Mark E. Smith: Death of an English poet

1979´s Live At The Witch Trials LP from new post-punk group The Fall began with a track Mark Smith had written when he was 16. Frightened immediately set out his stall: “I’ve got shears pointed straight at my chest, and time moves slow when you count it. I’m better than them, and I think I’m the best. But I’ll appear at midnight when the films close…” The films, not the movies. Dark streets. Industrial wastelands and pubs filled with long-hairs one up-manning each other about the right groups to like.

We are in Manchester now, a bleak late-seventies Manchester where men still trailed into the factories like something from a Lowry or Tressell´s worst nightmare – a point underlined by Industrial Estate – “we´ll tap each other as we walk in the gate”. But this was a new voice – a new take on the proletariat´s plight: bitter, cynical, defensive and aggressive. This is Mark Edward Smith, child of Prestwich, already delivering his poetry in what will become his trademark manner-ah. The band are knowingly rudimentary, the music repetitive and unprofessional but it is unremitting, bludgeoning and uncompromising.

Dragnet, Grotesque (After The Gramme) and Hex Enduction Hour which follow are showcases for Smith´s wordplay and are for the ages. Gone is the 60´s Beatlesy happy-drug whimsy and gone, too, is the friendly mien of the Mersey poets or the dreaded rural, Sunday-TV , Pam Ayres isn´t-poetry-lovely tripe. This is a literate pavement dweller. Someone at the bottom of the pile who can write and is not afraid to write what they see and feel.

Smith´s literary influences are on show and his own writing style emerges, boosted by speed and marinated in booze. History predominates, a strong sense of place, great humour and biting, caustic put-downs. Mark´s love of spooky, eerie and uncanny (he thinks he has precognitive powers and will, later in life, be interviewed at least once by the police for weirdly prescient lyrics) manifests in Spectre Vs Rector, which opens with the incantation, “MR James be born be born…Yog Sothoth, rape me lord…”.

Grotesque contains a gorgeous, embittered freeform rant against the English groups he and The Fall encounter in America, “they act like peasants with free milk”, rudderless and pointless, “on a route to the loot”:

Five wacky English proletariat idiots
Californians always think of sex
Well think of death
Five hundred girl deaths –
A Mexico revenge, it’s stolen land
They really get it off on
“Don’t hurt me please”
Rapist fill the TVs
And the secret of their lives
Is S.E.X..
I have dreams, I can see
Carloads of negro Nazis
Like Faust with beards
Hydrochloric shaved weirds
This was going to be called crap rap fourteen
But it’s now Stop Mithering
The things that drain you off and drive you off the hinge
Boils, dirty socks, the ceilings collapse
The Sunday morning loud lawn mower
The upstairs Jewish girl damn hoovering, with Valium cig
She wants communal, fluent flat household
I want privacy
The bastard dentist doctors surgery
Clip, clop, ring, knock, ring
Stop mithering!
The estates stick up like stacks
The estates stick up like stacks
The residents keep wild dogs
And on that father’s bedroom closet top
Electric blanket boxes
Surplus jonnies, demob pictures
To their children they sing
Stop mithering
You think you’ve got it bad with thin ties
Miserable songs synthesized, or circles with A in the middle
Ake joke records, hang out with Gary Bushell
Join round table. “I like your single yer great!”
A circle of low IQ’s
There are three rules of audience
My journalist acquaintances, go soft, go places
On record company expenses
I lose humour, manners become barbed, righteous, don’t know it
The smart hedonists, same as last verse, allusions with
H in electronics, on stage false histrionics
Corpse mauling dicks, pose to a good film, him, him
Stop mithering
I’m not joining conventional rock band
The conventional is experimental, the conventional is now
And is no way noble, and I’m no chock stock thing
So stop mithering
Engineers save up for cars
I try to let down their tyres with matches to make them molten
Ouch! Ouch!
They say I rip off Johnny Rotten
They always strike for more pay
They say “See yer mate..Yeh…see yer mate”
To their mothers they sing
Stop mithering
Even the drowned penile tissue test
He hangs out for sex
He enters magazine contest
White tan horror in the mirror
Spotty exterior hides a spotty interior
He’s not your enemy
He’s not your enemy, his name is not Harry
The secret of Cash and Carry

Later albums would showcase fantastic one-liners and witty stories – Athlete Cured (on Frenz, 1988) is a case in point:

The German athletic star was continually ill.
For months doctors were puzzled.
The star would complain of the smell in his room.
On visiting him this was found to be true.
An odour resembling hot-dogs permeated the whole bedroom.

A solution was only discovered by my closely
Watching his brother Gert.
Gert was handsome, well-meaning, but slightly a careless type.
Not malicious, I hope you understand and grasp.
(No chance).

But on returning from his clerical job, Gert
Would park his Volkswagen at the end of the day
Willy-nilly in the driveway, usually the wrong way round
So that the exhaust fumes would flow upwards right through
The open windows of the athletic star’s upstairs bedroom.

I also discovered that Gert would turn his engine
Over for up to an hour. I don’t know why.
Citizens in my street are also partial to this.

 Mid and late albums by The Fall all contain more examples of imaginative wordplay – often in their titles – than lesser writers, rock and pop writers especially, but most novelists and contemporary poets manage in a career.  Sadly, Mark knew this, and it embittered him and his writing. His refusal to properly play the media game, say the right thing, and the more antagonistic elements of his character his substance dependence exaggerated, meant he wasn´t to get his dues during his lifetime. But he knew he was good, and he will be recognised as such. There is too much good writing there to be ignored.

Thankfully, he didn´t end up like Bono or Ian McShane so there was no need to cut his throat with a vegetable or garden tool.

When I’m dead and gone
My vibrations will live on
In vibes on vinyl through the years
People will dance to my waves