“I don’t have any truck with musicians, at all. I don’t like bass players, I don’t like drummers, I don’t like guitarists and I don’t like keyboard players.” There aren’t many figures in music that can say things like that and be taken seriously. Mark E. Smith is one such figure, and a towering one at that. No-one else stands so tall or so stooped above mediocrity, always twisting away from expectation and wrestling with anyone who stands in the way of his vision.
As a proud non-musician and non-singer, Mark E. Smith fronts The Fall, the most prolific non-band of the past three decades and firm favourite of late music enthusiast John Peel. A lot of journalism written about him tends to dwell on the phenomenon of ‘Mark E. Smith’ as wizened shifty elder statesman; his inscrutability, his non-compliance in interviews – the things around him, the personal stuff. This is understandable because it’s so hard to separate the man from the art.
There really is no pretence. What is onstage or on record or on film is always guaranteed to be Mark E. Smith. This is what makes his writing (part rap, part lyric, part growl) and the music around it so unique. No other band is led in such a strange and bloody-minded manner, by a man embodying such disparate things. Whether he is covering The Kinks or collaborating with a theatre company, he is always surprising and never boring.
In a strange turn of events not too long ago, Marc Riley, former Fall guitarist and current 6Music DJ, told me never to meet Mark E. Smith. Marc was kicked out of The Fall in the early eighties after a punch-up with his bandleader during an Australian tour, an event which sums up Mark’s authoritarian and occasionally violent tendencies.
Everything considered, I think I agree – I’m not sure whether I’d like to meet Mark. In every interview I’ve read, heard or seen with him, it seems like the journalist is being taunted, offended or baffled, or all three at the same time. The more you try to understand him and his work, the more he becomes obscured, like a slightly disturbing but nonetheless intriguing dream. I’m perfectly happy to leave him to it. It seems to be the way he likes it.