The last few years has brought a couple of new sub genres of music autobiographies – women in post punk bands and members of the Fall, Manchester’s unique and long lasting outfit, lead by Mark E Smith, the only constant member in their forty year history. I wrote about the Kim Gordon and Viv Albertine books here and have Cosey Fanni Tutti’s autobiography on my “to read” list.
I’ve skipped Smith’s own book on the recommendation of people in the know. Steve Hanley “The Big Midweek” is sat on my bookshelf at home and I’ve just finished working my way through a book that is the intersection of the women in bands/The Fall strands.
“The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise” is the story of Laura Salanger aka Brix Smith. Laura grew up in a typically peripatetic west coast USA environment. Her father was an abusive child psychologist who had a penchant for dressing up as a Marlboro man cowboy and riding around Hollywood. Her mother worked in the film industry and she, her stepfather Marvin and stepmother Maggie provided the love and stability in Laura’s life. What they didn’t provide was a geographical base and Laura was shuttled between rented homes in California and Chicago. Her family weren’t short of a bob or two though and the initial “Rise” part of the story is a mixture of mansions, parties, posh schools and ponies.
Laura ended up at Bennington College in Vermont where her fascination with music lead to her learning bass and starting a band. Bennington was known as somewhere to fly your freak flag, an “insane asylum for the rich.” Her hero was the Clash’s dashing bassist Paul Simonon and Laura became Brixton as in the “London Calling” standout “Guns of Brixton”. Brixton’s name got abbreviated to Brix and her band, Banda Dratsing, started getting gigs.
Having picked up a copy of the Fall’s 1981 mini-LP “Slates” (coincidentally the first Fall LP I remember hearing), she went to see the band in Chicago. She bumped into Mark E Smith in a bar after the gig and within months, she had moved from her gilded US existence into a one bedroom flat in Prestwich in Manchester, joined the Fall and married, completing the transformation from Laura Salenger to Brix Smith. Already a cultural Anglophile, Brix took to life in England like a duck to water. Smith’s home environment was challenging though, his home a filthy bachelor pad without a fridge. He kept the milk outside on the window sill.
This era of the band is my favourite, my real entry into their repertoire. My friend Simon had bought “The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall” on cassette. On the old fashioned tape format, it had been fleshed out with B-sides and unused tracks and I have to confess that initially, I found its length overwhelming. I didn’t get the idiosyncrasies of Smith’s lyrics and vocal delivery. The band’s rickety but driven music took some getting used to as well. But I gave it and the subsequent albums time and now they are amongst my favourites of the era.
What I didn’t appreciate until I read Brix’s book was how much that hooked me in was provided by her. The surf guitar riffs (“Cruiser’s Creek” and “2×4”), the rollicking ride of “Lay of The Land” and the hooks like “Terry Waite Sez” – all Brix’s work. Because of the overbearing presence of Smith, she didn’t get due credit at the time for her input and she still does not receive royalties for Fall songs that she co-wrote.
The other enlightening insight was into the thematic creations that drove Smith’s lyric. What surprised me was just how literal they were.
“My New House” was about, guess what, Brix and Mark’s new house – “I bought it off the Baptists”. “Pat – Trip Dispenser” was about a tour manager called Pat who dished out hallucinogenic thrills. She and Mark wrote “Disney’s Dream Debased” after a trip to the California theme park ended in a fatal accident, an event that Mark E had foreseen in a premonition before getting on the Matterhorn ride.
Looking back, the material from Brix’s time in the band still stands up well for the most part. The run of LPs from “Perverted By Language” to “Bend Sinister” remains thrilling, with “This Nation’s Saving Grace” the pinnacle. Things dip with the “Frenz Experiment” and the drop in quality is mirrored by the breakdown of Mark and Brix’s relationship.
Beyond this peak, “I Am Curious, Oranj” is worth revisiting though. The companion piece to Michael Clark’s ballet about the 300th anniversary of William of Orange’s ascent to the English throne. I think my initial resistance to the Fall may have been fuelled by seeing the band perform “Lay Of The Land” on the Whistle Test with Clark’s troupe dancing wearing ballet tights with the backsides missing. It was incomprehensible to my teenage self. The accompanying album has a rhythmic consistency that was necessary for it to work as a dance piece and this backbeat was built upon through the post-Brix years.
Unsurprisingly, Mark comes across as a difficult and irascible character, an alcoholic, amphetamine-fuelled philanderer. The speed at which he and Brix got together seems romantically accelerated at first, a dreamy headlong rush into a transatlantic musical and emotional affair. What becomes increasingly evident though is that Mark was a paranoid serial cheater and as quickly as he seduced one woman, he was trying his luck in any number of unedifying ways with any number of other women, most of whom were either close to the band or were fans. He manipulated all of those with whom he had a relationship, constantly playing mind games, applying reverse psychology. His pettiness was legend, sacking a member of the crew for eating a salad and drinking a special bottle of Petrus that was a precious gift Brix had set aside to start her wine collection. Again this prompted some literal lyrics in the form of “£500 Bottle of Wine”.
We are into the realms of separating the man from his art, an increasingly frequent and unpalatable exercise in the 21st century.
Brix comes across as intelligent, slightly batty but a survivor. She has taken a huge amount in her stride – depression, abusive relationships, eating disorders, rapes (not by Mark I hasten to add) and physical attacks and has emerged as truly her own person. For me and no doubt many of my male peers, she was an alluring sight in the midst of the hitherto Mr Byrite polyester shirted Fall. She inspired a few brave fashion choices for Mark E too and contributed much to one of the bands golden eras.
After leaving the Fall, Brix struck out on her own with the Adult Net. She started a relationship with Nigel Kennedy, the classical violinist and ended up striking up a friendship with Gary and Michelle Lineker. Bizarrely, she and Kennedy ended up performing for the England football squad live on ITV during the Italia 90 World Cup. The look of bewilderment on the faces of Bryan Robson, Peter Beardsley, Gazza et al in this video clip is something to behold.
Unfortunately, the Adult Net never took off, despite support from Stephen “Tintin” Duffy and Donovan. Brix was making poor decisions, the malign influence of the men in her life leading her to make the wrong choices.
The title of the book gives the hint as to the happy ending. Brix reinvents herself again and again as a fashion retailer and TV presenter. She now appears to be in a good place, back in the music business with her band, the Extricated and in a stable and properly adult relationship. She has stopped letting the men in her life define her and becomes her own person.
As for Mark E Smith – well, as I wrote a few weeks ago the Fall have a new album out and despite his chaotic and destructive tendencies still seems to be capable of maintaining a career and producing vital music.
In the meantime, I think I’m going to wait a little while to read Steve Hanley’s memoirs. There is only so much Mark E Smith derived darkness that I can handle at the moment.