The Rise, The Fall and The Rise by Brix Smith Start
Say the name of Brix Smith to people of a certain age and musical persuasion and they’ll instantly recognise her as a one-time member of legendary punk band “The Fall”. Notorious for the lo-fi quality of their records and their curmudgeonly attitude, they were huge favourites of DJ John Peel; however, it was only with the arrival of Brix into their fold that they achieved more mainstream success.
Brix’s connection with the band doesn’t end with her songwriting talents, however; she was famously married to the band’s driving force, Mark E. Smith, and when that marriage failed had a high-profile relationship with musician Nigel Kennedy. The media have no doubt been happy to pigeonhole her, and so her wonderful memoir “The Rise, The Fall, The Rise”, published yesterday, is a frank, revelatory and fascinating read and I was delighted to be offered a review copy.
Brix was born Laura Elisse Salenger and raised in Los Angeles by her mother, a TV executive. The family moved to Chicago when Brix’s mother remarried, and after studying in Vermont she took up music, adopting the name “Brix” after her favourite Clash song, “The Guns of Brixton”. In April 1983 she met Mark E. Smith at a concert in Chicago; by July of that year she was married to him and living in Manchester; and by the end of the year she was recording with The Fall. However, marriage to Smith and life in the band was not easy, and in 1989 the couple divorced. Brix rejoined the group in 1990s, before finally leaving in 1996. At that point, her life went through many highs and lows until things got back on track after her marriage to entrepreneur Philip Start in the early 2000s. Reinventing herself as a fashionista and TV presenter, she’s set up a boutique chain with her husband and regularly appears on fashion shows.
“The Rise…” is a riveting book, and a chance for Brix to tell her story from her side, cutting through rumour and hype. Her American upbringing was not an easy one, overshadowed by drugs, rape and eating disorders, and her relationship with her biological father was very tricky. However, she was blessed with a wonderful stepfather, who eventually adopted her, and she did manage to make her peace with her biological one.
(The Fall go commercial!)
The sections dealing with her time in The Fall are particularly revelatory, and her portrait of Smith is vivid. In the early part of their relationship they were obviously soul mates, and the tales of life in 1980s Manchester, touring with the band and recording John Peel sessions are fascinating. Frankly, they seem like an unlikely couple – a troubled American girl and a Northern lad on the way to mutating into an Andy Capp lookalike, so it’s amazing things worked out so well at the start. The sections where Brix first starts to get to grips with the north of England in the 1980s are fascinating – it was obviously a real culture shock for her. But their marriage was marred by his infidelity; Smith was a difficult man at the best of times, and during the later 1996 tour (after their break-up) he seemed to become completely unbuttoned, spiralling into a terrible state through drink and drugs, and the behaviour presented here is quite appalling. Brix eventually fled The Fall for good to save her own sanity, and it’s wonderful to see that she’s found the confidence to return to music and reclaim the songwriting she contributed to band in her live shows.
Also fascinating is the time she spent with Nigel Kennedy; the media hoopla and circus surrounding him is incredible, and it certainly takes some stamina to survive that. The constant knock-backs would be enough to undermine anyone, and having struggled with self-esteem issues from a young age, picking herself up and starting again must have been particularly difficult. In fact, what shines through in “The Fall…” is Brix’s strength; to survive her unconventional upbringing, her years in The Fall and her crises of identity must have taken some resilience, and she’s truly an inspirational woman.
Women have never had it easy in the music business; in fact, you could say women don’t have it easy in life. However, the punk and post-punk years brought forth a number of remarkable and strong woman performers who produced some of the best music around. Their memoirs have made waves in the publishing world recently (I’m thinking of Viv Albertine and Tracey Thorn here) – but I think they’d be hard-pressed to compete with Brix Smith Start’s book for her unflinching honesty and the sheer wildness of her story. Needless to say I loved the book – highly recommended!
Review copy kindly provided by Lee Brackstone/Faber for which many thanks!