Mark E Smith – An Appreciation

“If there is a holy grail, Mr. Smith would be the only one allowed to pick it up.”Tony Wilson (1950 – 2007)

“If I drop dead tomorrow, I’ll won’t have anything to complain about  – except there will be another Fall album out next year that I won’t get to hear.”  – John Peel (1939 – 2004) 

Sadly, Mark E Smith’s early death aged just 60 was inevitable. Before he died he performed live from a wheelchair and was reported to be suffering from serious respiratory problems.

A friend attended a show in Bristol in November 2017 that was called off quite literally at the eleventh hour. At the scheduled 10pm stage time, the band announced Mark was not well enough to leave the hotel. Fall fans wondered how long he would be last.

There is something typically MES about wanting to grind it out until the very end, flying in the fact of common sense, and quite possibly doctor’s orders.  I have fond memories of crossing paths with Mark E Smith over the years. I interviewed him four times and met him at gigs and festivals. I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve seen the Fall. My two favourite gigs were the Tivoli in 1993 with Rollerskate Skinny supporting, and a cracking hometown appearance in Sankey’s, Manchester in 2005 featuring John Cooper Clarke doing the opening honours.

Crawdaddy, Dublin a few years before this was pretty special too, despite Smith being over two hours late as he mistakenly thought it was a late show. I think that was the first time I met him through their Irish promoter Declan Forde.

Admittedly, there were a few shows over the years that were slightly hit or miss. The Fall never quite worked as a festival act, but I never, ever saw a terrible Fall gig.

As for the interviews, they were always dynamite. Only once did Mark seem a bit off, but he was still polite and very interested to know how I was doing, despite a report in an English broadsheet that sanctimoniously labelled him as “belligerent, unprofessional but brilliant.”

I’m finally getting around to reading Brix Smith’s acclaimed memoir, which paints a truthful warts and all picture. I found her interview on BBC 6 the day after his passing incredibly moving and emotional. Despite their many differences, and the collapse of their marriage, they clearly had the utmost love and respect for each other.

Words like contrarian and curmudgeon were frequently bandied around Mark, but I often saw a very different side to his character; a softness, shyness and a deep sensitivity. He was so humbled by John Peel persistently championing the Fall as his all-time favourite band that he found it incredibly difficult to talk about John, especially after his death.

It was mis-reported that Smith was dismissive and sniffy about Peel. I can categorically say that this is absolute bollocks and fake news. They both preferred to keep a respectful distance. “You can’t live on John Peel’s back,” Smith told me. “He knew that. He sent me a postcard about once a year when he was on holidays.”

Of course, Mark was also hysterically funny. When I first spoke to him in 2001, Peter Mandelson had resigned from Westminister for the second time. Given Smith’s track record as a caustic political commentator, I thought it would be worth broaching.

“He was here the other day and there was a big religious protest outside” Smith answered. “It was dead funny. There was all these buses blocking the main road. All the Jesus freaks were outside protesting and all these backpackers around. They were all holding hands and all that. It freaked me out a bit.”

I was completely flummoxed. “Eh, why on earth was there a religious protest against Peter Mandelson?”, I asked.

“Oh, Mandelson. I thought you said Marilyn Manson,” cackled Smith. “Sorry, he played a gig in Salford the other night.”

*******************

How I Wrote Elastic Man from Grotesque (After the Gramme), 1980

I’m eternally grateful
To my past influences
But they will not free me
I am not diseased
All the people ask me
How I wrote “Elastic Man”

Life should be full of strangeness
Like a rich painting
But it gets worse day by day
I’m a potential DJ
A creeping wreck
A mental wretch
Everybody asks me
How I wrote “Elastic Man”

His soul hurts though it’s well filled up
The praise received is mentally sent back
Or taken apart
The Observer magazine just about sums him up
E.g. – self-satisfied, smug

I’m living a fake
People say, “You are entitled to and great.”
But I haven’t wrote for 90 days
I’ll get a good deal and I’ll go away
Away from the empty brains that ask
How I wrote “Elastic Man”

His last work was “Space Mystery” in the Daily Mail
An article in Leather Thighs
The only thing real is waking and rubbing your eyes
So I’m resigned to bed
I keep bottles and comics stuffed by its head
Fuck it, let the beard grow
I’m too tired
I’ll do it tomorrow
The fridge is sparse
But in the town
They’ll stop me in the shops
Verily they’ll track me down
Touch my shoulder and ignore my dumb mission
And sick red faced smile
And they will ask me
And they will ask me
How I wrote “Elastic Man”

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