picture to Brix, who said she had no recollection of that particular cover shoot.