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PRINT April 2018

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Mark E. Smith

Mark E. Smith and The Fall performing on The Tube television show, London, November 8, 1985. Photo: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock.

YOU CAN TELL how a trombone sounds by looking at its shape—just as you could see, in the scowl and bitter rictus of Mark E. Smith, the slashing vocal intensity that came pouring out of that face. Years of listening have nailed his words into my head: brittle consonants and yowled vowels, a spray of polysyllabic elocution cut abruptly short by something funny, something wounding, and thus moving, bristling, ragged with need.

THERE IS NO CULTURE IS MY BRAG.
MANACLED TO THE CITY! MANACLED TO THE CITY!
LEAVE THE CAPITOL. EXIT THIS ROMAN SHELL!
PARALLAX! ONE OF THE MILLENNIUM OF CONSPIRACY.
TOO MUCH BRANDY FOR BREAKFAST.
WIRELESS ENTHUSIAST INTERCEPTS GOVERNMENT SECRET RADIO BAND AND UNCOVERS SECRETS AND SCANDALS OF DECEITFUL TYPE PROPORTIONS.

Words swirl away from their referents. It’s strange to see them written out, twitching nakedly on the page—severed from his yelp, his bile, his screech, his sneer, his glamorous dysfunction and ratty button-down shirts. He was a hero and a monster; a modernist and a saint; the dictator, demiurge, and only permanent member of the legendary post-punk band the Fall. They began as drugged-out postadolescents in Greater Manchester circa 1976, smart alecks armed with stolen instruments and proletarian ressentiment. As Smith would scream in “Crap Rap 2 / Like to Blow,” from their first LP, Live at the Witch Trials (1979): “WE ARE THE FALL, NORTHERN WHITE CRAP THAT TALKS BACK!” They leashed their obsession with Can and Lou Reed to their insurrectionist politics—and named themselves, touchingly, after a novel by Camus.

The Fall formed like a scab atop the split flesh of 1970s militancy, with its smashed utopias and failed revolts, its psychotic factions and final surrender. Political humiliation gave way to an asphyxiating tedium, a tedium drilled into the rhythm of punk. “THESE ARE THE THREE_ R_’s,” barked a twenty-one-year-old Smith on that first record; “REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION!”

Live at the Witch Trials was released in March of 1979, two months before Margaret Thatcher’s election and nearly two years after Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Gudrun Ensslin of Germany’s Red Army Faction were found dead in the high-security wing of Stuttgart’s Stammheim prison. This was the Todesnacht, or “death night,” which telegraphed the inevitable failure of urban guerrillas to topple the capitalist bureaucracies of the so-called first world. “REPETITION IN WEST GERMANY,” spat Smith on the other side of the North Sea. “SIMULTANEOUS SUICIDE.”

The line is delivered with chilling relish. And it serves as a grisly reminder that Smith’s death demands more than sighing banalities about the end of an era. His was an era of endings, a period of malevolent dissolution from which sprang a whole jagged language. Too young for the 1960s youth movement (he was born in 1957), Smith would nevertheless incarnate a snot-nosed vision of teenage petulance. He had the sullen pout and frothing knowledge of a precocious brat, some nerd kid tunneling violently into his interests—in Smith’s case, any literature that forced him to the brutal extremes of syntax, perception, or the social world: Wyndham Lewis, William S. Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, M. R. James. Witches, hobgoblins, exorcists, and specters scuttle through his lyrical oeuvre, envoys of a hoary grotesque doomed to rattle its chains in the present—an era shredded by capital and disciplined by police.

His was an era of endings from which sprang a whole jagged language.

So he struck a poignant alliance with perverts and sexual dissidents falling sick or deemed unclean: He appeared in a 1986 film by Charles Atlas with dancer and choreographer Michael Clark; scored Clark’s 1988 ballet I Am Curious Orange; adored the black drag queen—and, now, demisex icon—Al-Lana Pillay; and collaborated frequently with the nightclub star and fashion designer Leigh Bowery. “YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE WEIRD TO BE WEIRD,” goes the refrain of “Totally Wired.” But he became harshly anti-immigrant in his later life, slouching into the role of Little Englander, and like that other Smith—Patti—took a peevish pleasure in screaming a racial slur (yes, that one) because it still had the power to shock. An oft-told fable of rock is that it sprang from the abusive rhythms of industrial labor: but Smith, who once worked in a meat factory, grasped the delirium of deindustrialization, ringing in neoliberalism with a gritty insolence. So he was the troubadour of Thatcherism, acrid in his cleverness and pungent in his Britishness, the leering mascot of a hated class. It was all there in his voice—the gagged shriek of the castrated scamp.

When he died at age sixty in January, the first words that floated to mind came straight from his own howling mouth: “THOSE FLOWERS TAKE THEM AWAY! THEY’RE ONLY FUNERAL DECORATION. THIS IS THE FALL AND THIS IS A DRUDGE NATION.”

Tobi Haslett has written about art, film, and literature for n+1, the New Yorker, the Village Voice, and other publications.