By Staff on April 26, 2012
2012 marks FILTER Magazine’s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.
Below you will find Issue #11’s cover story, in full, where we sat down with Robert Smith of The Cure and we tried our hardest to learn the ins and outs of a legendary artist. How successful were we? Read on friends.
25 Imaginary Years: Alive and Awake with Robert Smith (Issue 11, Summer 2004)
By Mikel Jollett
In Between Days
The lapel on his shirt is as black as the sky which hangs crisply over a hushed New York evening outside the stiflingly small hotel room where Robert Smith sits in a chair with his hands beneath him like a child with a shy smile that guards a strange secret that he’s only so willing to tell you if he can just find the right words somewhere within the endless mumbled phrases which fall from his mouth and gather in the air, filling the tiny room with fragments of a man, an artist, a narcissist, a ghost, an idol, a shy, sleepy child who has endlessly dreamt, then awoke, then scratched his fevered head to stare out at the contours of four walls covered in mirrors, false doorways and gaudy prints on the carpet.
It’s one o’clock in the morning and the beer is in the corner on ice. A half-empty wine bottle sits on the floor with an extinguished cigarette floating in sweet yellow liquid surrounded by a ring of forgotten black ashes. His hair suggests madness. His faded lipstick looks rather like blood. His eyes smile, his hands fidget, and his jaw is covered in a shadow of manly stubble, his countenance a kaleidoscope of contradictions: a child in the body of a large man, a large man in the pose of a delicate artist, a delicate artist with the face of a clown, the face of a clown uttering the words of a dizzy seraph, a dizzy seraph attempting to make sense of a night spent standing like a statue in the corner of a crowded listening party watching a collection of agents and publicists and assistants and journalists and marketing specialists and tour managers and sales representatives, who gathered like bees, like ants, like locusts, like vultures, to eat prosciutto and drink scotch and talk, ceaselessly talk, as the morbid, searing rise and fall of the new Cure album droned out from a pair of tinny hotel conference speakers.
Four hours later, we’re sitting in that tiny room together talking about the preceding five hours, the preceding five months, the preceding 25 years in which Robert Smith has come to symbolize something dark and happy and elegant and twisted to an entire generation of misfits and wannabe misfits and people for whom the Cure was the introduction to their inner misfittedness, and in the midst of Robert’s unending streams of consciousness (of which there are tributaries which become creeks which return again to the stream which spawned them) he stops point blank, while discussing the fateful year when everything changed for the Cure and says, “The realization of your own death is the only important thing in your life.” Leaning forward in his chair, he takes a manful pull off his bottle of Budweiser and wipes his mouth through gritted teeth, looking for all the world as if he’s about to spit across the room.
Robert Smith is, if anything, an existentialist. Which is to say that he is forever questioning the nature of his existence, deciding it’s meaningless, then pushing forward to assign a meaning anyway. Our late-night conversation on the second floor of the Essex House Hotel across from Central Park—interspersed with alcohol, with publicists arriving at the door (which Robert continues to shoo away with a flick of his wrist as we talk into the night about his new album, his new producer, the love of his life, and the doldrums days when the young Mister Smith wanted nothing more than self-annihilation; a career ambition, to be sure, for any artist with his particular perspective)—is continually bombarded, on subject after subject, with his ceaseless desire to ask himself why.
To wit (in less than three hours, in the midst of the exact same conversation), he says:
“Ross [Robinson, who produced the new album] is always saying to me, ‘Can you feel what’s going to happen when people listen to this?’ But then the cynic in me starts to argue and say, ‘And then what? What’s it matter? It means absolutely nothing.’”
And (when discussing mixing):
“I’m always thinking, but why bother? Why not piece it together? I’d be thinking, ‘Just drop in my voice, it doesn’t matter.’ And Ross is saying, ‘We’ll come back in tomorrow.’ It’s like we don’t care. And then he’d go out and I’d think, “But I do care.’ And then I’d think, ‘But why do I care?’”
And (on songwriting):
“I was sitting outside at home playing guitar and I thought, ‘That’s really nice. This is exactly how I feel. This set of chords, these words.’ But the question of why I’m doing it, why I’d want anyone to hear what I’m doing, why I wouldn’t just be content to sit outside my home and hear those chords—that’s the thing I’m hoping gives me some purpose.”
And (on why he makes music at all):
“I feel driven in a way that I would almost sneer at. I have no idea why I’m doing it, but I love singing to people. It’s really weird.”
He’s not being dramatic. He’s not trying to play some role that has been thrust upon him as the avatar of the disaffected. He simply has no self-consciousness to him. For all the years of tours and albums and songs and press days and mix-downs and fights with the band and heartbreaking songs that seem like signposts, like time capsules of a specific era in the life of any Cure fan (How old were you when you first heard “Just Like Heaven”? How many of your mix tapes include “Boys Don’t Cry”? Who’s in the pictures in your own life’s version of “Pictures of You”?)—he simply sits in his chair, uttering his asymmetrical thoughts, philosophical and self-questioning and dreamlike, with that hair and that face and that shy, friendly, slightly deranged demeanor—exactly at ease, exactly in angst, precisely Robert Smith.
Three Imaginary Boys
The veneer of a person that sits before me, a trifle paunch and consumed in his beer, resembles in form (framed by large strands of wayward black hair) the baby-faced young man of 25 years ago that began his career as a guitarist in a teenage cover band called Malice—in which he was known for the steady jaunt of his fingerings on the fret board, and penchant for wearing large women’s coats. It was (as are more quixotic art projects, all-consumed by the dog-dare of art in the face of that mind-numbing propriety) a suburban affair. Philosophic contemplation, (as Nabokov said), is the invention of the rich, Or, perhaps more accurately put (in the modern era), it is the playground of the well-fed middle class. Crawley is a London suburb and Smith, along with milktooth chum, playmate, confidante, drummer and whipping boy Laurence Tolhurst, was a private school product, raised by Catholic parents, who devoured his Proust, his Camus, his Nietzche—then caught the visage of an androgynous Davis Bowie on the television one night, and thought, “This world is large and strange. And it will be mine.” Or so the story goes.
Malice became Easy Cure and well-fed private school guitarist became enigmatic singer (after four other singers quit) became tortured artist. Or perhaps that’s skipping ahead. Easy Cure was in face first signed to the German label Hansa who discovered the lads from Crawley by placing an ad in a magazine for a contest for new talent. Which the band won. And were signed solely because of how they looked. (Post-punk aesthetic enters here, the juxtaposition of minimalist, dark, somber haircuts, poses and moods with honest, youthful charisma—as if the good boys of the world have been corrupted by the unbearable depression of existence itself, rather than politics or street habits.) Hansa wanted a teen group to take advantage of the “punk” thing. (Consider the twirling of mustaches, the roasting of live pheasants over demonic flames as German businessmen envision the Cure as New Kids on the Block dressed up in the snarl of the Sex Pistols.) Asked to cover “I Fought the Law,” Easy Cure told the label to get bent and send them “Killing an Arab” instead. Promptly, the song was dismissed as racist (a claim that reverberated throughout the Cure’s early years) and the band was released.
Touched by early success (a tragic twist of fate which cripples the selfhood of any unfortunate wunderkind with perplexing notions of “artist” instead of “man,” rendering the disfigured personage into something fascinating, for all to watch. “Nobody loves a genius child, kill him and let his soul run wild,” as Langston Hughes once put it), Smith and the band carried on, sending their curiously minimal demo to 10 record companies. Chris Parry of Polydor responded (the man who, in the same rush of recognition signed Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Jam), inking Easy Cure (which quickly became simply the Cure, after firing lead guitarist Pori Thompson whose virtuoso vamping about the instrument was made quickly obsolete by the rise of punk) a contract in 1978 to his own indie side-label, Fiction. Three Imaginary Boys was released in 1979 and the Cure—confused, distraught, familiar and enigmatic—was unleashed upon the world.
The response was immediate and curious, not so much a juggernaut or a revolution, but a collective head-scratching as critics and fans and fellow-travelers looked up from their Led Zeppelin (et. al.) and uttered in unison, simply, “What?”
Firstly, what to make of the cover art, the three disembodied objects—a lamp, a refrigerator and a vacuum cleaner—which, in total, seemed to conjure no image at all. (This, a ploy suggested by Chris Parry and fought by Smith who saw the willful manipulation of public persona as garish in the extreme.) What to make of “Killing an Arab,” a strangely upbeat and macabre telling of a murder scene from Camus’ novel The Stranger. It didn’t fit in. Nothing fit in. There were rough comparisons to Joy Division (whose eminence over-shadowed all music of the time which suggested darkness) and the ever-present Siouxsie from whom Smith (at least) later borrowed his look. But the band was mostly without precedence, without context, their seeming genius buried beneath their youth, like the melding of disparate adjectives whose coupling seems obvious in retrospect: the ability to find a jest in majesty, to make an ass of passion—a puzzling admixture of warped pop and breathing soul capable of twisting God and the devil into a live dog.
They were attacked by skinheads (for supporting a former school teacher who’d been fired for engaging in a “lewd act in public with another man”): the Nationalist Front (right wing limey extremists), sensing some sort of threat from the enigma of the band, distributed leaflets at shows, scaring up locals in the crowd, once attempting to burn a venue to the ground while Robert and the boys played inside. They were dismissed in the press as an “abrasive light metal trio,” as dilettantes, as the “New Existentialists,” as talentless, neophyte suburban kids trying to cash in on ideas outside the bounds of their comfortable domain.
They played with Wire (immediately after penning their contract). They played with Joy Division (who they claimed not to like). They played with Generation X (on whose lead singer, Billy Idol, Laurence Tolhurst once urinated after discovering him in the john in a rather compromising position with a young lady who refused to depart so that Lol could attend the business at hand). They played with the Fall and Siouxsie (of course). They played festivals with the Police, with Motorhead, with the Clash.
They were oddly suggestive and incomplete hodgepodge of ideas about sparseness, about youth (Smith was barely 20), about philosophy, about pop music—panned for being incomplete, attended to for being compelling, the obvious question on everybody’s lips as they considered that which the Cure represented in the minds of the public: What exactly are they the Cure for?
Robert Smith refused to serve up any obvious answer to this question, and with his next three albums (17 Seconds, Faith, and the boiling blood Cure classic Pornography), proceeded instead to tear down any notions anyone ever had about the accessibility or light-hearted nature of his band. Pop became a bad word. Strangely, hits continued to accumulate (“A Forest,” “Charlotte Sometimes”) but the band took a decidedly darker turn, eschewing the jaunty domain in post-punk pop inhabited by songs like “Boys Don’t Cry,” in favor of layer upon layer of gloom and feedback and keyboards and chorus effects. (“Phil Spector in hell,” as was once famously said.)
Apparently, boys did cry. And scream. And wail. And fight (with audience members, with each other). And take drugs (cocaine and acid fueling aggressive all-night recording sessions in an earnest attempt at psychological self-mutilation). And rub lipstick over their eyes, to mingle with sweat, causing the melted crimson wax to streak down their faces like blood. And open albums howling lines like, “It doesn’t matter if we all die!” (Pornography)
After a particularly violent argument ended with he and Laurence Tolhurst rolling around on the floor once night trading punches on the Pornography tour, Smith flew home and broke up the band. It was the first in what has become something of a perennial event for the Cure. It was 1982.
Having accepted an offer from Steve Severin to play guitar for Siouxsie and the Banshees (again), Smith holed himself up in a studio and wrote a song meant to destroy the whole myth of the Cure, to alienate their audience and undermine any artistic credibility they had earned with their legions of goth fans. He considered it a swan song. A lark that would be met with enough derision to bury the Cure forever. The song was “Let’s Go to Bed.” Unexpectedly, it became a hit—even in places as far away as America, turning the rather surprised Robert Smith into a pop star.
A likeness of the band was reassembled—including Tolhurst and Phil Thornally, who engineered Pornography (and currently makes his living as a songwriter for such clients as Natalie Imbruglia and Bryan Adams. Go figure.) More singles followed as the face of the Cure continued to change from youthful minimalists to loathsome goth rockers to deranged pop artists. “The Walk” (a single and an EP) and “Lovecats” were released the following year and became the Cure’s biggest bits to date. They were compiled on a collection of B-sides and singles sent out into the world in December of 1983 under the moniker Japanese Whispers.
The Top followed, and with it passed Smith’s fateful year of willful self-demise. Having worn himself out on the Siouxsie/Cure tour (in which he played in both bands, feeling an ever-widening gap with former friend Siouxsie Sioux, who referred to him as “fat boy Smith”), he quit the Banshees, teamed up once again with old friend and bassist Simon Gallup, fired the rampage-happy drummer Andy Anderson (after Anderson destroyed his hotel room in a fit of chaotic mania on tour, tearing at a door behind which sat Smith, unimpressed) for former Thompson Twins drummer Boris Williams, decided to give up drugs and hard liquor (imbibing only beer, for now) and set out to make his “Strawberry Fields Forever” masterpiece, The Head on the Door.
There are many ways to characterize music that hits the nail on the proverbial head (one conjures images of dreamscapes or personified guitar effects, ad nauseum), but all that journalistic lingo resembles so much senseless dancing about architecture. Let’s just say The Head on the Door was a great fucking album. Flaunting two hit singles (“In Between Days” and “Close to Me”) as well as enough bombastic strangeness to tug the tortured heartstrings of anyone who’d ever looked around an honors English class and said, “Who are these people and why am I here?” (reference “Screw” and the mind-numbing, unfocused hope of “Push”), the world listened in on what Robert and the boys had created with The Head on the Door, and fell smack in love. Top ten in the U.K. charts. It even cracked the charts in the States. And this was 1984 when Van Halen was all the rage. Robert Smith was 25.
Another singles collection, Standing on a Beach, was released the following year. A compendium of songs spanning the band’s already infamous career, it reached #4 in the U.K. and cracked the top 50 in the U.S., where Robert Smith had become, by then, something of a cult figure, playing to hoards of somber Americans who’d adopted his look and attempted to co-opt what they perceived as his somber attitude (an attitude, which, in reality is nothing of the sort), attending shows draped in black, with painted white faces and red lipstick. The Robert Smith clones that walked the streets of New York Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Paris and London wore their chosen costumes like shibboleths, like signs that they belonged to the melancholy tribe. There was, of course, a certain playfulness to it. A certain irony, that was lurked beneath the costume was not an individual taken to dripping hot wax on white skin at midnight (as outsiders might suspect), but a person with enough humor and insight to know that in this world, no one truly fits in. (So why bother?) Of course, not everyone understood the joke (or the irony). At one particularly infamous Cure show in Los Angeles, a rather confused and heartsick 38-year-old man climbed on top of a chair during the Cure’s set, stripped off his shirt, and while a crowd of onlookers watched in horror, stabbed himself in the chest with a seven-inch hunting knife. He survived, saying he did it for the unrequited love of a girl named Andrea. The band was aghast (it has been a successful tour after all), but it was clear that the Cure—however dramatically, belatedly, drearily or perplexedly—had touched a nerve (literally), and were poised for something big.
Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me was released the following May (1987) and with it, the Cure became a worldwide phenomenon. “Just Like Heaven” was their first American top 40 hit. “Hot Hot Hot” was (rather oddly) the biggest dance song of the year. The double album was an eclectic, heady mélange, showcasing all facets of the Cure’s artistic life, from the dreamy catch (of, uh “Catch”) to the wailing pathos guitar of “The Kiss” (a song seemingly more at home on an album like Pornography, with such lyrics as “Get your fucking voice out of my head… I never wanted this/I never wanted any of this/I wish you were dead!”). What the album represented wasn’t so much a change in tone, but one of scale. Clubs became stadiums, chartered flights became private jet, the outward spiral of their ever-widening influence left the cities, invading suburbs, clubs, MTV, the isolated headphones of likeminded souls everywhere listening to “Like Cockatoos,” wearing Generra cardigans and Creepers in their bedrooms, in cars, in record stores, in shopping malls. Six years earlier Smith had famously said of his band, “We’re not mainstream and we never will be unless the mainstream changes to us.” It seemed pretentious at the time.
Smith’s reaction to all the success was to recede, as he always had, into himself. 1988 was the year leading up to his 30th birthday, an event which had taken on great meaning to a man who was quite sure he’d be dead by 25. He felt he was slipping. He felt he was reaching an artistic cut-off point. He became very isolated, recording the demos for the Cure’s next album alone, on acid. He was tired of pop, tire of trying to write singles (however deranged) for radio play, and having felt such dire mortality at the prospect of completing (gasp) his third decade, he wrote what he felt was a companion piece to Pornography—a sweeping, epic, melodramatic collection of songs entitled, rather fittingly, Disintegration.
The record company didn’t like it. They had expected Smith to produce a second Kiss Me, an album rife with singles. Disintegration, by contrast, seemed to them to be commercial suicide. They thought it wouldn’t play well with the mainstream audience the band had only recently captured. They were wrong. Released in 1989, the album went to #3 in the U.K., #14 in the U.S. and produced the Cure’s first American top ten single [“Lovesong”—a flawed and patently clichéd (by Cure standards anyway) pastiche of lovelorn expressions which found its way to the #2 spot on the American charts]. There was no denying it at this point: the Cure were one of the biggest bands in the world.
What followed, as the details became sketchier, the band more reclusive, Smith more difficult (according to bandmates, anyway), and the backwards trajectory of fame more prominent (which gives birth to butterflies, then wraps them in cocoons)—was a broad, sweeping glide down to earth, punctuated (rather ironically) by the apex of commercial success. Propelled by two light-as-air singles (“High” and “Friday I’m in Love”), Wish was the band’s biggest selling album. Released in 1992, it debuted at #1 in the U.K., and #2 in the U.S. Despite its mammoth sales (which were, let’s face it, a result of so many people having jumped on bandwagon Cure with Disintegration), the album itself was inconsistent, failing to live up to the daring creativity of its predecessor.
Soon after the album was released, Smith was in court with his best friend and longtime collaborator Laurence Tolhurst, who had been booted before the release of Disintegration at the behest of other members of the band. Tolhurst sued, claiming that Smith did not own sole rights to the Cure’s name. A bitter, entrenched legal battle waged for eight months, at the end of which the score was: Smith: everything. Tolhurst: nothing. To make matters worse, both guitarist Porl Thompson and drummer Boris Williams had departed the band after the Wish tour, leaving Robert Smith at the top of the world, all alone.
Wild Mood Swings followed in 1996, but by the time Smith (who had turned increasingly more interested in his private life) had overcome the nightmares of the preceding years, he’s lost the momentum the Cure had culled in the early ‘90s, and woke to find a commercial world mired in grunge and Brit-pop. (That rat nest hair would never do beneath a beanie and Smith simply wasn’t one for goatees.) The Cure had finally become obsolete.
Touched by a searing, tangible mortality of a more banal sort than he one expected from life (read: favor lost, years lost, prominence lost) which the unfettered, youthful and tragic liked of James Dean, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis and Jesus would never be forced to suffer, Smith (who would have made a perfectly suitable tragic hero in his mid-20s) attempted once more (approaching 40 now) to create a final, epic, perfectly Cure-esque attempt at dramatic denouement. Bloodflowers, he called it. Released in 2000, it was Robert Smith’s unbridled attempt to go out on top. And though the record achieve the air of cursed finality he was seeking (owing in part to his intense appropriation of Mogwai), the world nonetheless responded with an unimpressed yawn (there’s a Cure song in there too, I’m sure) and sent Smith packing—tragedy, pathos, lipstick, ego, hairspray, gloom, guitar, affection, obsession, anxiety, enigma, catharsis and all.
The story should end there, a symmetrical pyramid of ascension and descension, the heavily vetted protagonist seeking the warm comforts of home or exile or isolation (and death, looming out there somewhere, the conclusion of all life, vetted or not). But Robert Smith is not Ivan Ilyich. And the same dog-dare world of art (pop music anyway) that attracted him, inspired him, embrace him and rejected him now reveres him. You see, the kids grew up. They traded in their Walkmans for mp3 players, their creepers for converse, their cardigans for tight jackets—and they formed bands, borrowing a bit of a “Lovecats” lick here, a “Disintegration” rant there, in a gleeful attempt to rediscover, reconjure, reinvent, revitalize the music that fell forth all those years from a pair of bedroom speakers as they scribbled “show me how you do that trick” on the back of some ratty notebook.
And now they’re everywhere. And here we are in 2004 and it is the Cure’s moment once again. Of course there’s some new album. Of course there’s a Cure summer tour (Curiosa). Of course 60,000 people will still swoon in unison to the heartfelt chords that propelled them forward so many years ago. And though the mantle of “elder statesman” has been passed to him (the rather tasteless province of ex-jocks, aging tenured professors, and retiring Elksmen sitting comfortably in the haze of alcohol-soft middle age), Smith will have none of it. Or more precisely put, it does not apply to him. Because he’s still the same man he always was (a trifle older, a trifle larger), but questioning, rambling, puzzling—approaching the subject of music, the subjects of his songs, the subjects of life—as if it was all just a dream from which he never awoke.
The Same Deep Water as You
“Don’t you wish Kurt Cobain was still alive?” He stares at me a moment with that crazy look in his eye—like a butterfly drunk on absinthe. It’s gotten rather late at this point. The get-to-know-ya’s ended sometime around midnight and we’ve taken to pacing the room. We’re discussing his youth, when the idea of self-annihilation haunted him (as did the ghost of Ian Curtis of Joy Division, a person he once thought he’d have to emulate, by committing suicide, in order for anyone to take him seriously). I wonder if it’s harder to live, to grow old, to be human.
“Yeah,” he says, with a knowing smile. “Because you fuck up. Everyone always does. But it’s only a burden if you think of it in those terms.” He fidgets with the beet bottle in his hands as the older, wiser, slightly more detached (slightly drunk, to be honest) Robert Smith begins to explain the dark forces which drove that alienated young man so many years ago. “There was a time I’d spent at 18-month period really pushing myself, taking every drug under the sun. I guess I decided I’d get out of it one way or another. That was February 14, 1984. I suspended the idea of being scared of dying. It’s the sort of thing you go through if you have a certain mentality at that age. I wanted to see if I was as good as I thought I was. I wanted to conquer my fear of death. There have been so many time when I’ve been whipping myself. It’s like riding a horse. [He raises his voice, pounding his hands against his hips, yelling, like a jockey] ‘Come on body, keep up.’” From the looks of him—a bit dazed, a noticeably large pouch of a belly outlining the contours of his disheveled shirt—his body hasn’t kept up so well. Or perhaps the ride was longer than I can imagine.
“On Christmas Eve of 1984, I hospitalized myself because I felt so ill. They threw me out because I’d been taking drugs. They weren’t going to give me a bed. I wanted them to give me something to make me better and I remember the doctor saying to me, ‘Try taking nothing. That’ll cure you.’” He’s oddly confessional, oddly sincere. Like a man who’s been to the brink, stared over the precipice and found exactly nothing—drawing the conclusions that all people seem to when faced with the prospect of so much life in the midst of so much death. “Some good music came out of it, I guess. But most of it was just an experience: my life condensed into one year. Once I got back into 1985 and we did the Head on the Door, there was a huge shift in my idea of what was good about being alive.”
He stands to address the cache of bottles on ice that have been sitting idly on the other side of the room. As he removes the cap with a twist he says slowly, contemplating the label, “Of course…it’s always been cathartic for me. Like that song ‘The Kiss’ [from Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me]. I sang it once. I just stood in front of the mic and sang about the things I sang about like, [he gathers his face into a wild pixie sneer] ‘Aaahhhgh.’ There was no sense of, ‘Could you do that again? It was a bit out of tune.’ Everybody was staring at me because no one had ever heard the words before.”
He speaks of his records like children, the way a father or mother might refer to moments in life as occurring before or after the child’s birth, the child’s first steps. As if he’s spent a life consumed, driven by the making of albums which express all he feels and drowns out the humdrum din of everything else. “I’m really proud of certain songs that we’ve done. Other things, the only reason they exist is because I’m screaming at the world. It’s a selfish act. I am, by nature, obsessive about anything that I do. I have to beat it down. It’s been like that so much on the record we’ve just done.”
The record they’ve just done is something of an experiment for the Cure. Possessed by a need to re-invent, to find new ground, to surprise himself, Smith gave up producing duties on the album and handed the reins to, of all people, Ross Robinson-the slick young hot-shot behind such nu-metalocrity as Korn and Limp Bizkit. Never one to resist a new idea (Smith sang a surprisingly artistic track on Blink 182’s latest record), he seems genuinely excited about Mr. Robinson’s role, leaning forward in his chair to exhort the virtues of his new friend. “It’s hard to resist him. He is so passionate about it. The same that I am. He’s sold lots of records, just not in the context of the Cure. At first, the others were really resistant to the idea. They were just like, ‘Why is he even around?’ But I wanted it to be part of the band. The only way to do that was to have an outsider. I would stay outside of the control booth and Ross would say, ‘Could you do that again?’ And I’d be looking at him through the glass thinking, ‘What the fuck was wrong with that?’” He laughs, brushing a strand of tangled black hair from his forehead. “Someone asked, ‘Did Ross push you on the vocals?’ And I was biting my lip because he kind of did. The sound at the start of one of the songs is Ross throwing a metal chair at me.”
Having heard the album in that crowded room earlier in the evening, it’s not entirely clear the experiment has worked. Smith, for his part, seems somewhat cagey on the subject himself. He’d leaned into my table while I sat there scribbling notes in that crowded room and said, “Why the fuck is everyone talking?” He doesn’t seem to care terribly whether his album is embraced or not. It’s already got a hit single (“The End of the World”) and the might of Geffen (ahem, Universal) behind it. Still, there is something of a nascent capitalistic impulse in him, like a sidewalk street painter that instinctually understands that in order to remain a bohemian, he must sell a few paintings at $50 a pop. “I don’t know whether it’s going to translate into record sales,” he says quietly. “I would hope that some of the people who grew up with us and are in a position to play us will play some of the songs off this record. I honestly wouldn’t care if it was given away. But just to know that what I’m doing still can be listened to by people is very important to me.”
It’s not hard to believe him. He’s never had another job. “There is nothing else I can do,” he says rather meekly a few minutes later, standing to stretch him legs and walk the room. His hands are over his ears and his face puffed innocently with a child-like expression. “I’ve tried writing and I can’t write. I’ve tried painting, I can’t paint. I’ve tried sculpting, I can’t sculpt. I’ve tried pretty much every other creative art and I can’t do any of it. So when I want to do something, I write songs. It’s not so much that I want to keep the thing going. It’s just that if I marry those few words with a set of guitar chords, I’m going to come out with something I’ll be able to hear and say, ‘That’s who I am.’ Which is all artists are ever trying to do.”
There’s more beer and more discussions of Ross and the album and his dad (who gave him business advice), and his mom (who wondered aloud why she’d “raised such a miserable son”) and all those maddening self-questioning inquiries as to why he does everything he does. And he appears to be waning, like the surface is starting to give way. He stops in the middle of the room and looks over at the tape recorder on the counter with a smirk. As if he’s ready to take the very interview to task. “People seem to wonder what I think about, but it always seems to me as if how I feel about things is dead obvious. It really never strikes home until I’m sitting here answering questions about myself and I think, ‘Well, how far can I go?’”
I want him to go far. I want him—as he settles into the chair again and stares back at me, peeling the wet paper from the brown bottle in his hand—to explain how he could be sitting in this room in this hotel in New York City in 2004 at 2 a.m., having this conversation, when he’s always been a poster on the wall, a voice in the headphones, someone we grew up with, explaining ourselves to ourselves as we cried—“why won’t you ever know that I’m in love with you?”—to some impetuous crush, 10 or 15 or 20 years old, testing our youth, caught up in the unfolding drama of our own lives, the ones to which this man may not even realize he’s provided the soundtrack. And I think, “Well, how far can I go?”
Which is when the conversation turns, and we somehow wander into virgin territory and the man behind that hair, those albums, that contradiction, that visage, begins—as if pulling aside the curtain of his own theatricality to get at the core of the humanity behind it—to speak sheepishly about his wife. Mary. “I’ve always found it amazing over the years that all of the interviews I’ve ever done, no one has ever wondered for a second about Mary, the girl I’m married to, and whether she has a life outside of mine.” He sounds sad, wistful, the faintest hint of a small lump forming in his throat. Mary was his first love, his only love. And I suddenly wonder if she’s been the protagonist of every Cure song ever written. “They think it’s just me that’s mad,” he says. “And I’ve never ever told anyone otherwise—[he then whispers, like a wink] and I won’t.
“But one of the key things of this record is the notion of love. All these years I’ve been singing about it. But what do I really mean? [He pauses a moment staring at the ceiling, saying breathlessly, emphatically, exhaling.] I mean, I would die for someone—I really would die for someone. It’s like she encompasses the entire notion of love—like a mother dying for a child.”
It all sounds so familiar. It all sounds like a song we heard when we were just beginning to grasp the contradictions of life anyway. All that “true-blue” tripe on the radio and none of it made a lick of sense. And he’s 45 years old, talking about his wide, simply saying, “I love her insanely. But the fact that you can feel that kind of blunt passion with someone [his eyes perk up]…is scary. You can be dependent and completely fucked up and in love all at the same time.” And isn’t that how it goes? And isn’t that why “The Kiss” belonged on the same album as “Just Like Heaven”?
Isn’t that essentially why there are so many Robert Smith look-alikes in the world? All trying to peel away the surface to peer at the dizzy, paradoxical, human-nature beneath. Robert is inured to these people too. And we’re almost slurring our words at this point, a little dizzy from the late hours, the pile of empties on the floor. He has to go to the studio in a few minutes for remixing (and yes, it’s 3 a.m., but that does not strike him as odd). And he’s going on and on about his fans and their choices, their bravery—nothing like a cult leader, nothing like an ego-maniac, more like a person who has sought like-minded souls—if for no other reason than to know (and yes, this is the kicker) that fucked-up situations happen, fucked-up feelings occur. And life goes on anyway. You find people who understand this, you tell them about it. And then you can wake in the morning and everything is fine. That’s a Cure song. That’s a Cure fan.
“It is like a tribal thing,” he says. “You recognize people in public places and you think, ‘I could talk to that person.’ I think the average Cure fan is quite sensitive. Much more resilient than people imagine. They’re not just sitting in a dark room somewhere. It’s not that they’ve been disenfranchised or marginalized, but more like they’ve taken a positive step back from mainstream culture. Which I think is a healthy thing. I think the Cure fans who look a certain way or dress a certain way identify with the band because they’re trying to embrace things they like. They’re doing it to feel a part of something else. That attracts a certain type of person to the Cure. A person that believes there is no norm.”
And then it’s time to go. The entourage awaits. And then the remixing at the studio. And then another listening party in L.A. in a couple of days—probably another late night rambling session about just what these 25 years have come to.
As we stumble towards the door to leave, he places his hand on my shoulder and turns me around gingerly, as if he’s got one final thing he needs to say to end the conversation, like that diminutive speck of punctuation which appears at the end of even the longest sentence.
Leaning into my ear (in all our ears, really), he says, “I fucking hate the idea of normal. Normal is all that’s bad about living. All that’s boring about life. Why be normal?” I stare at him a second, wondering how to retrace the lines that we’ve blurred between an icon and a person, between journalist and subject, between reality and projection (the mortally-plague artist waving hopefully to us from the grave). “To be honest,” he whispers fiercely, “I have no idea what normal is.”