“There’s a Ghost in My House”

DEAN BALLINGER re­calls the ec­cen­tric mu­si­cal ca­reer and curiously fortean ob­ses­sions of the late Mark E Smith

Fortean Times - - Contents - DEAN BALLINGER

The sin­gu­lar world­view, un­com­pro­mis­ing per­son­al­ity, and prodi­gious work ethic of Man­cu­nian singer Mark E Smith, who died on 24 Jan­uary aged 60, was re­spon­si­ble for es­tab­lish­ing his band The Fall as a cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion within the UK mu­sic scene. Smith’s cre­atively chaotic lead­er­ship sus­tained The Fall through an ec­cen­tric 40-year ca­reer marked by 66 line-up changes, 31 al­bums, and an in­ter­na­tional fol­low­ing for their dis­tinc­tive garage and krautrock in­fused post-punk.

Although Smith’s pre­dom­i­nant per­sona was that of a North­ern work­ing-class provo­ca­teur mak­ing with­er­ing ob­ser­va­tions on the state of the na­tion from the con­fines of his lo­cal pub, there were no­table fortean di­men­sions to his life and work. His highly dis­tinc­tive lyrics, which read like cryptic shards of a sui generis Man­cu­nian mod­ernism, of­ten re­flected his love of weird fic­tion by au­thors well-known for their fortean sen­si­bil­i­ties. These in­cluded the hor­ror sto­ries of HP Love­craft, MR James, and Arthur Machen. All three writ­ers’ the­matic fo­cus on (in Smith’s words) “the mun­dane ev­ery­day as a back­drop for great ter­ror” in­spired many Fall songs: no­table ex­am­ples in­clude ‘Spec­tre vs Rec­tor’ from 1979’s Drag­net, a tale of de­monic pos­ses­sion in Hamp­shire with a ‘cho­rus’ that di­rectly namechecks MR James along­side Love­craftian in­can­ta­tions such as ‘yog sothoth’ and ref­er­ences to Roger Cor­man’s 1960s Poe adap­ta­tions; and ‘Last Com­mands of Xyralothep Via MES’ from the 2003 al­bum The Real New Fall LP, in which Smith por­trays him­self as a medium chan­nelling sar­donic ad­mo­ni­tions from the Be­yond (“Avoid re­spectable tele­vi­sion and re­spectable news­pa­pers/ They have nei­ther the tal­ent of art/Or the in­stinc­tive snout of the me­dia”).

Philip K Dick’s para­noid sci-fi, with its themes of psy­chic and tem­po­ral dis­lo­ca­tion, sim­i­larly ap­pealed to fel­low speed­f­reak Smith, spawn­ing songs like the 1983 sin­gle ‘Wings’, about a man caught up in ‘time locks’ that cast him adrift across al­ter­nate time­lines. Smith must also be one of the few song­writ­ers to cite fortean favourite Colin Wil­son. ‘Deer Park’, from 1982’s aptly ti­tled Hex En­duc­tion Hour, gives a shout-out to Wil­son’s first ‘new ex­is­ten­tial­ist’ novel: “Have you been to the English Deer Park?/ It’s a large type artist ranch/This is where C Wil­son wrote Rit­ual in the Dark/ Have you been to the English Deer Park?” Smith’s fortean tastes in lit­er­a­ture were com­ple­mented by claims that he pos­sessed psy­chic abil­i­ties. In his mor­dantly hi­lar­i­ous 2008 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Rene­gade, he de­scribes moon­light­ing as a Tarot reader to help fund the band in its lean early years. By his own es­ti­ma­tion, Smith pos­sessed such in­nate tal­ent as a car­tomancer – “when peo­ple did a Tarot with me they’d walk away with their life changed” – that he had to quit the trade af­ter a year or two be­cause clients were be­com­ing too de­pen­dent on his read­ings.

His div­ina­tory pow­ers were, there­after, pre­sum­ably di­verted into his song-writ­ing. Sev­eral Smith as­so­ciates, par­tic­u­larly his ex-wife Brix (a key mem­ber of the band in its mid-80s hey­day), have at­tested to the pre­cog­ni­tive di­men­sions of his lyrics. For in­stance, in late 1986 The Fall re­leased the Bend Sin­is­ter al­bum, fea­tur­ing a song en­ti­tled ‘Terry Waite Sez’, about the tit­u­lar Angli­can en­voy who acted as a Mid­dle East hostage ne­go­tia­tor. The fo­cus on Waite would have been taken as a typ­i­cal piece of Smithian satire were it not for the fact that Waite was him­self kid­napped and held hostage shortly af­ter the al­bum’s re­lease, lead­ing to spec­u­la­tion that the song was a coded pre­dic­tion of one of the ma­jor news sto­ries of 1987. Sim­i­lar con­jec­ture sur­rounded the song ‘Pow­der Keg’ from the 1996 al­bum The Light User Syn­drome. Lyrics such as “I had a dream/Bruised and coloured/It’s go­ing to hurt me/ Manch­ester city cen­tre” struck many lis­ten­ers as pre­scient of the IRA bomb­ing of cen­tral Manch­ester that oc­curred on 15 of June that year, five days af­ter the al­bum was re­leased. The ‘psy­chic rock band’ an­gle was too good for tabloids such as the Sun and the Daily Star to ig­nore, re­sult­ing in Smith of­fi­cially re­spond­ing to their in­ves­ti­ga­tions with the re­join­der “Well, I’m a fuck­ing psy­chic, fuck off”.

These hacks were for­tu­nate to es­cape ‘the curse of The Fall’ that Smith al­legedly cast upon er­rant scribes. In the 2008 book The

Fallen, a quixotic at­tempt to track down all of the Fall’s then exmem­bers, mu­sic jour­nal­ist Dave Simp­son re­lates Brix’s ac­count of a re­porter who was hexed and in­jured two days later when the phone booth he was in was hit by a car. Simp­son sur­mises that he has been sim­i­larly jinxed when he out­lines the litany of per­sonal mis­for­tunes – a car ac­ci­dent, food poi­son­ing, and the break-up of his long-term re­la­tion­ship – that oc­curred at the con­clu­sion of his in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

A knotty and mer­cu­rial char­ac­ter, Smith can be re­mem­bered as a mu­si­cal ‘out­sider’ whose cre­ativ­ity op­er­ated in those lim­i­nal zones of cul­ture where forteana also lurks. Realm of dusk…

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