SARKY STREET POET IN LOVE-TUG RIDDLE!
Story by David Cavanagh
Hes split up with his wife.
Hes lost his record label.
Hes spent 18 months in solitary confinement.
But THE FALLs fatalistic frontman is back
with another booze-fuelled attack on ye olde
Oh, and its his round
The unlikely venue is a pub full of lunching suits on Shaftesbury Avenue, in the heart of Londons theatreland. Mark E. Smith wearing one of historys greatest scowls, slouches at a table outside, nursing a bottle of pils and a large Glenmorangie. There is no place in the pub for a 33-year-old Northern poet such as he. He gazes icily at the empty Perrier bottles cluttering a nearby table. When he said, lets go for a pint, this isnt really what he had in mind.
A tramp weaves from table to table hassling for money. He looks like fuckin Willie Nelson, laughs Smith. As the man finally zigzags over to the great leader of The Fall, Smith smirks in anticipation:Are you going to give him owt?. "Execuse me interrupting" says Willie Nelson. "But have either of you two lads got 284,000 pounds on you?. Only I want to buy one of those midget submarines before the shops close, and I aint got no change." Smith gives him a quid. He seems happy enough. "Must be a fuckin musician" Smith mutters into his beer.
Fifteen skint, fearless years into a career that knows no tramlines, The Fall have just released their latest triumphant attack on ye olde corrupte Englande. The L.P. is Shiftwork (Select Album Of The Month for May) and Smith is of the immutable opinion that its ten times better than anything theyve ever put out before. Long-term Fall fans had freaked out at the last round of UK gigs, the first with the new slimmed-down four-piece. The best Fall ever, it was solemnly decreed. Now comes this new, unexpectedly personal look at the world from their man with magaphone. Its still the mighty Fall, of course. Still the unique clash of the subversive and the surreal. Still a cool, cynical scything of the vines. Still a thrilling collision of poetic and primitive.
But whats new is the worldview. Mark Smith, after being plagued by doubts at the end of the 80s on shedding his wife, his city and various band members like so much snakeskin, finally manages to"get his shit together" (as he puts it) on Shiftwork and extend a strong branch of communication.
He nods thoughtfully, squinting into the sun. The man is a tricky interview today. Financial pressures have just forced him to wind up his pet label, Cog Sinister, and every second utterance seethes with indignation about the music business. His mood throughout the day will veer from whiskey-fuelled good cheer through gloomy fatalism to stark melancholia - and back - several times.
"I get really fuckin fed up sometimes" he says abruptly. "Basically Im in a business of phonies and idiots. I was dead nervous about this LP and I was serious about it: if this doesnt work, Im out. I mean that. I really did look at it that way. Like, when youve got huge debts and shit, and theres Manchester groups coming round your house looking through your windows to see what clothes youve got on you just think, What the fuck am I bothering for?"
What else would you do?
"I wouldnt mind being on the dole" he shrugs. "I wouldnt mind being on the buses. I dont give a shit, you know what I mean? Get my drift?" His drift is punctuated by terse drags on a B&H, swigs of beer and sips of whiskey. Hes in pretty good spirits, but you wouldnt guess it from the profanities that riddle his conversation and the faintly menacing way he keeps asking if youve got his drift.
"You gotta remember, young people today are complete fuckin idiots," he says, with typical throwaway deadliness. "So the ones that are into The Fall tend to be very smart people. The Fall are more imperative than ever, really. Surprises me. I went to a club in Manchester the other night and I got mobbed. Couldnt believe it."
He reckons the gulf between The Fall and the rest of Manchester couldnt be bigger. "The whole things gone to the dogs if you ask me," he snorts. "They dont know what theyre doing. Theres no poets. Theyre all soft as shit. Fuckin girls with skirts down to their ankles sitting cross legged listening to Deep Purple. Theyre like their fuckin mams and dads. Beards and shit, ha ha.
"Its a good stimulus for me. Cos Ive had to get my shit together, artistically this last year. Not anything personal but somebodys got to have their shit together. Dont you think? Get my drift?"
But Shiftwork is personal, very personal and, in among the inevitable swipes and snarls at other bands, TV personalities and music biz toadies, this album is going to intrigue seasoned Smith watchers with its shy songs and its poignant visions of a man painfully reconciling himself to solitude.
"Yeah, it is very personal", he admits. "A bit too personal, actually. The title tracks about a bloke whos on shiftwork and he splits up with his wife, like". He must see the look of inquiry, because he adds, quickly "its not about me or owt. Theres other songs on the LP about me and the wife".
The wife - Brix, as was - is a touchy subject. Smith wants, and cant understand why he hasnt yet got, a divorce; he also wants folk to get hold of the right end of the stick. " I still get people coming up to me in pubs in Manchester goin, Aah, Mark, know how you must feel, mate. And Im goin, Hang on a sec, I left her. I left her in January 89. But she was still in The Fall then. She didnt leave the band till that autumn, when she met her new bloke. But Im not talkin about that. Thats nobodies fuckin business but mine. Im not saying owt . Fuckin good luck to him, you know what I mean?. Thats all I say. Did me a fuckin favour "
Were at another pub now, quieter and more conducive to the sort of slurred interrogation that comes with steady drinking. The tipple is bottles of Diamond White cider, two at a time, chased by large scotches, and the topic is Edinburgh Man, one of the loveliest songs The Fall have ever recorded. Its about Smiths year long exile in edinburgh, unloved and unknown, and its full of the gruff sentiments of someone unused to showing his feelings in public.
" I really wanted to say it," he nods. "And I mean it, what I say. I was living up there in Edinburgh for a year and I was on me tod. Id no fuckin money, no fuckin nowt, and no fucker wanted to know me. I spent 18 months on the words to that song, trying to get it right."
Its a very emotional song. "For sure. For sure." He had gone there to escape the fallout from his marraige and the encroaching horrors of the Manchester scene. He rented a room, got some writing done and spent a year watching and drinking. "Im a Smith," he stresses. "Im an observer, you know? I go everywhere and I sit at the back. Im the guy at the back of the classroom. Always have been."
No one knows a lot about you.
"Thats right. Thats good".
Its easy to work out what pisses you off, what gets you riled. Not so easy to suss out what you like.
"Nobody ever asks me, you know, er "
Well, were asking."
"I " he inhales deeply, and blows out his defence along with cigarette smoke. "Im a fuckin singer and a songwriter, right? Theres a lot of fuckin shit in the media about what you like and what you dont like. What food you eat. What fuckin films you like. Who cares? Im not interested. You interested in what films Paul McCartney likes? Whatre you talkin about "
One of the fines songs on Shiftwork is Idiot Joy Showland, a typically brilliant verbal incarceration of sundry young Mancunian candidates that even compares one band unfavourably to Freddie And The Dreamers. A laudable sentiment to be sure.
"Fuckin great song, man" he enthuses. "Best song on the album by a mile. You name me one song thats better than that. You like that one, then? Its a good song innit? Yeeaaahhhh, go on, mate. Put it there. Regrettably so. Its getting on for that you-and-me-against-the-world-pal moment. A mere five minutes later, an upstairs table at a Kensington pasta house is feeling the sting of B&H ash as Smith tries to make sense of the menu. His meal is not what he ordered, but hes far too drunk to remember what that might have been. There are no waitresses around to relay the grievance to. Not much food is going down his throat as a result. In fact, hes spitting it out all over the place - on the plate, on napkins, on the table, on the floor. He is very perturbed indeed. "This is fuckin "
His arm reaches round his chair as if from habit, grabs his jacket and spins down into the street. It wasnt what he ordered, get his drift? And Mark E. Smith is gone, never coming back, haranguing waitresses and hailing cabs into the night.
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