Music

Mark E. Smith, Singer/Lyricist for the British Postpunk Band The Fall, R.I.P.

The sly, scabrous, absurdist Smith was one of the few anti-left voices of his musical generation.

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Mark E. Smith, for over 40 years the sole mainstay and singer/writer for the harsh, edgy, scabrous but teeth-clenchingly catchy British postpunk band The Fall, has died at the age of 60. A fair assessment of his importance and influence for somewhat outsider-y rock can be found at The Stranger.

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While their music can be an acquired taste, and even this serious fan hasn't managed to seriously process it all in its relentless generosity (over 30 original LPs and many dozen more live and compilation records), his writing was always of special interest to me.

His songwriting was so copious and dense and ironic that the vast majority of his fans either didn't notice or didn't care about this element of his work, but Smith and The Fall were the favorite band of my gang of fellow libertarians in college at least partially because of the amusing signs of mocking disdain for modern leftist cant or at the very least an obvious willingness to look on socialism or communism with a disapproving or mocking eye.

It was not a theme he hit that often, but especially in the late '80s period when I fell in love with their work, you weren't hearing many bands write songs mocking someone who "tripped up on a discarded banana skin/And on my way down I caught the side of my head/On a protruding brick chip" and decided the experience ought by rights to make him a public charge—however "I was very let down/From the budget I was expecting a one million quid handout/I was very disappointed…I think I'll emigrate to Sweden or Poland/And get looked after properly by government" ("Dog is Life/Jerusalem"). Not many would conclude an absurdist saga about an East German athlete sickened by his dumb brother's habit of revving his car engine beneath their window and filling the room with fumes with the observation that the brother "patriotically volunteered to be sent on a labor beautification course of the countryside northwest of Dresden and never seen again/and never seen again" ("Athlete Cured"). Not many would casually note (in their speed-rap madness classic early single "Totally Wired") that "if I were a communist/a rich man would bail me/the opposite applies," or (in their early punk-country trucker life anthem "Container Drivers") condemn commies as "just part-time workers."

In his excellent memoir Renegade Smith summed up a general dislike for a vaguely conceived therapeutic modern state by remembering his days working in a mental institution in the 1970s. "Nowadays reminds me of the late 1970s," he wrote. "All those people who are in power now were student nurses back then….And they're now running the country with that same mentality: give him a computer, give him a few drugs." Smith is the rock songwriter I'd most recommend to fans of scabrous misanthrope British serious humorists such as Kingsley Amis and Auberon Waugh. It was a mentality rare in pop/rock songwriting, and it reached out in its mysterious way to somewhat complementary minds.

Smith also had a winningly singular range of topics and concerns that overlapped those into eccentric politics as youth, from conspiracy theories about the deaths of Pope John Paul I ("Hey! Luciani") and John Kennedy ("Oswald Defense Lawyer") to fantasy/time travel epics ("Wings") to tortured looks in the minds of washed-up comic book/sci-fi writers ("How I Wrote 'Elastic Man'") to dozens of examples of gimlet-eyed observations of a far wider range of the curious and strange elements of modern existence than any other rock writer attempted.

As he said of his own work, his "songs were more like short stories: unlike every fucker else we didn't just bark out wild generalizations." That simple literary quality made him, especially in comparison with his peers, shine as an individualist hero of sorts. (A fine and observant analysis of him as writer-qua-writer can be found at The Quietus.) He also triumphed for his generations of fans as the mocking older brother who knew about all sorts of cool shit you didn't, but he'd let you know, via Fall covers and tributes to the likes of Can, the Monks, and garage punk genius obscurities from "Mr Pharmacist" to "Popcorn Double Feature." He was a singular figure, productive til the end, and the world of rock music has never seen his like before and very likely never shall again.

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