Bracing for the Fall

Which Mark E. Smith will show up?


Crocodile Cafe, 441-5611, $15 adv. / $18 9 p.m. Tues., Nov. 20

THE FALL'S Philadelphia stop during their last U.S. tour wasn't just the worst concert I've ever seen. It also easily ranked among the saddest sights I've witnessed. Frontman Mark E. Smith didn't make an appearance until late into the second song, finally emerging in an obvious stupor, his face as lined and rubbery as a man collecting Social Security. His usual bark was reduced to a low, drunken mumble, but singing wasn't his priority. He spent a solid 20 minutes fiddling with microphone cords, threw the notebook from girlfriend Julia Nagle's keyboard, twisted the knobs on the guitar and bass amps, shifted drum mikes, and walked offstage midsong on three separate occasions. He was miserable and wanted to make sure everyone else shared in the misery. Smith's sabotage persisted until mild- mannered bassist Steve Hanley eventually speared him with his instrument and gave him a hard shove. The band stormed off, leaving Smith alone to slur his way through one last number. When the song ended, he stood a few moments to see if his mates would return, shrugged, and disappeared. Show over. A few days (and another onstage rumble) later, that incarnation of the group—including longtime members Hanley and drummer Karl Burns—was dissolved, and Smith was jailed in New York City for an assault on Nagle.

So exactly why should you not miss the Fall's appearance this week? There are lots of reasons, and potential for another grand spectacle is far down the list. Despite the shabby way he went about it, Smith was absolutely right to ditch the old crew. They were fine, professional players (Hanley often brilliant) but had grown softer and duller with age. Love them or hate them—few people have occupied the middle ground during the Manchester outfit's nearly 25-year existence—the Fall have remained vital longer than any band by being sworn enemies of soft and dull. While they'd long ago distanced themselves from the brutal lo-fi sound that staked their reputation (a.k.a. the stuff Pavement nicked), a certain raggedness—necessary accompaniment for Smith's acid tongue—remained in the music at least until the mid-'90s. If anything, Smith waited a couple years too long for the upheaval. The two LPs the Fall have released since the shake-up, The Marshall Suite and The Unutterable, are their best work in a decade, and parts crackle with the energy of even older incarnations of the group.

That's not to say that the Fall are as mighty as they used to be or that they're at all likely to top their previous heights. Certainly, Smith has always been the main attraction—there's a lot of truth in his comment to a New Musical Express reporter that "If it's me and your granny on bongos, then it's a Fall gig"—but now he's positioned himself as the only attraction. At their peak (1980-1985, I'd say), the Fall was a truly collaborative effort; the group's sound on records like Grotesque (1980), Hex Enduction Hour (1982), and Perverted by Language (1983) was just as unique and unprecedented as Smith's famous writing and delivery. Smith's reduced tolerance for musicians has come at a serious price—there are no longer great Fall albums, just good ones with great moments.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is that Smith remains rock's most intriguing character. No one has walked the fine line between genius and madness quite so well, at least not without being reduced to novelty status. Like Iggy Pop (Smith does a mean "I Wanna Be Your Dog," by the way), Smith's failures are usually spectacular, but when he's in proper form, his exorcisms are savage, a little frightening, and wholly compelling. You know he doesn't sing because he wants to, he sings because he has to; 20 years ago, he informed an audience that "I am not here/to cheer you up," and he hasn't been willing or able to alter the policy. Desperation is often the trait that separates the very good from the great. The chance to see it up close is always worth the price of admission.

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