It’s very hard to believe that we have lost Mark E Smith, but it is also amazing he dodged death as long as he did. He was a man who, by the sight of him, seemed to hold back death with poetry alone.
I had the pleasure of seeing The Fall more times than I can remember and I bumped into Mark E Smith himself twice, in circumstances that couldn’t be more different. I feel like every single encounter with that man would be unforgettable for anyone. He was the writer of a million songs and the heart of even more stories.
I suppose it is probably best to get the story of my first encounter with Smith out of the way first. It is the least flattering of the two.
It was my first attempt to see The Fall who were, if I remember correctly, scheduled to play The Welly Club in Hull. I’m not sure if the gig went ahead or not. My memory is that it didn’t.
Although I had a ticket, I didn’t go to The Welly Club and found myself instead wandering through Hull’s Old Town, having a couple of sly drinks with friends (I wasn’t yet of legal drinking age).
It wasn’t particularly late and yet we could see, walking down the cobbled streets, that the night had already taken the first of its casualties.
Walking past the city’s oldest pub, Ye Olde Black Boy, there was a man hunched by the curb and many people were approaching to help before moving quickly away. The man appeared to have shit himself.
It was Mark E Smith.
It seemed that, rather than play the gig, Smith had hit the bars and he was soon bundled into a taxi that took him all the way back to Manchester.
A year or two back, I remember recanting this story to someone in another of Hull’s pubs. I had never heard anyone else mention it and part of me wondered if it had even occurred – a misremembered dream half-true from a blurred teenage drinking session. Someone said: “Fuckin’ ‘ell, I remember that. I put him in the fucking taxi. He stank!”
After that I saw The Fall a few more times, at festivals and in pubs, with Smith always staggering around in barely controlled chaos.
I last saw him at a music festival in North Yorkshire. I’d been granted an All Access pass to take photographs and found myself taking a shortcut backstage in order to catch a band on the main stage.
Sat in the passenger seat of a battered old Volvo with another person unknown to me, he was singing Enya’s Orinoco Flow to himself in the summer sunshine.
Later that day, a storm had brewed over the festival site. The weather man said hurricane-strength winds, we were told. The Fall were the last band allowed to play the main stage before it was closed due to health and safety concerns.
The hurricane outside seemed to be emanating from Smith himself as the eye of the storm. Staggering around, chaos personified, chanting in a language only he could understand and unperturbed by the wind that he somehow seemed completely in tune with.
There’s little chance of me misremembering that day in future. I remember waking up the following morning, one of only a dozen few tents left as so many had packed up and left the night before. Twisted metal fences lined the rolling Yorkshire hills.
I was surprised no one had died.
The death of Mark E Smith is one of many events that now come to pass following which I wish we could wake up to a K-Punk post.
I suppose, in some respects, we have a worthy tribute in Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie. The fourth chapter, “Body a Tentacle Mess”, considers the weird and the grotesque in The Fall’s 1980 album Grotesque (After the Gramme).
There are also, of course, Fisher’s three long posts on the group: “Memorex for the Krakens” Parts One, Two and Three, like three lost chapters from Fisher’s last and painfully succinct book. The Fall hold the beat, that seemingly can’t be held, between the weird and the eerie. It seems, looking back over these K-Punk posts, they catalysed much of what was to be published 10 years later.
Smith was, for Fisher, the ultimate English example of the weird-grotesque. A cartographer of a Northern psychogeography made nomadic in Smith’s trademark heteroglossia.
Smith’s North is a Lovecraftian Outside. This Outsider quality instantiates a weird class-consciousness that cannot be overlooked. Smith embodies the Northern working-class man and makes him once again weird. He provides an egress from stereotype and back into enigma. He atrophies the alien lyrical syntax of his slurred Manchester dialect. His is a schizophrenic class-consciousness and it is unmatched.
Let’s call it an Event, and at the same time note that all Events have a dimension of the uncanny. If something is too alien, it will fail to register; if it is too easily recognized, too easily cognizable, it will never be more than a reiteration of the already known. When The Fall pummeled their way into my nervous system, circa 1983, it was as if a world that was familiar – and which I had thought too familiar, too quotidian to feature in rock – had returned, expressionistically transfigured, permanently altered.
… I’m looking over my notes now from last year’s The Weird and the Eerie reading group. I remember that session well although my notes are sparse. We spent most of the session listening to the album.
A strange dream: One sunny summer afternoon, blasting The North Will Rise Again in its entirety from a ground-floor classroom at Goldsmiths, windows open and Smith’s jaggered renditions floating out over the hedges.
Fisher wrote: “More than a matter of regional railing against the capital, in Smith’s vision the North comes to stand for everything suppressed by urbane good taste: the esoteric, the anomalous, the vulgar sublime, that is to say, the weird and the grotesque itself.”
That’s why I’m proud of The Fall … There’ll never be a Fall tribute band … No one could do it.