Life lessons: Mark E Smith on bullying, the occult and why Stalin had the right idea

Nothing's ever been Mark E Smith's fault – not the punch-ups, not the break-ups; least of all his band's constantly changing line-ups. At least that's what the man with the most malevolent snarl in music tells Robert Chalmers

On the train from Euston to Manchester, I find my thoughts turning to some of the things Mark E Smith doesn't care for. They include, in no particular order: doctors, Cheshire, Jane Austen, Manchester United, The Guardian, David Bowie, the NYPD, "soft lads who blab", red wine, Australia, Princess Diana, "proles", the smoking ban, psychologists, Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer ("They look like policemen. I bet they go shopping together"), liberals who opposed the Falklands War, Brighton ("Shit pubs, shit atmosphere"), JRR Tolkien, dogs, Kojak ("He's a twat"), and giving interviews.

Generally speaking, outspoken criticism of things you detest can significantly restrict your popularity. This has never happened in Smith's case, perhaps because his range of dislikes is so disparate: as the above list would indicate, there is something there for everybody.

Mark E Smith, one of the few figures in the music business who can legitimately be described as a legend, has spent 35 years as oberführer of The Fall. He has a reputation as a man who does not suffer fools – or anybody else – gladly. A brilliantly original lyricist with an occasional propensity for violence, Smith is a man who believes that the pen is mightier than the sword, but has not always had a pen to hand. He once famously left his false teeth in somebody's glove compartment. According to one associate, he has threatened to stab a man for waking him up. He is reputed to have fired a sound man for having ordered a salad.

"I don't recognise those negative images of Mark at all," the poet John Cooper Clarke once told me. "In my experience, he has always conducted himself like a perfect gentleman."

 

When he joins me at a table in the bar of the Malmaison hotel, Smith, who's wearing an immaculately pressed shirt and black leather jacket, is courteous and friendly. A collision with a lamp-post a few years ago, which broke his hip, has left him with a slight limp. He orders lager and a large Jameson. He looks, to use one of his favourite phrases, like somebody who has seen trouble. "Manchester has produced many men of this kind," he once wrote, of others. "Hard men with hard livers; faces like un-made beds."

You don't need to read the many biographies to sense that he's no stranger to the joy of amphetamines. There are several things about Smith that remind me of the late Alex Higgins. Aside from his pattern of drinking (un-hurried but relentless), there's his slight physical stature (about 5ft 9in) and soft-spoken manner: those latter attributes make you wonder where he got the idea that violence might be a useful solution to life's difficulties. "I like to push people," Smith tells me, "till I get the truth out of them. Get them drunk, or whatever. Then discover what they really think. Push them and push them and push them."

He has just completed work on Ersatz GB, the Fall's 29th studio album. It's well up to the dazzling mean standard of its predecessors. The singer, 54, is from Lower Broughton in Salford, an area overwhelmingly populated by Manchester United fans. Smith, predictably, supports City.

He now lives in the less challenging northern neighbourhood of Prestwich with his wife, Greek-born Elena Poulou. I grew up in south Manchester, a part of the city he satirises as middle-class, even though it includes Moss Side, Longsight and Whalley Range; areas which don't quite conform to his vision of the southside as a place where "people sit around wearing deerstalkers, sipping sherry".

In fact, Smith explains, it's the Manchester area as a whole that he doesn't like. "I fucking hate Manchester. I was in Cardiff recently. You should see the shops there. They're fantastic. I had this breakfast in Cardiff; I could have eaten it every day. All the food was great. Manchester – the food, the shops – has always been crap."

The tirade is his default form of communication, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he's joking. As The Fall's greatest supporter, the late John Peel, remarked in Dionne Newton's inspired 2004 documentary The Wonderful and Frightening World of Mark E Smith, "You can never be certain what you're going to get. Sometimes it may not be what you want."

Live, the force of Smith's malevolent snarl, delivered against a barrage of sound (that last phrase may have become a queasy cliché, but with The Fall it's the only one that will do) remains undiminished. Even if your musical tastes run to nothing more abrasive than Mozart or Mantovani, it would, I'd suggest, be an interesting experience to see The Fall perform at least once in your life. (Even if, as in Edinburgh nine days ago, you risk paying for a show where Smith disappears off stage for most of the evening, leaving his audience infuriated.) They are less a pop group, more a force of nature.

If his influences – German electronic ensemble Can, the Stooges and the Velvet Underground – remain discernible, Smith is a genuine original. There has always been something about him that suggests he is in touch with some other reality.

His admirers include the comedian Stewart Lee and the broadcaster Danny Baker, who was one of the first to have the wit to appreciate the oddly compelling poetry of titles such as "Hex Enduction Hour", "Bingo Master's Breakout" and "How I Wrote 'Elastic' Man".

If you're unfamiliar with The Fall's recordings, you might recognise their work from films ("Hip Priest" is used in The Silence of the Lambs) or television: Smith's music has been used to advertise such unlikely products as the Vauxhall Corsa. ("I needed the money. We're not all Elton John.")

The band was formed in 1976, since when Smith has lost or dismissed at least 66 members. Whereas most groups of great longevity have been hippie collectives, such as the Grateful Dead, The Fall has been composed of transient line-ups whose common denominators have been venom, fist-fights and resentment. The most famous former member is the BBC Radio 6 DJ Mark Riley, who, despite having been fired on his wedding day, still describes Smith as "a genius".

When musicians depart, Smith tends to seek replacements who have little or no experience. "I mould them," he tells me, "like a football manager. I'm a bit like Alex Ferguson."

There's a whole book – The Fallen, published in 2008 by Dave Simpson – dedicated to the memories of former collaborators. Smith doesn't emerge particularly well, especially in the field of what might be termed man's inhumanity to woman. Poulou is his third wife; his first was American guitarist Laura Salenger, better known as Brix Smith, from 1983 to 1989. He contracted a brief second alliance with Saffron Prior, who ran his fan club. Elena, who married him in 2001, currently plays keyboards for The Fall.

His former musicians, he tells me, were "dickheads who couldn't hold their beer and needed to get home to Cheshire".

"Even so, firing a man for ordering a salad..."

"The salad was the last straw."

"So you do remember who it was?"

Smith gives me a mutinous glance. "No."

"If I understand correctly, you've sacked people on a whim."

"I would never do that. I've been sacked myself. Nobody ever hears my side of the story."

"Why not?"

"I never tell it. I've only fired half as many people as you'd think. The others left, to go back to their humdrum bleeding lives. And that's the point where they start to appreciate how nice I was to them."

Like his role model Sir Alex, Smith is a very tactile person, even with strangers. We're sitting side by side; at intervals he gives me a tap on the arm which, depending on the subject of conversation, varies in force from gentle to ominously robust.

"Being in The Fall," he says, "isn't like being in another group. It isn't a holiday. A lot of musicians are really hard to deal with. They aren't as smart as me..." Smith realises the vanity of this last statement. "Or you," he adds. k

If there's a single adjective that describes him least well it would be "biddable". Interviewed live, he has unsettled seasoned journalists, including Gavin Esler of Newsnight. At the same time he can be very funny, and his habit of dispensing casual insults is reminiscent of Hunter S Thompson, a writer whose work – like that of Camus, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Nabokov and countless others – he knows intimately. "A lot of guys from the Southern states are like Thompson," he says. "They rib you – but it's a sort of compliment, too."

There are certain professions in which Smith could never have excelled (conflict resolution springs to mind). That said, it isn't impossible to imagine him having become a playwright, or teacher. It was not the course his life would take.

He speaks scornfully of his biographers, even those who – like Austin Collings, ghostwriter on his 2008 memoir Renegade, and Mick Middles, who produced The Fall (latest edition also 2008) – collaborated with him. Middles' book seems to make him particularly uneasy, I suspect because it includes details of his family life: an area where the singer, these days, volunteers only name, rank and number.

Later this afternoon, when I ask him about his relationship with Brix, his second wife, who subsequently took up with the violinist Nigel Kennedy, the raps on my arm will be at their sharpest. At one point, when we're on the subject of Brix, I notice the barman staring at us: I think because he has never seen two customers side by side both wearing the horrified expressions of men going down that terrible first drop of the Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island.

Middles' book includes a lengthy interview with the musician's mother Irene, who describes how Mark met his first significant partner Una Baines at a works party, and returned home stained with vomit. Smith, according to Irene, who still lives in north Manchester (Mark's father, Jack, died suddenly in 1989) was top of his class at primary school for two years running. He passed the 11-plus and went to Stand Grammar School. He did not enjoy the experience.

"I think," I tell him, "that you must have been poorly taught. Were you bullied at school?"

"I was picked on because I was timid. I had younger sisters; I couldn't turn to them for help. I didn't have an older brother."

"Did you say 'timid'?"

"I only had problems," Smith says, regretting that admission of vulnerability, "for a week. Then it changed."

"How did you resolve that?"

"I..." [to the waiter] "Can I have a Jameson's please? A double. I've forgotten what we're talking about, Robert."

"Trouble at school."

"I stuck up for myself. I don't like people going round saying, 'I was bullied at school.' My dad was attached to the Black Watch [military regiment]. In fucking 1945. In Salford. He said, 'If you think you're being bullied at school...' – this was when I was about six –'you try the Black Watch.'"

"The word 'timid' would surprise a lot of people."

"That's true. People are fucking shit scared of me."

"I imagine that's a face you put on when you need to."

"Well... I don't want security guards. I don't think," Smith adds, with typically dry humour, "security guards are particularly good for your writing."

He left school at 16, took a job on Salford docks and enrolled in an A-level literature night class.

"I'd been reading [Welsh author] Arthur Machen – The Novel of the White Powder. A great drug book. At night school they gave us EM Forster: A Passage to India. I found that harder to relate to."

"Did you take the exam?"

"No. I left. I felt like saying – I was too polite then, but what I felt like saying was, listen: I am paying for these classes out of my own wages from the docks. What about Norman Mailer? Or Henry Miller? The teacher had never heard of them."

"I met Mark in 1973," Una Baines told me. "We shared a passion for books, politics and music. We read Orwell and Huxley; he introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut. He took on board things like sexual equality, which was unusual at the time, certainly for a 16-year-old. He seemed wise for a young man. Back then he was my best friend. I prefer to keep those memories, rather than the insanity that was to come."

His father and grandfather were plumbers.

"Do you resemble your dad?"

A firm rap on the arm.

"How?"

"In character."

"I don't know. What is the fashion for all this?"

"All this what?"

"Questions about people's parents."

"Was your dad proud of you?"

"It turned out he was. He never let on at the time. I found out later, from his friends. Showing emotion wasn't a thing you did." Either then, Smith's expression suggests, or now. By way of distraction, he embarks on a furious rant about new restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter cold cures.

 

The initial congregation of The Fall was largely inspired by its members' shared interest in creative writing. Smith was joined by Baines on keyboards, inspirational guitarist Martin Bramah, bass player Tony Friel and (shortly afterwards) Steve Ormrod on drums. "I never met the 'timid' Mark Smith," Bramah told me. By the time I knew him he was more like Flashman crossed with Billy Liar."

I was at school, I tell Smith, with one of Steve Ormrod's friends. "What happened to him exactly?" he asks.

"Apparently he walked down to a railway line, took off his jacket, folded it neatly, and put his head on the track." (This was in 1994; there is no suggestion that his connection with The Fall contributed to his suicide.)

A shame, Smith says; he was a nice lad.

The Fall were an unusual group from the start, in that they seemed to arrive fully formed: an aberrant powerhouse that, over the years, would prove to be, in John Peel's words, "Always different, always the same."

Peel once told me, talking about Smith, who was probably the DJ's most consistently cherished protégé, how he found it odd to admire somebody's work, "when you suspect you'd find some of their attitudes utterly unappealing".

"It's true," says Smith, "that we didn't meet often."

"But you were a good left-wing boy when you started out, weren't you?"

"Yes. SWP. Hard-left." He fell out with his local Labour group after they opposed military intervention in the Falklands.

"I'm much more left now, though. I think Stalin had the right idea. Take one out of five fucking newspaper editors, and MPs, and shoot them. Then they'd buck up."

Smith bursts out laughing.

"Listen, you know I'm not really like that. Members of my family are social workers. They work hard. And now, after 13 years, they're being sent for an interview to re-apply for their job, competing with some graduate from Wilmslow. A friend told me he met Cameron, who said he was at Live Aid. We have fucking Glastoheads running the country. People like Geldof, who is a dickhead. They're not even as intelligent as him."

By contrast with the tone of his work and opinions, Smith has a side to him that is positively conservative.

"You've said publicly that you felt you should marry a woman if you wanted to live with her; you married Una Baines [Smith didn't, actually, but says nothing] and after her..."

"And after her," he interrupts, "the name that must not be uttered."

Brix Smith, a psychologist's daughter from LA, met Mark in Chicago and played with The Fall from 1983 to 1989 (returning for a shorter spell in 1994). They married in 1983 and divorced six years later. Her name barely figures in Renegade. Brix, who now runs a successful fashion business, was widely credited (falsely, Smith asserts) with inspiring the band to dress more sharply, and facilitating singles that grazed the British charts, notably their version of the R Dean Taylor classic, "There's a Ghost in My House".

"How did you meet Laura?"

"Why do you want to know? Is it to do with your own sexual orientation?" Smith pauses. "I'm glad you asked, actually. But if I said what I knew about... Brix," (he pronounces the syllable in the kind of tone a dictator might k use when mentioning the name of some catastrophic military defeat), "it wouldn't be the right thing to print in any paper. When we split up, it was amazing, the support I got."

"You were in need of support?"

"Not support. Not support. I didn't need... You know, Robert," says Smith, "I really don't think you're very good at this interviewing thing. I think maybe you should have gone into some other trade." He looks at me, head tilted, as though pondering what activity I might have been more suited to: accounting, chiropody, or pétanque.

"I ask," I persevere, "because you and Brix seemed a curious fit."

"Oh, I see. You're from south Manchester. So you're thinking: how can a dickhead like me marry..."

"Actually I was wondering, why Brix? She was, presumably, special to you?"

"I'll say this. When I first met her, she thought Armani was an Italian dessert, and Chanel was the French word for that stretch of water between Dover and Calais. OK?"

"I thought she was posh." [Brix Smith, like Andrea Dworkin and Bret Easton Ellis, attended Bennington College in Vermont.]

"Listen, I come from a society where, if you married young, your life was over. So I waited, and I met Brix. And then the Angel – Nigel Whateverhisname [Kennedy] – turned up. I won't hear a word against Nigel," says Smith, with the very slightest hint of sarcasm. "You think of all the women you might have settled down with. Now think about what they look like now. They look horrendous. They look..." Smith pauses. "They look... like you. Don't get me wrong," he adds, with a playful leer. "You have a certain magnetism."

"Is there anything in your past you feel you should apologise for?"

"No. I have never molested a woman or hit anybody who didn't deserve it."

"Can you think of anything that went wrong through your fault?"

"In music, or life?"

"Either."

"No."

Who knows how deep that guilt runs? ("If I apologised for everything I ever did wrong," he once said, "I wouldn't have a day left to me, in my life.")

"How about you?" Smith asks. "Any regrets?"

"I regret turning down an invitation to contribute to Perverted by Language, that [2007] book of fiction where they asked various writers to compose a short story based on a Fall title." (One contributor who had the sense to accept was Stewart Lee.)

"That book," says Smith, "was shite."

Entertaining company though he is, I tell Smith that I know I wouldn't last a week working for him. I've heard too many stories – the punch-up on stage in New York in April 1998; the subsequent fracas with band-member Julia Nagle (now Adamson) in a New York hotel room.

Smith was arrested and charged with third-degree assault and harassment in relation to Adamson: a curiously harsh decision bearing in mind his own account, the limit of his violence towards her was to have shouted too loudly and used her as a human ashtray – he says he extinguished a cigarette "on her trainer" causing her to "think she's being abused".

After that unpleasantness at the Quality Hotel Eastside, Manhattan, Smith was briefly removed to a New York jail. "My bowels," he said, "were liquid with fear." An American magistrate dispatched him to a rehab programme in Bury. You can pity only the moderator in that doomed exercise. She could have sold tickets.

"I am," Smith insisted, "always the scapegoat."

Adamson now runs her own successful record label. But I do know one other ex-member who dines out, in what is frankly a rather tragic and repetitive fashion, on having been in The Fall.

"They nearly all do that," Smith says. "They talk about it like they fought in Vietnam. They suffer from – what's that thing the Americans get?"

"Post-traumatic stress disorder?"

"No. What's it called... selective memory. After a while they'll say, 'Oh he was great, Mark.' At the time all I heard was: 'You're a thief. You drink. I will kill you.'"

For a man capable of such self-focus, he has broad and surprising interests. Smith has considerable knowledge of fine art – whether you're talking about William Blake, Grayson Perry or his regular album illustrator Pascal Legras.

A student of the occult, he taught himself to read the Tarot. As a child, Smith says, "watches used to explode on me". Once, on a family holiday in Rhyl, he started speaking in tongues. ("It just happened. I don't know why.") He has also written about his talent for clairvoyance. "I used to hang around with psychics. It was pointless. They could never back a horse, could they?"

In Renegade he claims an "ability to see into the future. I guess you could relate it to the Tarot."

"You gave readings, didn't you?"

"Yes. It's bad luck to talk about that."

"But it's in your book."

"The publisher wanted it."

"Has it brought you bad luck?"

"No."

"You met your current wife Elena in 1996, in Berlin?"

"Yes."

Smith isn't about to return meekly to the subject of his sentimental life. "Are you married?" he asks.

"Yes."

"You fucking stupid bastard," Smith laughs, good-naturedly. "You big puff."

He calls for more drink. I feel a gentle tap on the arm. I think we're beginning to get on.

I suggest we walk up to Tib Street – as I remember it, a ramshackle paradise full of tropical-fish stores, seedy bookstalls and music shops.

"Tib Street used to be great, didn't it?" says Smith. "It's been gentrified. It's shit now."

We set off but get no further than The Castle Hotel, a welcoming pub and rock venue on Oldham Street, magnificently restored. "You know somebody said that if anyone wrote down the whole truth of their life, it would be a masterpiece?" I ask him.

"No."

"I suspect that's true in your case."

"I couldn't. I couldn't do it."

"Renegade doesn't give much away." (Certain passages can be described only as explosions of bile.) "Why did you write it?"

"Because of the other people with books out: Mick Middles. And that shit who wrote The Fallen."

"If I'd been editing Renegade I'd have told you not to make it too obvious when you were settling scores."

"I have no scores to settle."

We're joined by his friend Mark. He, like John Cooper Clarke and other of Smith's friends I've met, is polite, amusing and excellent company. It's not been the easiest of days, but I'm sorry to have to run for the last train to London.

"Never move back here, Robert," Smith says. "Manchester is terrible. Stay down south."

What, I ask, are his future plans?

"Me? I'm coming to live with you. Tomorrow."

I don't think, in the space of five hours, that I've ever seen a man exhibit so many diverse qualities as Mark E Smith. He has been, depending on the moment, witty, sullen, generous, recalcitrant, insightful, confrontational and solicitous. The one constant has been his mischievous tongue.

I leave him at a corner table. He's lost in his thoughts, observing the room. Unlike many seminal rock figures – and he is one – age suits him. ("He was like an old man," Martin Bramah had told me, "even when I first met him.") Here in the half-light, nursing a whiskey by an old oak table, he looks curiously timeless. Photograph him in sepia and you might mistake his face for one of those emotionally untouchable soldiers from the old days; people like Jack, his dad – battle-hardened men with a stubborn, impenetrable exterior. Mark E Smith would have suited that company very well, had he not been saddled with a curse: the inconvenient gift of sensitivity.

'Ersatz GB' is out tomorrow on Cherry Red. The Fall are touring until 26 November

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