Mark E. Smith, the cantankerous, lacerating wit who was the only constant member of influential British rock band the Fall throughout its more than four decades of activity, died at his home this morning at age 60 following prolonged health problems. In August, the group canceled what would have been its first U.S. tour in a decade. No details about the cause of Smith’s death have been made public, but the group’s manager, Pamela Vander, has confirmed his passing.
The Fall released 32 full-length albums, including last year’s New Facts Emerge, after debuting with the brilliant 1978 EP Bingo Master’s Break Out! There was a time when I tried in vain to keep up with the band’s release schedule—when I was in high school, Smith’s idiosyncratic, questioning, cynical worldview represented the essence of punk rock to me, far more than the cartoonish Sex Pistols (or just about any other British band). The Fall didn’t follow any particular template, apart from making an art form of abrasiveness.
Over the decades, the Fall’s lineup stayed in constant flux, but the notoriously difficult and unpredictable Smith was always there. In a tweet earlier today, former Reader editor Tal Rosenberg wrote, “I’m not sure anyone in the history of popular music, maybe Bob Dylan, said ‘fuck you’ in as many inventive ways as Mark E. Smith,” but as true to Smith’s persona as that statement is, he was much more than a nihilist. Part of his genius was that he usually framed his misanthropic commentary with smaller portraits or anecdotes, whether talking about soccer fandom (“Kicker Conspiracy”) or an out-of-hand office party (“Cruiser’s Creek,” whose original video I’ve embedded below). Because Smith refused to coddle, compromise, or accept mediocrity, he earned a reputation as an unyielding prick, but it never seemed like he was an asshole just to be an asshole—he had a weird sort of humanism at his core, as though his criticism came from wanting people to be better. These days, given the way anybody who takes a public stance seems to try to play every conceivable angle at once, his stubborn steadfastness seems even more admirable and valuable.
Smith delivered his lyrics in a distinctive Mancunian drawl, his harangues usually somewhere between singing and speaking, and he famously added a final extra “-ah” to nearly every line. He made no effort to disguise how limited his voice was, but he worked around those shortcomings with astonishing craft in his phrasing and intonation—and of course with pure, sneering attitude. His acerbic personality made him a famously difficult interview, but his repartee was often as funny as it was combative—and over the years, it’s the humor that endures. On “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man,'” a killer 1980 single collected late last year in the box set A-Sides 1978-2016 (Cherry Red), he displayed his uncanny knack for cutting to the quick of vacuous celebrity culture:
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”
Smith always looked sallow and unhealthy, but at the same time it felt like he was somehow immortal, a permanent antidote to an entertainment world that seemed increasingly empty and cynical. The Fall occasionally made relatively accessible music—especially in the mid-80s, when Smith was married to former Chicagoan Brix Smith Start, aka Laura Elisse Salenger—but the band’s recent output was some of the angriest and most ferocious of its entire career. At moments like this, though, I tend to fall back on the songs that resonate most for me—and in the case of the Fall, that means the early stuff. Below you can check out the unfuckwithable 1979 single “Rowche Rumble,” whose numbing, off-kilter punk spun my head around when I first heard it in the early 80s.
AUTHOR’S NOTE, JANUARY 26: Since publishing this post, it’s occurred to me that by praising Smith I may seem to be condoning, rationalizing, or justifying aspects of his bad behavior that aren’t acceptable under any circumstances. In 1998 he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault for attacking Julie Nagle, who at the time was his girlfriend and the keyboardist in the Fall. Other folks have reported seeing him physically attack band members and sound engineers during gigs. Smith’s abusive side is not excused by his genius.
Crys Cole & Oren Ambarchi, Hotel Record (Black Truffle)
Deerhoof, Mountain Moves (Joyful Noise)
Niko Karlsson, Valosta Valoon (Feeding Tube)
Tim Daisy Trio, A Fine Day in Berlin (Relay)
Morton Feldman, Beckett Material (Wergo)