Robert Smith swore the Cure would never tour again. Getting him all the way to Australia only took a 38,000 signature petition from fans, five brandies before boarding the plane, and a couple of insomnia tablets. His fear of flying was just one reason why the band have steered clear of the stage though. Inter-personnel friction and Smith's affection for his wife Mary have previously both conspired to keep the Cure off the road.
All obstacles have been surmounted for the current Wish album, however. Precautions have been taken: Smith and bass player Simon Gallup (who's so close to the singer that they've both developed a fear of flying at the same time) took the QEII to America for the first leg of the world tour, and traveled by bus with the crew on the wig-wilting 45 American dates. But despite the comforts of the best hotels (in Sydney they're staying at Double Bay's Carlton Ritz, home to George Bush on his last Oz visit), and a gothic sideshow of a backstage dressing room, by the time the Cure get to Australia the strain is starting to show.
Smith claims that only one thing persuaded Gallup and himself to board a 747: that petition, instigated by Robert Rigby, MD of Warner Music Australia, the Cure's Antipodean record company. This display of public admiration stirred the public servant in Smith, and he quelled his terror of in-flight food with the inadvisable alcohol and Rohypnol concoction before taking off. Gallup opted for a less exotic remedy (two bottles of Chardonnay), and was able to conquer his fear "by mothering Robert" during the few hours of the flight in which Smith was conscious.
The worries didn't entirely cease when they got back on terra firma. About to play a third night at Sydney's 12,000 seater Entertainment Centre, Robert explains a lacklustre gig the previous evening: I was a bit upset yesterday, he reflects from the poop deck of the good ship Ambience, as they steam past the Sydney Opera House for a days fishing and champers with their road crew. It seemed a shame that it didn't sort of spark...but it was alright.
The crowd, it seems, take some sort of the blame. On the first night the roof was almost raised by hysterical keening at even the most half-hearted of Smith's theatrical arm gestures. The second gig was an altogether more subdued affair, the polite audience having paid A$42.90 a head to stand a respectful metre from the crash barrier.
Robert seemed sedated, too. Having spent the day attempting to record some B-Side vocals for the new single Letter To Elise (I was supposed to do it last week, but I couldn't be bothered), he maintained a lipsticked vagueness on stage, with pints of orange juice spiked with red wine lined up on Boris "the count" Williams' drum riser.
The next day, reviews dared to suggest that Robert had been just a little too reserved. "Dull, rooted to the spot and not prone to visual displays of emotion," condemned the Sydney Morning Heralds critic. Smith is not impressed and in a letter tuckered under a nearby portable computer is a terse reply to his assailant. What does he want us to do? Smith exclaims, wear cunty Howard Jones headgear?
It's been eight years sine the Cure played in Australia. But in that time, the worthy Oz fans have not been without the Cure's live music. Why? True to the country's get-up-and-do image, they got up and did it themselves in the shape of The Love Cats - a Cure dedicated covers band, complete with goth dreads and lipstick, that makes a living out of touring the country's clubs.
For Britons, whose exposure to tribute bands has so far stopped at Bjorn Again and the Australian Doors, it may seem a strange idea. In Australia, it's a big business, with cover bands trying their hand at just about everything that's had a Top 40 hit - Sunday Bloody Sunday, The U2 Experience; Dynissty (Kiss show); UB42; The Madonna Concept; a Bryan Adams show...there's even A Tribute To The Tribute Bands!
However, the honor of pulling on a wig and impersonating the furry-headed musician fell to a young Aussie musician named Tony Spencer. After six years scraping by on the dole, playing his own music with Prestige Fix (a band he formed after being inspired by some older pupils playing at his school - INXS), Spencer formed The Love Cats, a likeable motley bunch.
But here comes the genuine Cure, and thus a chance to compare imitator with imitated. Even, maybe, a chance to meet. But Smith, confronted by the Love Cats, is bemused by the entire concept.
When we first started out we played cover versions. I don't think we sounded like the bands we were covering but we tried. It's a strange phenomenon. I think it's a bit extreme but kind of funny in a cabaret kind of way. I'm not sure how to take it though. I'm not sure how serious they are. It would be awful if they were better than us...
I suppose if they earn enough money to do something else, it's worth it, but it must be depressing after awhile, pretending to be somebody else.
Spencer concurs: We never wanted to be a covers band, but we couldn't get any work around the Sydney clubs. We used to do a couple of Cure covers in our set (he'd been a fan of the band since his brother bought Boys Don't Cry) and we thought that as the Cure have so much street cred, it wouldn't be like any other band.
The Love Cats' first gig in 1990 broke the venue record (over 660 payers - big biccies to us) and they earned A$3500 instead of the average A$250 they receive for playing original material. Even so, Spencer feels more a victim of circumstance than a flyboy, out just to make a fast buck as simply as possible. He is, after all, making money for Robert Smith too.
Every time you play a particular venue they have to pay the writer a royalty, Spencer explains backstage at a Love Cats show in Dee Why, a white suburb in North Sydney, on the eve of the Cure's gigs. Our management writes down a list of what we play and sends it to the Performance Rights Association. Robert Smith's bank account will have grown. It should be quite a few thousand dollars. He probably wouldn't notice though, because he gets radio and television too, and that's all in the same bracket.
If it does nothing else, being faced with two Cures presents an opportunity to reflect anew on what it is that makes Robert Smith...well...Robert Smith. Applying the makeup and tugging on the Edward Scissorhands wig, Spencer admits that it's a difficult part to play - it's acting, and he's acting himself - and claims to have "tried burying the show" several times in order to pursue a career of playing original material. But every time the money runs out he's ended up assuming Robert Smith's identity again.
Originally (with Prestige Fix), it sounded very Cureish, because people liked the band sounding that way, and I used to get right into it and smoke a lot or pot and stuff. The first album we did was very Cureish.
Later on, in similar if rather grander circumstances, the genuine article has his own views on identity. Perhaps it's not that surprising. Smith has formed an uneasy truce with the mop-headed, besmudged alter-ego that he created.
He'd tried shaving off the hairy hyndra rooted to his head, but it quickly grew back again. Now he let's the undisciplined kid disguise sit awkwardly upon his ordinary middle-aged countenance, but imposes strict sanctions on its more unruly behaviour.
There are certain ways I have been affected by what we do, Smith confesses, but it's like a constant equilibrium. It would be very easy to let myself go, and at times I have immersed my self in the kind of more excessive side of what's always there - that's always available.
Unlike Gallup, who recently separated from his expectant wife, Smith has managed to sustain a relationship with Mary, hi former teenage sweetheart, throughout the whole of the Cure's twelve-year existence.
I've probably suffered for my sins in some respects, but I wouldn't do anything at all differently. Mary likes me, not in spite of what I'm like, but because of what I'm like. Part of that is my tendency to have wild mood swings and periods of excess. She just grins and bears it.
Spencer, on the other hand, has come to despise his role. I can quite honestly say I like the songs but I've probably played them more times than Smith, so I'm sick of playing them. I can't stand it. I hate it with a passion.
The Dee Why Love Cats show is no match for the Cure's stadium-styled Goliath, but at only two dollars to get in, the inconsistencies are easily forgivable. The differences begin in the dressing room. The Cure get candles, half a dozen cooks and two or three of their favorite films. The Love Cats get bare bulbs, a toilet, and a bin of iced beers, the management's only rider provision.
On stage, The Love Cats, are about ten-years out dress wise, wearing goth cloth and black lipstick - much to the chagrin of real Cure bassist Simon Gallup, who commented on seeing a photo of the band: Robert has never worn black lipstick (as any self-respecting Cure fan will tell you, only Mary Quaint Crimson Scorcher). The Cats have yet to master anything from Wish, but are "working on Friday I'm In Love".
Instead, The Love Cats present a competent show which covers roughly the same oldies as the Cure, but focuses on the Mixed Up LP's track listing. It's an enjoyable set, with only the occasional departure from the records (a curious guitar intro to Close To Me, for instance) which spawned the original songs.
About half the crowd on this night are stereotypical Bruces, out to drink XXXX, be offensive and give the band a hard time for the one-and-a-half grand on offer.
Spencer says it's not a typical audience (perhaps most of the Cure fanatics are downtown, entering the Robert Smith-lookalike contest at the Sanctuary's unofficial Cure pre-tour party).
Most people who come along to our gigs regularly come initially because they really love the Cure, explains Spencer. But their also striving to get somebody they can relate to as a pop start and start following, like INXS.
Worse still for the Love Cats, they have to suffer the ignominy of the power automatically cutting off when they attempt to turn the amps up to eleven. After the set, Spencer is harangued by the owner, who complains that each of their two sets that night have been ten minutes short.
Ironically, according to the Cure's personal manager Bruno Brunning, The Cure were fined $5,000 a minute for playing too long on the American leg of their tour. It's easy to understand how the odd redneck promoter could get peeved at the end of the band's tow-and-a-half hour set, enough to wear down the interest of all but the most addicted Cure fan.
This endurance test is eased, however, by an incredible lack of in-performance acrobatics, and even disguises a stage set with distinct designs on Spinal Tap's Stonehenge colossus.
The Cure's performances are seamless affairs, spanning most of their career (with the notable exception of The Lovecats, which neither band nor imitator plays). The show kicks off with Open from the current album and winds down with a forest - a song which gave newest Cure member Perry Bamonte a few problems when he slipped into Roger O'Donnells shoes two years ago.
O'Donnell was the latest victim in a Pete Frame diagram's worth of Cure line-ups, yet Smith claims to be on good terms with all of his former accomplices bar Lol Tolhurst (It's not my fault if he's got enormous character defects).
The new keyboard player spent six years as the band's guitar roadie, and was on the verge of quitting to go to art school when every Cure fan's dream came true for him. With minimal tuition from Robert's sister Janet (also the wife of guitarist Porl Thompson), Perry learned how to play Erik Satie's Trois Gymnopedies parrot-fashion while the rest of the band were busy recording the Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me album. Naturally, the fanzine writers were merciless.
I'd been a member for three weeks, recalls Bamonte, and of course there were loads of mistakes, because there were 30 songs to learn. And I used to read these fanzines saying things like "Excellent concert, but keyboard sounding very strange on A Forest."
In attendance at the first Sydney gig, copyist Spencer still has a critical ear tuned into those ivories: Our keyboard programming is a lot more intricate than theirs, which really astounds me, I expected them to have this mammoth keyboard sound.
Bar the lack of back-up vocals for Smith and a "wishy-washy Never Enough", however, Spencer was a great deal more impressed by the show than the Herald's critic had been. But for the last Sydney show, Robert Smith is on his best behaviour. He's not 100 percent satisfied with the previous day's studio recordings, nor the reviews, but he makes a special effort. As a sign of goodwill he's invited The Love Cats along to the performance (plus backstage passes to meet The Cure for an aftershow drink) and even offers a couple of back-handed apologies to his critics.
I'm sorry if I'm not saying much, he says ruefully on stage. It's not that I'm ignoring you...it's just that I can't think of anything interesting to say.
Apart from this uncharacteristic commentary, things go relatively smoothly until the second encore, when the band huddle together for several minutes of discussion. When it becomes apparent that nobody is about to bring on the orange segments, nor the gold discs which the record company were hoping to present, the ensemble regroups for regular finale A Forest.
As the familiar chords die out, Gallup suddenly seems to crack. The previous night, he'd escorted a tired and emotional Smith to the waiting getaway car with his arm around him. Tonight it's Smith's turn to be a good buddy. He takes the bass from Gallup (who looks like he's about to commit a Pete Townsend on his amplifier) and helps him offstage. The Love Cats troop backstage with some other fans expecting to meet the Cure, are herded into an empty room with even less appeal than their own dressing room at Dee Why. Not even a bucket of cool tinnies to crack.
Half an hour later, manager Brunning comes in to make apologies for Smith and Co., who (with the exception of Bamonte) are not going to make an appearance. It's the first time they seem like pop star prima donnas, rather than normal blokes with weird haircuts and large pay packets.