And This Day: Mark Edward Smith (1957-2018)

Legendary English singer, songwriter and group leader Mark E. Smith of The Fall died this morning, some four decades after embarking on one of the most remarkable careers in modern music history. The Fall’s studio canon is sprawling and epic in its depth, breadth, variety and quality, while the group’s live performances have given generations of rock scribblers fodder and thrilled countless punters with the chaotic, organic greatness the group concocted on their best nights. (Though even their worst nights were delicious chaotic marvels on some plane).

I have long been a big fan of The Fall (very professional), citing them as my favorite band for many years, and I wrote in glowing terms about their last studio album, New Facts Emerge, just this past August. It was their 31st or 32nd album, depending on how one feels about their 1981 release, Slates. (Whether that’s an EP or an LP is a deeply divisive topic among certain sectors of The Fall’s fandom). (Though it is an EP, for the record). The group had announced a (very rare) set of American dates last fall to support their new disc, and played a few English gigs after the album’s release, but cancellations (including all of the U.S. shows) were rife. Smith’s onstage appearance during his final concerts (wheelchair bound, arm in a sling, face terribly swollen) was cause for alarm for some — while others saluted the great man for honoring his commitments, doing his job, and being with the audiences who loved him, doubters be damned. I tend to side with the latter camp.

The Fall have been routinely and tediously cited by the music press for their high rates of personnel turnover over the years, but Smith had worked with a stable bass-guitar-drum lineup for over a decade before his death, and my admiration and respect for those three (Keiron Melling, Dave Spurr, and Peter Greenway) is most high, especially for helping their boss rock hard as his own body was failing him. They had their own unique Fall Sound, and some of their records rate as favorites among the long lines of vinyl, plastic, and digital bits that have entertained and awed me for decades. Bravo, gentlemen. You made a glorious racket and were a very fine Fall group.

Regarding their chief, I have long considered Mark E. Smith to be the same sort of musical genius as George Clinton, or Captain Beefheart, or Brian Eno, or David Thomas. They are all organizers and shepherds with very clear visions of what they want from their songs, along with the persuasive skills to extract stellar performances from musicians who might never before nor ever after ascend to such heights. None of those aforementioned visionaries are ace guitarists, or skilled keyboardists, or deeply technical arrangers, or even particularly good singers, but the players they surround themselves with — their teams — are managed in such deft ways as to spark and deliver brilliance, time and time again, in original and often highly unusual styles.

Mark E. Smith was also that greatest of literary devices: a character. Quotable, irascible, intelligent, badly behaved except when he wasn’t, wearing his opinions on his sleeve, sharing his tastes with anyone who’d talk to him, largely unfiltered, mostly impolitic, deeply irreverent, consistently cantankerous, and entertaining to the Nth degree, always. I just liked watching and listening to him talk, even if I couldn’t understand what was coming out of his mouth much of the time. There’s none like him that I know, and none likely to ever fill such a unique creative niche, for so long, so well, again. Well done, Mark. Well done, indeed.

On a personal front, I’ve spent well over a decade as an active member of the Fall Online Forum, one of the most bizarrely delightful digital communities I’ve ever had the pleasure to haunt, and the depth of commitment and passion that cabal devotes to the group that binds them is extraordinary. (I most recently wrote about the “FOF” in my 2017 Year in Review, here). As it turns out, I had put myself on a sabbatical from the Forum just a short time ago — which is interesting (to me), because I did the same thing in the prior online community where I spent most of my (online) time prior to the FOF, just before its own inspiring light died. I don’t know if my radar is sensitive to that sort of impending change or what, but it’s a bit deja vu and disconcerting feeling for me right now, in any event. I do wish my friends at the FOF well. This is a world-jolter there, and here.

At bottom line, it’s the end of an era for The Fall: who are always different, and now never the same again . . .

Mark E. Smith with the last of the lads in the Fall. They were a good crew, and served him well to the end. RIP.

 

Best Albums of 2017 (Addendum): “In The Presence of Presents 2017” by Jed Davis

I usually do my annual “Best Albums of The Year” report in late November or early December, before the craziness of the year end, and because it usually takes me more than a month to decide that I want to include something on the list anyway. (Here’s the 2017 Best List, the 26th consecutive annual one I’ve published). The downside of this approach, of course, is that sometimes I miss some truly worthy late-in-the-year releases, and those don’t get captured on the report. That happened in the waning moments of 2017, so let me tell you about one more essential disc from the year that was . . .

Jed Davis, In the Presence of Presents 2017: If you search for Jed Davis on this blog, you get a lot of results, because I consider Jed to be one of the finest songwriters of the past quarter-century, and he’s a damned fine musician, artist, singer, and writer to boot. A real renaissance rocker. Jed actually did get a mention in the introduction of the 2017 Best Albums list, as I cited The Hanslick Rebellion (they are one of Jed’s bands) with Single of the Year for their zeitgeist-defining “Who’ll Apologize For This Disaster Of A Life?” But damned if Jed didn’t slip in a year-end album-length surprise with the third of his occasional In the Presence of Presents series (now issued in 2003, 2006, and 2017), and it’s a corker.

Here’s the concept: each edition of In the Presence of Presents includes one holiday themed original song, paired with nine non-holiday covers. Simple! But, of course, in such an endeavor, song selection, arrangements, and performances make all the difference, and Jed’s three-for-three again on those fronts this time around. To give you a sense of the breadth of the covers, he’s got songs by (among others) The Beach Boys, Juliana Hatfield, Jobriath, Judee Sill, Patrik Fitzgerald, Yaz, and Kendrick Lamar. (In the last two cases, actually, that’s only one song, and it’s a mashup made in heaven). And then there’s “Wonder Woman,” by Billy Joel’s so-awful-it’s-amazing early band Attila. It is a thing, for sure, and Jed and ace session drummer Joe Abba make it an even better thing, absolutely.

Abba appears on several tracks, as does indie-superstar guitarist Avi Buffalo, while The Hanslick Rebellion, Anton and Lewis Patzner (Judgment Day), and Maryanne Fennimore appear on a cut apiece. Jed provides his usual display of sure-fingered playing on organ, guitar, bass, piano, Rhodes Piano Bass, percussion and the dreaded Baldwin Fun Machine, which brings the perfect amount of period cheese to Beach Boys’ deep cut “Busy Doin’ Nothin'”. He’s also in fine voice throughout the proceedings here, with some excellent harmonic arrangement making things sweet when they need to be, often with a little dash of bitter for leavening. Mmm, that’s good.

Speaking of harmonies: this year’s original Jed Davis holiday song — “Peditum Quod Festum Nativitatis Delevit” — is performed in Latin with but eight voices, and its narrative revolves around one of the very few things that have amused human beings from all cultures since deepest antiquity, and will no doubt continue to amuse us until we’re eventually wiped from the face of the earth (hopefully not in 2018). You’ve gotta hear it to believe it, and I know you too will be amused when you do. Ho ho ho!!!

Oh! And did I mention the part about “presents?” Well, this is one to us from Jed: you can nab it all for free by clicking on the album cover below. (And then get the earlier installments by clicking on these links: 20062003). (And then explore the amazing collection of albums Jed has helmed over the years involving a truly unbelievable collection of musicians at The Congregation of Vapors).

 

#smhedia

My friend Kenny (who once made the observation “Centipedes are the spiders of the bathtub” in a perfectly contextual fashion) posed a question on Twitter this morning:

Is there a word for when something or someone stupid gets an outsized amount of news coverage and is getting spread way further than it should have? Could be used to describe Raw Water, Flat Earthers, James Damore, etc.

I pondered Kenny’s question for a while today. My answer? Yes, Kenny, there is such a word, and it is . . .

Let’s break it down . . .

The source of the “media” part of the portmanteau word should be obvious: them what propagate such idiocy widely, for fun and/or profit.

“SMH” is textspeak for “Shaking My Head,” and Urban Dictionary tells us it is “usually used when someone finds something so stupid, no words can do it justice.”

I then take it one level deeper than that. Because it is often written “smh” in posts, my brain actually reads that as a pronounceable word when I see it onscreen — “s’meh” — which I perceive as shorthand for “it’s meh.” And quoting Urban Dictionary again, “meh” means “indifference; used when one simply does not care.”

So . . . we’ve got the media issuing stories so stupid that no words can do them justice, to which most people are indifferent, and simply do not care.

That’s smhedia. Or better yet, let’s hashtag it: #smhedia. Does that work? Can we make it propagate, tagging #smhedia to such things and then moving on quickly when confronted with such idiocy? It probably won’t change anything . . . but it will be fun.

Let’s do this!

(P.S. Note: I post this little piece here about #smhedia today because I coined another word long ago, and didn’t realize how widely it had propagated until it started showing up on albums and in interviews years later. The ground zero for that word was lost in the ancient archives of early ’90s CompuServe, so this time, I figure I’ll put this origin story here, now, and if someone turns it into some #smhedia-worthy profit-engine down the line, I’ll show up for my handout with a date-stamped copy of this blog post).

 

Key West to Chicago . . .

It was very warm and very nice in Key West while we were there.

It was neither in Chicago, nor is it since our return last night.

Oh well, that’s what vacation is for, I suppose.

Some snaps of the New Year’s festivities on Duval Street below. The crowds were dense and formidable, since it’s just a two-lane city street in front of the shoe drop, not a vast public square as in New York City. We came, we saw, we left as soon as it was done accordingly.

And then we returned to the frigid zone the next day. It’s not pleasant, but I will note that even when the weather is dire, I always find that Chicago is one of the prettiest cities on the planet when you’re making final approach in the evening, so rather than beefing about the cold, I celebrate returning home with those images in mind instead, and share them with you below.