Entry 0116: RIP Mark E Smith

thefallbylanguage

LP: Perverted by Language by The Fall

2017 Superior Viaduct, SV127 (reissue)

Favorite Track: Smile

 

What was your first Fall song? Mine was the Classical. A fitting title for what was about to happen to me. When I bought the MOJO magazine in college, which came with a post-punk CD that was going to change my musical tastes, I bought it because of another Mancunian: Ian Curtis. The CD was a bonus. The CD was to introduce me to a number of my favorite bands: Pere Ubu, Can, Wire, Kleenex/Liliput, and a Certain Ratio. But, most importantly, it introduced me to the Fall.

If you ever need to resuscitate your heart, just listen to the drumming that kicks off the Classical. Your unconsciousness will have an avalanche, shifting thought-ice crashing down on your generic rhythm mountaineers. The jangly guitars will punctuate your lungs, driving air and sustained boredom out of you. Then Mark E. Smith comes in all tooth-snarl, pissed, and offensive. You are either in love or have shut off the music by now.

But life works in strange ways. Despite the indelible wound left in my mind by the force of the Classical and Bingo-Master’s Break-Out!, a Fall song brought to my attention in a college course on the history of rock’n’roll, I went many years without listening to the Fall. I would love to claim I needed time to prepare, that I was not worthy, that Mark E. Smith banned me from seeking out his music, that I was frightened. But the truth is much simpler. I just plum forgot they existed.

Various times had left me feeling like I was in a 2nd dark age. College had ended and I moved into my parents’ house and holed up inside my head. When I finally emerged from the stagnant interior of a directionless young adult, I needed room to live. I enrolled and received my Master’s degree in Library and Information Science, moved to Portland, OR to find a job, and landed in Cincinnati, OH with a job at the public library. My sense of curiosity came back, hard, flat, like a paved road before me.

I took home a CD: 458489 A Sides by the Fall.

The singles from the Brix years.

One afternoon, I am sitting around with a friend, Miles, drinking cheap beer, sneering at this and that, cracking each other up. I toss on the Fall. The bass line for Oh! Brother! paused our conversation. Inside my brain, soundwaves hit the north, east, south, west synapses, converted into electrical signals and danced through the receptors, rearranging what I had previously thought of as music. I had found it. Maybe not the real Holy Grail, or even a passable relic, but this sound was the closest I was going to come to immortality.

I was mesmerized.

The CD was repeated. Twice.

Like 50,000 Fall fans before me, I felt that these songs were written especially for me.

My detective instinct kicked in. It was time to find some actual vinyl records. Time to cultivate a garden of post-punk nourishment. Stepping out, I went to Shake It Records on exactly the right day without my knowing it. Earmark Records had just reissued a two-vinyl set of Grotesque. I bought it without ever hearing a single track before. I didn’t feel like a dice man about to gamble away his savings. I didn’t even recognize the chance. The paved road was before me and I was just a figure walking.

Words fail to give us a true knowledge of love, which, after all, is an emotion. But words paint love in prettier images than its reality. Mark E. Smith began painting my life prettier than its reality. After Grotesque, I found Dragnet and Live at the Witch Trials within two weeks of each other. Smith’s song lyrics made me totally wired with his infectious humor. Lines like “this hideous replica” and “I don’t sing, I just shout” grew into tangled vines with my thought patterns. A smile lit up my face every time he sang “turn that bloody blimey space-invader off.” I identified too much with lines such as:

“They say music should be fun / like reading a story of love / but I wanna read a horror story.”

or:

“You think you’ve got it bad with thin ties / miserable songs synthesized / or circles with A in the middle”

or:

“The commune crap, camp bop, middle-class, flip-flop / Guess that’s why they end up in bands.”

or:

“ten times my age / one-tenth my height / our city hobgoblins.”

The Fall acted as a conduit to good, chaotic, and, admittedly, drunken times. Before I knew it, a whole year went by and the Fall were the only band that I played on the god-box of my turntable. Whenever I had the chance, I shared the Fall and found people loving them as much as me. Through the library’s CD of the Month Club, I either enlightened or tortured people with their scraggly music. Luck blessed me with more records. The Fall remain the band I have collected the most vinyl of.

Mark E. Smith was an everyday man, filled with the flaws and chipped shoulders that make up the people of this world. He was not pleasant to look at. He had a harsh, smoker’s voice. He played no instrument but his attitude. He fired musicians as fast as he hired them as if he was the leader of a psycho mafia. Yet he made 32 studio albums, over 50 singles, over 50 live albums, and numerous appearances on the John Peel show without ever becoming the type of popular other weirdos like David Bowie achieved. But he showed me–us–that we could do it too. The blueprint is simple: find someone, pick up something, play it and record it. Anyone could be in the Fall. If you were in the Fall or listened to the Fall, for a moment, you were a bright comet in the sky, radiating an artistic hope to the thirsty world below.

Most of all, the Fall were a dream.

I chased after tour dates, fervently praying for the magical moment when I would have the opportunity to stand in a crowd and see Mark E. Smith on stage in front of me. I kept up with the latest albums even though I could tell they were running out of steam and Mark E. Smith was more a sludge of wounded growls and inarticulate murmurings. Even when I traversed the ocean, I looked for impossible coincidences–maybe the Fall would be playing at the Eiffel Tower!

Then I saw it: 2017 Louisville, KY. Cropped Up Festival.

I hate music festivals with a passion. The weekend was also terrible timing for me. I would be just returning from the Iberian Peninsula and jetlag would be real and burdening my attentive consciousness. But this was the dream and all dreams must end.

And end they do but never as you expect. The Fall cancelled their appearance due to a rare respiratory illness. The promotors promised a re-schedule. Mark E. Smith promised a re-schedule. Then he died.

Since then, I have dreamed a thousand different Fall concerts with a thousand different setlists. I could never distill the Fall down to 10 songs. They are too broad, too experimental, too hard to pin, too easy to love every song. But, by the end of the setlist, I must wake up again to the reality that I will never see Mark E. Smith before me. I must look into the phantom penumbra of the poet and hold back my tears.

However, maybe dreams don’t end. Maybe like Marconi’s idea that past sounds don’t actually disappear, but vibrate at a lower rate, I can find the right microphone or hearing aid to witness my Fall concert in some kind of mystical way. The world is strange. So were the Fall.

They did, after all, play a concert on February 12, 1983–the day I was born.

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