Friday, 28 July 2017

The Fall at the 100 Club

Standing in the 100 Club last night Dan wonders "Is this the fall of The Fall?" Dan's in a band called Gutters. He's from Up North too, like Mark E. Smith, but is not quite as famous. Like Smith, Dan is a poet of the oblique and deserves recognition. You can hear his band's debut album here

I feel ashamed. A little embarrassed. Because 40 years later I 'get' The Fall. Please forgive me. I've been busy. Busy getting into Jazz, for instance. And Drum'n'Bass. Busy going off on tangents to find John Adams and Pierre Henry. Busy listening to anything but The Fall.

Last night I stood listening to The Fall because Dan had a pair of hot tickets for a show that sold out quickly and chose me to accompany him. I felt honoured, not only by that but being in the presence of Mark E. Smith. That would soon change. 

Now that I'm wise I feel stupid. How could I have ignored The Fall for so long? So I've spent some time watching interviews and documentaries, as well as listening. There's a lot of listening to do; so much that I feel I'll never catch up.

We're in the 100 Club, desperate for a view of the man but the stage is low, affording only glimpses of band members' heads but not Mark E. Smith, who's seated. It's ironic that having eluded me for so long, even when in the same room I still can't see Mark E. Smith. Serves me right. When I do eventually glimpse him between audience heads, lurching across the stage, mic so close to his lips as if he wishes to eat it, he doesn't look good. 

How will you look when your'e 60? Yes, but for 60, Mark doesn't look good. His face seems bloated, contorted in a kind of agony rather than anger. It's as if he is trying to devour himself and the audience through this ritual. Is he ill? Is he on steroids? Has a kind of illness plagued him since 1976 and the formation of a phenomenon that would allow him to try and exorcise the demons over the following decades? That hard exterior, was it always in place, having thickened over years of stupid questions from journalists and TV presenters? To be working class and not ordinary. To be dogged by dumb reporters always after an angle, never coming close to understanding what he's about, eager to pigeonhole and gradually feed on the enigma, to taunt, to mock someone who is contemptible of them.  

He has osteoporosis. Some audience members won't know that and those who are young may consider him a crotchety 'old man', albeit a legendary one. There's a danger of this being a freak show. The trouble with time and society's attitude towards the old is it turns us all into freak shows if we live long enough.  At this stage of The Fall's life, Mark E. Smith's one-man rebellion against the idiots is in danger, not of commodification or commercial appropriation, but worse, becoming a joke. Like Glastonbury, like Punk, turning into another spectacle, an ex-revolutionary alternative rendered impotent, merely another form of entertainment.  

Halfway through the set Mark E. Smith has gone AWOL. It's something we sense more than see. The word soon buzzes through the room. The band play on. He has a reputation for disappearing. Even I know that, but it's still a shock. Where is he? Is he that unwell? We were told later by security that he'd had an asthma attack. But his vocals resume. How can this be? Pamela Vander, his partner and manager, appears on stage shouting his name, encouraging the crowd and finally pointing to the far corner of the room, where the dressing room is, telling us he's over there. She proceeds to try and crank up the energy level of the audience with 'come on' gestures of her upturned hands whilst stalking the stage. It works. Someone throws a plastic glass and as the band play on I get a rush of excitement that reminds me of Punk gigs long ago. In his physical absence, Mark E. Smith has intensified everything. More than that, the band are playing tight, raw, high-energy, motorik-type off-kilter...Rock 'N' Roll! That's what this is. Not everyday, generic beat stuff for kids but deep, gnarly grind from a parallel universe version of 1950s Las Vegas strip joints fused with avant-garde Northen No Wave. 

The disembodied vocals of Mark E. Smith performing from the dressing room have set the whole thing off-kilter. It's as if we're witnessing a magic trick. As if he is indeed a god, or a ghost, communicating from another realm. The band had been strong so far, forward in the mix, perhaps to compensate for Smith's fragile performance? Without him on stage they more than rose to the occasion. I have read reports of crowds turning nasty when Smith has disappeared. They paid good money to see him, right? But here, at the 100 Club, that wouldn't happen. The band gave the crowd no opportunity to get frustrated and drove on. I for one was well and truly beaten into submission anyway.

That was my first Fall experience. It may be my last but it will certainly never be forgotten. Mark E. Smith and The Fall had been absent in my life for a long time, the fact that He came and went again so quickly seems fitting. 

Photos by Dan Cohen.

Postscript: I've since found out that the tall man standing near me who looked like BBC reporter Jeremy Vine was actually him. He's posted a short piece of footage on his blog.

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