Following the death of The Fall's inimitable frontman, one writer reflects on the times they spent together in Manchester's pubs.
Mark E Smith and The Fall perform live at Manchester Cathedral in 2015. Photo: Gary Mather / Alamy Stock Photo
The first time I was sent to interview Mark E Smith, I envisioned the chosen location as a spit-and-sawdust Salford boozer, the sort with a bar propped up by unimaginably tough men with hands the size of my head. I imagined this scenario ending like the "perfumed ponce" scene from Withnail and I, with me sent scarpering out the door, terrified and humiliated.
Instead, bizarrely, Mark chose an All Bar One-style after-works drinks place in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester. "I like to watch the freaks. They’re fucking weird. Who the fuck are they?" he later told me, while staring into a pub filled with the most normal people imaginable. It was a clear and early indication that Mark looked at the world differently to most people.
Knowing his irascible nature around some journalists – the time he tried to stub a lit cigarette out on the face of a Loaded writer was particularly clear in my mind – I arrived mildly anxious 30 minutes early, to grab a table and a drink to help me mentally prepare. Only, when I walked in, Mark was already there, whiskey and lager in front of him, sitting in a crisp suit and with a crumpled carrier bag that he'd just used to deliver the band’s wage packets by hand.
Over the course of the next five hours, Mark would call out a very famous musician as being a paedophile; tell me of how he'd hired hardened Manchester gangsters to track down people who'd set up fake social media accounts in his name; and walk blindly across two lanes of traffic without a care in the world, flagging down a taxi to take me back to his studio, before putting me in a room by myself with a can of lager, only to come back ten minutes later and inform me I was now to leave. He also tried to stick a pen up my nose to prove that the pen was mightier than the sword, and recounted the time himself, Nick Cave and Shane McGowan did a three-way NME interview and Mark ended up responsible for getting Shane home after he’d got himself into a state by taking far too many Es.
Over countless drinks he rattled off his loves and hates, his deeply embedded affection for the likes of Lou Reed, Can, The Stooges, Philip K Dick and Wyndham Lewis, and his disdain for everyone from Jo Whiley (who Mark previously told to "fuck off" during a television interview) to Morrissey, to the NME, to "mister fucking big head Genesis Pete fucking Collins".
Over the next few long afternoons I spent in the pub with Mark, preparing for the interviews almost became futile, as he would wriggle around questions as endlessly as he did in his seat, with a seemingly mischievous pleasure in knowing he could completely detonate an interview at any chosen moment should he want to. But mostly, I think he just enjoyed the nature of talking openly about all things, as long as there was an underlying understanding that you knew your shit when it came to his band, The Fall, and were happy to avoid gloopy nostalgia.
There was a silliness and surrealism to Mark that was often used to deflect questions he felt veered too close to earnest sincerity or sentimentality. Midway through me asking him a personal question, rather than answer it he instead chose to pull something out of his bag. "I’ve just got a letter from a mate of mine from Wakefield, but I can’t fucking understand it. Do you understand Yorkshire? Can you read it?" he asked me, presumably because I'm from Yorkshire. Or maybe you’d get a "it's not fucking Richard and Judy" response if your questions touched upon personal areas he wished to not discuss.
However, Mark’s honesty often resulted in conversations that plunged far deeper than the headline-grabbing quotes that would lead the finished articles. Yes, he was hilarious, loaded with countless fantastic turns of phrase, brutal insults, oddball anecdotes and in possession of some completely inimitable points of view, which could be as baffling as they were eye-opening or even offensive. But he also had a deep-rooted love for his work, for words, music, art, literature and the true exploration of what alternative culture could be.
Mark’s ferocious prolificacy, resulting in the endlessly fecund output of the Fall, was so great that he would lose track of it sometimes. "I’ll hear something when I’m abroad, in a taxi or something, and I'll go, 'What’s that fucking shit?' and then someone will say, 'It's you, you cunt,'" he told me one time. Yet, the most recurring thing I'd hear when speaking with Mark was: "I’m a big Fall fan."
Cantankerous is a word thrown around to describe Mark as a frontman who fired bandmates for ordering salads or playing "the wrong sort" of drums, but at his core was someone with an undying commitment to a musical project that was more important and significant than any of its surrounding trivialities. You don’t dedicate over 40 years of your 60 on this planet to something because you get a kick out of torturing band members. The Fall was a lifelong mission for Mark, and while he was often modest or self-deprecating about its output, it was always apparent how much it truly meant to him throughout our conversations, and, of course, through the records.
WATCH: British Masters – Mark E Smith
The last time we spoke, about six months before his death, he was on as good form as ever. He’d moved onto gin chasers instead of whiskey, and was truly excited about the new music The Fall had made. "I've already started on the next one, I'm fucking bursting," he told me around the time the band's last LP, New Facts Emerge, was released. "The new stuff sounds a bit like [The Fall's 25th album] Reformation Post T.L.C. but even madder and a lot of white fucking fuzz in it, and a bit of corny piano, a bit like Van Der Graaf Generator. Maybe a bit of Joe Meek’s Telstar in there – pretty far out."
He also spoke about his sadness of the passing of the film director Jonathan Demme, and how proud he was that The Fall featured on the soundtrack of The Silence of the Lambs.
Despite all the right ingredients being there for the sort of interview I’d come to expect from Mark, I got the feeling he was seriously ill. He looked unwell, but more notable was that he mentioned the idea of The Fall continuing without him as a front person; that he would act almost like a behind-the scenes director, shaping the band without vocally contributing onstage. It sounded like the loose sketches of an exit plan. There was also a sign that things weren’t too good when he quietly cut himself off midway through a sentence about him likely not being around for something the following year. Nonetheless, we parted ways, as usual, under the presumption we’d see one another again in the not-too-distant future – no doubt, in a few months, when The Fall cranked out yet another album. Sadly, that day never came. Mark died yesterday, aged 60, after a long illness.
Mark E Smith remains, without question, one of the most singular artists and human beings I have ever met, and I feel confident in saying I’ll never meet another person like him again, or hear another band like The Fall.