The late Fall singer Mark E. Smith held nothing back in his autobiography, Renegade
My boyfriend rang me one afternoon in January, saying, “Did you hear the news? Mark E. Smith is dead.”
Those words hit me like a ton of bricks. Not since Bowie’s death did I feel so dumbfounded and numb. Smith, who formed The Fall in Manchester U.K. in 1976 and led some version of the band until his death, was like a human lightning rod, famous for his incendiary lyrics and interviews, as well as his talk-singing vocal style. Love him or hate him, he was a musical force for 40+ years.
I walked around in a fog all day running errands, unsure why I was taking it so hard. The thing is there just aren’t many original artists out there. I’ve always had a soft spot for brutally honest people. After posting online about his death, a friend commented, “He was an asshole!”
Funny, the same exact words were spat at me by another friend about Lou Reed the day he died. From my point of view, I would rather have an honest asshole in my life than a fake, kind person. Plus, I get it, they didn’t suffer fools. Lou and Mark weren’t willing to play the game, as everyone else scratched each other’s backs and placated the record company for money and fame.
Mark’s speaking vocal style and fucking with the levels at gigs after the other members of The Fall had made them perfect, helped create the chaotic atmosphere he was seeking. He was challenging listeners to open themselves up to a different way of thinking.
I was in the middle of reading Mark’s autobiography, Renegade, when he died. I had been telling everyone to read it, as it’s hilariously raw. Brendan Toller, who made the documentary Danny Says, posted that the book was one of the best rock n’ roll memoirs of all time. One hilarious moment that Mark recounts is about his fans: “Somebody offered me a drink, some ex-Damned fan or other. I usually say no thanks, because you never know what they’re up to. Most of the time they’re just being friendly, but you get the odd one and you end up sweating the night out in your own Twilight Zone.”
At Mark’s funeral last month, a riot broke out at the wake following the ceremony. People were throwing bottles and pouring beer on each other. Most agreed that Mark would have loved the debauchery and chaos. After all, being an asshole is kind of how he showed his respect. He threw a glass of champagne on one of the Fat White Family members at Glastonbury, and afterward, praised their album.
Fall guitarist Steve Evets wrote on Twitter about the funeral, “I’ve got to say Mark E. Smith’s funeral was just like a Fall gig, some strange people there, it was unpredictable and it kicked off. I don’t think would have it any other way. We love you Mark.”
Brix Smith Start made this statement after hearing the news of her ex-husband’s death: “Mark had this theory that there were seven original people in the world and that everybody else is a slate of one of those seven. I have to say Mark was absolutely one of those seven.”
It’s no secret that genius-level intelligence walks a thin line with insanity. While dating Una Blaines, Mark lived behind Europe’s largest mental hospital, where Una was a psychiatric nurse. Mark would invite patients in for tea and play them records. Once in a while, he’d take them on a field trip to the local pub, dropping them back at the hospital with smiles on their faces. Water seeks its own level. I think he felt closer to those people than the so-called “normal” citizens of Manchester.
Patti Smith and the Ramones were a constant on Mark’s turntable in his youth, inspiring him to make music. After going to see the Sex Pistols perform at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976, he thought he could make better music than them and started The Fall. At the time, the band took the name The Outsiders, after the Albert Camus book of the same name. Mark changed it to The Fall, because he believed it to be the superior read of the Camus collection.
During his 42-year career, Mark E. Smith hired 49 members to be in The Fall, made 46 studio albums and several live albums. Originally, the band consisted of his girlfriend Una Baines playing biscuit tins as drums, which she later traded for keyboards, Martin Bramah on guitar and Tony Friel on bass. Their first show was in the North West Arts basement with Steve Ormrod on drums (his one and only Fall gig) on May 23, 1977. The Buzzcocks’ manager took notice of The Fall and funded the recording of their first single, “Bingo Master’s Break Out.” After that, Una and Mark had a falling out and their roommate, Kat Carrol, started dating Mark and soon became the Fall’s manager. Friel and Baines quit the band.
In 1983, Brix–who took her name from the Clash’s song, “Guns of Brixton,” met and fell in love with Mark while the Fall were playing a show in Chicago. Brix moved to England with Mark and joined the Fall and she and Mark got married. Brix brought an American pop sensibility and her Southern California style to the band and cleaned them up. Success soon followed. The Fall had a couple of hits and the members started dressing in cool threads, via Brix’s influence. Songs like “Cruisers Creek” and “L.A.” continue to be hot tunes on the dance floor at clubs.
Smith claimed that one of the best gigs he ever attended was Gary Glitter. He believed it was a shame that pubs turn the radio off when “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” or “I Didn’t Know I Loved You (‘Til I Saw You Rock and Roll)” came on. Even though he agreed that it was terrible what Glitter did with young girls, the music was very powerful and deserves to be heard. After all, there were other musicians in that band that are now suffering because of Gary’s actions.
When asked who he would like to have play him in the movie of his life, Mark told the Guardian he would like Rip Torn or a dwarf in the role, and he was completely serious. He didn’t smoke pot, he saw it as being a hippie thing, but he did drop acid before he ever smoked a cigarette, mainly because the local bikers often took trips after watching the movie Easy Rider. Eventually, speed and drink would be his drug of choice. He wrote the song “Totally Wired,” as well as other lyrics, while hopped up out of his mind. This brought about a lot of tension in his relationships with band members and his girlfriends.
Mark E. Smith is the only person who could have gotten Laurel & Hardy to dance to punk rock:
Luke Wright tweeted a funny memory on the day Mark died. It read: “Did I ever tell you about the time Mark E. Smith tried ecstasy? Mark said, ‘It was fucking horrible, it makes you fall in love with people. I couldn’t keep me hands off Shane MacGowan!’”
A lot of his advice in Renegade rings true, such as, “If people read more, they’d come to a better understanding of other people and there’d be less people trudging off to shrinks.”
His working-class family didn’t provide him with a college education, but he made up for it by reading constantly when not working menial jobs. Mark doesn’t play nice in Renegade, saying that Joe Strummer was just a middle-class bloke trying to appeal to the working class with his social rants. He also gives it to indie record labels and young musicians, saying they are content to become their parents, referring to the lack of rebellion and unique sounds in current music. Watch out! If you’ve ever crossed him, you could be mentioned too! Like Brendan, I would say this book is definitely in my top 5 rock ‘n’ roll autobiographies. It’s similar to Ministry singer Al Jourgensen’s book: Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen. Both books dish all the dirt as well as provide the inspiration of a legendary musician in just one scoop.
“When I’m dead and gone, my vibrations will live on in vibes on vinyl, through the years people will dance to my waves.” — Mark E. Smith, 1979
Dying at 60 doesn’t seem fair. Especially when UK papers were falsely reporting his demise earlier in the year. Even though his lifestyle may have caught up with him health-wise, you’ve got to hand it to the guy; he did exactly what he wanted and never let anyone be the boss of him. Because of that attitude, combined with immense creativity, his songs will let him live on forever.