Taking The Cure

June 1992
Mark Blackwell & Jim Greer
submitted by thistlemoon

Boys Don't Smile
You know Robert Smith: misery's poster boy, weepy-eyed, tousle-haired singer for the Cure. Heap big paleface. Doyen of melancholy for a million suburban simps - all of them equally misunderstood. Make up like Bozo's evil twin, he capers around the stage at Dodger Stadium, spreading the gospel of angst to the masses, and later drowns his copious sorrows in copious pints of beer. Yeah, you know: Robert Smith.

"I don't care if Monday's blue, Tuesday's grey and Wednesday too / Thursday, I don't care about you / It's Friday, I'm in love / Monday, you could fall apart / Tuesday, Wednesday break my heart / Thursday, doesn't even start / It's Friday, I'm in love."
---from "Friday I'm in Love"

"'Friday I'm in Love' is a dumb pop song, but it's quite excellent actually, because it's so absurd," says Robert with a shy grin. "It's so out of character - very optimistic and really out there in happy land. It's nice to get that counterbalance. People think we're supposed to be leaders of some sort of 'gloom movement.' I could sit and write gloomy songs all day long, but I just don't see the point."

Bob Smith's actually a more-or-less happy guy these days. ("Say happier," he requests. "I'm still miserable overall.") While the singer insists he's as glum as ever, he hardly looks it, and fellow band members cock slightly disbelieving eyebrows in his direction when he asserts his wretchedness.

"I think, word-wise, there are only two songs on the new album that are miserable," he allows, when pressed. "So, I guess I can't be that miserable at the moment - but I am, really. It's that same core of despair that never goes away; but there are so many really good things to be done these days, and ways of passing the time in an enjoyable manner, that I don't dwell on it too much. The fact that I'm enjoying my work a lot more helps. There's much more fun to be had now in what we're doing."

In Between Daze
Mark and Jim arrive in London on the day before the interview, very happy themselves from just the fact that everyone on the flight had their own little personal TVs to watch and several channels from which to choose. (Once they land, however, television quality becomes quite a different matter. No wonder someone from England might be tempted to make morose music, what with the overwhelming doses of snooker and other boring English-type stuff on TV.) The two writers rent a car and proudly drive on the right side of the road (the left side) straight to their destination a little over an hour north, without a map or anything.

The Cure has just spent a good six months living at Virgin president Richard Branson's Manor Studios in the serenely rustic English countryside near Woodstock (Mark and Jim ask everyone to show them where that big concert took place back in '69, but they just get funny looks), recording its new album, Wish. The "Manor" is actually quite famous, and upon arrival, the writers are presented with a 48-page booklet on the place, detailing the history of all creatures who passed through the area - from woolly rhinoceroses in the Paleolithic period to Haircut 100 in the late new wave era. Everyone from Queen to King Trigger (?) recorded here in the mid-'70s to early '80s, and its rep as a cheese palace of prog-rock excess initially turned the Cure off when choosing a studio.

"This place symbolized for me everything wrong with music in the mid-'70s," says Robert. "It's, like, 'Oh no, you're going to the Manor and you're gonna get hexed and end up there for like a year's time.' But when you get there, you realize that it was the mentality of the people who recorded here and gave it that reputation. We visited 12 or 13 residential studios around the country. This wasn't the best studio, but it had the best atmosphere. That shows our intentions from the very start. If we're doing something we enjoy, it wouldn't matter if we were locked in a little coal shed."

The original concept of the sessions was to produce two albums - one "sort of normal," says Robert, and the other a "long and spacey," purely instrumental collection. The final product was a healthy 25 songs, just under half of which made the cut for a single album.

"The main reason the instrumental thing was shelved was that I wasn't getting the songs finished," explains Robert. "We didn't really work that hard the last two months or so. There were days when we wouldn't accomplish anything, or wouldn't start working till after dinner. It's been really good because we've spent much of our stay actually going to pubs and cycling and stuff. We weren't in the control room all the time thinking whether a certain note should go 'deet' or should it go 'doot.'"

Despite the reputation of the Manor, it hardly reeks of majesty-of-rock ostentation. As Smith points out, there's a refreshing lack of gold records hanging on the walls, and just about the only evidence that anyone other than country gentry has ever inhabited the 12-century edifice (besides the studio annex itself) are a couple of black-and-white photos of T'Pau in the front corridor and, uh, the rock mural.

Above the hallway entrance, on the second floor, just to the right of the really big "tall ship" model (it's rumored that a previous band tried unsuccessfully to sail it in a nearby pond), is what the band refers to as a "grotesque mural," depicting several Virgin recording stars garbed in neo-Rennaissance finery. There's Boy George, Phil Collins, and Mike "Tubular Bells" Oldfield, among others. In the course of the band's stay, the Cure took it upon itself to "amend" the mural to reflect the changes time hath wrought upon the depicted heros, so that, for instance, Phil's hair has thinned considerably, and Boy has a few extra pounds of George. By the end of their visit, the guys expect to have made further changes, if any of them manage to remain sober enough to accomplish the neccessary brushwork.

Why Can't I Be Me?
The Cure looks sober enough, though maybe slightly hung over, when its members file quietly into the Manor's sitting room for a chat. First, Robert, dressed simply in a gray cardigan and jeans, then guitarist-keyboardist Perry Bamonte, former Cure roadie and the latest addition to the lineup, followerd by bassist Simon Gallup and guitarist Porl Thompson. Drummer Boris Williams will show up later just in time for tea. It's the first interview the band will have done for some time, certainly the first since completing (nearly) the album. Except for the singer, it's hard for the writers to keep up with who's who at times, especially since the members keep calling Perry, "Teddy," and occasionally refer to Robert as "Smitty."

While Smitty's singing voice is permanently cracked, with a built-in hiccup of despair at the beginning of every line and a half-sob at the end, his speaking voice is alarmingly normal - almost too quiet for tinnitus-inflicted journalists like Mark and Jim to accurately decipher over a crackling hearth fire. He tends to stick his fingers in his mouth while talking, which both further obscures sense and makes him look, sometimes, kind of silly.

Without his makeup and his dorky clothes, and without his hair teased up the the heavens, Smith could easily be mistaken for "just another guy," a perception he seems eager to perpetuate in the interview while at the same time mouthing an implicit distrust of the entire process.

"It's quite a source of amusement sometimes," he says, "when I read what's written about the Cure and what we're supposed to be like. Some of the things are so blatently untrue that you wonder why the writers bother to do interviews. Sometimes I'm perfectly civil and haven't said anything weird and stuff, and they'll go away and write some huge piece about someone crazy. I'll think, 'Who the fuck is this they're writing about?' They're just perpetuating all these myths."

"Imagine the stuff that gets written in Spanish or something," adds Simon. "Like, how many time have you died?"

"Or Japanese. The worst of all, boy," says Robert.

All things considered, Mark and Jim figure it is probably a good thing that they didn't follow through on their original plan to dress up like Robert and do the interview with teased wigs and sombre makeup in hopes of putting him more at ease (and for amusement in general). 'Cause that's not what Robert wants people to think he's all about, and also 'cause the writers would probably have just been mistaken for the Australian Cure anyway.

"There was this magazine article about a group called the Australian Cure who just do cover versions of our songs," Simon says.

"There's an Australian Doors touring here at the moment," Robert murmers. "I can understand that, because the Doors are, like, dead, but..."

"They were playing their own songs and making like 50 dollars a night," he bassist continues. "Then they realized if they put on lipstick, dressed up, and did Cure songs, so many people would turn up they could make thousands."

So what about the legions of Cure fashion victims who don the image and don't even get paid? Those in smeared-makeup, black-costumed, thrift-store funeral marches around the globe?

"Well, that lot - they all just try to look like Robert," Simon notes. "If Robert dramatically changed his image tomorrow, then by the time we did a half dozen shows, they'd be those same people turning up like the new him."

"It's like the thing with the Australian Cure," says Robert. "Every member of the band looks like me. That's when it starts to get really dumb. It's not fair, because it perpetuates the idea that I look like however I look for some ulterior motive. It isn't like 'Oh, this look might upset people.' It's whatever I want to look like. When we started, my head was shaved."

Just Like History
The Cure's first album, 1979's Three Imaginary Boys, was a sporty, postpunk tune-fest marked by the classic pop jangle of "Boys Don't Cry," the lean, propulsive "Jumping Someone Else's Train," and the eventually controversial "Killing an Arab." Boys contained, in seed form, every musical flower Bob Smith would eventually produce: dominant, melodic bass lines; whiny, strangulated vocals; and a lyric obsession with existential, almost literary despair. Reference points ranged from French novelist Albert Camus to proto-goth band Joy Division, whose lead singer, Ian Curtis, hanged himself shortly after the album's release.

Subsequent albums tended to emphasize the murk and downplay the melodies, especially angst-fests such as Seventeen Seconds and Faith. As the level of solipsistic sorrow rose, the tempos slowed to a world-weary plod, and somber waves of synthesizers crashed down where guitars once lifted up. There were bright spots, sure: the playful "The Lovecats," the bouyant "Let's Go to Bed," and the sublime "Just Like Heaven," where Smith's pop instincts got the better of his passionate melancholia. But the whole was not-quite-joyous celebration of the wonder that is life. Which is part of the music's appeal to a large part of the sensitive suburbanites who make up much of the Cure's American audience.

Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, anarchy is loosed upon the Cure. Founding member Lol Tolhurst - whose lack of actual musical ability was legendary both within and without the band - was finally kicked out of the group after the completion of 1989's Disintegration, an album that sounds so much like its title (and deliberately so) that further description would be superfluous; Robert at that point sincerely felt that the Cure was finished: "I really thought that after Disintegration that would be it. But I suddenly realized what was depressing me was that I was in a group with Lol. He was reflecting all the things I thought were wrong - becoming lazy, indulgent, and usless. My having the courage to actually kick him out of the band was a new lease on life. The same thing was Roger [O'Donnell, keyboardist for two years] quitting. Though at the time it worked, there were a lot of tensions within the group that weren't helping. With him gone as well, it feels like it should have felt years ago."

This fresh feeling of content has Robert and the boys ready to jump back in the running with the youngest of the new music youngsters. They find themselves in the odd position of still being considered contemporary, while at the same time acting as heroes/forefathers/legends to newbreed upstarts who were soiling diapers when the Cure was first being discovered. It's very easy to spot a marked vitality among the members despite exchanges like this one with Robert:

ááá"Do you find your fans getting younger and younger?"
ááá"No, it's just us getting older and older."
ááá"A lot of the people in the bands you started out with are-"

As for those few contemporaries who are still breathing, Robert finds it "pretty tragic" that many, such as the Buzzcocks, are attempting to bring grave-ridden bands back from the other side. And when Mark and Jim liken the Cure's long-term staying power, its steadily growing young fan base, its strength in America, and stuff like that to Siouxsie and the Banshees' similar success, Smitty is extremely quick to counter:

ááá"They're virtually forgotten over here. In most people's minds, the Banshees compromised everything they stood for and have gone all out to sell records in America - everything they always said they wouldn't do. They're virtually living in America. That's fine, but it galls me that they still maintain this 'We're not like other people.' That's bollocks. It upsets me because it's really unnecessary. It's kind of a British thing, really. I suppose we've managed to avoid it so far because we haven't really toured extensively in America. We've always done two months, three months maximum, and then we come home - so we're seen as marauders rather than expatriots."

Kiss Them, Kiss Them, Kiss Them For Me
On the last American tour during the summer of 1989, Robert was brought abruptly face-to-face with the fruits of stateside success. While grateful, he soon found that platinum popularity carries with it unwanted baggage, specifically the near-hysterical idolatry with which he was treated by some of the more recent adolescent converts. On "End," from the new album, he lashes out against those who see him as some kind of savior figure. "Please stop loving me / I am none of these things," he wails to the Los Angeles KROQ teen contingent ("Crying in the sunshine" as SPIN Contributing Editor Jonathan Bernstein puts it).

"Actually, the attention we got in America was really gratifying. It feeds your vanity. It's very difficult to fight it when it's going on, but afterwards you think, 'Wait. Is that really me?' It bothers me a lot when people's impression of me are ridiculous...so "End" is partially a way of fighting, saying it isn't really like that. Although the fact of doing the song just sets up another round."

Overall, Wish is the work of a band very much in its prime, a band that obviously can't wait to hit the road again and kick it live. The aggressiveness of the new record adds to a general atmosphere of cohesion, and forward-looking almost-optimism that stands in marked contrast to the statements Robert made at the end of that last tour, to the effect that the Cure was over and, at very least, would never tour again.

"It's one of those things, like not making another record, that's genuinely felt at the time. If we're just come off a tour, someone will always say, 'Are you going to do such-and-such next time out?' and I'll be tired and like, 'Man, I'm never touring again.' But, I mean, you say it once offhandedly, and it's repeated a thousand times. And then, what's the point of denying it? Three months later, it's, 'Are you playing?' and I say, 'Well, yeah.' Then people are like, 'But you said you'd never tour again!' I mean, so what? We just feel like touring now."

"If not, maybe we could get the Australian Cure to do the tour for us," suggests Simon.

Happy Days Are Here Again
The walls of the Cure's studio are covered with quotations from Wordsworth, Rilke, and Dickinson - inspiration, you'd have to figure - juxtaposed weirdly with magazine clippings of stuff like the Space Shuttle, Xeroxes of a recent unauthorized Cure comic book (which, brags Smith, "even had me mum in it"), and homemade borderline-pornographic cartoons that make no sense and aren't funny, at least to Americans like Mark and Jim, who've been ushered in for a listen to the nearly finished product.

Most of the new tunes are guitar-propelled, a deliberate move on the part of the band, which wanted songs that would be more effective (and easier to orchestrate) in a live setting. The guitar orientation also stems from the addition of Perry, whose expertise centers more on guitar than on keys. As a result, the music is generally much more upbeat than Cure of recent memory, wallowing less in self-pity and seemingly pointed more toward catharsis than catatonia.

Perry attempts to explain the "graph" he made, plotting the songs along various categories.

"Well, we had on the bottom sort of gloomy, then on top sort of hard, and then pop, and then there's a middle ground with gray areas between hard and pop, and gloomy - well it could be gloomy and pop, couldn't it? Gloomy pop? But most sort of settled in between, um, sort of going towards pop...."

"But really hard and gloomy pop," Simon says in clarification.

Along with "Friday I'm in Love," in particular "Doing the Unstuck" stands out of the crowd with a radiant smiley face. So happy, in fact, that it could make the Cure's black pack, ironically enough, sad.

"I wonder if we'll get away with it," ponders Robert. "I think those songs might shock people - possibly even upset them."

But not to worry. No doubt the serious and sombre tune-Smith had to suffer to step so shallow.

"Genuinely dumb pop lyrics are much more difficult to write than my usual outpourings through the heart," he confesses. "I went through hundreds of sheets of paper trying to get words for this record. You have to hit something that's not cringing - a simplicity and na´vetÚ that communicates. There's a dumbness that sort of cracks. We've really always done pop songs. It's just sometimes they're way too down - sort of desperate."

Little in Robert's apparent life would seem sufficient fuel for the overriding despondency with which he's afflicted (even though many of his songs are about misbegotten romance, the singer himself has been with the same woman, to whom he's now married, for about 300 years); rather, it's a general malaise, a response to a modern world from which he feels alienated. Like Ray Davies's "20th Century Man" ("I'm a 20th century man, but I don't want to be here...."). Robert Smith is a man out of time.

"It's just very rare to be genuinely happy all the time," he says with a sigh.

But can you be day-to-day happy without being genuinely happy?

"Well, you can be day-to-day numb."

What about day-to-day drunk? You've tried that.

"Yeah, I mean, there are many ways of getting out of it. But happy is a really good feeling. The more avenues you have toward the persuit of happiness, whether you're following them through choice, or unknowingly, the more interesting your life is. There's really only one way to be miserable - either you are or you aren't."

Strolling through the Manor's kitchen on the way from hearing the album, the writers notice a message from the Cure scrawled on the blackboard by the telephone. "Welcome, journalists from across the pond," it reads. "Get proper jobs." Jim turns to Mark with a mutter: "We will, as soon as they get proper haircuts."

Last Revised: Thursday, 29-Dec-99 15:16:49 CDT

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