Things don't look good. A couple of days after two extraordinary sold-out concerts at Paris's 15,000-seat Bercy Auditorium, the Cure is getting ready to play a glorified gymnasium in Reims to a crowd of only 4500. Even at 8:30 in the evening, when the band hits the stage, it's not yet dark; the sun streams through the skylights, turning the place into a muggy greenhouse and overpowering the band's extensive lighting rig.
But that isn't the worst of it -- earlier, the band's leader, Robert Smith took about an hour to get off the tour bus, then shuffled backstage, puffy faced, ashen and bleary eyed, looking barely human. He stopped, grinned sheepishly at the rest of the band and crew and lurched to the bathroom. Everyone smiled knowingly, assuming it was a hangover, but in fact Smith is suffering from a vicious stomach flu, probably not helped much by his drinking until five in the morning.
Smith takes the stage and paces like a zombie back and forth -- the kids (most of them are well under twenty) must think that it's part of the act, because they go beserk. Without so much as a perfunctory "Hello Reims!" the band launches into the set.
Even out here in the provinces, Curemania lives, and the audience quickly turns into a heaving throng; girls who can't withstand the crush against the crowd barriers are hoisted out of the teeming mob by an alert team of security men. Unlike their rough American counterparts, the French security men gently cradle barrier victims, even dispensing an occasional sweet, reassuring peck on the cheek. They actually pour Evian water on the sweltering kids, who open their mouths for it like feeding chicks.
The songs from the band's new album, Disintegration, get lots of cheers, and the response seems to energize Smith. Amid copious dry-ice fog, he pulls off a strong performance despite waves of staggering nausea. After the band leaves the stage, Smith shambles over to an equipment case and buries his face in his hands, saying nothing for several minutes. A crew member says, "He might make it," and laughs sardonically. But the Cure does go on for a five-song encore, and although the show falls well short of the three-hour set that's the norm on this tour, the audience seems to go home satisfied.
The concert promoter left the band a few cases of the local pride, champagne, which is now on the tour bus. This bibulous band usually takes good advantage of such windfalls, but guitarist Porl Thompson and keyboardist Roger O'Donnell have come down with Smith's virus, leaving bassist Simon Gallup and drummer Boris Williams to sip the bubbly and indulge in a favorite pastime, watching horror movies on the video system.
Smith has decided not to watch The Omen III -- after all, he's sick -- and he might prefer to be reading anyway. Lately, Smith says, he's been reading Nietzsche, who said that you can transcend despair through art. Perhaps that's why back in Reims he cut loose on a long, long scream during the bitter "Prayers for Rain," seeming to wail into the abyss and then listen to the echoes. "I was trying to expel the sickness," he explains later. He was talking about his stomach virus, but the metaphor remains.
With his trademark stand-up hair, moon-pale face and red-lipsticked mouth, Smith is a postpunk icon; his fever-dream lyrics, awash in a minor-key angst, are at the forefront of a genre somewhat disparagingly tagged "mope rock." A guy who can sometimes make Morrissey seem like the most happy fella, Smith is a virtual messiah of melancholy, a guru of gloom. Over the years the Cure has amassed a vast cult following, if that's not too much of a contradiction in terms, and today millions of teenagers strongly relate to Smith as a kindred spirit -- so many that the band is playing exclusively large arenas and stadiums on its current American tour. "Sometimes I feel really smug and contented," Smith says, "thinking that we didn't really try, and we made it anyway." Indeed, though Smith can write a catchy tune when he wants to, the Cure makes unlikely stadium pop -- the sound relies on subtle seduction and the lyrics are profoundly self-absorbed.
One would hardly expect such a tortured, self-interested soul to believe so fervently that the show must go on. But that night in Reims, Robert Smith proved himself to be something of an iron man, a real trouper. Actually, his stoutheartedness should come as no surprise, since the Cure has been around, in one form or another, for twelve years, and always with Smith at the helm. Much of the reason for the Cure's growing collection of gold and platinum discs is the band's longevity.
Yet Smith is adamant that this is the Cure's final tour. He also insists that Disintegration is the band's final album -- of course, he's said the same thing about the previous two efforts. But this time he sounds serious. "I've actually reached the point where nothing in the world will make me go out and tour again," he says resolutely. "I'd break my hands not to do it anymore. I've got twenty-seven more concerts left, and as soon as we finish America, that's it. For me, anyway."
Since Smith practically is the Cure, that's a serious threat, especially since he's already begun work on a solo album. Smith downplays the solo effort's importance, saying it will be a folkie album in the vein of the late British cult favorite Nick Drake, but the rest of the group is apparently a little upset anyway. Smith says he may invite Gallup and Williams to play on the record to, "soften the blow." Smith claims that his record won't be released any time soon and that there won't be much of a fuss made when it is. But such a low-key release is unlikely, for much to his apparent chagrin, Smith's odd teddy-bear cuteness has made him a geuine teenybopper heartthrob.
According to O'Donnell, all the breakup talk is just a bluff to flight complacency in the band, and by extension, the audience. "Robert likes to say that, he likes to keep us nervous," O'Donnell says. "But of all the people, I think Robert doesn't like change. Then again, he doesn't like things to be settled either -- it's a very difficult contradiction."
Smith repeatedly ducks any suggestion that he dislikes change but finally admits that "when I find someone I like, I try to hold onto them." Since 1982, the band's only video director has been Tim Pope. The band's only manager has been Chris Parry, who signed the band to his Fiction Records label in 1978. Smith's wife, Mary, became his girlfriend when they were fifteen years old, and Laurence "Lol" Tolhurst, the band's recently departed keyboardist, has known Smith since they were five.
Of course, there are times when even Smith is open to a change -- as the saga of Tolhurst suggests. It was Tolhurst who made up the band's name, and, besides Smith, he has been the only person to survive all of the band's incarnations. But from a musical standpoint, Tolhurst was always iffy at best -- when O'Donnel joined the band in 1987, he was mystified that Lol, with his one-finger keyboard technique, was in the band at all. But as Gallup explains, "It was fun to have him around, even though he didn't contribute much to the music. He was a part of the Cure."
Increasingly, Tolhurst's part in the Cure was being the butt of the band's jokes. The others say Tolhurst used to give back as much as he got. That changed, though, when he gave in to drink. "He was like a safety valve for all our frustrations," O'Donnell says. "Which was really sick. By the end it was horrible."
During the band's 1987 Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me tour, the situation got way out of hand. "Lol just drank his way through the tour," Smith says, "to such a degree that he didn't bother retaliating. It was like watching some kind of handicapped child being constantly poked with a stick." Tolhurst hadn't participated much in the Kiss Me album, so Smith told him he had to shape up immediately, and Tolhurst promised to do better.
But the Disintegration sessions were the same, with Tolhust spending most of his time watching MTV, drinking and killing the morale of the band. According to Smith, "The only way we could communicate that he was turning into a complete parody of himself was by beating him up."
Apparently they are all on good terms today. Tolhurst invited the band members to his recent wedding, which they couldn't attend because they were on tour, and in turn the band invited him to the concerts at Wembley. Lol Tolhurst, who's reportedly made some good investments and is getting points on Disintegration, won't talk to the press.
Smith says he's positive that if Tolhurst had stayed in the band, he would have drunk himself to death or "Simon would have thrown him off a balcony. And then my best friend would be in jail and Lol would be dead. It was much easier for him not to be in the band."
An endless parade of soldiers files through the streets of Paris, honoring the French bicentennial celebrations and the impending economic summit. Flocks of helicopters crisscross the sky, and an ominous surveillance blimp scuds from one end of town to the other in the wee hours of the morning. Who knows what the folks on the blimp make of the funeral party in front of the Hilton.
At first there were about 300 of them; now it's dwindled to 20 or so somberly attired Cure fans camped out along the fence across from the band's hotel, enduring (or perhaps exulting in) the odd looks from passerbys. John Lennon once observed that in the Fifties, "all the Buddy Holly fans looked like Buddy Holly, and all the Elvis fans looked like Elvis." These Cure fans dress exactly like the band -- black, black and more black, topped off by haystacks of hair that most require a small fortune in hair gel. When they somehow sense that the members of the band are about to leave the hotel, the fans press their pallid faces against the front windows like a scene from Night of the Living Dead.
The other members of the Cure tease Smith about his clones and often ask for his backstage pass. But after initially being bothered by this sincerest form of flattery, Smith says, he's come to like it. "They can recognize each other in the street -- these kids know another Cure fan," he says. "When they're standing at the bar and they look a certain way, they go over and talk to them, and they're really friendly. It's like a big gang. It's quite good."
Most of the kids are in their midteens, which means they were scarcely out of diapers when the Cure recorded it first album in 1978. But unlike so many of its contemporaries, the Cure has not lost its muse. Disintegration, the band's tenth album, may be the Cure's best yet. It's a bleak record with no obvious singles. Coming after a relatively upbeat pop album like Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, a resigned record such as this one comes as a bit of an emotional sucker punch. But it fits into Smith's abhorrence of doing the same thing twice.
Figuring that the previous two albums had provided the band with enough pop tunes to last awhile, Smith began writing what he hoped would be "the most intense thing the Cure had ever done." After his twenty-ninth birthday, Smith says, he became anxious about hitting thirty and had "a bad patch." "I had wanted to get it all done before I was thirty," he says, "so I could start something else, but I ran out of time. So I'm living on borrowed time at the moment."
It should come as no surprise that Robert Smith's childhood was not a particularly happy one. He grew up in Crawley, Sussex, then a stultifying suburb south of London. "Nothing ever happened there," Smith says. "It was a really gray town." He began playing in bands to beat the boredom and joined the nascent punk movement. "We would jam, but I hated it," Smith says. "Why play another blues? Why change chords? Why not just stay on E?" He met Gallup in the miniscule local punk scene (which consisted of Smith's band and Gallup's band); they hit it off and resolved to be in a band together someday. That era still figures in the Cure's music. "All the reasons for punk and all the things that were left after punk are still part of the makeup of the group," Smith says.
With Tolhurst on drums and Michael Dempsey on bass, the Cure made its United States debut in 1980 with Boys Don't Cry. Dempsey didn't share Tolhurst and Smith's passion for punk, and Gallup replaced him on Seventeen Seconds and Faith. On these albums, the Cure went from being a spritely pop band to being downbeat moodists, with songs such as "The Funeral Party" and "The Drowning Man" exuding a dark radiance.
Smith himself entered a very dark period, and the band recorded its morbid masterpiece, Pornography, a monumentally depressing album that mentioned death in almost every song. "I had two choices at the time," says Smith, "which were either completely giving in or making a record of it and getting it out of me. And I'm glad I chose to make the record. It's really the key action of my life, really, making that record. It would have been very easy just to curl up and disappear."
Right about then, the Hair made its first appearance, inspired, Smith says, by Eraserhead. He horrified his legions of clones when he gave himself a buzzcut in 1986, saying at the time, "The fans were beginning to look more like me than I do." He's since grown it back. "I'd find it difficult to sing some of these songs without this hair," he says. "I'm always unhappy about my physical appearance, and I feel most comfortable looking like this -- it's my way of facing the world." (O'Donnell has a more practical explanation: "We have to have tall hair, otherwise you couldn't see us through the fog!")
Smith's lipstick echoes a fascination with mouths that pops up throughout his lyrics. "I suppose it's because they're a public orifice," he explains. "And they have so many purposes -- eating, speaking, sex. I always imagine turning people inside out from their mouths. Something most have happened to me while I was very young. A giant mouth must have tried to sit on my face when I was in my pram."
Tiring of the pressure of being the Cure's frontman, Smith joined Siouxsie and the Banshees in 1983 while still leading the Cure. Maintaining those dual allegiances proved to be quite a strain. Smith, as he himself puts it, "developed a bit of a reputation," and the British press began referring to him as Mad Bob after a serious of intoxicated antics. "I don't remember a lot of what I was reported to have done, but then again, I don't suppose I would," he says. "It was good fun." He recorded a hallucinatory and scandalously overlooked album with Banshees bassist Steve Severin called Blue Sunshine.
The next few Cure releases saw an abrupt stylistic about-face: Funny little singles such as "Let's Go to Bed," "The Caterpillar," and the downright jaunty "Lovecats" won the Cure a much larger following. After the trauma of Pornography, Gallup left the band for eighteen months, sitting out The Top, (generally regarded as a relative low point for the band) and returning for The Head on the Door, tha band's commercial foot in the door of America.
Standing on a Beach, a compilation of singles released in 1986, went gold and established the band in America. It also gained the band some unwanted notoriety. Not realizing that the song "Killing an Arab" is really a smart synopsis of the pivotal scene in the Albert Camus novel The Stranger, various Arab groups in the United States protested. The record company wanted to pull the song from the album; Smith said he'd sooner pull the entire album. A compromise was reached, and Smith agreed to a sticker saying that the band in no way advocated killing Arabs. Looking back, Smith says, "it was really quite pathetic. I imagine Camus would have found it quite amusing." The group still plays the song.
The Cure's next album, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, was shot through with catchy pop songs and catapulted the group into the mainstream. The band easily sold out Madison Square Garden and was all over MTV.
Asked to explain the group's incredible popularity, a fright-wigged young Frenchman in front of the hotel said, "Because they're fun." Of course, fun isn't exactly the first word most people would think of to describe the Cure. "That is a strange reply," Gallup says. "Perhaps he's got a sick sense of humor.
Perhaps the kid saw the group's bizarrely humorous appearance on a relatively conservative French TV show, or perhaps he was picking up on the wit of Tim Pope's irreverent videos, which play off the band's gloomy image by getting the members to dance in animal suits. In the band's latest, a video of the song "Lullaby," Smith dangles by his ankles into the gaping maw of a gigantic mechanized spider.
In fact, Smith does have a wonderfully dry sense of humor; Gallup goes on to say that Smith is the funniest person he's ever met. "Part of the reason Robert is so funny is that he can exorcise the sad part of himself in the songs," he says. True to its name, the Cure makes music that is therapeutic, a musical catharsis for Smith, the band and its fans.
Which explains why, oddly enough, this is an almost merry band. Gallups says, "I know that some of our songs are doomy, but that's only one side of us, and people come up to us and look really sad and depressed, and they can't understand when we're just drunk and falling about -- it's sort of disappointing for them, I think." O'Donnell concurs: "What Robert does is heartfelt, but we're all really happy people, and we have a good time -- we don't walk around looking glum and being Gothic."
Make that a merry, close-knit band. Gallup is Smith's closest friend in a band of close friends. Thompson, who was also in an earlier form of the Cure, dropped out but continued to do graphics for the band, then rejoined; he's married to Smith's sister Janet. Williams and O'Donnell go back eleven years and have been in two bands together, including the Thompson Twins.
With his mischievious face and vestigal East End accent, the chipper O'Donnell would make an excellent Artful Dodger. The two blonds, Williams ("There's something about Boris that's dignified," Gallup says) and Thompson, are quiet types but hardly somber. O'Donnell's nickname for the genial Gallup is Mr. Entertainment -- "He'll do anything to make people happy."
When he was in his Mad Bob period, Smith was in danger of becoming just another endearing British eccentric, one fueled by large amount of hallucinogens. The day after the Reims show, his hair sticks up in long tendrils, making his head look like a huge black orchid, and lipstick still stains his lips. But there's a piercing look in his pale-blue eyes that wasn't there a few years ago. "For about the first year I was in the band, I was scared of him," O'Donnell says. "He's a difficult person to get to know because he's so quiet. When you do something he likes, he can make you feel like the happiest person in the world."
Although it is generally agreed that the Cure is a democratic band, the soft-spoken Smith gets the swing vote. And while Chris Parry is the band's manager, it's Smith who does much of the managerial work, even down to arranging the end-of-tour party. "You've got to get up pretty early to get something past Robert," O'Donnell says. Then, remembering Smith's norotious sleeping habits, he adds, "Well, not that early!"
But for all the Cure's esprit de group, its albums have always been suffused with what can only be termed the Dread -- an all-encompassing sense of futility. As Smith says, "It's there all the time. Last night, Mary and I were sitting and talking until seven in the morning, and we were getting really depressed out what we're going to do, and the fact that whatever we do doesn't matter, and that whatever we do, we're still going to lost each other at some point. It's just really depressing. Particularly at seven in the morning. But tomorrow we'll probably be having a great time."
Lately, Smith has been ending his albums on an up note. "Fight" closed Kiss Me, and Disintegration ends with "Untitled," which Smith calls "a hopeful song in a hopeless world." "'Hoplessly fighting the devil futility' -- that really is the key line in the record," he says. "Knowing that everything's futile but still fighting, still raging against the dying of the light -- that's what motivates me all the time."
Smith says, "I suppose doing an album like Pornography and coming to those depths and coming out of it proves that something can come out of nothing." In fact, "One Hundred Years" from Pornography may stand as Smith's "My Generation." Instead of simply hoping to die before he gets old, he suggests that it "doesn't matter if we all die." Although Smith still stands by that line, he says the idea doesn't cripple him anymore. "If you hold that sense of futility in your head for too long, it can begin to eat into you," he says. "You can still be aware of it but find a place for it where you can actually exist comfortably and enjoy things. So it still doesn't matter if we all die, but given that, you may as well do something that's really good fun."