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Mark E. Smith of The Fall. Look into his eyes and think of something profound to say.
It all began innocently enough, with a cassette tape purchased in the mid-'90s, a time when people were already paying good money for CDs. But I only liked one song by The Fall: the raucous, frantic title track from the band's I Am Kurious Oranj album, a hyper-literate, post-punk exploration of Dutch colonization later performed as a ballet, which involved lead singer Mark E. Smith's wife and The Fall's guitarist Brix sitting atop a gigantic cheeseburger.
At the beginning, $3 for a used cassette was all I cared to spend on the band, and it was all for that one track. A month later, as I scribbled away on a paper for some forgotten college course, I neglected to stop the cassette after "Kurios Oranj." My deck had an auto-flip feature, which meant that I heard, for the first time, an entire album by The Fall, four times in a row.
Some element in my brain chemistry changed forever, during that fourth listen. Where once I had heard a tuneless, angry Englishman rant over ugly, repeated grooves, I now heard beauty, comedy, life and literature — a combination I'd never heard before. In an instant, I knew I must buy every note this band had ever recorded. And I did, more or less. It took quite some time, as the group had recorded at least one official release per year since 1977 (and continue to do so).
I had become infected by some sort of virus related to The Fall — a quick-onset mental contagion that never ran its course. To this day, I can cite Fall lyrics to apply to certain situations the same way others reference religious texts like the Bible, Talmud or Koran.
When I found that The Fall would be playing at the 2003 All Tomorrow's Parties festival in England, I knew I had to be there, even though it was in a small coastal town in England, and I lived in San Franciso. My girlfriend and I bought our tickets, flew to London, rode the train to Camber Sands, and there we were, watching The Fall open for Public Enemy in what has to be one of the most unique one-two punches in the history of live music.
And here comes the part you won't believe if you're familiar with "lead shouter" for The Fall, Mark E. Smith, a man who had once extinguished a cigarette on the face of an offending journalist, canned the group's best ever guitarist over his "failure to maintain amplifier" and engaged his band in a tour-ending fistfight at the since-shuttered East Village venue Coney Island High.
Elated after the show, we settled in with a pint at the Queen Victoria bar next to the venue (in England, every other bar is called the Queen Vic) with some new English friends, and mentioned that I had flown 6,000 miles to see the band that had just left the stage. The Fall's U.S. tours during my period of fandom had always dissolved into disaster before I'd had the chance to see them, so this was huge — the first time I had seen the group that informed my inner philosophy to an embarrassing degree.
And then, there they were. The Fall. Two tables down.
I was pleased enough with the proximity, but that wasn't enough for one of my new friends, who insisted that I say hello. I knew better. Heroes are often best viewed from afar, a vantage point from which one is rarely mistaken for an ashtray. She insisted. I counter-insisted. The Fall were leaving, walking past our table.
Goaded by peer pressure and alchohol, I stood in Mark's path. "Hey, Mark." Nothing. "Hey, hey, Mark!"
Waving a hand in my face, he drawled, "Bah dah dah dah," never turning to face me. Smith continued his unbroken stride out of the bar with the rest of the band in tow.
I retreated, defeated but relieved, back to the table.
My new friend squealed in some British variant, "BET YEW SEMPLY MOOST MEET EM! YOU'VE FLOWN SEX THOUSEND MAYLES!" She bolted out the front door as my heart sank, returning with a big smile and the horrible, horrible words (I'll dispense with the dialect): "I've stopped him, but I told him you had something absolutely brilliant to tell him. Go on."
And so it was that I found myself outside the Queen Vic, approaching Mark Edward Smith as the rest of the band attempted to pull their errant star back to the band's orbit and away from this wretched fanboy.
"I have all of your albums," I said. "I really love your music. I really do, it's great," and too many other words to that effect.
After this went on for a while, Smith pulled back towards the band, still having not dignified my blathering with a single word. 10 feet. 20 feet. I wracked my brain for something to say — anything that would make this moment make sense to my future self as I sat on a rocking chair, recalling the first time I saw The Fall, and that's when it came to me.
"Thank you for putting literature into rock and roll music," I shouted after him, voice cracking.
With that, this fearsome genius lurched over to embrace me in a tight hug, a hug that lasted a good ten seconds. Smith walked back to his group without having said a word.
Back inside the Queen Vic, I knew I could fly home that instant, with or without a plane, as I recounted my tale. The rest of the festival could go on without me. Mark E. Smith had not put a cigarette out on my face — not in the slightest.