So Mark E. Smith, the man behind the unlikely musical institution known as The Fall, has died aged 60. And I just remembered that I first met my wife, or at least the woman who was to later become my wife, at a Fall gig. I’d seen her before then, dancing in front of the screen of the Savoy 2 while the credits rolled after a screening of The Piano, but that’s another story for another time. I’ll try and keep the digressions to a minimum.
‘Always different. Always the same.’ That’s how the late John Peel described The Fall. Somewhat perfectly, at that. You knew exactly what you were getting from them - churning indie rock riffs, perpetually upon the edge of absolute chaos, anchored by Smith free-associating upon whatever came to mind. Upon occasion, he happened upon a new shade. Once in a while, he even found a strange beauty. Whatever happened, Smith looked ever forward, dismissing everything that had come before, gamely jettisoning band members who didn’t tow his blurry line. To hear accounts from those who did at a tour of duty in The Fall - over 60 of them, over a four-decade period - it wasn’t an easy gig. And Smith wasn’t a pleasant employer, to say the least. But hey, they got to be in The Fall. And well, that’s pretty much as good as it gets.
Punk rock, as a movement, and as a musical currency, is debased beyond all recognition. But Mark E. Smith, a man who made all the other musicians in his native Manchester look like the soft lads and lasses they were, was punk to the core, self-destructing his life, his career and his music for 40 odd years, and snatching failure from each potential victory with an attitude that defined the essence of not giving a shite. Always different. Always the same.
One night, a decade ago, I saw him take to the stage once more, this time in Letterkenny, County Donegal, for a gig in a local nightclub, half-full with a bemused audience of malcontents and local legends eager to check out a right and proper cult hero in the flesh - they don’t get too many celebrities round those parts. Word had spread that the band’s technical requirements were rather specific, too, requiring the acquisition of vintage equipment begged, borrowed and stolen from a variety of local musos, happy to loan their gear to one of the last outlaws left in a game long over - these days, after all, music is wall-to-wall soft lads.
Imagine their dismay, then, as Smith ambled on stage, late, drunk and belligerent as hell, playing a truncated set with his back to the audience and his focus upon systematically blowing every single monitor in the place, one at a time, twiddling with knobs and adjusting sound levels with an intent and diligence otherwise entirely lacking in his performance. After four decades of burning things down, one does what one must to keep amused. The set, as with every Fall show, was by turns obscure, maddening (no ‘classics’ from a back catalogue chock full of memorable moments) and, in an instant, utterly transcendent.
The turnaround occurred when the band stumbled backwards into Blindness, a song from the 2005 album Fall Heads Roll that in later years became an anthem of sorts for the band - no matter how shambolic the show was, however loose, antagonistic or messy, all they had to do was make it to Blindness, its single relentless malevolent groove bludgeoning you into absolute submission, going on and on, and on, digging deeper, and deeper again - the song could go on for a week, and keep going, until it eventually fell apart. Kind of like the band - at their final shows, late last year, a clearly ill Smith was performing from a wheelchair.
By the end of that night, a decade hence, it became painfully apparent that The Fall were never, ever welcome in Donegal again. Truth be told, it was one of the greatest things I ever saw.
And now Mark E. Smith is gone. As indeed is my wife, who passed away two summers ago. Another story for another time, perhaps. Save to say that she was the best. The best of the best, in fact. And that a love founded in music - or at the very least, digging the same cult indie bands - is a precious one indeed. Life goes on, whether we like it or not. All we can do is remember the great ones. They tend to leave us too soon. And keep going, on, and on, until we eventually fall apart. Joy and sorrow. Always different, always the same.