Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mark E. Smith with Austin Collings – ‘Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith’

It took me the first hundred pages to get over the disappointment that this book is ghost written. How much of a media cliché is that? Given, too, how much of it Smith devotes to his famous work ethic, how no-one reads these days (except, apparently, in Germany and Scotland), how the feel of Hex Enduction Hour is novelistic, how his play ‘Hey! Luciani’ grew almost involuntarily from songs for Bend Sinister, it feels pretty lazy. I thought of his contribution to Chris Roberts’ Idle Worship book, typed on a typewriter with scribblings out and a stipulation that it had to appear as presented, none of that nasty typesetting. Which finds an echo of an echo here in the ‘Voices’ segments, in an all too neat monospaced typewriter font, presenting some of Smith’s free associations, of the kind he describes himself picking through for lyrics. Much of the time, the ‘proper’ chapters give the strong impression that they have been compiled from conversations, with the result that they are genial rather than electrifying. Which makes for a nice easy read. We learn a little about Mark’s childhood:

I devised this thing called ‘Japanese prison camp’. I’d make [my three sisters] sit in this room under a table with a big cloth over them because the air force might be coming. I’d be the Japanese guard. ‘You can’t go out. You must stay under there,’ I’d tell them. Then I’d shut the door, say I was going to the bridge on the River Kwai, have some pop, go out with my mates and, half an hour before mam and dad came home, I’d return, saying, ‘Japanese prison camp is now over.’ (p. 14)

It’s hard not to think that he might have barked these commands through a cardboard tube. We learn that he doesn’t think much of anyone who was ever in The Fall apart from his wife Elena (Burns, Hanley and Scanlon get a scathingly brief mention, accompanied with the comment, ‘I’ll only talk about the following for the benefit of the ghost-writer and the publishers’ (p. 54)), but we probably knew that already. We discover the Fall albums he actually rates (what’s so great about Extricate? Though he’s right about The Infotainment Scan.) There are many digressions, into The Stooges, Manchester, Edinburgh, thick journalists, the thick state of thick society. It’s all mixed in, and often feels quite slight.

The exception to this is chapter 17, ‘The March of the Gormless Bastards’, in which Smith tells the story of the disastrous 1998 American tour, on which the band bizarrely tried to split from The Fall as The Ark (‘Mark without the M’ (p. 207), he points out), understandably causing tensions. There was an onstage fight, after which Mark ended up getting arrested and held in custody for two nights. During which:

‘Wilson – what’s in your urine?’ And he goes, ‘I don’t know, and I don’t care.’ And then onto the Puerto Ricans, and theirs is all pure. And then they get to this black guy and he’s got it all – VD, the clap, crack, heroin, the green scum, the lot – all in this tube. And some of the guys are saying, ‘That’s our Bo-Bo, always flying the flag!’ and the guy in question’s slumped down, dribbling, saying, ‘Well, it was a good night.’ (p. 211)

This really has nothing to do with anything, but the few pages during which Smith describes his time in custody, the police incompetence, the scary bastards he’s in with, and his own edginess in the company of same, is the only passage in the book which approaches the overwhelming paranoid feel of Hex Enduction Hour, and this is a shame. Could you try a novel next, Mark?

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