Manchester post-punk legends The Fall are probably most notable for two things; their famously irascible and erratic leader Mark E. Smith, and (not unrelatedly) their rapid turnover of band personnel. There are, at the time of writing, somewhere north of 60 ex-members of The Fall and no shortage of memoirs documenting their treatment at the hands of Mark E, most recently the excellent The Big Midweek from long-serving/suffering bassist Steven Hanley. But while Hanley’s tone is of wry, weary resignation, detached drollness and a sense of business as usual during Smith’s more outrageous moments, no such reserve permeates the pages of Brix Smith Start’s tome. Viewers of Gok’s Fashion Fix will recognise the irrepressible Smith Start attitude from the off.
The memoir’s title broadly reflects the three stages of Brix’s life that is covers. Firstly, the rise: her astonishingly affluent, but hardly trauma-free, childhood and adolescence in LA and Chicago, featuring all the well-documented manifestations of the dark side of the Hollywood dream – drug abuse, eating disorders and sexual violence – overshadowed by the spectre of a controlling, violent father and fractured family life. This is followed by her departure for England after falling head over heels for Mark E. Smith on The Fall’s 1983 US tour, and her subsequent time as guitarist, vocalist and songwriter for the band, which coincided with the release of some of their best-loved and most critically-acclaimed albums. The final part of the book explores Brix’s post-Fall period of recovery, regrouping and finding a new career as a businesswoman and TV presenter.
One of the big draws of this book is undoubtedly its promise to explain just how the hell this chirpy, upbeat ray of California sunshine ended up making some of the most influential alt-rock of the ’80s alongside one of the known universe’s most relentless curmudgeons. It turns out that it was simply a case of two like-minded souls making a profound artistic connection, although Brix’s arrival in the less-than-salubrious environs of Prestwich, raring to follow her artistic and romantic dream, is quite possibly the most eyebrow-raising part of the book, simply because you know that the inevitable rude awakening can’t be long coming (“I didn’t know what Cash and Carry meant, but I had a feeling it wasn’t glamorous…”). Let’s not forget that she was barely out of her teens at this point. Brix deals with all the (many) ups and downs that come along with being a Fall member with astonishing aplomb, and her refusal to conform to any of the usual stereotypes – fashion-obsessed airhead, rock ‘n’ roll chick, abuse victim, art student, pug-fixated yoga bunny – that could easily be foisted upon her (and indeed, are routinely foisted upon women in the entertainment industry) is refreshing.
Given some of the events detailed in the book, you’d be well within your rights to expect fifty shades of disgruntlement – but Brix ha an innate optimism and almost obsessive determination to look on the bright side of life. She wears her heart very much on her sleeve, whether it’s her first impressions of drummer Paul Hanley (“adorable”), ex-boyfriend Nigel Kennedy (“a magical elf”) or her love for her dog Gladys (“I feel like I’ve known her spirit through many lifetimes”).
Occasionally the LA-issue psychobabble gets a bit much, as does her somewhat tiresome habit of foreshadowing (on listening to Abbey Road: “I never thought, in my wildest dreams, that in less that twelve years I would actually be recording my own records in the legendary Abbey Road Studios. . .”) but what shines through is a genuine warmth, open-heartedness and generosity. Brix doesn’t really have a bad word to say about anyone, despite some extreme provocation from the likes of ex-Fall drummer Karl Burns, whose more printable exploits on tour include smearing chocolate birthday cake all over the walls of a hotel room and, of course, from Mark E. Smith himself, who she praises for his “humour, his kindness, his devotion to his family”.
It’s this beguiling lack of bitterness, rather than tales of life on the road or recollections of her many celebrity pals, that leaves a lingering impression once the book’s finished. And the process of writing a memoir has clearly exorcised a few demons – after fifteen years of not touching a guitar, Brix Smith Start is performing once again, with fellow ex-Fall members Steve and Paul Hanley, in Brix and the Extricated. You can’t help rooting for her.
Katie Grocott Murdoch