In a Venn diagram of compatibility it’s difficult to imagine two people with less of an overlap than that of Brix Smith Start and Mark E. Smith of The Fall as Getintothis’ Rick Leach recounts.
Brix Smith Start grew up in L.A. as Laura Salenger and had what she freely recognises as a privileged upbringing; pet ponies, summer camps, liberal school education and more shrinks than you could shake a couch at. Her grandfather was extremely wealthy with fingers in many pies: he set up the first automated car wash in California and used to hob-nob with all manner of film stars. Her father, despite (or because of) being a psychiatrist, was a very strange, troubled and cruel man, although extremely wealthy in his own right. Brix ended up at the upper class college, Bennington, in Vermont where her classmates included Brett Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Lethem and Jill Eisenstadt.
On the other hand, Mark E. Smith grew up in Prestwich, Manchester as Mark E. Smith. His father was a plumber and Mark E. Smith himself worked briefly as a shipping clerk before forming The Fall in 1976.
Nothing in common between them then. Nothing that would lead you’d to think that at the age of 20, she’d meet Mark E. Smith after a Fall gig, fall in love, get a one-way plane ticket to Manchester and marry the wordsmith, barely six weeks after meeting him for the first time.
It sounds a bit like a fairy-tale, doesn’t it?
But the best fairy tales, as we all know, have a dark and Grimm edge to them, and Brix’s story, as told in this autobiography is up there with the rest.
It’s not without quite a few flashes of humour and that’s what raises this book from being unremittingly bleak. It would have been easy for her to have concentrated on the many dark passages in her life (a possessive and manipulative father, constant battles with food and the brink of bulimia, the break-up of her marriage to Smith as well as a disastrous relationship with the classical violinist, Nigel Kennedy, drugs and rape.) Yet – and this is a sign of her self-awareness and self-depreciation – she has been able to come through the other side and write about the many funny things that have happened to her. The majority and best of them relate to her cultural shock at finding herself in Manchester in 1983, a place that was then so far removed from L.A. that it might have well been another planet.
She admits that she knew nothing about Manchester before she headed back with Smith at the end of The Fall’s U.S. tour. Her mother told her that she ‘thought it was a depressed place.’ Very perceptive lady, Mrs Salenger.
With her sunny and ever optimistic Californian approach to life, Brix was convinced everything was going to work out just fine. Her journey from Piccadilly to Prestwich by itself should have sounded alarm bells – she never expected Manchester to be so grim. ‘Everyone looked poor…the buildings glowered over the streets and looked as if some horrible atrocities had been committed in decades past…the sky was toxic heavy and grey…there was no colour…’ Things didn’t look up when she arrived at Smith’s flat and when needing a bath, was told she’d ‘have to stick the immersion heater on…mind you, it runs out quick, so you’ll have to top it up with a couple of kettles…’ This was a different world for her indeed, especially as she had absolutely no idea what an immersion heater was.
But she wasn’t going to be deterred, marrying Smith shortly after arriving, none of her beloved family or friends present and with a wedding reception in the local pub where the fare consisted of sausage rolls, crisps and pickled onions.
She somewhat reluctantly joined The Fall and her influence can be seen in part as contributing to their most commercially successful period along with some of their most critically acclaimed recordings; The Wonderful & Frightening World of the Fall and This Nation’s Saving Grace albums to name a couple.
Her book clearly shows a different side to life in The Fall from that outlined in last years’ The Big Midweek, by long time Fall bassist, Steve Hanley. While for this writer, Hanley’s book was the outstanding music book of the year, Brix Smith Start’s tome uncovers things that Hanley’s simply could not.
Mark E. Smith, from her account, was not an easy person to live with; increasing amounts of speed and alcohol saw to that. When combined with marital infidelities on M.E.S.’s part, she’d had enough and left. Or rather, was thrown out of his flat – literally – by Smith.
Brix Smith Start seems to have a bit of bad luck where blokes are concerned because in a surreal twist of fate, she ended up with Aston Villa fan, BMW-driving, Stradivarius-playing violinist Nigel Kennedy. Although her relationship with Kennedy floundered and failed spectacularly, due in no small part to his patently ‘oafish’ behaviour, she has remained on goodish terms with the spikey-haired fiddler to this day.
Her story takes an even grimmer turn as she returns to the States following her break up with Kennedy; she is treated for depression, bulimia and vomiting remain at her side consistently. Numerous shrinks are consulted and she winds up waiting tables, where at one point, she serves the band James who were on tour in the U.S. Although when asked innocently, yet not very diplomatically it must be said, by a member of the band, ‘Didn’t you used to be Brix Smith?’ it seems to be one of her lowest points.
But with her always optimistic faith in the future – and the hang-over hippy belief in such stuff as crystals and the like – she dusted herself off, picked herself up and got on with things.
And these things, unbelievably, included moving back to the U.K. and rejoining The Fall! When reading this part of the book and even though you know the story, you still end up almost shouting at her, ‘What the fuck were you thinking of?!’
There must be something about The Fall, as an entity in itself, as a creative force, because Brix Smith Start is not alone in being drawn back to the group, like a moth to a flame. Dave Simpson’s book, The Fallen, where he interviews many ex-Fall members (and there are a lot of them), similarly recount that while they almost all hold Mark E Smith in contempt for the manner he treated them personally, they feel that as a creative experience their time within the group could not be bettered.
The second time Brix Smith Start played with The Fall ended very badly and quickly. Separate travel arrangements to gigs speaks volumes and is all you really need to know.
Yet all fairy tales have happy endings and in her case this seems it be the way it’s gone. Now happily married to the ex-founder of the fashion chain, Woodhouse, she has now a successful TV and high-end retail career under her belt, and is now reunited with ex-Fall members (including Steve Hanley) and touring as Brix and the Extricated.
A very positive tale and excellent read, all in all; and proof that good things do (finally) happen to good people.
- The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise by Brix Smith Start is published by Faber.
- Brix Smith Start will be appearing at the Louder than Words Festival this Autumn.