The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise by Brix Smith Start
(Faber & Faber, 480 pages, paperback. Out now.)
Review by Emma Warren
I start with a disclaimer: I’m not a Fall obsessive. I did see them at the Roadhouse once upon a time in the mid ‘90s, but I don’t own any of their records.
This means I can assure you that you don’t need to be a hardcore fan to enjoy guitarist Brix Smith’s book. It’s a brilliantly weird and readable music memoir that brings a sun-soaked Californian perspective to early ’80s Manchester and to the most enduring cult band in Britain.
We first meet the pre-teen Brix, in a Mustang with her grandma, driving to Disneyland. Grandma doesn’t stop at the gates, though. She drives through the No Entry signs, past flowerbeds manicured to resemble Mickey Mouse’s head, and straight into the empty lagoon next to the Submarine Voyage ride.
It’s a suitably surreal and wide-eyed opening to Brix’s headlong dive through life, which starts with her starry Hollywood childhood (horses, Porsches, rock star house guests). It’s a golden life pockmarked with familial break-ups, bulimia, and some pretty bad experiences with men.
She starts her first band and falls in love with Mark E Smith aged 20 after playing him some of her songs after a Fall show in Chicago. Within a week they’d decided that she’d move to Manchester. Like all the best music books, The Rise… punctures your assumptions about a band with everyday detail that ramps up the bizarre to a whole new level.
“Where’d you keep the milk?”, she asks him, arriving at her new North Manchester home for the first time. “Out the window”, he says.
‘I wondered if this was a traditional resourceful British custom,’ she writes, culture shock leaping off the page. ‘Back home we had a walk-in Butler’s pantry where we kept all our non-perishables…’
She adjusts and her new life begins. The dysfunctional Fall family stay in slaughterhouse hotels near Dachau; they write songs about whoever Mark’s just fallen out with; and they hang out with ballet bad boy Michael Clark and go clubbing with Leigh Bowrey.
The story about taking Mark E Smith to Disneyland to experience her favourite ride, the Matterhorn, might be well worn but it remains surreal. He doesn’t want to go on, claiming the ride is ‘evil’, so she takes him to toddler ride It’s A Small World to calm down. While they’re sitting on a train watching singing dolls from around the world, there’s an accident on the Matterhorn that results in both a woman’s death and The Fall classic ‘Disney’s Dream Debased’.
It’s one extreme moment after another. The unpredictable drama and chaos of life with Mark E Smith comes across clearly, yet she doesn’t really stick the knife in – delivering instead a few dozen brutalist nicks and slices in an emotional retelling of their intertwined domestic and musical lives. He is a musical genius, she says, albeit one likely to hoover up songwriting credits as hungrily as amphetamine lines.
Things gets differently weird post-Fall. She moves in with Nigel Kennedy, hangs out with the England football team during Italia ‘90, goes to Princess Diana’s birthday party and joins Hole for a day. She writes about her foray into TV, describing her styling choices on Gok’s Fashion Fix with the same enthusiasm as her retelling of the genesis of The Fall’s Pat Trip Dispenser.
Skip the bits where she tells you about her dreams (helpfully these are mostly in italics) and you’ll find a funny and fascinating account of an idiosyncratic rock n roll route through life.
Emma will be talking on our stage at Port Eliot Festival, 28-31 July.