Formed in 1977, the Cure was originally fueled by punk's energy but dissatisfied with the dim-witted nihilism personified by Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, who later killed his girlfriend and died of a drug overdose. "In America, Sid Vicious stands for something different; he's deified," says the Cure's lead singer, Robert Smith. "Here, he's just a tragic figure." The Cure was also obsessed with the dark side of life, but from the beginning the band was more artful than many of its peers. The group's first single, "Killing an Arab," was a three-minute distillation of Albert Camus' novel, The Stranger, and the band, along with post-punk pioneers Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees, soon found a devoted Goth-rock audience for its fashionable despair.
To compliment its dark sound, the Cure hired video director Tim Pope, a partnership that began with the group's 1981 single, "Let's Go to Bed," and continues to this day. The band mantains a playfully antagonistic relationship with Pope. For example, if the band members happen to find out what Pope is allergic to (say, cats), they proceed to feature the allergen in their video work. The director retaliates by dressing the band in silly costumes.
As much as the music, it was these colorful videos, which play off phobias and childhood fears, that first catapulted the Cure into the top ranks of British cult artists. Proving it was cool to be willfully weird, the Cure earned a sizable following among disaffected teenagers obsessed with Smith's reading list, his wantonly smeared lipstick, and the state of his dyed black hair. "It doesn't bother me when people are obsessed by the idea of the group, and all the way of life we must stand for," Smith says. "It's good that we represent something that people hold to themselves and gives them something to believe in. When it's on a personal level and people write leters, that's very weird." (When a troubled teen climbed on stage at the L.A. Forum in 1986 and stabbed himself repeatedly, the crowd of 18,000 cheered, thinking it was part of the show.)
But despite the fanatical intensity of the Cure's worldwide following, America was slow to take the band. Commercial success remained elusive until 1987, when Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me finally elicited substantial support from MTV and radio programmers. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me was a platinum-seller, as was 1989's Disintegration, which spent six months sharing chart space with Debbie Gibson and Paula Abdul. Not even the band members anticipated the fanaticism they found when they toured Middle America. "On tour, we'd be happy to be left alone to enjoy what we were doing," Smith says, "but that's impractical."
"Sometimes I don't think people appreciate that you're just normal," he adds. If extremely well-tended. At Shipton Manor, all the group's technological and dietary needs are filled. Or most of them, anyway. ("More chocolate" is scrawled across a blackboard in the Manor kitchen.) Forget those horror stories of the band trapped in the studio for months and even years with nothing to show for it (stand up Axl and Slash); the Cure is clearly comfortable with the creative process. "It's good knowing that you have people to rely on," Smith says with a smile. "It's intimate [here], but not that intimate. I mean, we all have our own rooms."
No wonder the album is called Wish. What more could a band as successful as the Cure possibly wish for? Smith has quite a list. "I wish I could freeze time! Any extraordinary power would be quite good. The ability to hypnotize people or turn into animals, or to know how to stay the same age, or to age only when you decide to grow old. To be any age at all whilst retaining knowledge and intelligence from other ages. Leap over tall buildings, fly, stop trains, lift lorries...."
"World peace!" interjects bassist Simon Gallup. "And I'm serious."
"I wish everyone in the world was well-educated or dead," Smith continues.
"Better read than dead," jokes guitarist/keyboardist Perry Bamonte. Guitarist Porl Thompson and drummer Boris Williams are less forthcoming, Thompson because his desires have already been met: "I wish for the present to be as it is."
Bamonte, the band's newest member, looks at his feet. "I wish I could be invisible."
The Cure's last album, Disintegration, was a harrowing record about loss and falling apart. It wouldn't have been difficult to imagine the band packing it in after its release. The group did sack founding member Lol Tolhurst (originally the drummer, later relegated to keyboards) shortly after the album was completed. The butt of many practical jokes, Tolhurst apparently wasn't much good for anything else, though Smith and the others don't like discussing it now.
Wish is also about loss and regret, but its center is a crystal of hope and even happiness. Bittersweet pop is what the Cure is after, and Smith succeeds most of the time in avoiding mindless pop. "Friday I'm in Love" is really as close as the Cure has come to what Smith calls "a really dumb pop song.
"I throw away most of the stuff that's formulaic because I slip into it very easily. You actually reach a point where you think it's not pure, it's not right. It should come from the heart, but sometimes you can't write songs like that."
Like most Cure albums, Wish has elegies ("Apart") and affirmations ("Trust"), all accompanied by Smith and Thompson's almost-Eastern-sounding guitars. Smith frequently tops U.K. guitar polls but claims, "It makes me laugh! I think I'm over-estimated as a guitar player, and that's not false modesty. I'm content with how I play guitar, but, by the same token, I think it's unfair to people who are genuinely good at their instruments, like classical guitarists, as opposed to people like me who make best of what they've got. A lot of what people call my sound is actually Porl."
"Trust" epitomizes the Cure's terse style, with its mournful tone and Smith's depressed lyrics ("There is no one left in the world that I can hold onto"). Is trust a virtue or merely an illusion? "A mixture of both," Smith says. "But I think you have to trust even if you know it's going to be abused.
"Sometimes you're trusted for parts of yourself that are unstable, and you're a bit unsure of them yourself. Then you have to become something that you're not, or abuse someone else's trust. If you're brought up in a society that expects you to be guilty, then you'll probably feel guilty as well."
Though guilt - as well as cats and girls ("A Letter to Elise") - is a constant Cure concern. Smith maintains that Wish is more uplifting than previous records. Still, optimism is not a work that comes easy to Smith. "Every day that goes by, you've lost. You're aware of the loss of certain memories. It might be a depressing line of thought, but the older I get, the less pleasure I get in looking forward.
"I don't know anyone that has a fixed outlook on life, and things can happen to make your mood swing wildly. I suppose the views of the band could be considered 'politically correct.' I don't adhere to any particular political party or any religion, so I'm mildly humanitarian. But at the same time, I can wake up and hate virtually the whole world."
Claustrophobia and entrapment don't seem the stuff of smash hits or stadium tours, but the Cure somehow manages to make those feelings beautiful enough to contemplate. "For completely selfish reasons, I want everything we do to be really good," Smith says. "It's very difficult to remain open and conducive to ideas 16 hours a day unless you do something you really enjoy."
While the Cure seems content to ignore more musical trends, the band isn't afraid to experiment. In England, the pull of the dance floor is hard to ignore, and the group sought to achieve some dance credibility with 1990's Mixed Up, a collection of remixes the band promoted by staging the record's premiere on its own "pirate radio" station. In Europe, such illegal broadcasts are a popular outlet for the latest music, and CURE-FM proved so popular that Fiction Records boss Chris Parry, who signed the Cure in 1977 and works with them to this day, was inspired to finance XFM, Britain's first licensed independant station for alternative music. What began as a calculated publicity stunt, an attempt (which has largely been successful) to maintain its credibility, may have long-lasting effects on British pop culture.
As fretful as Smith and the other band members may seem at times, the band is still capable of having fun. Their host, Richard Branson, has seen to this, sending the group up in Virgin's hot-air balloon one weekend, only to have it hover in midair. And even as the label's ringmasters direct this media circus, the band recognizes the weirdness of the situation. "You can't come downstairs without strangers saying hello and being nice," says Smith with a laugh. "Completely unnatural."
Later that evening, a fire's in the grate and more chocolate has appeared, as requested. Smith looks around the well-lit, well-appointed room. "This is an alternative reality." His faded-lipstick smile broadens. "Once you twist reality inside the bubble that's our world, it gets even better."