A brush with greatness

Yesterday, I was reminded of this incident from way back in my college days. I think this happened in 1987.

It was late on a Friday night and I was walking around the student activity center.  I was taking a break from studying, or maybe I was on my way out for the night, I don’t recall.  I walked down a corridor and something caught my eye.  There was some activity in a meeting room that looked out of the ordinary.  The door had a glass window at the top,  so as I walked by I saw a group of people in the room milling about who didn’t quite look like students.  There were maybe a dozen or so in the room.  Most were talking in groups of two or three.  There was one person who stood out among the others.  He was wearing a leather jacket, sitting at a table, smoking a cigarette, drinking what looked like beer from a glass, looking both oddly frail and menacing at the same time.  Who is that guy, he looks vaguely familiar.  The “Student Activity Center” was really an enormous study hall, there was no smoking allowed in the building, and drinking was obviously banned too.  So maybe it was him raising the glass that caught my eye at first, or maybe it was his smoking, since either one would have been very noticeable.

During my college years, I spent a lot of time listening to a nightly program on a college radio station. “No Commercial Potential” was the name of the program.  As the title suggests, anything unusual was played, especially current experimental, electronic, or punk rock music.  If anything sounded good to me, I would take a bus, then a train, to go to the one store in the Boston area that sold records by these no commercial potential artists.  I would also sometimes purchase music magazines imported from the UK, such as NME, or Melody Maker, to find out more about the artists that were played on the college radio station.

It soon struck me who the man at the table was, I was sure that I had seen his picture in one of the magazines. Was it Mark E. Smith from The Fall?  Were The Fall playing at the theater in the student center?  I had not heard about that, this was exciting news.

‘Hey!  Mark!  Hey!!!  I shouted from my side of the door, probably looking like a mental patient.

“Hey, it’s The Fall! Are you playing here tonight?!”  I shouted again.  By this point I was most likely jumping up and down a bit too, looking increasingly like a deranged person by this point.

Mark narrowed his eyes at me, called over another guy in the room and pointed to me. The second guy approached the door, opened it up.

Wow, I thought, maybe they’re going to let me into the show?  Or maybe meet the band?

He quickly slid through the door, and said…

“Mark wants you to FUCK OFF!!”

“Oh, Ok, sorry”  I said.

OK, I guess that proves it. The Fall are playing here tonight. I slunk away. I’m being a little sarcastic in the title of the post as I had read a little about how Smith sometimes reacted with fans,this was not really out of character, it may have even been a bit subdued for him.

I went downstairs to the theater that was in the student center, which did indeed list ‘The Fall” as being on the schedule for that evening.  I purchased a ticket and went inside.

‘Theater’ is a generous term, it was more like a large meeting room. It was an area that was also used as overflow for the cafeteria.  It was a sparse crowd. Not surprising since Mark Smith and The Fall never really made much of an impact on the radio here in the US.  His lyrics are cryptic, meandering, sometimes political, and more spoken than sung.  And for a few years I absolutely loved everything they released. There were plenty of other bands and performers who I liked more, and The Fall were often just too abrasive for long term listening, but in my quest to find the unique sounds of the time, they were one of the leaders.

The band appeared on stage first.  Look there’s that guy who yelled at me, playing guitar! Mark Smith came on stage and for the entire concert he sang while holding a cigarette in one hand and glass of beer in the other.  He did keep a stool nearby where he would place the beer now and then, to give his arms  a rest I suppose, or to pour more into the glass.  He never faced the audience, standing somewhat to the side of the drummer, his back to the crowd, but oddly enough he was a very charismatic performer.  You just couldn’t help but watch him.  He didn’t sing in the traditional sense so much as snarl.  Spitting out the words not with the rage common among punk rock singers but with a detachment, as if to say ‘This is the way it is, you can’t do anything about it.’   What was he saying? What is he going to say next?  Would he leave the stage early for some unknown reason?    The Fall and Mark Smith performed a full concert that night, which may have been unusual.

I had not listened to The Fall in years when I heard that Mark Smith had died on January 24, he was just 60.   He was a unique artist.  I’m not sure who I would compare him to.  Lou Reed? Tom Waits? Captain Beefheart?  No, there wasn’t anyone else like him.

Here’s a link to a better tribute than I could ever write by someone who followed the band from beginning, sometime around 1976, to end.  Mark Smith was performing up to the end too, having recently performed from a wheelchair with his arm in a sling.

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2 thoughts on “A brush with greatness

    • No, I didn’t care. I thought something like that would be a possibility.

      A week later I passed someone else in that building who looked familiar
      “Hey you’re Billy Bragg!”
      “No, I’m Stephen Bragg” he said as we passed each other. A few steps later he turned around and said “Are you going to the show tonight?”
      ‘I am now’ I said

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