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The Importance of Taking a Piss: Mark E. Smith's Renegade

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Dusted's Kevan Harris stumbles though the official pub rantings of The Fall's fearless leader and discovers the gentler side of the phrase "sod off."

The Importance of Taking a Piss: Mark E. Smith's Renegade

Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith

By Mark E. Smith with Austin Collings

Penguin/Viking UK, 246 pp.

In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence. And not only does the evidence of wealth serve to impress one's importance on others and to keep their sense of his importance alive and alert, but it is of scarcely less use in building up and preserving one's self-complacency. In all but the lowest stages of culture the normally constituted man is comforted and upheld in his self-respect by "decent surroundings" and by exemption from "menial offices." Enforced departure from his habitual standard of decency, either in the paraphernalia of life or in the kind and amount of his everyday activity, is felt to be a slight upon his human dignity, even apart from all conscious consideration of the approval or disapproval of his fellows.

-Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class

Mark E. Smith does not make a very good British celebrity. In the usual suburban box bookstores that replaced the great public libraries of the United States, the glossy reams of musician tell-alls get their own special section. The writing on those shelves tends towards two ideal types: sycophantism or reprobation. Note the recent “cautionary tale” of Nikki Sixx’s The Heroin Diaries, an attempt to titillate and horrify that would have been better if it was in Chick Tract form.

Obviously, the good people over at Penguin/Viking thought that Mark E. Smith could deliver some unrepentant ghostwritten screed. After all, Penguin also published Klaus Kinski’s tortuous (and partly fabricated) Kinski Uncut. The dictates of rebel celebrity demand the outwardly defiant stance of the comprehensible iconoclast, with the winking backstage camaraderie that the culture industry turns upon. Renegade (I assume Smith did not pick the title) undoubtedly indulges these requisites of the genre, but in such a half-assed manner that the book ends up being worthwhile.

I don’t want to assume too much, given the turnover in present-day rock music. My own experience has been that, among the 16-24 indie demographic, the Fall is an oft-cited, rarely heard band. Those children should probably stay away from this book. It is incredibly biased--indeed, discriminatory--against young people. Earlier attempts to chronicle the Fall, such as Simon Ford's Hip Priest (2002), have failed due to lack of cooperation by Smith and their inevitable attempts to identify the “essence” of the band. Now that the Fall's former members’ club has nearly fifty people, it's comparable to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ progeny or the Bush II administration’s fleeing cabinet members: a nest of rats whose screeching makes Rashomon look like a straightforward account.

Smith could have easily delivered a vicious counterpunch to the British music press, whose “reporting” on Smith over the years has combined kill-your-idol deprecation with a dash of perplexity regarding his continued willingness to grant interviews. Alternately, Smith could have rebutted the many accusations by former Fall members about Smith’s escapades as some sort of quixotic fascist (Frank Zappa faced similar accusations his entire career). Instead, Renegade is a hastily cobbled set of recollections that were obviously dictated at a Manchester pub with a pint of bitter nearby. Austin Collings, the poor twentysomething who took on this task, should at least be commended for not cleaning much of it up.

Not that Smith holds his tongue when discussing ungrateful band members, who he always paid “generously,” or the British press, whose rock criticism degenerated into tabloid sensationalism by the late 1980s. The first third of the book attempts to settle such scores, and the reader gets the impression that band members generally become former members when they challenge Smith to a drinking contest and lose. The tone of the book never assumes alpha-male proportions, however, and Smith eventually moves on to more than the usual “fuck all” that interviewers try to extract from him.

Historians such as Eric Hobsbawm observed that Manchester, with its “massive mills and segregated suburbs,” and not London, was the main progenitor of English working-class culture. The “workshop” city that Friedrich Engels depicted in shocking terms in the 1840s was the kind that most assumed would become the norm as other countries copied English manufacturing methods. Yet even during the so-called "Industrial Revolution," most English workers were employed in agricultural and provincial craft labor. In many ways, then, Manchester-style capitalism was a unique product, even as its working-class culture spread into a highly imitable set of manners. Then again, any tradition is mostly just an historical accident that lasts beyond two generations.

Mark E. Smith, a dockworker in his teens whose band began the Thatcher years with a string of brilliant records issued by a motley group of independent record labels, only to end up dirt poor by the mid 1990s and an outcast in his own profession, is not really a “renegade” unless that term is defined by extreme disgust for the social morays of the British middle class. It must have shocked NME to learn that Smith voted Tory and supported the Falklands War, and that he wrote off Blair’s New Labour in 1997 as worthless, but that’s not really rebellious, only slightly contrarian. In a much deeper sense, Smith (a Manchester City football devotee if you hadn’t guessed by now) personifies the diligent working-class anti-authoritarianism that used to be celebrated in British film and theatre, as with Albert Finney’s character in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Smith states this clearly in the book, though I’ve never seen any rock critic take heed:

I’d like to see how the Notting Hill community would cope if they placed a bunch of immigrants on their doorstep. I happen to think the working class have integrated very well over the years – a hell of a lot more than they’re credited for... Inside, [music journalists] can’t abide the proles; they hate to see them get on and it’s worse still if they infiltrate their cozy clan. They couldn’t understand anyway that the left and right were never a threat anyway; that the worst thing is a sanitized society ruled by the middle class. The working class and the real upper class have a lot in common. They know where they’re from, they like a drink, have a sense of humor. It’s the middle you need to look out for.

Classic Tory material. Page after page of it. Smith knows he’s not a rebel, at least in the prurient way that music journalism craves, whether it’s the Gallagher Brothers faux gonzo approach, or the Geldof/Bono “feel bad to feel good” school of rock. Mark E. Smith extols the values of hard work, and is genuinely nostalgic about life under the British welfare state (R.I.P. 1945-1979). At the same time, The Fall are “all about the present” and Smith refuses to engage in the hagiography of punk rock that passes for most contemporary music journalism. The most authentic punk rockers, for MES, are clearly people such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. Given that Smith occasionally “loses” his band on the road, and hires the indie equivalent of the local bar band for his remaining tour dates, the affinity is not surprising.

The contemporary culture industry requires a mass presence of conspicuous consumption, a term coined by Thorstein Veblen a century ago and never more relevant than today. Veblen’s main insight was that people will forever consume new and unnecessary goods, not to satisfy some innate desire that economists believe drives our markets, but to ostentatiously distinguish themselves from those beneath them in social class, and to convince themselves and others that they are indeed in the respectable strata of society. People usually cannot tell how fat your wallet is, or how rich your family is, unless you have something big that implies your wallet is fat or your family is rich. It’s a general rule that few are exempt from and most of us in the wealthiest countries spend the majority of our leisure time concerned with, as the Brits say, “how to spend it.”

The obsession with distinction is equal parts pathological and amusing, but it is largely disastrous when it comes to rock music. The history of it could be re-written as a continual exercise in neurotic over-the-shoulder crises of self-confidence. Since Mark E. Smith generally does not seem to register these collective moments of taste angst, it’s not surprising that the chattering classes are interminably infuriated. His mild successes since the late 1990s have been ignored, or met with journalists trying to goad Smith into one more front-page embarrassment. Renegade, while not terribly lurid or even informative, contains some life lessons from the Mancunian bard. Lesson number one: “If you’re going to play it out of tune, then play it out of tune properly.”

By Kevan Harris

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