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Prepare for The Fall: The Failed Autobiography of Mark E. Smith

Written by: Goran Child, Special to CC2K


Mark E. Smith, A. Collings, Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith (London: Penguin, 2008).

Cult of Luna, Eternal Kingdom (Earache Records, 2008).

Image Reviewing Mark E. Smith’s autobiography is difficult, but not for the reasons Smith himself would like it to be difficult (one imagines from this 250-page diatribe against everyone and anyone who has ever dared criticize his judgement at any point ever). Smith might imagine it’s difficult because of its caustic honesty and relentless, idiosyncratic proselytizing. In fact, it’s difficult for two reasons. Firstly, precisely because of how un-difficult Smith’s book (his ‘own story’, as the liner notes over-enthusiastically tell us) actually proves to be. It’s difficult – and the clumsy, caveat-riddled prose with which I’ve begun this review (honestly, it’s deliberate) should by now be indicating just how difficult it is – because, over the years, one has come to expect so much from Smith. This is, lest we forget, the frontman and embodiment of Mancunian art-rock legends The Fall, the man who wrote LPs such as Hex Enduction Hour, Perverted by Language, and The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (and trust me, he does remind us of his myriad achievements as a lyricist at least once a chapter). Smith has raised the bar to the extent that nobody has ever tried to imitate his band, very possibly because nobody could. They’re as close to being a bona fide one-off as contemporary musicians get.

But everybody who knows The Fall knows this. It’s basically a given. We do not need an £18.99 large-print hardback tedious slog of a book in which Smith iterates and reiterates the uniqueness of The Fall, and how it’s all down to him. Here’s a typical sample:

‘I find it hard to talk enthusiastically about the ex-band members thing. I don’t understand the big deal with it. They came, they saw, they fucked off and now I no longer see them. I find it all very boring, to be honest. The Fall are about the present, and that’s it (p.53).’

Here, Smith is boring even himself – a scenario one has to credit as unlikely, given the almost-audible onanism which accompanies nearly every word of his prose here. ‘The Fall are about the present, and that’s it,’ he boasts, as he anticipates the wad of cash which this narrative of his past is sure to make. And when not boring himself, he’s boring everybody else with ad hoc and ignorant summaries of everything from Britain’s off-licences (‘Bargain Booze is a particular favourite shop of mine. You can get some good offers there.’), to its settlements (‘[Brighton]’s not a patch on Blackpool. That’s the real seaside town.’), to its literary canon (‘I guess it’s better to read it than it is to watch, though – that’s what I like about Shakespeare.’). This critic can only roll his eyes and wonder quite how far short of the desired word-count Smith’s original manuscript was.

However, to discuss ‘Smith’s original manuscript’ is to overlook a key feature of Renegade – an aspect (and perhaps a cause) of its bland character of which Smith should be considerably embarrassed. This feature can be summed up by looking at a bit of paratext: the title page, which bears the sheepish admission that Smith wrote the book ‘with Austin Collings’, and the epigraph, a quotation from (wonderful deceased British experimental author) B.S. Johnson: ‘both everything and nothing in a person’s life and background may be significant.’ It is on the advice of this epigraph that I am using these aforementioned paratexts against Smith: they are, if you like, two aspects of the book’s ‘background’: the latter refers to the groundbreaking, revelatory book which Renegade would like to be, whilst the former reveals the half-hearted, cynical moneyspinner which Renegade actually is.

Why is Mark E. Smith, scourge of the unimaginative and unoriginal, using a ghostwriter? My answer is a pessimistic one, and concerns the fact that this ghostwriter is, as this interview between he and Smith – http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2005/jan/15/popandrock1 – should suggest, an unflinching acolyte of everything Smith has ever written, sang, or farted. In that interview, Collings draws a (slightly over-zealous) parallel between Smith’s writing and that of Larkin and Joyce (interestingly, B.S. Johnson’s own artistic frustration – a factor in his suicide – stemmed from the fact that he didn’t think publishers and readers adequately realized that he was the literary heir to the latter), and so it is sadly ironic that he should be at least partly responsible for what may well be the very worst of Smith’s sizeable cultural output.

Do I have to go into detail? Will the fact that I find this book so laughably bad despite my admiration for Smith’s music (and the more personal factor: that it was a 21st birthday present from my parents) not provide sufficient testimony? I’ll hit you with some aleatory (a composition method with which Smith, if he is to merit any comparison with Joyce, must surely be au fait): here are passages, selected at random. Read it and weep, as you Yanks (or, more precisely, Barry Manilow [or, more precisely, the songwriter Jim Steinman – see, the multifaceted nature of cultural dissemination! Smith is by no means the only guilty party]) would whisper gutturally:

‘I don’t want a studio where the Pet Shop Boys or Morrissey have recorded. I don’t need it. I know it’s going to be shit (p.195).’

‘But then I stopped thinking like Costello and realized I had bills to pay and got back on the beat (p.115).’

‘Simple fact is, there’s a great divide between a graphic designer and an artist (p.150).’

‘There’s a dearth of original scripts, that’s why Hollywood has to remake everything (p.24).’

‘I’m a bit like the Alex Ferguson of the music game. I see parallels with his timing. He knows when to fuck players off – none of that pandering to reputations (p.218).’

‘I preferred it when people went missing. It’s your right to be able to go missing every now and again. For an afternoon or two, I mean, I don’t mean vanishing completely. It’s terrible when something like that happens (p.164).’

Obvious to the point of utter redundancy, painfully arrogant and plain idiotic, Smith’s soundbites are decidedly toothless. Attempting a clumsy negotiation between ‘working-class’ ideology (whatever that is; Smith seems to think he knows, but his inconsistent treatment of the subject suggests otherwise) and ‘look at me, I’ve made it’ namedropping, the whole thing seems like an overwrought, overconfident and overlong job application. ‘The Fall’s about hard work,’ he claims early on. This book is certainly hard work to read, ironically because it was clearly not in the slightest bit challenging for Smith (who at every juncture takes the path of least resistance, the pithy coda, the dismissal of the ex-wife, the potted judgment of his musical peers), who at no point engages in any genuine apperception. He is the one constant around which his world revolves, a self-generating, self-propagating icon whose discourse of self-preservation materializes crudely and with predictable tedium, whilst never giving anything away.

So much for ‘firstly’. The second reason for my aporia whilst tackling this text is because I, foolishly, am attempting to ‘multitask’. That is, as I’m writing this review, I’m also listening to an album which I intended to deal with at a later date, but which has, as it has played through, steadily and relentlessly obliterated what scant interest I now realize I have in the barely-coherent, meretricious ramblings of Mark E. Smith, semi-fallen idol. It’s an album which delights in ravaging Smith’s postlapsarian corpse (or, if not corpse, embarrassing photograph of Smith asleep in a deckchair, wearing Crocs), linked as it is (albeit slightly indirectly) to the pioneering, exciting disdain to which Smith, in the mid-1970s, began to subject the form of conventional pop music. The album in question is Cult of Luna’s fifth full-length, Eternal Kingdom. However, that this album is brilliant – Cult of Luna’s best yet, and possibly even the first European record worthy of comparisons with those paradigms for US post-metal, Neurosis’s Through Silver in Blood and Isis’s Oceanic: indeed, just as Oceanic marked the point at which Isis firmly stepped out of Neurosis’s shadow, Eternal Kingdom sees Cult of Luna at their most distinctive – is, I’m sure, not of any particular interest to readers who have been led to believe that this is a review of Mark E. Smith’s autobiography, Renegade (which is awful, by the way: see above). Why, then, have I let Eternal Kingdom hijack the textual representation of Smith soiling himself mid-gig?

Here’s why: Eternal Kingdom shows a preoccupation with the possibilities of textual transformation and dissemination from which Smith would do well to learn. What I mean by this can best be compacted into a bit of New Historicism (remember, ‘both everything and nothing in a person’s life and background may be significant’). The album’s lyrics are taken from a diary, written by someone called Holger Nilsson (sectioned there for drowning his wife), which the band found in their rehearsal space (the remains of a mental hospital), after a relocation to a different wing of said institution. The band translated the diary from Swedish into English, and wrote an album around it. More significantly, the diary invents a world of sentient, malevolent forest (presided over by an entity known as the Owl God), which conveniently acquits Nilsson of culpability for his wife’s murder. An elaborate and self-deluding ‘us against them’ paradigm, no doubt, but also a way of looking at the world which finds an unlikely counterpart in Mark E. Smith’s consistent tunnel-vision. However, where Smith has settled to publish a crude, shallow set of anecdotes, Cult of Luna have used self-exempting insularity as their starting-point, and transformed it into a work of art. If one views this as slightly tongue-in-cheek (and, I think, it’s not overestimating the band, who are known readers of Chomsky – an erudition which provides another link to Isis, who drew on Chomsky’s onetime sparring-partner Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization for their third album, Panopticon – to suggest that they may, like Chomsky, be sceptical towards the ‘modes of distortion developed by substantial segments of the intelligentsia’ [N. Chomsky, M. Foucault {how coincidental!}, The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature {New York: The New Press, 2006}, p.69]), and more than a little self-interrogating (in that Nilsson’s demented polemic and Cult of Luna’s own earlier lyrical output share a certain bleakness of world-view), one is left with a cultural manifestation which takes all the chances that Renegade fails to take, and explores all the possibilities of the confessional narrative form which Renegade systematically ignores. That, as I have already mentioned, Cult of Luna owe something to Mark E. Smith’s impressive musical output provides a final, delectable, ironic garnish.

This is not the time to review Eternal Kingdom as a piece of music; it appears here because its lyrical content – the discourse of a madman – proved too authentic for Renegade, which attempts to paint Smith as an ultimately benign ‘loose cannon’, to withstand (stick that in your [this is not a] pipe, Foucault!). Smith’s neatly-packaged moneyspinner (which derives, like the band name The Fall, its title from Camus’s oeuvre, but, unlike The Fall, is far too ordinary to do so meaningfully) just doesn’t have the balls to stand up to a genuine, albeit insane, statement of subjectivity (a becoming-subjectivity which has overwhelmed this review and this reviewer: ‘the lunatics have taken over the asylum’, to borrow a phrase from countless appraisals of The Dark Knight). Unless, of course, we grant a knowing wink or two to Smith’s book (it’s only fair); perhaps it’s an elaborate mockery of individuals like Austin Collings (and, prior to reading this book, myself, a bit) who discuss Smith as if he’s some sort of post-punk messiah, incapable of doing anything which does not immeasurably benefit all of music. Perhaps Renegade is his way of critiquing the voguishness of ghostwritten autobiographies by people who have almost nothing to say (in the UK, statisticians for this phenomenon need probe no further than the 30 year-old glamour model Katie Price, who, with an efficacy worthy of St Augustine himself, has already masterminded three autobiographies). Maybe, therefore, Smith is self-satirizing to make a salient point about the unreasonable credibility granted to celebrities such as himself and Katie Price… but this sounds like the sort of strenuous apologia that Austin Collings might come up with (in the same way that Irvine Welsh sycophants frantically and inconvincingly claim that the paucity of his more recent prose is parodic of the bildungsroman style of Jane Austen), and I don’t buy my own hypothesis. Renege on Renegade: if you crave distilled dementia, listen to Eternal Kingdom instead.

Author: Goran Child, Special to CC2K

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