Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mark E. Smith: Renegade

By the time you’re done with the first paragraph from Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith you know he’s an asshole.

As if there were any doubt beforehand, I suppose. Smith’s role as the lone member of The Fall for the past 35 years should be indicative enough of his problematic character. “Problematic” I suppose if you were one of the legions of Fall members to pass through its line-up during that time.

Smith has a penchant for speaking his mind, having a few drinks and getting physical with fellow bandmates if the situation requires. The first paragraph details an incident from a few years back when the band line-up had just gotten underway for a tour of the U.S. in support of their album Fall Heads Roll.

A prophetic title if there ever was one, for a week into the tour the entire band (except his wife, Elena) and the road manager, all abruptly quit after a gig in Arizona. Actually, the road manager quit before the gig, taking the transportation with him, leaving the three unhappy band members to pass on this important bit of information to their tempestuous leader.

It all culminated on stage that night, when the three received the support of the opening band who pelted the lead singer with fruit in solidarity towards Fall guitarist Ben Pritchard, who had earlier been the recipient of Mark throwing half-eaten banana pieces at him.

I know. It’s complicated. But the shit of it is that M.E.S. had another band in place, in a foreign country, mind you-put together to finish the tour and not miss a date.

What’s more, the same band cobbled together an entire record together, Reformation Post TLC, and Mark cites it as a record he’s proud of. While the fact that it got made at all is impressive, the reality is that Reformation would hardly qualify as a noteworthy entry in their vast catalog, now past 30 studio efforts.

In fact, many of the acknowledged Fall classics are either dismissed entirely or given brief mention. The bulk of Renegade is devoted to Smith’s opinion, mostly about other people, put also regarding sports, cities, musicians, writers, politics, drinking, drugs, facial hair, pretty much any topic that’s been related to The Fall in one manner or another.

And he doesn’t worry about how it makes him look, raking such sacred cows like John Lennon and Joe Strummer over the barbeque. Kind words are saved for few, and apologies are even rarer.

Kind words are offered to Jerry Lee Lewis. M.E.S. tells a story of bandmate Alan Wise who quit the Fall to work with The Killer and Chuck Berry, thinking that it would be an easier gig than working for Smith. Wise found out that neither legend communicated in the slightest with the backing band. Smith later attends one of the gig, enthusiastically cheering Lewis on, mostly for his performance, but part of me also believes a little bit of the enthusiasm was for Jerry’s poor treatment of Wise.

Smith also gives praise for simple, hometown characters like his grandfather (hated King Kong so much that he completely swore off films), a local Mancunian who bought him a few drinks when he was broke, the guy he collaborated with on I Am Curious, Orange, and his current wife, Elena Poulou.

Speaking of, Smith is surprisingly mild-mannered concerning the topic of ex-wife Brix Smith, who evidently has stopped using his last name since Mark brought it up in the book.

Far from just entirely a book about Mark’s opinion of others, Renegade does follow his decent into drink, including the rationalization of his obvious reliance of alcohol. It’s hard to tell if his vices have any real detriment to his quality, as the past 10 years have been more productive and better received than the decade before it.

The bottle certainly isn’t doing anything positive to his health, and it’s certainly created some unecessary drama away from his talent. He explains a spat with a former bandmate that got him thrown in jail in N.Y.C. as a drunken misunderstanding. Mark thought certain band members were using narcotics, so he got loaded, beat on their hotel door and subsequently got arrested for threatening a female band member during the confrontation.

He details his fear while residing in the tombs, surrounded by real criminals and from the honest fear of sharing a holding cell with a bunch of big black men and sociopaths at Rikers. Instead of considering how his actions were probably not the most effective way of dealing with the situation, he instead proceeds to blame the woman who put him there for failing to appreciate that getting thrown in the clink in America is a much more serious prospect here than over in England.

At the same time, Renegade makes it sound as if Smith has this rock and roll thing figured out pretty well. He just needs to determine out the limits of his vices and conceal them better. He views touring as a way in which he can pour on the excess, as it were, because someone else is picking up the tab.

So how is that different than anything that, say, Keith Richards has been doing? There really isn’t much difference, except that Smith’s line of work pays much, much less than probably even the session players receive on a Stones tour. With that in mind, Smith doesn’t have the luxury of being able to afford expensive lawyers when things go south, or eat the cost of a recording studio when the band up and walks out.

“Lads with no guts. I can’t stand them”

Renegade makes it very clear that Smith has enough guts to keep doing this, moving forward in each moment, even when adversity is right in front of him. Even when he feels that all of that adversity is because of someone else’s incompetency, at least, according to Mark’s reasoning.

While the title of “renegade” is still debatable after reading through this fun tirade of Smith’s side of things, it is unquestionable that the title of “living legend” aptly applies.

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