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A Strange Grief and the Enigma that Wasn’t – Processing the Passing of Mark E Smith

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This is all banal to say, to say the least. Yet this, I hope, is somewhat less so: I am experiencing a strange grief.

Mortality seeks us all out of dull habit, fetching up on our doorsteps in denim overalls like a toll collector just off work. No matter how or when we answer the knock, nor the degree of dread or relief with which that knob is turned, the visitor and his actions – the taking of a clipboard from under his arm, the clicking of ballpoint pen, the quick ticking of a box being checked – are identically the same for all of us, the transaction, as it were, the transfer of property, dutiful, utilitarian, and, yes, in the end rather dull. Pomp and ceremony, should there be any, is left to the living.

It isn’t just death but its mundanity that is the great leveler, a statement not lacking in the very same kind of irony that underscores the essence of our existence. ‘We are born to die’ is the first and most profound epiphany of our lives and, whether we’re aware of it or not, that understanding becomes the tension at the heart of everything we do which in turn defines everything we are. Certainly, because nothing’s so simple, much contributes to that base equation – genetics, environment, economics, religion, a thousand things that constitute the emotions that trigger our every response and decision – but at the core of the core sits that 5-word truth, as basic as marrow, and how we respond to and shape that most intrinsic primal conflict is what makes us infinitely different and endlessly fascinating, regardless of how darkly cynical a place that fascination may often lead us. Due that frequency – cynicism as a response to the behavior and character of our fellow humans is the modern age’s most default setting –  most people learn to look away, to ignore, obfuscate, modify. Mark E Smith wasn’t one of them.

Of the agitated, amusingly bemused Bard of Salford it could well be said that he feasted on it. Put another way, when it came to the car-crash of human hypocrisy, Mr Smith, with gurning grin and bark at the ready, shifted the rhythm section into high grinding gear and drove himself and his band straight at it.

The Fall were a rascally and critically evasive proposition from the very off. Emerging in a chrysalis of their own making while that shakily built bridge was briefly stretched between the last-gasp years of the failing hippie moment and the first bursts of faux-anarchist punks that, despite their kneejerk “circles with A’s in middle” dogmatism, would spark one of the 20th century’s most significant cultural blow-ups – from inside the darkest Manchester the band in its earliest iteration sought light and intellectual succor via a diet of psilocybin and metaphysical French poetry – Mark and Martin and Uma and Tony weren’t hippies, weren’t punks, had no specific intentions, no design. The gerund of the word ’emerge’ above, chosen out of lazy writerly reflex, is in this case singularly apt. They gathered in a place – someone’s parent’s attic if memory serves – did what they did and then, by (now-) mythical accident, just were. Naming-wise the Camus nod was fated to the point of being inevitable and since the Outsiders had been claimed by at least two noted 60’s garage bands, well, there it was, the Fall.


For a half-second an observer might have considered them a collective but the singer at the center of the maelstrom, he what wrote those amphetamine lyrics packed with slyly comedic acerb and barbed surrealism, had other ideas, or, rather, perhaps more accurately (and certainly more charitably), the ideas ricocheting off the walls inside his seemingly feverish mind amounted to an aesthetic restlessness that didn’t square with the personnel as originally incarnated. Nor with the second incarnation, nor the third the fourth the fifth and on to an ordinal that could occupy Pete Frame for two or three lifetimes and came far closer to actual infinity than is conceivable for any ‘band’ before and, we can safely assume, forever after.

And yet, without fail, we called the Fall a band, inverted commas be damned. And yes, we did so at least in part due to Smith’s own famous pronouncement citing him and your granny on bongos as the minimum required to claim the name. But it seems plain that we persisted with that marvelously terse moniker for reasons deeper than the singer’s tenacious insistence. Beyond (though nonetheless related to) your basic Psych 101 complex of explanations – thanks to the power of personal nostalgia we emotionally cling tentacle-like to the markers of our youth, and to have a band from ‘then’ still going ‘now’ and going strong, no over-priced over-hyped reunion tours necessary, well, I don’t really have to expand on that, do I? – there was an intrinsic identity to the Fall, comprised of, in shifting proportion, a high-functioning intransigence, the famous, unkillable ‘Fall sound’ (its every version a variance of the initial skittery blueprint sketched out by the scrapping young left-handed guitarist with a kind of mystic Avalonian diffidence, last name Bramah, who like everyone else at the time aimed himself at Tom Verlaine and happily missed the mark, resulting in a mashed imperfect mock-up of Link Wray rockabilly with Canny inferences and Monks-addled garage rock), and the voice at the heart of the matter. A surprisingly versatile instrument given its limitations – within his minimal range Smith could squeak the end of a line like some post-punk castrado or prowl the guttural depths as if to embody the very growl of Hades – that voice’s harsh unlikeliness as that of a so-called popular rock band’s lead singer was the exact quality that, as much as the gruff and the railing spew, as much as the peristaltic cut-up lyrics (like a Manc Burroughs with a hot knife), ensured the extraordinary run of continued interest in what the Fall had to ‘say.’ Perhaps it’s the sheer force of will we were hearing that kept us so transfixed, the fuck-off defiance of a non-singer being one of the most impactful singers of our lifetime, but I can assure you this: if Smith had had anything approaching a ‘normal’ voice, you wouldn’t be reading this, I wouldn’t have written it, and the Fall would have faded into the curling Victorian wallpaper eons ago.

Then there was this question of ‘character.’ The man’s reputation – abrasive as the clever noise that serrated the air around him on stage – was legion for a reason, and, like any artist on the tetchy side, it’s tough to pull it apart and find some purpose to it, as at the very least that would require some inside knowledge, a bit of deep background delving into the Freudian weeds, the type divulgences that from the caustically anti-navelgazing Mr Smith were most certainly not forthcoming. Of course, understanding anyone’s heart is a work of speculation but our Mark seemed especially intent on keeping whatever formative events etc that may have helped mold the man he became, this creature of voluble – and ceaselessly inventive – volatility, walled off and untouchable (John Lennon he wasn’t). All that said, this paradox persists: Mark E Smith was the enigma that wasn’t.


Even while the music he corralled and hectored out of his many bandmates could at times be nearly impenetrable, the verbiage, despite its syntactical intrigue, denser still, even as his answers to interview questions were often off-putting if not wholly off the point, there wasn’t exactly a ‘mystique’ about the guy, was there? However elliptically in effect, by intention he put himself out there for anyone to see, not concerned in the least about his likability, an instinct that made him, via the twisted logic of rock rebel admiration – a phrase that Smith himself would of course have derisively mocked – all the more likable. Though I didn’t share his undying scorn for students and journalists and found in his public demeanor a level of pugnacious that bordered on what might be termed ‘working class imperious’ – there sometimes seemed to be a noticeable inflection of defensiveness in the ale-fueled invectives he hurled across the pub table at whatever writer had drawn their paper’s short straw – his pitbull iconoclasm, fierce, not-to-be-messed-with and never to my knowledge successfully challenged, made Mark E Smith the artist an indisputably needed presence over the past several decades, especially as our culture at ever-increasing speeds has slid via the sucking chasm of the internet – against which he never failed to rail – toward the crass and bombastic. Arch and unyielding, he was in his way the barbed needle of our collective compass, pointing with a proudly stubborn consistency toward what he held to be a truer north. The jabs of that needle may have stung but for the most part they nipped agreeably at our conscience, kept us sharp, and not infrequently made us laugh (the man’s humor, leveled like an endless volley of acidic inside jokes, is an entirely different essay).

Whatever contributed to the making of this most peculiar legend, it seems to me that the mad swerve of pronouncements, the dictates, the outrages, indeed all those notorious upheavals in personnel, all flowed from something of a survivor’s intellect, the response to which is, naturally, one of an oddly recoiling empathy. That famous gruff exterior that MES wore like a coat of static couldn’t help but complicate our view of him but the overall package of the Mark E Smith persona came at us with such a brilliant scathing irreverence and imcomparable verve that I not only despair of his loss but end up loving the guy full-stop.

A strange grief indeed.