Monday, January 29, 2018

Mark'll Sink Us

Mark Edward Smith died last Wednesday.  I have nothing important to add about him, his life, his music, his legacy.  Smarter people, better writers, journalists, critics, they're doing their thing.  More important than all of them, the music he made in his life will live long, long after him.  As someone who's long considered the Fall his favorite band, I wanted to say some things about him.  He was an unlikely hero, & most probably he & I wouldn't have even liked each other.  Who knows?

Like everyone else on the planet who first heard the Fall, I was charmed by "Totally Wired."  It encouraged me to buy a singles collection, probably this one.  I dug "Totally Wired" but I wasn't ready for the rest of the songs.  I listened to it maybe once or twice, then (as was my custom in those days) I sold it back to the record store for half price & bought more records.

It's not that the Fall were difficult listening, just different listening.  I was more accustomed to bands like the Smiths, the Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order, Joy Division.  In fact, my next encounter with them was buying the single for "Hit The North," which I liked because it was weirdly catchy, something I didn't think the Fall could be.  If I had chosen to explore his years with his wife Brix influencing him in a more poppy direction, I might've become a Fall fan earlier.  But I didn't.  I kinda wrote them off.

Years later I worked in a place where we could play music we liked & the guys who worked there played the Fall.  A lot.  In many of such cases, familiarity breeds contempt - it's the opposite of the radio model, & it's how it works with me with music I don't like.  But not with the Fall.  Slowly my mind was being rewired to understand them.  Interestingly, the CD I asked to borrow from my coworker was the b-sides collection from the Brix years, 1984-1989.  I burned a copy & listened to it non-stop for a week.  & the obsession began.

Let me say something about fans of the Fall: they're a funny, loyal, grumpy lot, very critical about their favorite band's music, very outspoken with their opinions.  When I first discovered the internet, I subscribed to many mailing lists dedicated to bands & musicians I liked.  I think it was on the Elvis Costello list that I discovered that an unspoken rule was, the newest record was the best.  Always.  Anything contrary might lead to angry emails from more devoted fans telling me I didn't understand, I obviously never liked the musician, & I should probably fuck off.  Which I did, from pretty much every list.  I understood then as now that everyone's opinions differ, & none are better than another's, but if I couldn't say I enjoyed All This Useless Beauty far less than This Year's Model without being threatened, it wasn't healthy for me to be involved.

Not so with Fall fans.  In general, they may hate 25 to 50 percent of the band's output.  The UK fans had funny punny names of albums they liked - my favorite was "Shite-Work" for "Shift-Work."  The truth is, being obsessed with a band that changed so much (or, as John Peel put it, a band that was always different & always the same) & was so prolific, you had to be prepared for some stinkers.  I mean, most Dylan fans won't agree with this, but I think the guy has released way more terrible records than good ones.  It's just that the good ones are fucking incredible.  & I think that that could be said about the Fall (though in my opinion there are far more good records in their catalog as a percentage than in Dylan's - & I say this as a huge Dylan fan).

Honestly I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about.  I don't even really know how to explain how the Fall infected me.  Half the time I don't really know or care what a particular Fall song is about.  I know they're about something but I also know that I love what I consider Mark Smith's ambivalence about language.  The fellow who titled records things like Perverted By Language & The Utterable certainly knew the power of words, but I think he mostly saw that they were fickle things, probably useless in real communication with others, but in general the poorest & best tool we had.  More than that, I think Mark Smith loved words, loved to speak/sing them, loved to make sounds that approximated words, loved to put them together in curious ways, almost in a Gysin-esque cut-up manner, but not quite like that.  In the Peel Sessions he recorded around the time of The Real New Fall LP, I think for the song "Contraflow" but possibly "Theme From Sparta FC," Smith just blurts out, "Chewbacca!" during the song.  It's not in the LP version, it probably wasn't anything he was thinking about even before recording started.  It's a fun, weird word to say.  So he said it.

That's the main thing I love about the Fall.  Listening to Mark Smith say words.  Listening to him flirt with rhyme, with things like verses & choruses, with chants, shouts, noises, squeaks, shrieks.  I have misunderstood Fall lyrics constantly, & when I discover the mistake I am certain Smith intended to confuse.  Recently I saw the video for "Eat Y'Self Fitter," & was reminded that I thought Smith was singing, "Don't want to be a victim," when instead he was singing, "Don't want to be a Mit-Dem," which is an English political reference I was never going to get.  In the video, they flashed my misinterpreted lyrics.  I laughed out loud.

When one of my heroes dies, I often devote an entire show to him or her, but I am completely at a loss when it comes to the Fall.  I've played them on the radio for years now, I don't think they're a band that encouraged covers, I don't even think bands that claim to be influenced by them sound all that much like them.  I feel lucky I got to see them three or four times, & I feel lucky one of those times I got to watch the band break up (the Fall was basically Mark E. Smith & anyone who joined him).  I was going to go see them in Louisville last fall but they cancelled because of Smith's health.  It was something I didn't regard much as ominous - I once saw him when he had a cast on because of a broken leg - but I do wish I could've seen them one last time.

Here's another thing: I didn't like their record from last year all that much.  I'll revisit it, but it was the
first record of theirs in years that I didn't listen to over & over all year long.  Jeez, this is such a terrible tribute to someone whose work has meant so much to me for a very long time.  But I don't think I can do any better.  I'd recommend you read Sean O'Neal's piece about Smith for the AV Club instead.  I got to know Sean on the Fall mailing list & got to see him jump onstage & sing at a Fall show in Austin.  He knows how to write these things, I don't.

One thing I do know is the world is a poorer place without Mark E. Smith in it.  The band Stars tweeted "there will never ever ever be another Mark E. Smith" & they're right.  Holy shit, we were unbelievably fortunate that we lived in the time when there was a Mark E. Smith.

As for you - if you've never heard the Fall, or heard them but didn't like them, or heard them & thought they were okay but never followed up - seek them out, try them on, see if they can't rewire your brain.  If they do, there are hours & hours of interesting words & sounds, of anger & rage & sarcasm & joy, of everything you expect from music & some things you didn't even know music could do, all of this & more waiting for you.  There'll never be anything like them again.

Goodbye & thank you, Mark E. Smith.  I can't even begin to express what your songs have done to me, for me.  & I hope you won't mind, I probably won't be making a tribute show for you, but I will be playing your songs on the radio as long as people let me be on the radio.

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