It often takes time to “get” a band. Imagine you’re at a petrol station, waiting for petrol to flow through the pipe. You can’t rush it. You have to wait for that lovely moment we all enjoy, when cool, delicious petrol goes squirting like pee into your mouth, nose, and eyes.

When I started listening to The Fall, I had my reaction planned out in advance like a chemotherapy plan: I’d hate them at first, slowly hack away at their thirty-one-album discography, and then they’d become one of my favorite bands. Instead, the opposite thing happened. I loved them on first listen, and then gradually didn’t like them.

The Infostainment Scam (or whatever it’s called) proved to be an excellent first choice. It has several good or great songs, including the disco apocalypse of “Lost in Music”, the psychotic noir prison-bar rattling of “It’s a Curse”, and the brightly Gary-Glittering stomp of “Glam-Racket”. The album’s aesthetic of barely-marshalled noise was exhilerating, and although Mark E Smith’s vocals sounded like a drunk co-worker overconfidently singing karaoke, surely this would be another acquired taste.

Then I listened to more The Fall albums, which either left no impression or were memorable for bad reasons.

Hip Priest and the Kamerads sounds like slam poetry delivered over noise rock. The title track was eight minutes of blues rock choogling: annoying and borderline unlistenable. Bend Sinister is more of the same: songs that make their point after a minute and then continue for another six. Their cover of “Victoria” is one of the most unnecessary I’ve ever heard. They changed nothing. Is this where post punk was at in 1988? Reverential, straightfaced covers of boomer rock anthems?

Soon I was losing interest in The Fall. They seemed to be all vibes and no substance. But maybe the problem was me. After all “Lost in Music” was proof they could write great music….

…then I checked The Infotainment Scan’s songwriting credits, and said “ok then.”

Then there’s Mark E Smith, the band’s alleged singer.

He’s the kind of guy journalists love writing about. He’s not a man, he’s rock cliches tangled and obvoluted around into a man-shaped object. Just switch your brain off, arrange “consummate perfectionist”, “complex personality”, “troubled genius”, “enfant terrible”, “provocateur”, “outsider artist”, “incendiary maverick”, “Janus-faced,” “checkered career” in some order like fridge magnets, and you’ve written your own MES bio.

But here‘s guitarist Ben Pritchard, who got to know the “troubled genius” real well.

Physical violent attacks are not we should have to deal with on a daily basis. […] We shouldn’t have to be worried that the singer’s going to attack us again before the gig because we’ve stopped off for a hotdog at the service station. Like we’re wasting time… fucking hell we can’t do anything. You can’t eat, if you went for a meal even on your day off, you’d come back and he’d be waiting for you ‘What you fucking doing? What you fucking doing, eating? Fucking useless cunts.’ What? I’ve gotta eat, me. He puts you down for getting hungry!

[…] when we went to America it just got worse. […] we can only rely on each other to get ourselves out of the shit. Cos Mark could fucking leave us – and he did on the tour in America with the broken leg, he left us with no fucking money, no flight tickets home, he just fucking left us. We had to start getting deposits back for the hire vehicles, we had to get money together for our flights to Chicago. Our flight to Chicago was a non-refundable ticket that wasn’t due for two weeks. He didn’t care, he had all the money from all the gigs. He had Ed Blaney with him, he had his wife, they got home fine, no problem.

It’s clear that the UK music press will excuse obnoxious or abusive behavior if it makes a good story. The sneaky part is that they set the definition of “good story” to begin with. Read anything about MES, you’ll see his abhorrent behavior reimagined so it’s something romantic: a striving toward perfection, marred by silly foolish humans, the sand in MES’s gears.

“Talented asshole” is a more fitting descriptor, particularly when you remember the sarcastic subtext. Many such assholes aren’t talented, we just pretend they are, because how else to justify the position we’ve given them in our culture? The hardest person to talk out of a scam is the person who’s just been rooked by one, and few people have scammed so many for so long as MES.

You see the aftereffects all over the UK press. Quoting Wikipedia: “Smith’s approach to music was unconventional and he did not have high regard for musicianship, stating that ‘rock & roll isn’t even music really. It’s a mistreating of instruments to get feelings over’.” That sounds like a clever defense for not understanding music. But it gets recontextualized as “unconventional”.

Or witness this desperate attempt by Spin to recast MES as a modern Oscar Wilde, full of cutting put-downs and scathing one-liners. He thought Telly Savalas was “a twat”! He thought new bands were a bunch of “ass lickers”! Oh, and wait until you hear what he did to Mumford & Sons. Ready? He threw a bottle at them, the absolute lunatic! This is so lame that if a civilian did it they’d be on r/madlads.

Ben Pritchard’s interview goes on and on, just listing all kinds of grubby, exploitative nonsense. But even that could be excusable if MES was a brilliant talent. After all, David Bowie was occasionally given to sharp business practices.

But here’s the part that made be decide to not to bother with Mark E Smith or his music.

I’d only been playing the guitar for about two years. It was the day after I’d bought my Stratocaster that was. So that was like the first time I put it on and played it properly and plugged it in was in front of [Mark] in the studio, listening to the backing track of Dr Buck’s Letter. He says, “Go on, cock. Just fookin play something, I’m going to the pub.” And that was it…

“Just fookin play something, I’m going to the pub.” That seems to be the Rosetta stone of MES: a casual sneer of disinterest. Yeah, who cares. Just play something. Rock music is for idiots. Have contempt for your bandmates, and contempt for your fans.

MES wasn’t a consummate perfectionist, slaving to reach some Promethean ideal. He was throwing together careless, slapdash music with whoever was willing to tolerate him. That’s how it seems to me. Sometimes The Fall could be good. Perhaps they were often good – there are big parts of their discography I haven’t touched. But I am sure that while they were being good, MES was getting drunk at the pub.

MES could write some obtuse and weird lyrics, and I enjoy his song titles. They’re kind of broken and not-quite-right, like a cracked plate. “Paranoia Man in Cheap Sh*t Room”. That’s a great title.

But it’s all just alcohol-inspired brilliance: random, loose puns, joined together in disorder by misfiring dendrites. I was once at a Tab in Sydney, and heard a man order a Sprite. When asked to justify himself by his mates (who were all several pints in on VB and Carlton Dry), he sagely said “Sprite makes right.” That man could write The Fall songs. MES is not a treasured national resource for supplying us with beermat philosophy. You can find people who think and act like him down at the local pub. They exist in huge quantities.

I can see not one sign that MES had any worthwhile qualities. Occasionally, he could be nice to his bandmates. So what? You are not “complex” for occasionally being nice to people who make you money, and who would otherwise abandon you. That’s just all a bully is.

MES didn’t write music, couldn’t play an instrument, “sang” only in the loosest of terms, and he didn’t have a pretty face, fuck knows. What, pray, is this violent, alcoholic retard good for?


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The book itself is really good. Kathy Acker has an editor now.

But I found this puzzling: “Paradoxia is an uncensored, novelized account of one woman’s assault on men.”

Her assault consists of having sex with men. Lots and lots of sex. It’s all consequence free, too. No strings attached. She loves them and leaves them. Fucks them and chucks them.

Yeah, that’ll show the male race!

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British artist Bryan Charnley suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and in 1991 he painted a series of seventeen self-portraits while on reduced dosages of antipsychotic medication.

The paintings start out normal but soon become weird; broken eggs, free-floating eyes, red throats yawning in foreheads, twitching spiders’ legs, and so on. Frantic pulses of paint irrigate the canvas like blood from a hummingbird’s slit throat, and the final painting is just a collapsed, anguished vortex of color. Charnley’s notes range from calm descriptions of his methods, to rants about “negroes” disrespecting him and TV broadcasts beamed into his mind, to nothing. He committed suicide later that year.

It comes back to one question: what’s it like to be mad? Is there some way that sane people can understand? You can ask a mad person, but can you trust their answer? Maybe not, because their condition might distort how they express themselves. Think of that American POW in that VC propaganda broadcast, claiming he was being treated well by his captors…with his eyes blinking out T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code.

Maybe art is the answer. A recurrent motif in Charnley’s self-portraits is that his lips are nailed shut: he can’t express himself using words, but could use paint instead. Syd Barrett’s 1970 album (created as he was plunging down the slope of his own mental decline) seems like a fascinating example of “mad” art. What can we learn from him?

Well, apparently here’s what being insane is like:

  1. You will play boring Beatles-sounding skiffle rock.
  2. Your lyrics will be Dr Seuss rhymes about girls and being in love, or random eructations of nonsense. “Honey love you, honey little / honey funny sunny morning / love you more funny love in the skyline baby / ice-cream ‘scuse me / I’ve seen you looking good the other evening.” And ad nauseaum in that vein.
  3. You won’t be sure of what key you’re in. “Terrapin” cycles from E major to G major chords. Which is the tonic?  If it’s E major, the second chord should be G# major. if it’s G major, the first chord should be E minor. They don’t fit together, and the song flip-flops around without a tonal center.
  4. The performances will be loose, and not well-recorded. In some songs the main thing audible is Syd’s plectrum. This album apparently took a year to record. It sounds like it was recorded in an afternoon.
  5. Your album will be padded with stops and starts and count-ins and rambling. Such “authenticity” would become a feature of troubled rock and roll legends, sometimes reaching tragicomic levels, like Having Fun with Elvis on Stage, or Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings (which has tracks of Kurt Cobain burping, making fart noises, and doing a Donald Duck impression). Here, it comes off as mere filler.
  6. Your mind will shrink, becoming incapable of anything except melodic and lyrical cliches. Madness finally stands revealed not as liberty but as chains.

The most interesting song is “Octopus”. When Syd yawps “Close our eyes to the octopus ride!” he sounds awake and part of the music, instead of (say) like a man groggily trying to put his socks on over his shoes after a three-day Quaalude binge. The Madcap Laughs is otherwise very basic, and it’s almost incidental that Syd Barrett is on it. It doesn’t offer a window into his troubled soul, or a window into anywhere.

The album’s reputation as an oddball masterpiece preceded it, making me look for depths when there weren’t any there. I misheard “Here I Go’s” as “So now I got all I need / She and I are in love with her greed.” That line caught my ear. Why are you in love with her greed? What does that mean? Then I looked up a lyrics sheet: it’s actually “She and I are in love, it’s agreed.” Even my mondegreens are more interesting than the album.

It’s sad what happened to Syd, and I don’t doubt that this album is all he was capable of, but that doesn’t make it good. It’s just skiffle rock mixed with badly played psychedelia. Unlike the work of The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, or the Shaggs, it wouldn’t be remembered at all if a famous person hadn’t played on it.

We need to rethink the cultural idea that crazy people are gifted or special. The Madcap Laughs makes a compelling (rhetorical, not musical) counterpoint: insanity is just flat-out bad. Maybe you can shine on as a crazy diamond, but you can shine far longer and brighter as a sane one. Sometimes life takes things from us, and gives nothing back.

Robin Williams once said “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” He was speaking about creative madness: not literal madness. In fact, actual insanity is one of the biggest roadblocks imaginable to getting stuff done. It’s horrible, what happened to Syd, and that medical science wasn’t able to stop it. This album is one of the lesser horrors.

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