Rebecca Thomas conducts a full-on interview with Brix Smith Start, ex-wife of the Fall genius Mark E Smith, on the occasion of her brilliant, crazy tell-all memoir. All photos by Rebecca.
Brix Smith Start’s crazy, dramatic, glamorous life is all laid out in her book The Rise, The Fall and The Rise. She grew up in Hollywood; her father was a psychiatrist who disowned her when she was 16. You get her insider’s view of attending exclusive US college Bennington with Donna Tartt and Bret Eastern Ellis. She got her first taste of cocaine with Joan Jett. She moved to England at 20, and promptly hooked up with Mark E Smith and joined The Fall. Later she married classical music star Nigel Kennedy, who introduced her to another world where she was up close and personal with Princess Diana.
When the marriage ended she returned to California, and down on her luck ended up as a waitress. But she bounced back, returned to the UK, married fashion retailer Philip Start and became a TV presenter on the Channel 4 fashion reality show Gok’s Fashion Fix.
Mark E Smith looms large in the book. The Fall were the indie band’s indie band, but operated as Smith’s personal fiefdom; you could be hired or fired at any moment. Classic songs like “Hit The North” and “New Big Prinz” were written during Brix’s tenure with the band. The pair met on a Fall tour of America. When Brix arrived at his Manchester flat two weeks later, Smith hadn’t bothered to pick up his ex-girlfriend’s dirty knickers from the floor.
I know Brix from her time running the clothes shop Start in East London. I’d go to some of the same fashion parties as her and she would always stand out in those events as a rare smiling, approachable face. Brix asked me to shoot her playing one of her first live gigs last year at the 100 Club on Oxford Street with her band of reunited Fall members, the Extricated. One of the images is the cover of her autobiography.
We talked recently on Skype conversation, me in New Zealand and her in London.
It seems like there was a pay-off in your relationship with Mark E Smith. On one side you got to jump straight into this incredible band, but on the other side it was very much on his terms.
Well that’s exactly right, but I allowed myself to be controlled. He never controlled me. Any time I could have opened the cage and left. So I take responsibility, but I’m a team player. I can work with anything. I can make anything work. I am the person who can sprinkle the gold dust on someone else’s work and just turn it from something pretty good to something magical. I know I can do that.
So I respect and love Mark, as both a writing partner and a performer. He’s amazing, so I deferred to him and let him drive the ship, because that’s what he does best, drive the ship. It didn’t really phase me how controlling he was. That’s what I was given and I was grateful to be doing it.
There were times when it was difficult, especially later on when we weren’t getting along. In the beginning he would always defer to my opinion. I was involved with so many decisions, and he used me so much as his partner and his springboard.
It seems like when you met you were a bit of a pixie that had fallen to earth to help him along with his endeavors at that time; do you think that is quite a female thing to do? When you met he says he’ll be your Svengali but in the end you join the Fall instead of him launching you as a solo artist.
That’s exactly how it turned out, but I never imagined it would. At the time I didn’t realise how much I was helping The Fall and they needed me as much as I needed them. He did say later on, a bunch of times, that if it wasn’t for Brix The Fall wouldn’t exist, she saved us. But now of course he’d never be caught saying that.
I’ve been watching your old Fall videos on YouTube and it’s quite entertaining the way you’re grooving along, dancing and Mark E Smith is there in the middle looking all sulky.
Yeah. I was the good cop and he was the bad cop in life.
When you arrived in Manchester, you were 20 and you’d led this affluent life in the US, then you step in Mark E Smith’s hovel – how come that didn’t phase you at all?
That’s because I was doing what I loved. England, which I adored and playing music, which was my dream come true. I was whisked away from America, I’d only left school three months before and there I was in Manchester, going to the Hacienda and playing music in the Fall.
Do you think being an American was also an advantage in England, because you were an outsider?
In the beginning in Manchester there was a real anti-American feeling. People judged me because of my accent and didn’t like Americans generally or what they were doing politically, so I was lumped in with that. And I remember having to fight my corner and say I’m not like that.
It was getting to the point when we (Brix and Mark E Smith) bought a house in Prestwich, we lived in our house, we went to the same corner store everyday for the newspaper and a pint of milk or whatever and everyday people said, “Oh, you’re still on holiday.” I was like, “No, I own a house down the road, I’m married, I live here.” And they were like, “Oh it’s lovely to hear your American accent, when are you going back there?”
How did it feel going from the Mark E Smith years, that whole Northern, working class English experience, to the Nigel Kennedy years, hobnobbing with royalty?
First of all Nigel and Mark were not so different. There were things that were similar. But yes it was a very different life, it was so much fun with Nigel. An absolute blast, but at the same time anxiety-invoking going into this world that I wasn’t really used to. I remember being really anxious about my table manners in front of royalty because Americans eat like pigs I’m afraid to say, and I had to learn all this etiquette like where the knife and fork rested.
When you went back to LA and ended up living in a garage and working as a waitress, did you feel like this was a moment of humbling that you needed to have?
I didn’t feel like it at the time. I was terrified at the time. I was just 30, I think, and I felt like “Oh my god, I’m a failure.” I was in this great band, I had a record deal, I had a famous boyfriend, we had lots of money, I was hanging out with royalty and sports stars and now look. I’d lost it all and I don’t have any qualifications. I’m working as a waitress – what if I end up like one of those bitter 50-year-old American coffee waitresses with their name tag, like Brix, with their pink pinny, serving endless cups of coffee and smoking fags and living in a trailer?
That was my worst fear. I was fearful, I was alone, I had no husband, I didn’t think I wanted children, but all my friends wanted children, so I was confused as to why I didn’t really want them. It’s just like, “What the hell is going to happen to me?”
But at the same time there was something inside me that said, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be okay.”
It was humbling, Rebecca, and actually looking back on it, it was the making of me. Being a waitress was leveling and it made me an empathetic person, grateful for everything and it made me understand so much because before then, yes I’d worked hard in the Fall, but I had things handed to me. I had to realise what was important and it was about being human. Being a waitress is a very honorable job. It made me a nicer, kinder, better person.
Also it gave me confidence because I knew I’d be able to take care of myself. Even if I was a waitress I could fucking do it.
When you visited the Florida Disneyland in the nineties, one of the performing Mickey Mouses took a shine to you and sent you a number of encouraging “love notes” to visit backstage and meet up. As it turned out, 248 out of 250 Mickeys are women under the costume; if circumstance had been different do you think you would of stepped up and done it with Mickey, with the head on?
Well, it wasn’t so much that it was Mickey. I was in a really deep depression at the time, I was on Prozac, I was so unhappy and in such a strange place, I wasn’t getting the attention and the affection that I needed from Nigel. I’d lost my record deal or was about to lose it and everything was going wrong.
At that moment, Mickey seemed attractive. If Mickey loved me then everything was okay. I was crazy. It did go through my mind that maybe I would of done it, but I don’t think I really would. But I couldn’t stop myself from seeing how far it would go, because it was so surreal, blurring from reality to cartoon world.
A lot of people do fancy cartoon characters.
It’s a thing, I know – plushies and furries. But I didn’t know it was a real thing till years later. There was an episode of CSI where there was a murder at a plushie / furrie convention. Where people dress up as animals and shag each other. They just lie in a pile and do something called scritching, where they just rub up against each other. It’s just mental. I pitched a documentary about it but could never get it off the ground. I so wanted to go to a convention and I wanted to dress in one of the suits and see what happened.
After Mark E Smith and Nigel Kennedy you moved back to London and now have this successful marriage with Philip. How is this relationship different?
I was just so broken from being on the emotional rollercoaster from those two guys. Ups and downs and walking on eggshells. Having anxiety in the pit of your stomach – are they going to leave you, aren’t they gonna leave you? Are they going to kick off? I realised I just didn’t want to live like that any more. I used to be addicted to the drama, I think a lot of people are, addicted to those relationships, and then I realized “Oh my god, it’s so much better when you don’t have that.”
Also I respect Philip, I respect him just as much as I respected Mark or Nigel. That’s really important because when you start to disrespect them – like when Mark became really badly behaved with drink, he didn’t behave nicely to me, I lost respect for him. And I could barely look at him at the end.
Philip’s really different to them because he’s very, very stable. He was in a marriage before, for like 20 years and he’s got kids and he’s a successful businessman. He allows me to do what I need to as a person without getting his own ego caught up in it.
I heard that you like to have a shag in the morning so the sex glow stays with you all day.
Do you have any other tips you can share with me?
Oh my god no! I can’t tell you! I’ll tell you when you get back here and I’ll tell you at a party.
How do you feel about being London right now, with all the political drama?
Terrible, I can’t even tell you. On the night of the Brexit vote, I was having this party at my house, where you would have been had you been here, and it was for Philip’s birthday. Lots of fab people here, we were having it on the roof top and the chef Simon from the Rivington was cooking and it was so lovely, everyone was partying and having a great time. We knew that Brexit was going on but no one was worried, it was fine. It was like, literally the last day of Rome, and late at night, when there were ten people left, it was maybe 1:30am and we said, “Hey guys lets take a poll, how did you vote?”
Five of them voted out, five of them voted in, and I was like “What? Five of my really good friend voted out?” I can’t even tell you who all the people were because you’ll know them. I was like that’s shocking! I would never expect anyone to vote out!
So then later on, my friend Michelle Lineker (footballer Gary Lineker’s ex-wife) and I, she slept over, so we stayed up and turned on TV and we saw the result. She was in shock. I was in shock. And the next day it was like the whole world changed. Everything changed.
There was massive, massive depression. In the streets, people were angry. All this hideous racial stuff came up. A girlfriend of mine, who writes for The Guardian, who’s Pakistani, said she was walking through the park and someone turned to her and said under their breath, “Leave.”
It was very depressing and everything took a tumble and no one wanted to come out and do anything. It was awful. I had a book event two days later which I cancelled, I didn’t feel like doing it. It was collective consciousness : doom and fear.
But then I got my head round it and thought, “Yes, we have hit the wall, this is a dark place”, but from this chaos, darkness and mess something good will come. It has to. We’re just shaking it all up and out of this the spark of creation will come.
We can take responsibility for ourselves, and work together. I’m going to hope that something good comes from this. I’m going to believe it. The other thing is, you have two choices in every moment. You can sit there and think about how bad things are, how fucked they are, how everything is going to go down and descend into bowels of hell and how we’re all going to lose everything and feel terrible inside and have massive anxiety while you sit there and think those thoughts. Or you can think this is the beginning of something better.
The Rise, The Fall and The Rise (Faber, $36.99) is available at Unity Books.