I'm Getting One Of My Headaches

Select Magazine
August 1991
Chris Heath

        There's a bitter legal wrangle with Lol  Tolhurst brewing.
        There's the time-consuming concept of a compilation video.
        There's two, two! Cure albums to compose.  And, of course,
        there's the long-overdue solo "project".  It's not all beer
        and skittles being Robert Smith ...

ROBERT Smith IS PROWLING AROUND THE workspace of sleeve designer Andy Vella, upstairs in the offices of Fiction Records. Andy's just come up with the moody black and white artwork for Picture Show, the second Cure video compilation. The hopelessly garrulous Smith , giving this interview to coincide with the video's release, is under specific orders from his management to spend "at least five minutes" talking about Picture Show...

He spots a recent piece of Andy's work - it's the second single by Presence, the band formed by Lol Tolhurst after Smith threw him out of The Cure in 1989. Smith grabs it, mutters a few lighthearted insults and pretends to break it to pieces. It seems like nothing more than casual tomfoolery.

It's not. It's a messy business. The previous week a letter arrived. And Robert Smith has just spent the afternoon, for the first time in his life, with a lawyer. Lol is taking him to court, claiming that he's entitled to more money for his contribution to The Cure. Smith 's reaction hovers between being flabbergasted, sad and vengeful.

It's really stupid, he mutters. He'll lose and he'll have to pay costs and it'll cost him more than he could hope to win. And he's going to lose any credibility he had as regards what he did in The Cure, because it'll all come out...

Lol and Robert were at school together. They played music in the school music room before they became teenagers, and first appeared in front of their classmates under the name The Obelisk. The names and line-ups changed, but Lol always remained. For the first few years of The Cure he was the drummer. Then in 1982, when he proved unable to cope with the syncopated disco beat of Let's Go To Bed, Lol was moved to keyboards.

I did them on my own and Lol was just there for company, basically," says Smith . "I was spending late nights in the studio and he was just someone who'd sit there and I'd talk to. When we did "Let's Go To Bed" he tried to do the drumbeat for it for about three days, and it cost us a fortune in studio time. In the end we got in a session drummer. He was going to pretend he'd played it until I pointed out to him that if he had to play it somewhere and he couldn't he'd be humiliated.

Smith now says that this was when Lol ceased to be a functioning member of the group. By the mid-'80s the differences were more than musical.

I was friends with him, but I was never really really close. I was best friends with Simon. Lol was just there. He was there as a safety valve really, to get rid of the unwanted tension. From 1985 onwards I never had a conversation with Lol because we disagreed about virtually everything. His friends were city beerboys driving about in silver Porches. The whole social side of his life was anathema to what me and Simon liked. We disagreed about everything. He voted Conservative, he voted for law and order ... all the things we used to joke about.

Lol had also begun to lean on the bottle, says Smith . And, while spirited recreational drinking has always been important to The Cure, Lol 's went further.

Everyone was disgusted by his behaviour,' says Smith . "He became a victim and it was a downward spiral.

DURING THE RECORDING OF KISS ME, KISS ME, Kiss Me Smith issued an ultimatum and Lol made the first of several visits to a health farm. In 1988, as they made Disintegration, Smith issued further ultimatums; if Lol didn't sort himself out, he'd be out.

But, says Smith , I think he was too sure of his position. He'd believed when I said in 1981 or whenever, that without Lol there is no Cure.

According to Smith , Lol 's practical contribution had dwindled to zero - one reason why Smith 's current fury is amplified. Polydor's recording contract is only with Smith but he feels he has always shared out the group's earnings more than fairly. He only takes a slightly higher artist's royalty, all members have songwriting credits on songs which they play and all proceeds are split equally. (They each also get statements of how the money is split).

Lol gets money on each Cure album that's sold. He thinks that, though he gets more than any other member (Smith excepted), because he was on more records, he should have an even greater share because of his long tenure. But Smith thinks he's already been embarrassingly over-generous. It is time for some home truths.

It has eluded him that he didn't actually play on Kiss Me or Disintegration - he wasn't even there for either of them...

Lol would turn up at the studio complex and drink. During Kiss Me he flew home to France for a while, following his girlfriend (now his wife) after a row.

All through, says Smith , I always papered over the cracks and felt a genuine sympathy for him, until it reached the point where he was just taking the piss, literally. During Disintegration he didn't once set foot in the studio. That's fact. He went there so he was physically in the building, so he could pick up his paycheck.

This, presumably, makes sense of the LP's inner sleeve credits which cryptically credit Lol as being responsible for "other instruments".

If you sat him down in front of a keyboard I doubt he could reel off more than about two Cure songs. And one of them would be "A Forest", and that's because it's embedded in his mind because we laughed at him for so many years, because we had this tape of what he sounded like on stage playing the first four notes really out of time.

As Disintegration was completed Smith sounded the others out about sacking Lol . Second guitarist Porl Thompson intimated that he wasn't prepared to tour if Lol stayed, while bassist Simon Gallup felt even stronger against Lol 's staying.

Smith last saw Lol at the "Disintegration" listening party at RAK studios just before Christmas 1988.

He slagged off everything to do with the album, the group and me, and just got drunker and drunker. He said the album was shit, because he hadn't played on any of the songs. It was the first time he'd heard them, I think, and he didn't like them - but he was still prepared to take his money and go on tour and suffer it...

Not wanting to sack him just before Christmas, Robert wrote to him a few days later explaining why he didn't think Lol should be in The Cure any more.

I was just very honest, not horrible about it at all. In fact I put at the end, Don't build walls about it.

He never got any response. Ironically, on his departure Lol stopped drinking.

Things started to turn sour between the two when barbed comments began leaking out in respective interviews. Smith recounts the band's annoyance at Lol 's claim, while promoting Presence first single, "In Wonder", that he could get The Cure guitar sound anytime he wanted. Porl was especially peeved: he'd played guitar on their record...

Being greedy is a bad way to cross Robert Smith . He says Lol has already earned what most people would consider to be an enormous amount of money. Smith considers his own earnings as more than I feel comfortable with ... I feel the whole process generates too much. Two years ago the band members discussed what they did with their money and discovered they all gave away varying amounts (Smith favours Mencap).

I'm determined to go to court, says Smith about this cash row. What he basically is implying is that I cheated him out of his fair share, and if anything he owes me five years of my life.

There is another perspective on this

Some say that Smith runs The Cure with the single-mindedness of a tyrant, hiring and firing at whim. They point to the roll call of ex-members: Michael Dempsey , fired in 1979 over musical differences; Matthieu Hartley , left in '80 on the verge of being fired over musical and personal differences; Simon Gallup , fired in '82 over personal differences (he rejoined in 1985); Phil Thornalley , left in '84 ... It's a lot of litter.

But Smith is upset by any suggestion that he's a callous, or even careless, personnel manager. He says he's on talking terms with all ex-members, except maybe Michael. And he looks uneasy with the suggestion that basically he is The Cure. Nevertheless, he has a veto on creative decisions.

I don't want to be in a group that does things I don't like, and if the others felt strongly that I was wrong I hope they would have the courage to say, I'm leaving ... But the buck has to stop somewhere. I learned a long time ago that you can't run a group by committee.

The buck was forcefully halted last summer, when The Cure shed keyboard player Roger O'Donnell (replaced by ex-roadie Perry Bamonte ).

That wasn't me, Roger leaving, as I think everyone realised at the time that was interested, says Robert defensively. It was to do with Simon and Boris (Williams , drummer) - they didn't get on to the point they couldn't work together.

He met the situation head on by taking everyone away to a small Sussex hotel. They began what has become a Cure ritual: band members produce tapes of music to be considered as Cure songs and everyone marks them; the theory being that the most popular are recorded. But by the second day the warring factions were reduced to screaming abuse at each other. Smith felt sympathy with neither side but had to choose. He sacked Roger.

This year the Cure have been working on their new material, their next LP (probably out next year) which has the working title "Higher". To the traditional meeting they took along to their manager's house 37 ideas between them (13 were Robert's) and got out their pens and paper.

Unfortunately, after listening to everything twice - six-and-a-half hours - with Mescal as lubrication, only three sheets survived. One was Porl's which didn't have any marks, just pictures of men grinning or crying. Simon had the numbers out of sequence so that all the comments applied to different songs. Boris threw his in the fire. So Robert took the tapes home and, after solo and sober consideration, whittled them down to 23: they've demoed 19 and are demoing a further seven soon. Two are already titled - "Anniversary" and "Decadance". There's another which Smith confesses, self-mockingly, to be cheerful: about a general feeling of good naturedness - the most staggering song I've ever written. It's a list of good things, like, The sound of the sea...

The band start recording in August and plan two LPs. One will be their long-promised instrumental LP, Music For Dreams. In contrast to the sombre Disintegration, "Higher" is planned along the lines of Head On The Door - "an up collection of singles."

Disintegration was, Smith reflects, partially designed to test the mettle of the fans The Cure had won in the late '80s.

Especially with us and America, I wanted people to like the group for the right reasons - because it's different to everything else and not easily accessible.

It's a bit of a crass generalisation, but people whose favourite Cure albums are Pornography and Disintegration are generally more alert and have thought about things.

For years Robert and his wife lived in a Maida Vale flat with the phone ring switched off. A while ago they moved to a house on the South coast, where he's spent most of the last year trying to write songs. He describes it as a process of great frustration and finds songwriting increasingly difficult. As the years pass, he aspires to higher standards, finds he's exhausted certain topics, and inspiration is harder to come by. Ideas or phrases come to him in the middle of the night, or when drunk...

Sometimes I sit down and get drunk just so that I can write something. What I drink depends on what I want to write. I drink a three litre box of red wine if I want something really morose, and I drink cider if I want something more upbeat...

This frequently fails.

I'll write six pages and I'll leave them for a day, and the following night I'll pick them up and think, It's the same old stuff. So I'll rip them up into very small pieces and get aggressive with myself for bothering to waste my time when I could have been reading a book or watching a good film.

A compulsive reader, Smith usually has three books on the go: a serious night-time book (he's just finished Herman Hesse's Siddharta); his "sitting-in-the-car-at-Tesco's book"; and a light book - poetry or an autobiography (he's been reading Alexander Walker's biography of Elizabeth Taylor).

Once he starts a book, however dreary, he *has* to finish it. On their last American tour a fan gave him the complete poetry of Emily Dickinson. He read it recently. It took him a week. Emily Dickinson wrote over 1,700 poems.

Really tedious, he confesses. At least 1,600 were fuckin' rubbish. There was a little handwritten note from the fan saying, You'll really like this poetry (he laughs). If I had their address I'd send them a letter: You bastard!

Between 1987's Kiss Me and 1989's Disintegration he tried writing a book of short stories. The first, The Last Day Of Summer, he was chuffed with.

It was about me as I would have liked to be as a little boy - an imaginary last summer, just as you're beginning to be aware you're growing up. It was all the missed opportunities, all the things I wished I'd done, written as though I'd done them.

Smith would laboriously write out these stories in his curious handwriting, (he's only turned to technology once, writing the lyrics for Kiss Me on a computer.) After seven stories he decided he'd run out of subject matter. He hasn't written one since.

On the subject of writing poetry he mumbles about things I write and don't throw away and I know isn't for a song, which I suppose could loosely be called poetry.

Eight years ago he made a closed box with a letter hole, out of layers of varnish and cardboard. In it go those intimacies he wants to express but which he wants no one to see. It's in a closed box so that he doesn't cannibalise such reflections when desperate for lyrics. He opened it once four years ago for a peek - I'd just finished the words for Disintegration so I thought it was safe - but ended up throwing one away because it recalled something too sad to bear remembering.

At one time he'd stay up all night and just sleep when he felt tired. Now he and Mary have a routine of sorts: up between 11 and midday, go to sleep between four and six in the morning. Sometimes they go on "days out". Last week they went to Sisbury rings in Sussex, an old Iron Age fort, to watch the sunrise. Some people there were "getting back to their ancestors", singing and chanting. They were naked.

Mary said, Why are these people always around when you're here? For once it had nothing to do with me...

On seeing naked revellers in a strange place she'd naturally think you were responsible?

Normally, Smith nods, that would be Mary's first assumption.

MOVING TO A NEARBY ITALIAN RESTAURANT, Robert announces he is "watching calories" - he went to three parties last week and is under orders from Mary.

She retains a role of being maternal in that respect; if she didn't I'd go on binges for weeks, and in the end I'd always hate myself anyway.

Conscientiously he orders Insalata caprese and lemon sole with spinach (a classic dieting meal - I hope you'll put that in to prove to Mary what I ordered...) and white wine, his first alcohol for five days.

Talk turns to recent releases. three of the last five Cure LPs - Standing On A Beach ('86, greatest hits), Mixed Up ('90, dance remixes) and Entreat ('91, live) - have recycled old material. The flak has been flying.

Smith has justifications; quite good ones. "Standing On A Beach" was released at the end of their previous Polydor contract under Robert's control, so that he wouldn't have to worry about them releasing their own greatest hits should The Cure have taken Virgin's lucrative offer that was then on the table. Entreat was, he concedes, a mistake in its original conception. Polydor persuaded them to give away a live CD as an enticement when people bought back catalogue Cure CDs. Those Cure fans who already had the CDs but not the bait were furious. And even more so when the offer ran out and they had to pay extortionate prices for second hand copies. Meanwhile, Polydor told irate fans who wanted to know why they couldn't release Entreat that Smith wouldn't let them.

I thought, if they did, all the Cure fans who were peeved before are now going to hate my guts.

He decided that the lesser evil was to let it slip out without any promotion, giving all their royalties to various charities.

For Mixed Up, though Smith was determined that The Cure shouldn't get sucked into the whole dance thing the rest of the band didn't agree. So, at the same time as Never Enough, they recorded a series of songs with dance remixer Mark Saunders. Smith refused to release all but one of them (Harold And Joe) because it didn't feel comfortable.

These aren't the only recent unheard Cure recordings. This year The Cure recorded a four track EP - Letter To Elise, The Big Hand, A Wave, and Wendy Time. Smith was happy with it but worried it would be seen as too big a statement if they released it. The first song is destined for "Higher": the rest will probably be B-sides.

Mixed Up is, he admits, the only Cure record he regularly plays at home. When people are round and the dancing starts he'll slip on the mixes of Inbetween Days or A Forest alongside the Psychedelic Furs' Forever Now and the latest Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul single. For those non-dancing moments he now favours classical music.

I've just bought Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony and I'm staggered by how good it is. The last movement is perfection, it's disheartening...

And when he gets drunk at home he puts on the video of Pavarotti and his two mates ... I must have seen it 50 times.

Of his contemporaries he says I'm yet to hear anything as good as Ride's first LP. He likes Lush, and maybe Cathy Dennis. Now and again he pops down to his local Our Price to sample some new releases. Mostly he hears them at Simon's. They put something new on then play snooker in the garage as they argue the merits and demerits. He still hates as much as ever.

I saw Robert Palmer on telly the other day. I expected him to be dead and buried by now, or at least to have had the good grace to have given up. I've never seen anything so shit as Robert Palmer's new video.

Now when he watches TV he no longer suffers things he hates in silence. He phones up to complain. Old codger's behaviour?

It is and it isn't, he mutters. More people should do it. It's the only way to make a difference. I phone to complain about questions in quiz shows, and the tone of programmes. And about Jim Davidson. Have you ever met anyone who thinks he's funny? Or engaging, in any way?

BUT WHAT ABOUT THOSE FIVE MINUTES ABOUT Picture Show..? Well, the compilation features ten videos, all directed by Tim Pope, interspersed with footage of The Cure on TV shows - shot, says Smith , with a sly nod, by their own video camera - and larking about. Pope had to persuade Smith to include most of the extra footage.

He was doing it for the after-pub market, says Smith , and I was doing it for the pre-pub market.

Most of their home video material, Smith admits, was unuseable.

It's full of swearing and violence. And if you put that in, then, in the cold light of day, we'd look like a bunch of tossers.

Even Picture Show is a secret history of the degradation of Lol . In Why Can't I Be You? his role as professional scapegoat is cemented. He is a bee dangling and being pushed around by the others.

He was victimised from that point on. The one characteristic Lol has always had is that he likes to be liked, at all costs. Being seen to be the clown is another way of being liked. He was the centre of attention - the only one in a flying harness, the only one inside a Humpty Dumpty with the flashing light. It was a cheap psychology Pap (The Cure's name for Tim Pope) would use to make him feel the situations he was putting himself in were special, rather than degrading.

Generally, when Smith ruminates about The Cure he says something like if I didn't feel The Cure could fall apart at any minute, it would be completely worthless. Right now, though, with those albums planned, a video in the shops and even "some concerts" ahead, he seems more confident in their continued existence than ever before. Why this sudden faith in the future?

I suppose because I have looked around for the last couple of years when we've been away and just seen the depth of feeling that's there, which is incredibly gratifying. And also I have that genuine anger at how useless everything else is most of the time. I'm staggered. I watched The Chart Show last week. I wanted to see that "la la dee..." song which I'd read about and expected to be staggering, and it was so banal. I watched the whole hour and there was nothing that I liked...

The reasons behind our records will stand: hating what everyone else does most of the time, and wanting something to listen to.

Off he goes to meet Mary in a London hotel. On the cable TV is The Road Home, starring Donald Sutherland and Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz, which Smith saw a rough cut of years ago when they wanted to include a Cure song (they used "Fascination Street").

Life is getting busy. Next week they're demoing seven more songs. In a few weeks Smith wants them all to go up in a hot air balloon.

There's the film Tim Pope may be directing: if it gets the go-ahead Robert wants to do the incidental music. There's his acoustic Nick Drake-inspired solo LP, currently on hold (several songs of which have been long recorded: "The Four Of US", "Ariel", "In France" and "Melancholia"). And there's the Lol business.

As he leaves he mentions that in the van outside are copies of the next edition of Debrett's. It is Robert Smith 's latest strange accolade. Paul Gambaccini apparently suggested him for it. Wasn't he embarrassed?

Not at all, because it's the perfect Christmas present for my mum and dad: an issue of Debrett's with their son in it.

Do they know?

No. I suppose they will now.

Did you give Debrett's the correct details?

He hesitates. I'm supposed to say that I told the truth. But some of my hobbies...

Later, I track down the text. It's a playful mix of fib and fact. At the bottom it reads: "Recreations: deep-sea diving, hot air ballooning, reading, writing, looking into space..."


Last Revised: Monday, 15-May-2006 20:00:03 CST

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