Graded on a Curve: Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith, Mark E. Smith with Austin Collings

The infamous Mark E. Smith probably wouldn’t have liked you. It wasn’t personal; the late Fall frontman didn’t much like anyone. But his misanthropic ranting and raving didn’t stop his fans from loving him; indeed, the cult of personality that arose around him turned the Fall into Manchester, England’s equivalent of the Grateful Dead. Like the Dead, the Fall attract fanatics–once under Smith’s spell you don’t so much listen to them as make them your life. And Smith did it without a single dancing bear.

Village crank and musical genius in one, Smith’s stewardship made the Fall one of the most consistently brilliant and prolific bands of their–or any–time. Since their 1979 debut Live at the Witch Trials, the Fall have released some three dozen studio LP and more live LPs than I’m inclined to count. Although when one speaks of the Fall what one is really talking about is Mark E. Smith. Enough unlucky musicians (38 line-ups as of 2002) came and went (some were fired, others fled in terror) to fill an old-school telephone directory. As Smith famously said, “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.”

The Fall never made much of a dent in the commercial market, largely because they were (and likely to remain) an acquired taste. Not only are they not for everybody, they’re hardly for anybody. I know, amongst my friends and acquaintances, of only one Fall fan, and he briefly played with the band. But if you are a serious Fall fan you are by definition a person who wants to know everything about the band, and by extension its irascible and misanthropic leader Mark E. Smith.

Which brings us to Smith’s 2009 memoir Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith. Smith was vitriolic, volatile, vindictive, and often petty, and in Renegade he goes attack dog on former band mates, record labels, and the musical press. He also vents his spleen on Manchester bands, television (although he loved Dallas), and the cinema. Yet he emerges a lovable curmudgeon. And just about everything that comes out of his mouth is hilarious.

On why he wouldn’t have made a good dad: “I’m the sort who would forget about the child. I’d be at the pub engrossed in a conversation when I should be at home because the baby’s in front of the fire getting slowly roasted.” On one band’s performance: “they played like toddlers on vodka.” On the subject of drugs: “I’m one of the 3 percent who was made to take speed. It helps me sleep.” On the time he and his band mates found themselves at an Australian “heavy metal disco” (?): “They all started dancing to Deep Purple. I told them to sit down, have some dignity.” On his general musical philosophy: “I was trying to get the band to play out of tune.” Oh, and he offers up some sage dietary advice: “Red meat and liquids–that’s all you need.”

In Renegade Smith recounts his youth, his school years (he looks back in horror at an English instructor who tried to force-feed him The Hobbit), his early tastes in music (Gary Glitter and the Glitterband), his career ambitions (“get a flat, take drugs, and not work”) and job as a shipping clerk at the docks in Salford. Smith didn’t last long as a shipping clerk, but he remained a proud member of the Mancunian working class throughout his life–he loved to drink with the lads at the local pub, and while he briefly made London his home, Manchester was always the love of his life.

One of my favorite chapters is gleefully entitled ‘My Group/s and Their Useless Lives.” Needless to say he is not kind (“Lads with no guts, I can’t stand them… “). Smith looked upon himself as a general, and his band at their best as his “platoon.” But going to war is a traumatic business, and Smith didn’t extend much sympathy for the casualties: “The post-Fall life really gets to a lot of them. It’s as if they’ve been to Vietnam or had a particularly fraught space-excursion and their senses have been obliterated. That’s all they can talk about, that’s all that remains in their fried heads.” That said, his bile doesn’t extend to his ex-wife and former band mate Brix Smith.

The oddest feature of the book are the four brief interludes “Voices 1″ through “Voices 4,” in which Smith free associates, serves up some sub-par poetry, gives us a brief “Guide to Manchester,” and so on. Their chief purpose, intentional or no, is to give us a first-hand glimpse into Smith’s bizarre mind. The results are odd, but no more odd than Smith’s cryptic lyrics, which can be as hard to decipher as the Enigma Code.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention two other books in my Fall library. Simon Frith’s Hip Priest: The Story of Mark E. Smith (Quartet Books, 2003) is a deep dive into Fall history and on the dry side, although it has its fair share of interesting and amusing details.

Dave Thompson’s A User’s Guide to The Fall (Helter Skelter Publishing, 2003) is reserved for those whose wardrobe consists largely of Fall t-shirts. If a rundown of each and every Fall release complete with song titles, release and reissue dates, musicians involved, and singles from is your idea of heaven, you’ll want to rush out and buy A User’s Guide to The Fall before your granny crowns you with her bongos and snatches up the last copy from your local bookstore.

Smith had a lofty estimation of his music; not only would it improve your life, it would ease your death, which can hardly be said a certain band I can’t stand: “I mean, if you’re dying and somebody plays you a track by the Police,” he says in Renegade, “it’s not going to stimulate you or console you.” Agree or no, another remark by Smith is indisputable: “You don’t know what you’re in for with the Fall.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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