Ron Rom, "Semi-detached suburban Mr Smith"
Sounds, July 19 1986, pp. 20-21.
THERE HE is. Opposite me. Mark E Smith, the man, the legend...the myth.
My heart is fluttering with fear, my tongue's going dry and I feel like I'm gasping for air.
It's all down to Smith, a man who has walked down the piss- stained corridors of punk armed only with his contempt towards the making and presenting of contemporary music. He has arrived here, nine years later, untainted by time.
He looks unapproachable, almost cold hearted, dog-like brown eyes reflecting a glazed disdain and unnerving lack of emotion. There's an esteemed down-to-earth aura sparking around his snake-like body. He invokes respect with cautious suspicion, there's nothing flashy or pompous about Mark - he just looks above it all, elevated by his own tradition.
A tradition built on nine years of sustained genius and innovation.
Mark has always done it his way, and that's why people either love or hate him and The Fall. Like a crumbling statue, standing tall, he's another great English institution. Unlike Morrissey, though, Mark has no allegiance to the drippy wetness of persecuted middle-class dropouts. Mark's hard. Straight Basic.
For someone so straightforward he sure has been painted in a variety of colours, by media artists with oils of prejudice and brushes of phoney morals. Their portraits of Mark are always cracked with bitter envy. Y'see, people can't handle the way he stands separate, they get tired with looking up to him and, because of this, throughout the history of The Fall, Mark has been labelled a racist, a Tory, a bigot and a callous and sardonic bastard, talking about the world's troubles as if they were sources for Xmas cracker jokes.
The contempt of others is based on fear, Mark doesn't fit in, he's an enigma, a working class chappy who revels and believes in the glories of his class and yet has managed to dig a hole into the heart of the middle class rock market.
It's a middle class he generally despises. He purposefully exhibits and stretches his own character to its fullest -- just I think, to annoy the fickle humanitarians and token socialists he meets, to irritate the people who care for the workers down the ends of their noses.
We're in a secluded pub, me and Mark and it's there, surrounded by urban failures who look like they've strayed from a Tom Waits video, that I'm going to try and dislodge a few of the cynical bricks that the media have built up around Mark E Smith's heart. l'll oil his tongue with alcohol and gain his trust with considerate listening. I want to see his emotions, fears and skeletons shake for all to see.
There will be no bait to sensationalism, no questions about his opinions on Live Aid, the Labour Party or Red Wedge. Ho, no, no, that serves the wrong purpose. Besides, he has said what he thinks on such matters already to journalists eager to pick up shock horror classics like 'Ethiopia needs two tons of contraception pills". Ouch! Lines like these are best left on the couch in Mark's living room.
Today I want Mark E Smith, the human being. I want to catch him at the crossroads of his life with a finger up his nose. Let's play.
HE SEEMS really thin, like a piece of dangling string with knots tied in the appropriate places. His skin is an alien yellow and those eyes -- well, they sort of haunt me. He doesn't even look like he fits in.
So tell me, Mark, what's the idea behind the single, "Living Too Late'?
He hangs his head slightly to the left and crosses his legs. God, he really is an ugly bastard. "Well, when I was writing it I thought it would be really good to write a song about middle-aged people. About an ordinary guy who was really pissed off. The more I got in that frame of mind, the easier the words came. We were originally going to do it in a country 'n' western style. Really middle of the road, y' know what I mean, Ron ?"
What attracted you to the idea of the middle-aged guy?
"Well, I was thinking about suburbia, upper working class suburbia, and I was just wondering about these guys walking around the streets, whether they ever get really pissed off. All of my neighbours are like -- y'know, they're all good people and that but they've all got a lot under their belt."
Are you under any pressure?
"Nah, not me."
Do you feel old now?
"Nah, not really."
One feels that 'Living Too Late' not only shows Mark swivelling in the muted vacuum of suburbia, a vacuum where, incidentally, he has found himself a very comfortable corner, but also suggests that privately Mark has been assessing his own achievements with a jaded, confused scepticism. Call it middle-aged or call it simply tired, 'Living Too Late', with its pulsating wearied beat sluggishly treads a long road with a subdued, bluesy feel. Maybe it's an indication of Mark's conclusions about his life.
So is 'Living Too Late' really hinting at the fact that you're feeling jaded at the moment?
"That has got to be a natural assumption. I did feel a bit like that when I wrote it."
Do you feel worn out?
"I had a fucking game of football last week and that killed me. It was terrible, the legs were killing me! I still haven't recovered.
"I see people younger than me who act a lot older, but people always said that I've got a very old attitude towards things. Anyway, guys over 60 are usually alright."
How old are you now?
How do you think you will feel when you're 40?
"Real cool, actually. I mean, I've been all around the world. Do you know, Ron, when I was 19 I hadn't even been out of Manchester, and if someone told me I couldn't leave this country again it wouldn't bother me."
Because of the routine of it all?
"Yeah. The more you travel the more you get away from yourself. You sometimes meet these people who have been everywhere and you sort of know they can't get themselves together. They don't know what they're about."
BEING BROUGHT up in a traditional working class house in Salford has caused Mark to cling to his roots, and it's almost as if they're reference points for his own identity and belonging.
This obstinacy caused him and The Fall to miss the ride in the bandwagon days of punk. Remember those flares and trainers, that ghastly green shirt he wore on The Tube?
Mark's down to earth upbringing automatically made him dissociate from the rock and roll lifestyle and approach. He does everything in a very normal way and his normality is at odds in an industry based on abnormality. He holds to the virtues of the family, its warmth, love and stability.
Are you happy now?
"No, I think a lot of the time I'm on a right downer. I'm a bit of a pain in the arse like that. Y'know, the motivation just isn't there most of the time. That's why The Fall are good for me. I never really had motivation. Even when I was at work and you used to get two weeks off, I never done anything for those two weeks."
What job did you have, Mark?
He leans forward in his chair and smiles. "I was a docker in Manchester. A good job, I used to meet a lot of foreign lorry drivers, Turks, Germans and that it was dead interesting."
Didn't you ever get that blurred feeling when you had a regular job?
"Immune, yeah. I mean, sometimes I get annoyed with people and their attitudes and then I think back to the days when I was at work, y'know, and you can't blame them.
"There's something dead nice about a serious job, too, though. I used to love it, me. Get home about 6.30, then straight down the pub...
"I know what you're saying, though. Like my two younger sisters, both of them are out of work at the moment but for one of them it's through her own choice, she don't want a job and I sort of say to her, That's the spirit. I get a lot of young kids come up to me and say, It's alright for you, you're in a band, but I've been on the dole for two years. I think big deal, y'know, like when I left school it was an ambition to be on the dole. When I was at school they tried to get you into shit jobs. They'd try and get you behind the counter at Lewis's for about L9 a week. I got fired from my first job after three months and I went home dancing!"
ABOUT TWO years ago, Mark got married. Now he's just bought a house in Manchester,
the inspiration for 'My New House on The Fall's 'This Nation's Saving Grace' LP. So is our man becoming a bit domestic, so to speak? How's the mortgage, Mark?
"It's alright," he laughs.
How are you settling in?
"Oh, I'm dead happy there."
Why did you decide to stay in Manchester?
"I think it's because I've always liked it there. I'm not madly in love with the place, it just would be really depressing being in London all the time. It's not me being bloody minded or anything. I think it's a secret fear that I wouldn't be as good if I was living in London. I don't get as hassled up in Manchester as I do there.
'When I'm in London I feel like how a madman would feel. Like there's people whispering behind me back all the time when I go out. They never come up to me."
"Yeah, I suppose they are."
But are you happy going home to the house and all that security?
"I don't think it's any big deal. I like it, I think it's good. I mean, I don't spend my time doing all the DIY. That's one thing l don't like about houses -- people are always doing them up. It drives you fuckin mad. People with drills in the morning going nnnnnnnn. You feel like shooting them."
This is the time to manipulate. Go for the jugular. Take him now. Let's see what he fears and where he is weak. I'II go in deep with this.
Is man's biggest enemy loneliness?
"I think it is. I know that I couldn't overcome it. I was very lonely when I was living on me own. I lost all sense of time and went days without changing my socks and stuff. It's bad."
And did Brix sort that out for you?
He laughs and sips cautiously at his beer.
"You're a bastard, Ron. You ought to be a psychologist. You always look interested and listen really well, so you put people at ease, then all of a sudden you ask personal questions and if I'm not careful I'lI answer them. Very shrewd, very shrewd!"
You wait until later when I really do my psychologist bit. Why did you leave home, then?
"I never really liked my dad, I used to hate him, that's why I left. I used to get on really well with my mother, but apart from that I couldn't wait to get out of the house. Other kids used to get a fiver for passing their eleven-plus, all my dad did was call me a bookworm. I couldn't appreciate it at the time, but now I do, and I'm grateful for him bringing me up like that.
"I get on really well with my dad now. He lives around the corner from me and we often go out for a drink. And I know Brix loves her stepfather and I get on really well with her real father, he comes out with sick jokes all the time."
Has it ever been awkward having Brix in the band?
"Nah, not really." He thinks then he continues. They're very nasty to her, the press over here, very sexist All those people, all those Guardian readers, they're the fucking worst."
All that she's a woman and she's American and she's a blonde sort of stuff?
"Yeah, right. The inferior being sort of shit. I don't like seeing her getting upset by it and she does, she's not used to that stuff, it's all wine and roses in the States. She takes it quite personally. I don't like it because they know they can't get at me so they use her to do it."
"It's just revolting."
Through this he talks warmly and considerately about Brix, as you would expect from a husband. He is very proud of her and at the same time very protective towards her. So the big question. How do you feel about Brix?
"I love her. Listen Ron, if you put any of this personal shit in, I'II be straight round your house."
I think he's joking.
Love is a very consuming thing isn't it?
"Yeah, you can't just think for yourself, you have to think about others all the time."
Have you had any thoughts about having kids?
"Oooh, no! I couldn't handle the responsibility. It would worry me sick I couldn't stop worrying about them, making sure there's enough money and stuff.
"I'm even like that with cars, I still haven't got one, y'know, they frighten me. So no, I'd worry about it all the time."
To wind up the interview and to really knock out the kinks in his armour, I'm planning to throw words at him to which he will have to fire back answers instantly. I got the idea off Dallas.
Here we go.
'You're really going in for the kill, aren't you?"
"Oh God. Oh come on, let me off here."
Play the game, Mark, play the game, fear.
"Too many decisions are based on fear."
What do you mean?
"Well, I was coming home from Bolton with the wife and by accident we got on this football special. Before that day I never really believed those people who said, like, when frightening things were happening to them everything seems to go really slow.
"Anyway, these four lads were trying to smash down a loo door when Brix was inside, y'know, and I got up and hit one of them, through fear really. They said they were going to kick my head in when the train stopped at Manchester.
"I was white with fear - not fear only for myself but for Brix as well, I didn't want her to get hurt. We finally got to Manchester and two policemen came into the station as the train pulled in. I've never been so pleased to see policemen in all my life!
"But it was like what people say, everything went really slow.
"I hate arseholes like those blokes on the train, though. I don't know how they can even do it y'know, or how they can call themselves men."
But have you ever been psychotic like that?
"Oh aye, all the time. I was quite violent, em, a few years back. But it doesn't actually work."
Anyway, back to the game. Where were we? The Fall.
"Don't you think that's a good name, it means a lot of things in different languages, 'fall' does. We were originally called The Outsiders but some other band had that name. 'Fall' is another one of those words I can't get to grips with.
"No one knows this.." he mutters confidentially, suddenly pissing himself out of his chair with laughter. We've been lining up drinks like there's no tomorrow. "But we were going to call ourselves The Flyman And The Fall. I was going to dress up as a greenfly and stand in front of the band going buzzzzzzzz. Honest I was. When we'd do interviews, if someone asked me a question I'd reply, Buzz."
We both fall out of our chair laughing together. We're well oiled. Back to the words. Oh, these words.