Mark E. Smith died on January 24. A lot is being written about him at the moment, which is to be expected on the death of a man who was the driving force for—and indeed, the only consistent member of—a rock band with a career that spanned 40 years and 30-something albums. The tributes will have a lot of words in common, such as ‘maverick’, ‘unique’, ‘difficult’, ‘legendary’ and ‘curmudgeon’. Other pieces will say ‘genius’. Some of the more thoughtful ones may mention Smith’s intelligence, wit, humour and occasional uncanny prescience, or even place him among visionary artists like William Blake. This, then, is another tribute, but it is personal one, written in the numb aftermath of loss.
There have been three great musical epiphanies in my life, experiences that irrevocably altered my world. The first was in a student house in Lyneham ACT, in 1976. I was well-fuelled with flagon wine and weed, and heard Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) for the first time. It was as though music was simultaneously taking itself apart and rebuilding itself, and a world of possibilities opened up before me.
The second came less than a year after the first. It was the Sex Pistols, via the few seconds of video that Countdown (in confected outrage) allowed to air. It was a moment that I shared with so many of my contemporaries: a foetid, sweaty blast of a maniacal energy. I knew there and then I had to be part of it.
The third epiphany was in inner-city Sydney one day in the early 80s. It was the first time I heard The Fall.
The Fall was Mark E. Smith’s band, formed after seeing the Sex Pistols in 1976. He was driven by the same liberating urgency that compelled me to start my first band, but he kept at it for 40 years.
After that first hearing, perception shifted. It was as though I was catching glimpses of what was really going on in the world through gaps in a curtain of static. Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously remarked of the actor Edmund Kean that ‘to see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning’. For me, hearing The Fall was like reading the more hallucinatory work of William S. Burroughs in a busy North of England pub. Arresting phrases in a dense Mancunian accent cut through blasts of gloriously abrasive noise. Words were put to work in completely unexpected ways, like a drunk quoting T. S. Eliot. It was clear from the outset that this was the product of a very singular world view, one that very quickly resonated with mine.
Smith sang of container drivers, of industrial estates, amphetamines and alcoholic dry-out houses. He told of proles and mad kids, ranted against poseurism and spat invective. ‘We are The Fall/ Northern white crap that talks back’ announced an early lyric. There was more than gritty realism though. He also spoke of apparitions and time travel, hinted at Lovecraftian horrors and was not averse to explorations of the strange. He yowled, gurgled and snarled, swinging at times between brilliance and shambolic disaster. Band members came and went, but through it all, the inimitable spark that defined The Fall still burned.
There were times in The Fall’s career when the band came within spitting distance of mainstream success, but it would never be a household name. Smith’s vision was always a little too idiosyncratic for that. For example, he co-developed an experimental ballet about William of Orange’s accession to the English throne, and wrote a play about the alleged assassination of Pope John Paul I. Neither of these ideas screamed ‘mass appeal’.
Popularity was of no concern to Fall fans though, and the band’s following eventually crossed generations. On the two occasions I saw Smith and company in Melbourne, I was with a younger friend, and both times we found ourselves chatting with someone much younger who had found the band via a parent’s music collection. The last time, in 2016, there was a young woman near me in the crowd, in her early 20s at most, who was singing along with the songs from the then new album. I am yet to meet an ex-Fall fan.
Smith was notoriously fond of a drink, and by all accounts had never been one for looking after himself. The news that hit me the morning after his death could have come at any time in the last few years. Still I, along with most other fans, expected him to somehow last forever. He was 60, the age I am just about to reach.
Mortality is hard enough to face as it is. I have buried my parents, and suffered the deaths of friends. I never met Mark E. Smith, but I can honestly say he had a hand in making me who I am today. The loss of such a figure resounds like the loss of someone close.
Tim Harris is a Melbourne writer and comedian.