Quintessentially Postmodern

Mark E. Smith. Dublin, 2008.

The first time I saw The Fall live was also the last. I was under tremendous pressure, both at work and at home. The band was late. The club was hot. I tried to distract myself by drinking, but that only made matters worse. I wanted to leave, but knew I couldn’t drive home. It was my birthday. I was depressed. Conditions were perfect.

By the time The Fall came on stage, with Mark E. Smith following a few minutes later, I was perfectly attuned to their insistent, yet messy shamble. His voice merged with the one inside my head. Although I couldn’t make out many of the words, I could feel them, as if they were cutting a groove right through me.

My normal inclination is to hide any bad feelings from others and, if possible, from myself. But that night I suddenly felt the urge to revel in them. Instead of turning away from the darkness, I plunged right into it, as if that were the only way I could make it back into the light.

Was it one of the band’s better shows? Probably not. But it was definitely the best show of their last American tour, because it was the only one. The next night, while playing 100 miles north in Phoenix, Smith’s latest supporting cast disintegrated at the concert venue. According to my friend, who opened for The Fall that night, it unfolded “just like one of their songs”.

That seems fitting, somehow. More fitting than the by-the-book shows they played in Europe and Australia in subsequent years. Before the band went on in Tucson, as I was sinking deeper and deeper into a mire of self-loathing, I tried to rescue myself with irony. Turning to my friend Sean, who was doing his best to shelter me from a drunken woman from work, who kept propositioning me, I commented during the interlude that had followed the opening act, on the strange projection of exceedingly “80s” frame grabs to the accompaniment of a soundscape so over-amplified it was on the verge of dissolving into white noise.

“This is the show,” I told him. “This is all there’s going to be. It’s quintessentially postmodern.” Although I said it for laughs, many people had told me beforehand that the band might cancel. I couldn’t imagine a more apt conclusion to a shitty birthday capping off what had undoubtedly been the shittiest year of my life. If I was in a kind of sorting-hat purgatory, waiting to find out whether I’d be sent to heaven or hell, then not finding out my destination would be the least satisfying outcome of all.

My shock at hearing The Fall actually play one song after another, with minimal deviation from their typical script, was rapidly transmuted into whatever the dark counterpart of delight is. I drunkenly stomped by foot and shook my head, missing the segües from one song into another, but still remarking, despite my compromised state, that there had to be an art to seeming so totally artless.

The repetitive grooves that can make many Fall albums tedious in the wrong context – like when you feel so bad that you decided to listen to several Fall albums in succession — worked really well live. Even if I frequently had the impression that Smith was singing in a foreign language, his snarl sounded like another instrument, perfectly complementing the backing musicians even as it articulated disdain for their dedication to order. Only their cover of “I Can Hear the Grass Grow” distinguished it from the murky roil, it’s chorus brutally repudiating everything the trippy original holds dear. Smith seemed to relish turning its latent utopianism inside out, underscoring the price we pay for trying to tune in and turn on. And for once, despite my intense nostalgia for the psychedelic 1960s I was too young to experience, I supported this sentiment 100%.

Listening to The Fall’s catalogue yesterday, after learning of Smith’s death, I was struck again by just how remarkably consistent the band was over the years, despite its longstanding valourization of the sounds-like-a-throwaway fragment. Whoever was playing the instruments, whatever they were playing, they never seemed to improve or decline. Every studio album had at least one track that could have been from a record thirty many years earlier or later. The band might not have made much progress during its decades of existence, but it certainly wasn’t regressing into nostalgia, either.

As we say goodbye to Smith, I want to acknowledge that curious combination of contemporaneity and ahistoricity. The band might never have achieved much success on the charts – especially obvious here in the States —  but they refused to sell out or buy in. It’s a powerful example. Rest in peace, Mark.

Photograph courtesy of Fiona. Published under a Creative Commons license.