Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith
Mark E. Smith with Austin Collings
London: Penguin Books, 2009
X + 240 pp.
“To certain people you’ve got yo be a bit poetic, or a bit aggressive. They have their image of you – and I play up to it. But it’s a protection, a screen. I can pull it out when I need it, because with some people you do need it (p.71).”
I avoided reading this book for some years, at least in part because I didn’t want to get too close to the City Hobgoblin persona that Smith was fond of portraying and, also, because I rather drifted away from The Fall and from most music for a number of years. When I returned to it, all the musicians were different and there was not the same sense of connection – no Steve Hanley? Where is Karl Burns? Craig Scanlon? Not even a Brix?
However, with the illness and death of the great man earlier this year, I realised it was time for me to get to grips with The Fall overall and not just my relationship to the group (of almost 40 years). I started with Hanley’s The Big Midweek (which is reviewed elsewhere on this site) and others will follow (I have three to hand as I write this). The front cover of Renegade is also slightly off-putting – there is Smith, stagily pouring beer from a bottle into a glass and looking rather haggard. We now know, of course, that he had been struggling with cancer for some years but it is also true that the later years marked a quite rapid decline both in his writing and also, apparently, in his behaviour: he ended up after all in prison in the USA and could have been banged up for quite some time had events fallen out differently. This episode is not fully explained here (in fact, almost nothing of a factual nature is explained satisfactorily throughout the whole book) but there is evidence from elsewhere that sheds some more light on the issue. Smith claims that he was on the verge of being shipped off to Rikers Island, perhaps never to return (despite protesting his mostly innocence) but there is no independent verification of this.
It is not just his writing that went downhill – where once his writing had been dense, difficult, infuriatingly hard to make out but always enjoyable when it could be interpreted, later it degenerated in sophistication and content, with a number of songs seemingly taking revenge on band members or past lovers. The music itself became less interesting as Smith’s stature and endurance increased in relation to newer band members (and this relationship was reinforced structurally by the judicious choice of credits when it came to being paid) and he insisted on simplicity and control of the sound. This was made evident during gigs when he would wander around the stage, turning down amplifiers and dismantling the equipment. In part, this behaviour seemed to result from questionable lifestyle choices:
“At least you know where you are with booze. You drink two bottles of whisky and wake up in the morning, you know you’ve done something wrong, you know you won’t be doing it again. But experience tells you it’ll lift soon. And with liquor, if you drink any more, you’ll be dead. You can’t move. But with E you start seeing chickens on the road – I know I was (p.178).”
I was not a fan of the interference with the music – in the early period of his career when I was listening to The Fall quite intensively (Dragnet was my first LP), the voice and the lyrics were integral parts of a much bigger whole. Smith announced that if it were just him and ‘your granny on bongos,’ then it would still be The Fall. He then set out to prove this, often by sacking musicians when on tour and leaving them stranded in remote parts of the rural areas of other countries. It would only be when he contemplated performing on an otherwise empty stage that he would be obliged to reconsider.
All of these issues are extraneous to the merits of the book, of course, although they do indicate the reasons why I cannot approach the text in an objective and non-judgmental manner. So what is the text like? Well, it contains an extraordinary series of rants, with truth proving less attractive than a good line of invective. It is quite difficult to quote examples of this because of the relentless use of expletives, which I don’t particularly mind myself but do not want to include on this site. There are chapters about football (gone to hell in a handcart), other music (pretty much all rubbish) and various relationships (nearly everyone in the world is deficient in some way and has probably done him wrong behind his back at some stage). It is all very funny and plays well, as I said at the beginning, to his City Hobgoblin persona. Some of it may even be true. It was noticeable when the obituaries and discussion of his life was in full flight how fulsome in praise his various women were (brix, Elena, his sisters) about his chivalrous manners, his kindness and gentility. He had, I suppose, many sides to his character.