It’s just stupid thinkin’ ‘bout the past
Notebooks out, tinkerers, procrastinators and perfectionists: such was Mark E Smith’s work rate, it proved a cause for sadly justified concern among fans of The Fall that there’d been no sign of new material since July and two months since a gig obligation had been fulfilled.
The loss of Smith has prompted no reappraisals of a figure shunted by death back into the public consciousness, no regrets over a comeback cut short, certainly no disappointment that he didn’t do more with the time he was allowed. Indeed, one of the reasons his passing hurts Fall fans so much is that Mark E. Smith never went away. He was a constant commentator, a rogue uncle with something unpalatable to say at every family gathering, an unswattable fly at life’s picnic, unpredictable in everything but presence and graft. And so the loss of that voice, the cutting of that cultural thread that’s been part of many people’s lives for at least a decade longer than the thirty-odd years it’s been woven through mine, feels more significant than the passing of any number of figures who remind us, perhaps, of childhood, or of some other single significant phase of our lives. These writers, musicians, performers we mourn, maybe, because of one or two great works. But the news packages and potted tributes to Mark E Smith have, satisfyingly, floundered for a hook, struggled to explain or commemorate him by reference to a common touchstone. One man’s DIY Meat is another man’s poison. Smith made sure The Fall wasn’t about a moment, fought never to be defined by a movement or genre. This he achieved by constant work and a refusal to look back.
He shared the swim-or-die hunger of, say, Damo Suzuki or perhaps Neil Young, artists whose attention is always on the next thing. As a consequence, these kind of driven artists inevitably produce work of queasily varying quality, but in return grant themselves the freedom of not giving a flying fuck about their legacy. “Regardless of the look back bores”, they have no interest in leaving behind them a neatly manicured canon. Time spent chasing perfection or celebrating past achievements is time that could be spent making something new. Heritage gigs were anathema to Smith. True Fall fans knew that the only way they were going to hear Hex Enduction Hour played in its entirety from beginning to end was to put the bloody record on.
Smith’s distaste for talking the talk without commensurate walk-walking was apparent in his lyrics. Among the barbs aimed at the subject of 1993’s Glam Racket, my favourite (narrowly beating “you lecture on sweets”) is the withering “You are working on a video project”.
But this contempt finds is apotheosis in one of my favourite Fall numbers, Youwanner, from 2005’s Fall Heads Roll. A companion piece to The Pink Fairies’ 1971 classic Do It (“Don’t talk about it. Just do it.”), Youwanner eviscerates its subject, who constantly whinges about his lot but fails to take action to improve it. The focus of his complaint is romantic — “I coulda had a life, coulda had a wife he said” but Smith’s short shrift is as easily applied to the professional. “A work in progress” is the persistent, mocking refrain, eventually paying off with my favourite latter-period Smith punchline:
“A work in progress,
Due about 2026.”
The creative procrastinator knows the tricks very well. Any distraction is an excuse; if the conditions aren’t perfect, work cannot begin. I can’t start writing: the kids are due home; there’s someone drilling in the street, that bill needs paying, that washing needs taking out, those envelopes aren’t straight. It’s bullshit, and I still regularly go along with it.
If you do too, then take it from the man who pretty much put out an album a year for nearly forty years. The dying man who, even in his final touching message — “I love you all, but cannot embrace you all” — promised that eight new tracks were ready to go.
The dead man, who couldn’t make the point any clearer than by leaving us.
We must try harder.
Thanks for everything, Mark. Including the kick up the arse.