Words: Scott Creney
The obituary this week says he was 60 when he died, though if you ask me the bastard didn’t look a day over 80. But then Mark E. Smith (the E stands for eternal), leader & lyricist & lynchpin of UK band The Fall, always gave the impression that he did whatever he wanted to whenever he felt like doing it. And most of the time what he felt like doing was ingesting vast quantities of alcohol & speed, which means the death of Mark E. Smith (the E stands for embalming fluid) can be called many things, but it definitely can’t be called surprising. Of course, in the cosmic sense, no one’s death should ever come as a surprise; death is the least surprising thing that will ever happen to any of us.
I can’t help wondering if Mark E. Smith (the E stands for embalming fluid) felt free. He was envied, as well as emulated, by at least three generations of critics & fans, many of whom lamely tried to live vicariously through his scattershot vitriol, his excess, his indulgence (endulgence?). Was that Mark E. Smith the person, or Mark E. Smith (the E stands for enigmatic) the persona? If I’d ever gotten the chance to interview him, the first question I’d have asked would be this:
How much of your day is spent doing things you don’t want to do?
Not to say he would’ve given me a straight answer, or even answered it at all, but that’s what I kept thinking about when I heard the news of his death, when I went to the store and brought home a 4-pack of his beloved Boddington’s, and when I stayed up through the night listening to the music he left behind.
And what music it was. A group of friends spending their mid-70’s UK existence devouring literature & drugs, The Fall came along at the perfect time—in the wake of the Sex Pistols and the explosion of punk—to start a band and get noticed. They were angry enough to be inspired by punk, but well-read enough to name themselves after a Camus novel. And Mark E. Smith was ambitious enough (the E stands for expunge) to take charge of the band and rule it w/an iron fist, going through band members over the next four decades the way a chronically depressed person goes through medications both prescription & self-, while creating as unique & singular a vision as has ever appeared in music.
What Beefheart, along w/certain free jazz pioneers, did to the possibilities of rhythm, Mark E. Smith did to lyrics. That is to say he blew language into another dimension, sifted through all the fragments, and rearranged it in a way that made sense to him. He found out he didn’t need to rhyme; there didn’t need to be a chorus (but b/c he was more interested in freedom than rebellion, he still rhymed when he felt like it; he occasionally wrote choruses). The fact that those words, those texts, were accompanied by music every bit as strong and as fine, is why people call him a genius. Here are The Fall on television in 1983. It’s a performance as sinister & claustrophobic as anything in rock.
As a singer, Mark E. Smith always reminded me of James Brown w/his inflections & his screams, his intra-band discipline & shouted instructions. Even the groove, extended & relentless, echoes JB, while the violent surrealism of the lyrics (well-fed, in a welfare way) anticipates future hip-hop linguistic triumphs of Ghostface Killah, Anticon, &tc.
There was something elemental in their music. Even when it incorporated drum machines, or sequencers, or synths, it still sounded primal, like it had been excavated, like it had somehow just emerged. The same way all our endless variations of human existence is rooted in the four proteins that make up our DNA, the way endless combinations of personhood can be formed out of different combinations of the simplest materials, The Fall music manages to sound simultaneously simple & infinite all at once. They made 32 studio albums during their existence: each one unique, each one still sounding like the same band.
My favorite of these albums—this week at least—is 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour. And my favorite song on it is the 10-minute closer ‘And This Day.’
The song’s lyrics are more or less inscrutable as far as any concrete meaning goes, but I’ve always thought it’s about the tediousness of day-to-day life. I imagine each mention of the title signifies the beginning of a new day. Mark E. Smith (the E stands for ennui) sings it exactly 30 times, so we can say the song tells the story of a month, a lunar cycle—day by day, the moon grows full. Some days nothing happens. Some days ‘the old feelings come back, just no fucking respite.’ Occasionally long stretches of time pass between each day/’day’, nothing but ceaseless clattering noise. The song feels like life itself—monotonous, frustrating, but ultimately beautiful. The Fall’s music taught me how to find beauty in ugliness, magic in gray tedium, and inspiration in chaos.
And while you wouldn’t want to share a tour bus with him, or a marriage, or a slow late-night elevator ride, we should all feel grateful that we got to share a planet—and the now-and-then wretchedness of our collective existence—with Mark E. Smith. In this paragraph at least, at last, the E stand for elegize.
Ultimately though, the E stands for Edward, because Edward was the man’s middle name, and in the end he was a man. That man is dead, but the work he created will live for as long as there are ears to hear it. And so here’s a video of my 3 1/2-year-old son and I doing a bit from his favorite Fall song the night Mark Edward Smith died. The kid found it himself a few months ago while digging through a pile of CDs. If he hadn’t been getting over the flu I would’ve gotten him to do the cool dance he does to this song. This song makes him happy, and so the E also tands for eternal.
Mark E Smith tribute from the next generation pic.twitter.com/s4Wyw0B35u
— RhymesWithPenny (@ScottCreney) January 24, 2018