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Aside from his pattern of drinking (unhurried but relentless), there’s his slight physical stature (about 5ft 9in) and soft-spoken manner: those latter attributes make you wonder where he got the idea that violence might be a useful solution to life’s difficulties. Push them and push them and push them.” He has just completed work on , the Fall’s 29th studio album.“I like to push people,” Smith tells me, “till I get the truth out of them. It’s well up to the dazzling mean standard of its predecessors. I had this breakfast in Cardiff; I could have eaten it every day. Manchester – the food, the shops – has always been crap.” The tirade is his default form of communication, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s joking.Mark E Smith, one of the few figures in the music business who can legitimately be described as a legend, has spent 35 years as oberführer of The Fall.He has a reputation as a man who does not suffer fools – or anybody else – gladly.According to one associate, he has threatened to stab a man for waking him up.He is reputed to have fired a sound man for having ordered a salad.
His former musicians, he tells me, were “dickheads who couldn’t hold their beer and needed to get home to Cheshire”. The others left, to go back to their humdrum bleeding lives. (”If I apologised for everything I ever did wrong,” he once said, “I wouldn’t have a day left to me, in my life.”) “How about you? I’ve heard too many stories – the punch-up on stage in New York in April 1998; the subsequent fracas with band-member Julia Nagle (now Adamson) in a New York hotel room. “You know somebody said that if anyone wrote down the whole truth of their life, it would be a masterpiece? “No.” “I suspect that’s true in your case.” “I couldn’t. Unlike many seminal rock figures – and he is one – age suits him.“Even so, firing a man for ordering a salad...” “The salad was the last straw.” “So you do remember who it was? “No.” “If I understand correctly, you’ve sacked people on a whim.” “I would never do that. And that’s the point where they start to appreciate how nice I was to them.” Like his role model Sir Alex, Smith is a very tactile person, even with strangers. Smith was arrested and charged with third-degree assault and harassment in relation to Adamson: a curiously harsh decision bearing in mind his own account, the limit of his violence towards her was to have shouted too loudly and used her as a human ashtray – he says he extinguished a cigarette “on her trainer” causing her to “think she’s being abused”. After a while they’ll say, ‘Oh he was great, Mark.’ At the time all I heard was: ‘You’re a thief. I will kill you’.” For a man capable of such self-focus, he has broad and surprising interests. I suggest we walk up to Tib Street – as I remember it, a ramshackle paradise full of tropical-fish stores, seedy bookstalls and music shops. I couldn’t do it.” “I’d have told you not to make it too obvious when you were settling scores.” “I have no scores to settle.” We’re joined by his friend Mark. Tomorrow.” I don’t think, in the space of five hours, that I’ve ever seen a man exhibit so many diverse qualities as Mark E Smith. (”He was like an old man,” Martin Bramah had told me, “even when I first met him.”) Here in the half-light, nursing a whiskey by an old oak table, he looks curiously timeless.We’re sitting side by side; at intervals he gives me a tap on the arm which, depending on the subject of conversation, varies in force from gentle to ominously robust. They aren’t as smart as me...” Smith realises the vanity of this last statement. If there’s a single adjective that describes him least well it would be “biddable”. You know, Robert,” says Smith, “I really don’t think you’re very good at this interviewing thing. When I first met her, she thought Armani was an Italian dessert, and Chanel was the French word for that stretch of water between Dover and Calais. ” “I thought she was posh.” (Brix Smith, like Andrea Dworkin and Bret Easton Ellis, attended Bennington College in Vermont.) “Listen, I come from a society where, if you married young, your life was over. And then the Angel – Nigel Whateverhisname [Kennedy] – turned up. After that unpleasantness at the Quality Hotel Eastside, Manhattan, Smith was briefly removed to a New York jail. Smith has considerable knowledge of fine art – whether you’re talking about William Blake, Grayson Perry or his regular album illustrator Pascal Legras. I guess you could relate it to the Tarot.” “You gave readings, didn’t you? It’s bad luck to talk about that.” “But it’s in your book.” “The publisher wanted it.” “Has it brought you bad luck? He, like John Cooper Clarke and other of Smith’s friends I’ve met, is polite, amusing and excellent company. Stay down south.” What, I ask, are his future plans? He has been, depending on the moment, witty, sullen, generous, recalcitrant, insightful, confrontational and solicitous. Photograph him in sepia and you might mistake his face for one of those emotionally untouchable soldiers from the old days; people like Jack, his dad – battle-hardened men with a stubborn, impenetrable exterior.“Hard men with hard livers; faces like un-made beds.” You don’t need to read the many biographies to sense that he’s no stranger to the joy of amphetamines.There are several things about Smith that remind me of the late Alex Higgins.