Music

Mark E. Smith Was the Hip Priest of Rock Frontmen

The Fall leader, who died Wednesday, was the prolific poet of post-punk despair.

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Mark E. Smith Was the Hip Priest of Rock Frontmen

I remember the first time I heard “Hip Priest.” I had to lean into my computer to listen more closely. The sounds coming out of the shitty speakers were tense, eerie. Was that a knuckle cracking? Then, a tepid flicker of guitar, floating above steady cymbal taps, gesturing gently toward impending chaos.

There was also a voice—Mark E. Smith’s voice, on what might be the most memorable song in his decades-long history with English post-punk heroes The Fall. I was a teenager, and I’d never heard a voice like Smith’s before—guttural, unadorned, declarative, ready to explode, like a street-corner shaman. Now that he is dead, I’m sure I never will again.

Smith’s death, at age 60, also brings the death of The Fall, for as many members passed through the band’s lineup from the beginning, in 1976, to the end, this week, Smith was the sole constant. The founder and chief creative force, Smith was notoriously difficult to work with (he once reportedly fired a studio engineer for eating a salad). His volatile behavior may have afforded him a controversial reputation, but it also solidified his place; he wasn’t so much in The Fall as he was The Fall.

Now there is no Fall, a cruel reality that is hard to type, let alone swallow. There are songs, though—more than 30 albums’ worth—but “Hip Priest,” from 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour, stands apart. Dark and menacing, it begins in an atypically subtle manner, first descending slowly and later quite suddenly into madness.

“He is not appreciate-ted-d,” Smith grumbles across the song’s moody landscape. He sings of a mysterious man who must make an appearance, a man who people raise their glass to, although “it’s appreciation half won.” The Hip Priest is a figure both loved and hated, revered and feared. Is he a reference to Smith himself? Or some demigod worthy of scorn? Perhaps some combination of both, although another singularly mournful icon of music likely served as inspiration: Johnny Cash.

Read: The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums

In his 2009 memoir Renegade, Smith wrote of his admiration for Cash. It made perfect sense; both were talented and prolific outcasts who put shadowy subjects in starring roles. As “Hip Priest” tumbles into anarchy, Smith shouts about finding “my last clean dirty shirt out of the wardrobe.” It might be a reference to “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” the melancholy tale of beer, cigarettes and despair written by Kris Kristofferson and turned into a hit by Cash in 1970. “I fumbled in my closet through my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt,” Cash sang, preparing himself to face another day. Like the Hip Priest — and like Smith — the protagonist in “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” is a flawed, reluctant anti-hero.

Like an anxious fever dream, “Hip Priest” explores the seedier aspects of a person’s character, although ultimately the protagonist emerges victorious. “All the young groups know,” Smith whispers, “they can imitate but I teach, because I’m a Hip Priest.” Whether or not the Hip Priest himself is a work of fiction, it’s a sentiment that crawls under the listener’s skin and stays there. It’s a powerful proclamation that in the end, the real winners are the weird ones, the ones who most people overlook.

Mark E. Smith had charisma, but how he used it was entirely up to him. He didn’t have the same bold, anarchic persona of Johnny Rotten, or the complex, tragic arc of Ian Curtis. Instead, he was a poetic, erratic everyman; relatable, but most definitely dysfunctional. (In 1998, he was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend, The Fall keyboardist Julie Nagle.) Smith was far from a role model, but in the end his voice and words were his ultimate triumph—perhaps not adored the same way as other frontmen, but never forgotten and forever appreciated.

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