Mark Alexander Smith, 25 February 1960 – 2 November 2009

Good-bye Mark, it was more than great to have been your friend. Thank you for being a very important part of my life.

Hereafter is the tribute I read to Mark at his funeral today. A lot of people will miss you, but will also rejoice in having known you.

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One of the greatest sources of joy and happiness in many human lives is the gift of friendship. Since Mark’s death at the beginning of the month, the messages posted on the internet and the memories we have been sharing about him all show what a great and good friend he was to so many people.

I was lucky to meet Mark on our first day at school, at the age of five, at the Ursuline Convent in Wimbledon in 1965. We soon became accomplices in all kinds of bad behaviour, from wearing our smocks as Batman capes, to teasing the girls and more importantly to finding about the world together. As soon as we learned to write we became regular correspondents. It was Mark, ever interested in technology, who introduced me to e-mail nearly twenty years ago. We had a rich and varied correspondence spanning 44 years.

We were regular visitors in each other’s homes and I loved going to his house in Rodney Road, New Malden, where he grew up with his parents, Ronald and Angela, his brother Simon, his sister Julia and his rather grand grandmother, Mumsie, who lived at the top of the rambling house, which had a long, mysterious garden. There was his beloved cat, Scramble, who would leave unexpected gifts for unsuspecting visitors who happened to leave their shoes in the hall. It was a house of music and books and always an interesting place to play. One book that made a great impression on both of us was ‘Futility’, by William Gerhardie. Originally published in 1922, Mark’s dad lent him a copy of the Penguin reprint in the early seventies and we both read it avidly. It is a novel of comic absurdity on Russian themes and, I believe, the inspiration for The Futility Orchestra, Mark’s one man band for which he produced an album, writing, playing and producing everything himself. Mark was an heir to Gerhardie’s legacy of absurdist humour, in which comedy and the pointless ridiculousness of so much human behaviour are blended with teasing affection. At school we got further into surrealism, which more often than not caused trouble, for instance when Mark ended an English composition essay with the sentence ‘And the taxi flew off in the direction of Lewisham.’ Our English master was not amused.

We carried on at school together, through Donhead and Wimbledon College, which neither of us enjoyed, but our shared dislike was comforting and provided us with the courage to get through it and plentiful ammunition for surrealist subversion. Paul Wheeler was the third member of our trio. We would spend lots of time together, drinking coffee, smoking, listening to music, complaining about school. Mark could get bored easily, and when he did, he would say ‘I must go and tidy my room’ at which point he would disappear. For anyone who had ever been in his room, it was a mystery what he meant by tidying.

Another good old friend of Mark’s is Chris Gardner, who lived with his family around the corner in New Malden. His father John Gardner, the composer and Mark’s dad, Ronald, had been friends from early school years, and were so until Ronald died in his early 70s. The two families were very musical and provided a conducive environment for Mark’s talents, which came to the fore early. He loved going with his family on holiday to Bernard Robinson’s Music Camp. He was learning the cello, but his ambition to become a bass player took a decisive step forward when his parents bought him his first bass guitar in 1972. That was the year we went to one of the first of many gigs together, to see Procul Harum at Wimbledon Theatre. There was no looking back from there and, with hindsight, it is clear that Mark had the wisdom and equanimity to understand and pursue his vocation. Shortly afterwards he joined his first pub band, Smackeroo, with Mark Sullivan and they played the pub circuit in Kingston, Richmond and Twickenham. Although only a young teenager, he knew what he wanted. Not surprisingly, school got in the way, so from time to time Mark went walkabout, leaving home to live a while with his cousin Vicky at Sussex University. He even stayed a few days in my house. Unbeknownst to my parents, I had smuggled him into my attic room and kept him fed and watered when the coast was clear downstairs.

In the weeks since he died so many friends have spoken about Mark’s great sense of humour. He will be missed as a great source of jokes and a great conversationalist, interested and engaged in the world. He was someone who always kept his own, drily critical perspective on life. And he never took himself too seriously. One day, when we were in our late teens, he turned up at Mark Sullivan’s house for a rehearsal. There was a photo shoot going on for a teenage romance magazine, which Mark Sullivan’s mother, Hemma used to cast. Hemma needed someone to play an old woman passer-by, so Mark was roped in, obligingly he rolled up his jeans and donned one of Hemma’s old skirts and a head-scarf to play the role. Someone somewhere must have a copy of the magazine.

We will also remember Mark’s great love of cigarettes and smoking. For those who haven’t seen the story posted by Richard Naiff of the Waterboys on Mark’s Facebook memorial page, I’d like to share it with you now:

I remember checking into a hotel somewhere in the US with Mark et al. The first thing he always did was to check that he had a smoking room. This time however he was informed by the receptionist that there were no smoking rooms in the hotel and that it was a $200 fine if you broke the rule. Mark reached into his wallet, slapped $200 on to the counter and said “Send an ashtray up to my room, would you?!”

Through our twenties and thirties it was a source of vicarious pride for Mark’s friends to go and see him play in bands or hear about his adventures around the world with Receiver, Boys Don’t Cry, Kokomo, Morrissey Mullen, Tony O’Malley, Gonzalez, The Leningrad Cowboys and many others. His virtuoso bass solos would attract sustained applause from audiences appreciative of his talent and dedication. But he did not totally embrace the rock and roll lifestyle. Notwithstanding his impressive consumption of cigarettes and coffee, he avoided drugs and alcohol having realised that they could undermine his ability to serve his musical gifts. He would often quote a favourite idea from the French 19th century novelist, Gustave Flaubert, who had said that an artist should live a quiet, ordained private life and give vent to his passion and wildness in his art. He also liked to quote the psychologist Alfred Adler, who he claimed had said “What person, if confined in a bare room with nothing but a tea-cosy, would not eventually try the tea-cosy on their head?”

I lived outside the UK for more than twenty years, we often met up abroad, when he was recording in Paris or performing in Moscow with Patricia Kaas. She is not well-known in the UK, but is a big star in France and even bigger in the former Soviet Union. In Moscow in 1998 Mark was on tour with Patricia. On the Saturday we met and wandered around Red Square together and it seemed like a bigger version of the playground at the Ursuline Convent in Wimbledon. The next day, she was playing the Kremlin to a sold-out audience. Tickets were like gold-dust and had been changing hands for $500 apiece, but through Mark I managed to get in. After the show, I asked him to introduce me to Patricia as a Russian friend had asked me for her autograph. Mark took me to her dressing room, where she was glamorously basking in the adulation of the Muscovite audience after an energetic and enthralling performance. Mark gave her a long, serious look and said ‘You know what, Patricia? You were really quite good. Have you thought of doing this for a living?’ For a moment she looked furious and scowled, but then burst out laughing and shrugged her shoulders.

One Sunday evening a few years later the phone rang. It was Paul to tell me to turn the telly on quickly as Mark was on the Michael Parkinson show with Bryan Ferry. Sure enough, there he was, as ever, calmly nonchalant and boyish in the background with his bass guitar, keeping the music together. I emailed him the next day to ask how it was that he looked so young on television. The email pinged back with his reply. It’s easy, he wrote, when you’re forty and in a band, make sure all the others are over fifty.

It’s very sad to think that we won’t be celebrating Mark at fifty next February, but let us celebrate his memory and the Good Fortune we all had in having him in our lives for as long as we did.

Thank you.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Mark-Smith-Memorial-Page/326780975331?ref=mf

3 Responses to Mark Alexander Smith, 25 February 1960 – 2 November 2009

  1. Sharon Zeqiri 9was Charsley, from Brycbox) says:

    Hello Mike, and thanks so much for putting this online….I was “surfing” Mark and found it. Mark’s cousin Jeff/Geoff gave me his speech and I will post that, on the FB page, once I’ve established how to spell his name!

    I loved what you said: your contribution helped to make a very sad day a bit lighter, and you made me smile, particularly with your reminiscences about Rodney Road, which I remember with great affection.

    I remember meeting Mark one day on the bus when he had just done a photo-shoot – I thought it was for Jackie magazine….

    I’d never heard of the Gerhardie book: it looks great and I’m going to get a copy.

    I think I was about 14 when I first met Mark at Brycbox – he was probably the first boy friend (not in the romantic sense) I had. Apart from all his achievements, time seems barely to have touched him; he was a fully formed Mark, at that age. All the things people were saying today: that’s the lad I remember too.

    Lovely man, lovely family: it was a privilege to have been a little involved in his life.

    Keep well,
    Warm regards,
    Sharon.

  2. Tim Bruce says:

    Hi Mike I finally saw Marks website and I felt I should add somethingto it albeit belatedly. After Marks’ funeral Paul Wheeler emailed me asking me if I was all right. My reply to Paul is below.

    Hi Paul

    Thanks for your concern I was calling you to ask the same thing.

    I have found Marks death had a profound affect upon me and I think I was a little shocked that it did – you and Mike knew him so much better than me.

    I didn’t see him that much but he was always genuinely happy to talk when we did meet.

    I remember when he was about to take his driving test and Hemma saying well done, Mark said I haven’t passed yet. Hemma replied oh you will and he did.

    It seems from afar that some people find life, mixing with people and living generally a simple task. Mark always seemed to be that relaxed person to me not taking things personally when they weren’t. Me on the other hand, I can always become over emotional where a little rational thought is the easier option.

    So when Neil Conte told me about Mark collapsing at a gig two weeks or so before his death somehow deepen the sadness of his death. I guess no one is that in control.

    I watched an interview with Mark last night. Talking about playing bass, the Waterboys, putting the interviewer right (politely) and down playing his role as a producer.

    I’m glad I knew him

    Tim

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