Remembering Mark Stewart

Publisher and author Tariq Goddard remembers the restless giant of The Pop Group and The Maffia, and the challenge his legacy leaves us with. Home page portrait by Beezer Redland

Mark Stewart by Brian Griffin

If Mark Stewart ever suffered from Imposter Syndrome he hid it pretty well. Coming of age before the ubiquitous use of psychological categories, when working and lower middle class people were well represented in the arts (indeed, Mark toured with his musical heroes while still at school), and “history” meant the march of progress rather than just the past, was formative for a certain type of performer that Mark encapsulated. The very idea that anyone else’s voice was either better qualified or entitled to be heard over his jarred to a point where it seemed that his assertive self confidence was as much a matter of principle as it was something he enjoyed in practise.

This was apparent when he introduced the one moment of mirth in an otherwise discomforting and upsetting day, inadvertently (I think), on the afternoon of Mark Fisher’s memorial service in February 2017. Mark Stewart was wrapping up a characteristically passionate and fiery paean to Fisher, putting me more in mind of a ranting Methodist preacher than a post punk icon, building to a poetic finale where he exhorted his listeners to go and read everything they could by… “Mark Stewart!” I remember Mark’s face looking vaguely troubled as he left the lectern, as if he had forgotten something, and then his doubling back, with little visible embarrassment, to issue his friendly correction, “I meant, of course, Mark Fisher!” Far from a narcissistic slip, I think this was an unconscious reflection of Mark’s sense of himself as a necessary person, one that neither he or his listeners could do without, allied to the belief that he had something urgent to impart that no one else could, because no one else could actually be him.

Behind this metaphysical self belief was a probing mischievousness, even more evident in person than it was in his music. For those who never had the pleasure of his company, it can be heard in the refrain on ‘We Are Time’ which sounds like it could be played on a kazoo, the musical equivalent of a giant imp popping his head up every few minutes to playfully insist on poking you in the ribs, oblivious to his own strength. I had been warned that conversation with Mark, as he took your measure, could feel like a trial by fire; questions, counter-questions, comedic repartee, allowing for a very little time to respond before the next wry sequence of tests, that might end abruptly once you had gained his trust, or at least demonstrated that you could keep up, and so it proved.

In many people this may have been a sign of insecurity, but Mark was as at ease in his own skin as he was capable of sounding tortured and in pain on record, led by a moral code that was scrupulous and constant unto itself. Rarely amongst creative people, who can have mercurial whims, Mark’s word really was as good as a contract, and where a difference in opinion might lead to a problem over money, he was ready to take the cut at his end.

While the breadth of musicians and genres Mark influenced was already apparent well before his death, ranging from Nick Cave to trip hop, dubstep to Nine Inch Nails, and avant-funk to Daft Punk, he probably considered himself as much an ideas man as performer, his magpie intelligence picking out whatever intellectual notions he could enlist in service to his art. His unique talent lay not only in his inimitable vocal delivery, but in the way he could literally perform these ideas as a singer, and create noises out of theory, reverb for concepts, guitar breaks out of philosophy, sounding all the while like the nameless multitudes mown down by history’s big names, his voice full of the agony of forgotten statistics. For me, this rendered him less an intellectual than a shaman, articulating the point where thought and magic meet, his belief in the autonomous power of music more like that of his fellow West Country mystic Robert Fripp, who saw King Crimson as independent entity there to be channeled, than anything on Brian Eno’s reading list.

Moreover, Mark flitted from idea to idea at a speed that no academic could tolerate. He still used the telephone regularly just to chat, ostensibly about an idea, but as often as not the point of the conversation was forgotten in comedic detours, another call sure to follow whenever he remembered what it was he had wished to impart.

Mark had spoken about wanting to write an autobiography that would be half theory, half memoir (though even that is too simple a description of what he had in mind) for a few years, and finally committed to a contract and timeline last spring. From a publishers point of view the prospect of editing Mark was both an honour and a nightmare, and I was as intrigued as I was worried at what I might eventually find, once the first draft was handed in this summer. I may now never know. My last communication with him, just a few weeks ago, was based on the premise that we would meet soon to discuss the work, and as I did not know him well enough to know how he died, only that if he knew something was wrong, he wasn’t ready to share that with me or anyone outside his close circle, there is a sense that Mark was still very much in the middle of things when he passed.

Yet in spite of that, it is hard to view Mark’s life as uncompleted work. Seen in the light of Wilde’s advice of creating a work of art out of life, he was the new project he finished every day. The memory of being sent a song recorded off the cuff via WhatsApp, a bewitching astral sea shanty, which before I could thank him for the unexpectedly touching gesture, learned that he meant to send it to Mad Professor, not a figure I am usually confused with, is as telling an example of Mark’s erratic and infinite brilliance as a finished memoir. And the legacy he now leaves behind, an inspirational challenge to a new generation of restless giants.

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