Every phase of the Fall offers something indelible. There’s the scratchweed ambition of the early years, the lumbering double-drummer phase (my favorite, must I choose). There was Brix Smith’s time with the band, which provided occasional cheer (second favorite), and invigorated forays into near-trance and Italian house.
Always quite a sound. The 7-inch with “The Man Whose Head Expanded” — released in 1983 — was the first record I heard, two years after its release, at a friend’s Missoula apartment. Steve Hanley’s insistent and juxtapositional bass playing worked its way into my musical life. Never left. But it was Mark E. Smith’s onslaught of spat words that made the whole thing — from 1976 to 2018 — the Fall. At first whack, the lyrics were sometimes inscrutable, but, once unrolled, unerringly engaging and stuffed with meaning.
The Palace of Swords Reversed compilation was the first of my 23 Fall LPs, bought at Rockin Rudy’s on the occasion of its 1987 release. “How I Wrote Elastic Man” is a prescient lament of the underappreciated artist by a young Smith, who may have intuited he’d end up the same: “The only thing real is waking and rubbing your eyes.”
“L.A.,” from 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace (also purchased in 1987 at Rudy’s) was an ideal critique and ode: “Bushes are in disagreement with the heat … They have filled boulevards with white snow, scum-ball.”
There are literally a hundred other tracks we could work over this way.
I talked to Smith exactly one time, for a scheduled interview for Seattle’s now-defunct The Rocket, while I was on tour with my band Silkworm. I shifted around nervously, calling from someone else’s kitchen, phone on a short cord. It seemed best to come at the material (Middle Class Revolt, 1994) sideways. So, “Do you watch much television?” was Question No. 1. Well-received. All went swimmingly. I knew from Smith’s reputation that it didn’t always go this way.
Later in life, Smith spent a lot (all?) of his time onstage (and offstage?) impaired to some extent. He replaced long-time allies as they sloughed off. He managed to recruit fellow travelers who marshaled an attack, moving forward. There’s a lot one could say about him as an accused abuser and, at very least, a prick. Rightly or wrongly, it’s not his full legacy, any more than it is James Brown’s. His output won’t forgive all sins, but will elide a few. And when it comes to “art,” if it’s monumental enough, it can be a force, apart from the world.
That was the Fall. You were either on the ride or not. Did you get any on you? If not, congratulations may be in order. Perhaps close contact was best avoided. But you might feel lucky, as I do, just to have run alongside it. Requiescat.