He’s lost count. There’ve been around 30 different lineups of his band, the Fall. His discography includes some 30 studio albums, 50 singles, 50 live and compilation albums. (He once accidentally made it onto the British pop charts.) He can’t remember the number of times he’s played L.A. over the past 25 years.
Before there was an Ian Brown or a Liam Gallagher, Mark E. Smith was “Northern white crap that talks back.” He’s fought, fussed and cussed his way around the Western world several times, all the while cranking out astounding amounts of narrative poetry set to dense guitars and drum-driven semi-improv jams. Proving quite jolly, with a surprisingly infectious laugh, the first poet laureate of underground Manchester (the Fall predates both Joy Division and the Smiths) spared a fellow Northerner a few minutes from a hotel back East as he started his latest U.S. tour.
L.A. WEEKLY: Okay, first things first. Which side are you on? Red or blue?
MARK E. SMITH: I’m for Man City, me. [That’s blue.]
The beautiful underdog. What’s the most painful thing you can think of that you’d like to do to Man United? [Smith bursts out laughing.] I’ve heard City fans saying, “Make ’em die slowly and painfully.”
That’s what they’re like, yeah. I dunno, inside the stadium it’s gone all middle-class since I was a lad.
All the hooligans have gone.
That’s why I don’t go anymore.
Mike Watt and the late D. Boon of the Minutemen — two of your biggest fans — used to torture me at Fall gigs in L.A. during the early ’80s with these relentless interrogations. “What does this mean, what does that mean? This Manchester accent — we can’t make out a fucking word he’s saying!”
Really? So what did ya say?
They’d zero in on some reference you’d made about the Peterloo Massacre, and I’m trying to explain what it meant to the working classes after the Industrial Rev . . .
Oh, man . . . you didn’t . . .?
Did I read into it something that just wasn’t there?
That’s the biggest common misconception about me — that I’m some kind of working-class hero.
“The North Will Rise Again” — that wasn’t political, about angry prole uprisings?
That was a long time ago . . . [He laughs.]
Was 24 Hour Party People a good film about the Manchester scene, or a Tony Wilson “wank” — his word?
Well . . . it’s okay. Tony’s not a bad lad, really . . . you know, I was in it for about 10 secs.
Why didn’t you have a bigger role, you being the elder statesman of “post-punk” Manchester?
I originally had about 50 lines. By the time I read the script and cut it all up . . . [laughs] . . . I sort of edited meself out of the film. The first script ’ad me kickin’ somebody’s ’ead in at the ’acienda and all this exaggerated shit . . . so it just ended up with me going [menacingly polite], “Hello, Tony!”
Did you get into brawls at the Hacienda when all the E-ravers were getting into born-again ’60s peace-and-love vibes?
Are you kidding? Me? Never! [He laughs.]
Did you go to the Pistols gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in ’76?
Yeah, I went to the first one. They say you can fill Old Trafford [Park] with wankers who said they went . . . I only went because I’d heard that one of the groups — I think it was the Pistols — might be doing some ’60s L.A. cover versions, y’know . . . [laughter] . . . of garage groups like the Seeds.
You’ve been called “the grumpiest man in pop” by the British rock press. Your own Web site refers to you as “the miserable old git.”
Well, you know, there’s nowt more miserable than being on the Internet all the fookin’ time.
Do you sometimes get cranky on the road?
Very much, yeah. But don’t worry, generally speaking, I’m a lamb . . . a luvly easygoin’ pushover of a fella. Everybody should come down and see me band, we’re great live. I have to get going now. See ya.
The Fall play Spaceland on Friday, May 7, and the Echo on Friday, May 14, and Saturday, May 15. Mark E. Smith reads at Tangier on Thursday, May 13.