The scene: Filthy McNasty’s pub in Islington, around 1996. A selection of pop and indie rock glitterati of the age have been gathered for one of NME’s regular features in which groups of musicians would meet in a pub to discuss the major issues of the day, chaired by yours truly. First through the door is one Mark E. Smith, a couple of pints of Guinness down by the time anyone else shows up, and ready for beer-based battle. Once our motley bunch is assembled and intense discussion about the new Space single is underway, he begins his mumbling subterfuge. “You’re Welsh then?” he asks Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews, “are you a witch?” “That’s a nice gold chain,” he tells Mark Morrison, pointing at his heavy neckwear, “I could get you more of them from a bloke I know in Strangeways…”
Forty minutes in, as talk turns to the latest Royal scandal, Mark’s had enough, meanders over to my seat, pushes me to the ground and bites down on my throat like a pissed cheetah on a startled journalistic gazelle. It’s a bout of subversive play-acting; no skin is broken, no tetanus jabs required, just the most dramatic way possible to curtail an interview that’s boring him. As though I’ve gone through some bizarre initiation rite, he them wanders to the bar and buys me a drink, asking “so, Mark, are you courtin’?”
Such were the regular pitfalls of attempting to interview Mark E., a legendary rock curmudgeon in the Van Morrison and Lou Reed vein, but with an added dose of slurring punk menace. An erstwhile NME colleague John Perry dines out regularly on the time he sat down to interview Smith for Loaded only to have Mark try to stub his cigarette out on his eye before a question was asked, and then head off to berate Irish pop punkers Ash – who’d inadvisedly wandered into the same pub by chance – for stealing everything they know from him. A thousand ex-members of The Fall will have similar war stories to tell. Twitter is already filling with fond memories of such run-ins – Suede’s Mat Osman tells of the time they supported The Fall in their early days, wary of Smith’s reputation as something of a monster to support bands, only to find him friendly, accommodating and helpful to a fault. Then, tuning in to a radio interview with Mark on their way home from the gig, they listened as he was asked what he thought of bands quoting him as an influence. “Like who?” he asked “Well, like Suede,” the interviewer replied. A beat. “Never heard of ‘em.”
There was a sense, when engaging with the peripheral nonsense that surrounds the work of the jobbing cult rock star, that Mark enjoyed playing the mischievous observer, turning up just to make it clear how disinterested he was in turning up. When awarded the NME Godlike Genius award in 1998, he waiting for his name to be read out, wandered to the front of the Brixton Academy stage and loitered about, refusing to go up the stairs to the podium, while host Eddie Izzard furiously filled airtime. He’d often treat Fall gigs much the same way, leaving the stage to sing from the dressing room, sabotaging the group’s instruments mid-song and dismissing members by throwing them off the tour bus in Swedish forests or the middle of snowstorms. One entire line-up quit after Mark drenched their bus driver in lager while hurtling down a motorway at 80mph.
Yet as awkward, subversive, explosive and unpredictable as Smith could be, and for all the reports of him killing squirrels with hedge clippers in 2008, he was often kind-hearted and gentle with it. Many ex-Fall members speak of his softer, generous side – a Twitter story is circulating about the time he came across a girl crying in the street because she’d lost her teddy bear, told her “don’t worry, it’s just gone on tour with a rock band” and then sent her postcards from the road signed “Mark E. Bear” until she was 28. His relationship with John Peel was legendarily prickly – Peel championed The Fall for decades; Smith sneered at John in a lavatory once – but when I met Smith to collect a CD of an exclusive Fall track which NME was going to print up on vinyl to present to Peel for the 4oth anniversary of his radio show, Smith seemed quite humbled by the honour. Smith was a tangled web, a unique, contrary and innovative encapsulation of the punk spirit and, to be fair Ash probably did owe a fair bit to him. We need more rock stars prepared to end boring interviews by playfully nibbling on journalists’ gullets, and this belligerent post-punk beacon leaves a gaping, gap-toothed hole.