KURT COBAIN ALERT! Three Fall books reviewed
The Rise, The Fall and The Rise - Brix Smith Start (Faber)
The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall - Steve Hanley and Olivia Piekarski (Route)
You Can Drum But You Can't Hide - Simon Wolstencroft (Route)
Yep, You read the headline correctly. I'm serious. Cobain was such a fan of The Fall he tried to get on their tour bus and travel with them.
The Fall refused.
There's an absence in our culture. You may not have noticed. It's like some necessary abscess has been entirely excised from our cultural body. We needed that pain, that savagery, to tell us what we are, what we shouldn't be, and to remind us that we can be more than what we are.
This article is all about Mark E. Smith. Because his personality, his drive and charisma shoved a certain rock'n'roll band forward through barrier after barrier...
Yeah, yeah, you think I'm exaggerating. So few musicians or singers make what they do into some sort of art (as opposed to a craft) intentionally or otherwise; The Sex Pistols - back then, not the reunion - was, quite simply, art. Their art was their life, it was a glorious failure, a horrifying shemozzle. I'm sure you can think of a few other bands - I'll go with some Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, some PIL, some of The Residents, The Birthday Party, Can, Kraftwerk, Faust, The Beatles, The Monks, The Stooges, The Velvets ... never mind that not everything might have been genius in an ice-cream cone. That was most certainly not the point.
I have never held any truck with the notion that rock'n'roll is an easy option for people, because it isn't. Not if it's done correctly. Not if it is done for the right reasons ... and the right reasons are to create the kind of music that comes from within, regardless of what the record companies or fad or fashion might dictate. And that is never easy. That is always hard graft and that is what I have always done and have always demanded.
- Middles/ Smith. The Fall. Omnibus Press, 2008, updated edition
"You Can Drum but You Can't Hide", "The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall" and "The Rise, The Fall and The Rise" are the most recent books, all autobiographies, which describe the experience of The Fall, the band Mark E. Smith (MES) took over and made his own. They're all very different books, and each reflects their author's personality.
If you're curious about The Fall but don't quite understand the music or what the fuss is about, perhaps you'll start with the thinnest (and most recent) bio - Wolstencroft's. "Funky Si" (a nickname bestowed upon him for his style of beat) will make you laugh and wonder about The Fall, the contradictions, the huge achievement of their songs. Also, you'll prolly find yourself reaching either for their records or cds (go to the websites of Norman Records, Action Records and Cherry Red Records) or for your bong or roach-clip as you read.
For example, Wolstencroft successfully evaded success in both The Smiths AND The Stone Roses (I know, almost unbelievable), and several other opportunities rather better than The Fall. Even so, he pulls a few punches - Brix's book describes how Mark E. Smith actually left her - apparently Wolstencroft, the band's unofficial driver, was the behind the wheel in MES's getaway car - and there's no mention of this in "You Can Drum..." We could be charitable and put that down to Wolstencroft being stoned most of the time (he says he's forgotten a lot of great stories 'cause he was stoned) but that seems to me to be self-preservation.
His version of several stories told in Hanley's book don't quite gel; such as getting the reason for the departure of Dave Bush wrong ... And alright, so Wolstencroft himself doesn't really come across that well, but these are rock bios, and nobody ever really comes across very well in a rock bio unless the truth has been bleached, starched and ironed. By the end, we know that "Funky Si" is essentially a bit of a druggy who prefers pleasant oblivion with his "head in the sand" while getting on with drumming, life and trying not to let the drugs make his decisions for him, even though it seems they did.
Even so, if you're interested in the workings of The Fall, "You Can Drum but You Can't Hide" is essential - if you're just getting into the band, it's a short read but ... nowhere near as good as either Brix's or Hanley's.
Hanley, hell. You'll laugh so much you'll wet yourself (or worse) - either way, keep a couple of pairs of spare (dry) undies handy. I can't tell you how much you'll be glad Hanley 1) wrote this book, and 2) this stuff didn't happen to you. You will, in fact, give to a worthy charity in thanks.
Try this one. It is to help one of the few legendary figures in Australian rock'n'roll. Context, apart from bands like The Beasts of Bourbon and Kim Salmon and The Surrealists, Brian has beaned the author of this piece (that's me) with a microphone stand (during a gig) twice, kicked me repeatedly and I've lost count of the number of times the bugger whacked me with his stick. These all fucking hurt, and if that's not worth your forking out a couple of Mawsons for, I don't know what is.
Okay, returning to the topic at hand (if you're lucky).
In light of Smith's recent death one of the first things you realise on reading any of these - or indeed, almost any online interview with the man - is that it is astonishing he lasted so long on what appears to be amphetamine and alcohol abuse on a daily basis for decades. Aside from anything else, speed and spirits are not happy bedfellows for the internal organs, and I'm sure we all know a few folk who didn't make it to 40, never mind 60 (MES was born in March 1957).
When she was publicising this book, Brix spoke to Sean Hagan of The Guardian:
"My theory is that some people who are super-creative and channelling all the time need some mechanism to shut down what is happening in their head. Or they think they need the drugs or the drink to lower their resistance. It’s complicated. He’s complicated.”
Mark E. Smith's creativity initially appears channelled by drug use, perhaps leavened ... but as anyone who knows an alcoholic, drinking - especially long-term heavy use - can cause mood swings as irrational as they are fuzzy or forgotten by the next day. Well, by the drinker, anyway. Which in turn causes the drinker to firmly believe things which are, actually, tosh.
After being dumped by Mark E. Smith, Brix Smith Start returned to LA. Several years later, Courtney Love invited her to join Hole; instead, she contacted MES and offered to rejoin The Fall; "I came to the conclusion that The Fall were the real deal. If it weren't for The Fall, there would be no Hole. There would be no Nirvana. They were so influential, and they were one of Kurt Cobain's favourite bands. There is that famous story about how he climbed on The Fall's tour bus in LA and wouldn't get off because he wanted to come with us..." (Hanley also relates this Cobain story; it's different but the meaning is the same).
That's a big part of the reason Brix went back to The Fall in 1994.
"Hang on, who's this Brix Smith Start?" I hear the Australians plaintively enquire.
Yes, well, she's a lot better known in the UK (like most civilised things, it seems). Robert Chalmers did one of my favourite interviews with Smith back in 2011 (for The Independent, trying hard to poke a lever beneath the shell-like carapace concealing MES from the world. Chalmers describes the scene...
At one point, when we’re on the subject of Brix, I notice the barman staring at us: I think because he has never seen two customers side by side both wearing the horrified expressions of men going down that terrible first drop of the Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island.
Married to Smith for about six years, Brix' presence and ideas revitalised the Fall, much to Smith's disgust: "... if I said what I knew about... Brix,” (Smith pronounces the syllable in the kind of tone a dictator might use when mentioning the name of some catastrophic military defeat), “it wouldn’t be the right thing to print in any paper."
Mmmm. Americans don't know about a lot of things because they don't need to. That's not to say they can't learn. Similarly, Australians in Europe - or Bali, or Thailand - appear astonishingly ignorant to the locals, almost animalesque.
However, a gent who glories in the FB handle Kevin F. Chanel, commented recently on The Mighty Fall page:
Seriously, she was the shot in the arm these dour Manc bastards needed. Though her upbringing was fucked up and uneven, the inherent sunniness of her LA-itry could not help but create the creative juxtaposition the band required to jump to the next level. Like Flav to Chuck D, in many ways, except with bitchin riffs.
Reading Smith and Hanley's books in tandem it is clear that, after leaving Brix, MES was on a downhill moral and emotional slope. Apparently unable to deal with direct confrontation (much less discussion) without alcohol and its ability to allow him to carry on like a pork chop after five days in summer, the further MES continued, with no-one able to halt his often ugly behaviour, the worse things became. Hanley in fact describes the band - well, a couple of them - gauging the best time to talk to Mark about band issues with a better than even chance he'll be in a reasonable frame of mind.
Hanley's tale is littered with tour managers who quit mid-tour, declaring that no other band has been so difficult to deal with (The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Queen ...) and sound engineers who balk at using Mark's slowed down rubbish-sounded cassette recording as the actual track instead of the meticulously prepared track they've worked for days on (and so on...).
One such story begins: "He blinds us with his friendliest American weatherman smile, the sparkles of which rain upon us in a most unwelcome shower. Mark's sitting next to me during this compulsory lecture, and he's already got a face like a summons."
Mark E. Smith's life was his art; everything but everything revolved around The Fall. Everyone around him - even the plumbers he'd meet in pubs - was either connected with the band (whether in an official or hanger-on capacity) or an inspiration to him. Which - as you may have guessed - meant that he was in some ways quite isolated.
Here's Brix, from "The Rise..."; "Because of his addictions, or his personality disorder, or whatever it was, Mark was terrified of being alone. He needed someone to look after him. As far as I know, he never lived alone for an extended period of time since the day he met me..."
There's more in that paragraph, but I'll let you discover it. As far as I know, this is the first time anyone has mentioned the loaded term 'personality disorder' in connection with MES; if that were in fact true (Brix's dad was a child psychiatrist, so it stands to reason she'd be familiar with the term and its meaning) it would explain quite a lot of Mark E. Smith's behaviour.
However, this is speculation. What it looks like to me, more than any psych theorising, is that MES fell in love with Brix, but was torn between band (the responsibilities for which are far greater than you'd imagine for a struggling, almost hugely successful band) and love (harder to maintain than people think, it seems) and ... MES increasingly found the situation difficult.
There's a poignant moment where Brix meets Mark again after five years apart, which Brix has used to sort herself out and reappraise her priorities and purpose; "during the five years I have been gone, there had been a deterioration in Mark, both physically and mentally. He looked like a different person. He had aged decades. He looked like a slowly wizening apple puppet..."
This description saddens me greatly. It seems no-one was able to intervene. Brix, by 1996 regarding herself as an employed musician, reveals, "It was my job to wake him up to get him on stage, because nobody else wanted to prod the lion." The beginning of that paragraph ... it's dreadfully painful.
Have you ever had a rotten boss? One who constantly jumps down your throat, snarling at you regardless of the high quality of your work, because somehow or other it's never good enough? If the boss is just plain dreadful all the time, it's easy to leave. But it's a lot harder to leave if what you're doing with the boss is always adventurous, exciting, worthwhile, and the boss isn't always a turd, but quite relaxed, charming, human ...
Middles quotes MES; "I feel sorry for them [the members of the band], in some ways, because they are just not as equipped for life as we were... and I wonder why I always have to push them so hard. Well, actually I don't push them hard at all, just a little, but I shouldn't even be doing that, should I? They should be pushing me..."
Once you've accepted that you're going to continue working in that confusing, pain-filled situation, your internal emotional landscape alters. You find yourself wanting to please, trying harder than you ordinarily would, to the point where what was awful six months ago is now ordinary, and new irrational abuse appears and, by now it's a habit, and you accept it.
The above is, of course, from both personal experience and direct observation, and the result of much pondering.
Perhaps the most profound implication common to each book that each writer has entered the world of The Fall and somehow remained a child and, through a traumatic adolescence of varying lengths, emerged, blinking into the sunlight of an aware adulthood. Brix describes meeting the members of The Fall at the launch to Hanley's 'Big Mid-week'; "When I saw them again they were noticeably older, but so was I. The main thing that struck me was that they happy... smiling, sorted, and whole. They had passed through the fire and lived to tell the tale."
I must apologise to the writers, of course, in saying this, as I don't mean to imply that they have some sort of inadequacy; rather the reverse. I believe that, as a rule we don't really grow up to be adults very well in the modern world. Mark E. Smith even wrote a song reflecting that; 'Wolf Kidult Man'. The very title is squarely aimed at men in their late teens and early twenties (if not older) who are predatory, with all the self-awareness of a spoilt, ignorant child. And the truth is that while we grow older and "come of age", many of us don't, not ever.
I've met men in their 80's who still play the same stupid mind-games that they learned in primary school. And I've had a lot of bosses (not the good ones) who do the same nonsensical one-up-manship domination game which, again, they learned when their age was in single figures.
An aside: a friend of mine got really annoyed with one of these berks, and nicked his bicycle seat, forcing him to ride miles home with that metal pole beneath his bottom. Of course, a few days later the berk replaced the seat. A month later my friend replaced the new seat with the old seat. Juvenile, but strangely satisfying.
Becoming an adult is where you find your place in the world and are happy with it, and are able to recognise when you need to make changes rather than suffer and endure. We're not always taught those skills by either our teachers or parents.
Brix traces many of her own problems (unsurprising to us readers) to her father; "With Philip [Start, her husband] by my side I felt stronger. I no longer needed to cling to the fantasy that my father would come through for me and take care of me. I stopped worrying about whether my father loved me, and decided to love him no matter what..."
I think it's fair to say that, first, Brix still has huge feelings for MES, and that second, MES also had huge feelings for Brix. Like everyone in The Fall, it seems, the band was a special thing which they wanted to make wonderful because they believed in their front man ... who increasingly appeared unable to cope with the pressure placed on his back - often by himself, of course.
In "The Rise, The Fall and The Rise", Brix tells her story simply, without vengeful barbs, and with all the key points (however embarrassing or painful) carefully described. If she is point-scoring it's not evident (in contrast to her ex-husband's earlier book "Renegade"). Much of Brix's life makes for unhappy reading; a father with some sort of narcissistic control-freak thing going on (he also appears massively threatened by his daughter's potential sexuality). Brix tells her story just right, doesn't make too many judgements; "The Rise, The Fall and The Rise" is, as rock'n'roll books go, one of the best I've read. In fact, I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to read a decent autobiography of the struggles of someone in the modern world - whether they're interested in music or not.
Yes, Brix is a tad over-emotional and over-sensitive ("I believe that places can have good energy and bad energy... one of the reasons, I believe, comes from psychic staining..."), and perhaps somewhat over-blurty and self-obsessed (Middles describes her artlessly pointing out her new boyfriend's come on her jacket), but frankly, after her stretched and distorted childhood, that's hardly surprising. What she really didn't need was MES's bad temper (she was initially a calming influence) and to be doing eight things at once; lover, cleaner, song-writer, member of the band, running her own band with big ambitions and living in what sounds like a rather unpleasant flat (a 'trash-mount' as MES described it in the song 'No Bulbs') and (apparently regularly) picking MES up off the floor after a night of speed and booze and writing and records and tucking him into bed ...
Some Fall fans criticise Brix for banging on about herself, but ... it's her life-story, one of survival in the face of extraordinary events, choices and circumstances. Frankly, we've all known people who've undergone considerably less horror and have turned out dreadfully, with criminality and addictions and mayhem all around. Brix doesn't just maintain a sunny disposition, she's worked hard to learn about herself and from her experiences - "being so honest in public was/ is scary. Being so honest with myself has been life-changing... I was forced to look at these unpleasant and uncomfortable aspects of myself in the harsh light of day, and make peace with them."
One thing which strikes me about MES is that over the years he seems increasingly threatened, vulnerable, frightened even by the enormous load he took upon himself; with the speed and booze and being ripped off along the way creates mistrust and a sort of 'cornered' mentality.
Like many men before and like many men yet to be born, rather than try to sort out his problems with his wife, MES embarks on an affair (I won't mention the name of the woman, nor her evidently complicit parents) which was probably one of Smith's most ill-judged acts, neither fair on his wife (from whom he concealed it for about 6 months or more) nor himself - nor his band.
But hey. We're all human and we all make mistakes; to forgive is to be divine. One thing which always causes a pondering few minutes is how damn lucky me and most of my friends are that there aren't ten bloody books being written about us, revealing or inventing christ knows what. What would the red top 'newspapers' make of Craig Barman or the Celebrity Roadie? Steve Stuka? Earl O'Neill? Ronald Brown?
I suspect Mark only organised his own bio "Renegade" because 1) he probably needed the dosh, or the band did; 2) of the Simon Ford book (strangely out of print) and 3) of the Mick Middles book. Middles' book (Mark's name is on the cover, but that's because he mostly talked and got the drinks in, which is fair enough) I regard as a completely wasted opportunity, worth the price of admission for the interview with Mark's mum and the chats with Mark - though the repetition of Mark saying how much he trusts Mick could surely have been left out - as is, unfortunately, most of the guff. Middles has written a history of the early Manchester scene, which I'd like to read, but I think I'll get it from the library first... the paucity of detail about Brix in 'Renegade' is conspicuous to say the least.
Anyway, Hanley and Piekarski's "The Big Midweek" is written (to Piekarski's great credit) in Hanley's voice, you can all but hear him talking, firing off dead-pan observations and quips. Be on your toes, you can't read 'The Big Midweek' entirely straight, there's a lot of damn droll humour here. But, and these bits are really important, Steve Hanley hasn't done many interviews over the years; also, he's what you might call a 'dour Northerner'. Which means he doesn't speak that often, because he doesn't see much of a need to. It's a cultural thing.
Steve Hanley was with The Fall for 19 years (the jaw sags to the knees when you realise what that involves), was always anxious about being sacked or replaced even though his bass playing was original, clever and influential, and he saw and was part of The Fall's erratic trajectory through what was arguably their most important years.
In fact, the impact of Hanley's bass - particularly in the UK - is huge - and still under-recognised. Peter Hook is often mentioned as a great influence on the UK, but for me, Hook was important for the equivalent of three LPs; as a bassist, Hanley clocks up 19 studio LPs, 19 live LPs and then there's EPs and part-live, part-studio LPs..., for me, Hanley is right up there with Chris Walsh, Tracy Pew, Jon Archer and even Charles Mingus (and no, Tim D., I wouldn't go to see Peter Hook if you paid me, I'm afraid). I'll explain further: what I see is that Hanley is still influential, unlike Hook.
Hanley occasionally does pull his punches, just a little, some of which I think Brix's book reveals (read them both together and you'll see what I mean), but he's not Wolstencroft - 'The Big Midweek' is more than double the size with a smaller font, bigger pages and stuffed with a seemingly unending torrent of stories of both the Fall and MES, as witnessed by Hanley in between struggling to maintain a normal life, and keeping the rent paid and feed himself (and later, his family) when he's a member of a band which 1) doesn't always pay and 2) somehow the songwriting credits get skewed.
Both Brix and Hanley mention this. Mark E. Smith's view was that The Fall is run like a business (say, a flour mill, or a building firm, or a plumbing company), the boss is MES, and whatever income the business gets goes to the boss.
The band's view is that, although they're on a wage, they believe they should get appropriate credit and royalties. God help anyone who has to sort all that mess out now; no details have been made public about Smith's will (assuming there is one) but one can only hope that a semblance of balance will be established.
Here's the band in Australia (in 1982, I think), with Marc Riley: "I'm pleased to note Marc's found a cluster of gum trees full of koala bears. The rest of us join him and we stand there, on our day off, being growled at by bad-tempered bears instead of bad-tempered lead singers. They might look cute in pictures, but they're quite horrible when you get near them, spitting and snapping at you."
I'll say this: after reading these three books, I am utterly amazed that MES didn't end up in hospital more often, that the band didn't turn on him more often, and that the band continued to put out quality LPs on a fairly regular basis... it really is quite an incredible achievement.
Hanley demonstrates the slow build and burn of how he feels about his boss, to the point where towards the end, he declares in despair and disbelief at his own self-realisation; "In 17years I've gone from being in awe of this guy to buying him a rattle." In fact, Hanley nails the big question of why the hell anyone would put up with this shit (reminding me of Phill Calvert in the Birthday Party - the question was not, 'why was he sacked', but 'why did he stay so long?'). Hanley's answer is, essentially, that he was trapped by many things; 'If you had a business for 16 years that sent you around the world and gave you the opportunity to leave a legacy, would you find it so easy to abandon it?'
You really, really feel for him. And, in the end, his ending to the (first edition) of the book is abrupt - but that's not the end of his story, but it is the end of his time in The Fall. Brix's book takes us right up to the present - because her story is about her survival and success at finally becoming and being herself.
Astonishingly few of the stories related in these books are repeated - but what really horrifies you is that (in between cackling like a drunken hyena) this may actually not be the half of it.
By contrast, Dave Simpson's "The Fallen" has been well and truly eclipsed by Hanley - especially the grubby stories involving The Fall's own "Animal from the Muppets", Karl Burns (or, um, Birtles).
If you're a Fall fan, you need these books (or already have them); if you're curious and fancy a good chaotic read where you laugh your sweaty bollocks (or your rude girl bits) off and be guiltily glad you're not in that situation and never have been, 'The Big Midweek' and 'The Rise, The Fall and The Rise' are for you.
It is axiomatic that, as bands continue too long they become washed out, laid-back, dull and lifeless. Not so The Fall. This later period I also enjoy - but I'm weird, as I try to listen to each LP with a blank mind, without the expectation or comparison of this LP to all the others before it.
As far as I am concerned, the musicians who were in the last two incarnations of The Fall (Pete Greenway (guitar), Keiron Melling (drums), Dave Spurr (bass) and Eleni Poulou (keyboards)) were a behemoth together for some 11 years, a juggernaut who should, quite simply, get in touch with the last Mrs Smith, write a slew of songs, secure a decent industry contract and get touring (not as The Fall, of course, because without MES, it can't possibly be The Fall). Joy Division reinvented themselves and continued with a new singer, The Fall should, in my opinion, do the same. The world needs juggernaut rock bands, and there simply aren't enough of them.
Due to the spike in interest in The Fall of late, I think it's entirely likely that more music, and more books will emerge. I certainly hope so. Mark E. Smith contributed to the culture of his country in such a visceral, vital way that he deserves to be commemorated and remembered, and played loud in trucks and headsets around the world.
A couple of statues of MES - and at least one of Brix, and the Hanley brothers, and Martin Bramah, and even (Hey!) Marc Riley - are well and truly overdue.
Sure, he is not appreciated. Nor are they.
But in the end, it's the songs, the music, the lyrics, the mystery. Go get it. All of it.
- The Rise, The Fall and The Rise
- The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall
- You Can Drum But You Can't Hide
Tags: the fall , mark e smith, Brix Smith Start, steve hanley, simon wolstencraft, the rise, you can drum but you can't hide, route, faber, the big midweek: life inside the fall, books, olivia piekarski