The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise
Brix Smith Start
London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 2017
XII + 461 pp.
It is a slightly curious thing that Brix Smith Start writes so much and so intensely of her family life while the three names she uses are all exonymous in that they were conferred on her through adult relationships she had established. She was born Laura Elisse Salenger in Los Angeles in 1962. Her glamour, blondeness, Jewishness all seem far removed from her career with The Fall and her quite short marriage to the group’s central figure Mark E. Smith (who seems to have had a complex and possibly contradictory relationship with Germany, the Second World War and Jewish people – at one stage a second female member of the band, keyboard player Marcia Schofield, who was tall and striking and also Jewish and Brix writes of Smith’s fascination with both of them). Yet despite all the other things she has done in her life (she is only two years older than me so I hope she may have many more productive years in front of her), it is her time with The Fall that seems to be central to most readers’ interest and is certainly paced centrally in this autobiography. It is not always an easy story to read and it was not, presumably, a very easy story to tell. She concludes her acknowledgements with “This book was written in bed(s) (p.461)” and given her self-reported issues with mental health it is not difficult to imagine that tears and sighs accompanied the words as they were forced out of her memory.
There are three principal sections: before The Fall, The Fall, after The Fall (and a return). The first and final sections are enlivened by the presence of animals, who bring cheer and emotional support to Brix. It is difficult to imagine MES taking care of any kind of animal successfully but there is a cat, Frau, which she is able to look after and which urinates on the Smith microphone, perhaps in wordless feline sympathy. Other cats had been introduced by former girlfriend Kay Carroll. He seemed to have been oblivious to them but they did survive – as I have written elsewhere, the City Hobgoblin persona was not the only aspect to his character.
As the daughter of a noted West Coast psychotherapist of some sort and a mother who had been a model, worked in a brokerage and then as a researcher for CBS, when she bought a convertible Porsche for her personal use, it is clear that the young Laura had many advantages in life and a form of Californian social capital that in many cases acts as the basis of confidence and happiness. Unfortunately, Laura is troubled – her father is described as abusive on an emotional level (it is not clear to me exactly what he has done that is so bad but she is quite firm on this) and, like many people who go to secondary school in the USA, she seems to have found it difficult to establish her identity and role in society. Important features in her life include Disneyworld, music and a willingness to experiment with drugs of various sorts. Her musical tastes bring her the nickname Brix, after the Clash song The Guns of Brixton. There are some exciting interludes and some dangerous ones. She suffers physical abuse and is raped. The mental health issues might be related to this period, although it is always problematic to assign cause and effect in such cases. She speaks several times of the anorexia that she experiences as a means of trying to control at least one aspect of her body. However, she dates her relationship with bulimia to when she was four years old.
Act 2 is ushered in when she is introduced to the music of The Fall (Slags, Slates seems to have been her favourite LP, well EP) and then meets MES in a night club. She was apparently almost immediately smitten with him and soon she is moving to sunny Manchester to be his wife – to outraged protestations from various family members. She was very young when the name Smith became appended to the Brix.
After six weeks, Brix flies to the UK, knowing very little about it: “I never expected Manchester to be so grim. Glowering, Victorian red-brick buildings lined the sides of the streets. They looked like mean structures, where horrible atrocities had been committed in decades past. The sky was toxic: heavy, with ominous grey clouds. The few people I saw, as we rode in the back of the taxi from Piccadilly train station to Prestwich, seemed joyless. Nobody smiled (pp.167-8).” She goes on to observe: “I didn’t expect Mark to be so poor. Once I got past the cats and got a good look at the flat, I was shocked (p.169).” It was all a long way from the LA sunshine. Nonetheless, she does her best to brighten up the world by inserting poppy guitar riffs and upbeat backing vocals into some Fall songs and persuading MES to record music which people could actually understand the words. There is a measure of commercial success and the band briefly wears designer clothes. The creative process, though, was subject to the drink and drug-fuelled mood swings of MES and his desire to maintain a tyrannical grip over the nature and direction of the group and its music. Brix goes through the various LPs on which she worked and takes the understandable but perhaps flawed approach that the more she appears on a record, the better the record is. We now know how all of this ends: Smith behaves increasingly badly, other women are involved and he breaks up with her. Heartbreak and depression follow.
The third act follows Brix and her reinvention, eventually, as a remarried woman (hence the Start part of her name) via somewhat manic episodes with punk violin star Nigel Kennedy (whose opinions of her musical ability would be interesting to read) and her fashion retail empire and then appearances with Gok Wan on the television (I remember the first time I saw the programme on an Asian Food and Lifestyle channel unexpectedly. I had no idea). There is a lot more along the way – indeed, reviewing the book for this piece, I was surprised how long and important both the first and third sections were, which is perhaps a symptom of my own bias. However, I was only interested in the book because of Brix’s life with The Fall and others with the same interest will find many fascinating details and insights here.