Legends of the Fall

Mark E. Smith: Misogynist? Alcoholic? Anti-hero of an indie rock era?

Rock 'n' roll may never die, but volatile Fall singer Mark E. Smith will still bury all the rockers. When Iggy Pop drops in 2004--an onstage embolism during an ill-advised "We Will Fall" that sluices torso-vein blood over the first six rows--Smith will be healthy, if drunken beyond consonants, on a tour through the deep South. When Lou Reed kicks in 2006--alcohol poisoning after a despondent set at the Orange County Fair in California--Smith will cover the Sonics' "Strychnine" for an audience too illiterate to get the wink. When Morrissey is felled by a jealous sniper (later ID'd by the feds as a guitarist for a tribute band) at a 2008 Smiths convention in Yuma, Arizona, the gunman will float down the Colorado River to Mexico while, somewhere far away, Smith stutters through a knowing "New Face In Hell" (an unsubtle but appropriate title--they've written a lot of songs like that).

And when Smith himself hiccups for the last time--late in the 21st century when technology has figured out how to implant the Fall's entire discography directly into your brain (by 2084, they'll have special clinics for when the process goes awry; instead of methadone, they'll detox you with Pavement LPs)--devotees will haul his sarcophagus into a crypt built over Manchester's old Salford Docks, where our young prole-art threat famously started his band. They'll round up everyone who's ever stepped onstage under the name of the Fall--by then, a veritable orchestra of geriatric post-punk never-rans--and they'll seal them up alive, like Pharaoh with his attendants, to cater forever to the afterlife whims of Mark E. Smith (officially voted the greatest Mancunian of all time) who will never be sufficiently feared and revered until he is safely too dead to talk back.

"They never did a thing for me," Greil Marcus said of the Fall last year. As justification for a roaring vacuum in his punk-crit (check your indexes, kids; they always go from "Fairytale in the Supermarket" to Faude, Jeffrey), that barely makes it to a whimper, but he's still right. The Fall never did a thing for a lot of people, from the many record labels they left stranded to the many, many band members Smith uprooted and replaced to the many, many, many hopeful fans who slunk out of shows with their good taste hanging limp between their legs. ("Mark E. Smith is a wreck, and not in a cool way," reports Los Angeles dragabout Tippy Spangler. "I left halfway through their set--I got in for free and part of me still felt cheated out of something.")

Pride before the Fall: Mark E. Smith (center) eclipses his bandmates
Courtesy of First Ave
Pride before the Fall: Mark E. Smith (center) eclipses his bandmates

Their newest album--number thirty-something--keeps creeping away from release; they're touring now on the practically unimpeachable Rough Trade singles comp, Totally Wired (Sanctuary), and another singles comp It's the New Thing! The Step Forward Years, which is to say they're touring on Mark E. Smith as he was 25 years ago, with a no-original-members band that's mathematically less legitimate than the reformed Doors, Stooges, and Sex Pistols put together. If you have the guts to pay to see them, you're in for a freak show, a grave-robbing, a scared-straight program, or even a boxing match. Smith's been upgraded from curmudgeon to fucking asshole: In 1998, he was arrested for assault after allegedly hitting then-girlfriend-and-bandmate Julia Nagle in New York; he had to go to alcohol counseling and the entire band quit... so he replaced them. You might want to punch him yourself--a direct hit wouldn't be too satisfying, though, because most of his teeth are as long-gone as those early Fall singles--but Smith and whoever he's dragging behind him will inevitably endure.

In 1976, the Fall were already extricating themselves from punk; in 2003, leathery old Smith (in 24 Hour Party People, they could only show him for five seconds, else they'd get an NC-17) is "anti-" incarnate, the anti-poet anti-leading an anti-band to anti-acclaim. Dismiss the Fall and he will anti-care; ignore that vacuum where they've always thrived and you've anti'ed a discography so deep it's better studied as cosmology, a sound so fluid and idiosyncratic it's almost a language itself, a Galapagos archipelago of a band irreducible beyond itself.

So buy the Fall used. Let Smith pay for his own beer, his own alcohol-abuse counseling--it'll keep him alive longer. But buy those early singles: "Repetition," "Various Times," "Rowche Rumble," the canonical "Totally Wired." Test yourself: If you can make it through Hex Enduction Hour or Live At the Witch Trials, you can start to translate the rest of the band. There could be a switch--as with the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, Bikini Kill, what the guy at the record store calls "the life-changers"--waiting to flip. They put out a 10" EP (the most contrary format) in 1981 called Slates, Slags, Etc. It's not necessarily regarded as the Fall's very best work: It's twenty years removed from the band that's playing out today, and it only has six songs. But there is a librarian in Cleveland, Ohio who listened to it the first time around, and the first few bent chords atomized everything else he'd ever heard. Once, someone told him the Fall were overrated. "How can you say that?" he asked. "When I heard the Fall, it was as if I was hearing music for the first time."

 
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