MU­SIC In Per­ma­nent Twi­light

An­wen Craw­ford on The Cure

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

Some­times I think that if you shook me out you wouldn’t find much at the bot­tom of the bag apart from tea leaves and bits of songs by The Cure. That lounge-act bassline in “The Love Cats”, for in­stance, so up­hol­stered and smug. “10:15 Satur­day Night” and its house­bound te­dium of drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip. Robert Smith sing­ing “It’s just the way I smile / You said” in “Plain­song”, which, mu­si­cally speak­ing, re­sem­bles a wed­ding march, all ro­mance and bells, but then you lis­ten to the words and it turns out to be about two peo­ple who will never know each other no mat­ter how close they are stand­ing. Per­haps the truest sort of wed­ding song. The Cure turn 40 this year. I’m not con­vinced that pop groups should stay in busi­ness for 40 years, not even the ones whom I sus­pect might have saved my life a few times while also per­ma­nently screw­ing it up. Strange how pop­u­lar mu­sic, an art form fu­elled by the en­ergy of youth, is more and more be­com­ing a playpen for the su­per­an­nu­ated. The Rolling Stones, who won’t pack it in un­til they’re six feet un­der and prob­a­bly not even then. Fleet­wood Mac, still bust­ing up all over the place. The Cure haven’t re­leased new ma­te­rial in a decade and their last great song is nearly 25 years old. (“Burn”, in case you’re won­der­ing, from the sound­track to ’90s goth B-movie The Crow.) So what the fuck are they do­ing, still hang­ing about, and why do I still care? Have you ever dreamt about Robert Smith? Last time I dreamt about Robert Smith – The Cure’s singer, song­writer and sole con­stant mem­ber – we were on the train that I used to take to school. It was full of moths and win­try cold, apro­pos for The Cure. I should clar­ify that the train was also mothy in wak­ing life, be­ing a type of train man­u­fac­tured be­tween 1957 and 1960 (as the in­ter­net in­forms me), and so, co­in­ci­den­tally, as old as Robert Smith (born 1959, as mem­ory serves me), but still in ser­vice on Syd­ney’s outer-subur­ban train net­work circa 1993, clack­ety-clack­ing me to school with my bag

full of tapes full of songs by The Cure. I dreamt that Robert Smith was my friend. This month, at Lon­don’s South­bank Cen­tre, Smith will cu­rate the 25th Melt­down fes­ti­val – an an­nual event that has pre­vi­ously been helmed by mu­si­cians in­clud­ing David Bowie, Yoko Ono and Or­nette Cole­man. In a re­cent in­ter­view, Smith told BBC Ra­dio that he had re­stricted him­self to “al­ter­na­tive pop­u­lar mu­sic” in his choice of acts for Melt­down, which is politic, in­so­far as The Cure helped to in­vent the very no­tion of “al­ter­na­tive” pop. The Cure have sold tens of millions of records with­out ever be­ing en­tirely main­stream; of their 13 stu­dio al­bums, only one, Wish (1992), has made it to the top of the charts. Their cat­a­logue is a che­quer­board of well-known sin­gles (“In Be­tween Days”, “Fri­day I’m in Love”) and cultish, in­flu­en­tial al­bums (Seven­teen Sec­onds, Dis­in­te­gra­tion). The Melt­down line-up, then, is a mix­ture of The Cure’s al­ter­na­tive pop peers (The Psychedelic Furs, Kristin Hersh) and heirs (My Bloody Valen­tine, Nine Inch Nails, Placebo), along­side a few more left-field choices. But it also seems a missed op­por­tu­nity for Smith to have con­tex­tu­alised his work with The Cure in a richer, stranger light, for The Cure are, once you stop to con­tem­plate them, quite an odd propo­si­tion: dour yet out­landish, gothic while psychedelic, book­ish but not in­tel­lec­tual, per­pet­ual ado­les­cents now be­com­ing old men. Punk, bore­dom, Catholi­cism, Lewis Car­roll, Peter Pan, sub­ur­bia, LSD, syn­the­sis­ers, eye­liner, Jimi Hen­drix, Ziggy Star­dust, co­caine, cho­rus ped­als, The Bell Jar, al­co­hol, hair­spray, Joy Divi­sion, Emily Dick­in­son, “Eleanor Rigby”, Emily Brontë, men­tal ill­ness, Mary Pop­pins, ex­is­ten­tial­ism, Ori­en­tal­ism, lip­stick. That’s my in­com­plete list of the things that have gone into mak­ing The Cure. They’re not so much an in­sti­tu­tion as an at­mos­phere, and one that man­i­fests in all sorts of places. On the sound­track to HBO’s West­world, for in­stance. In the gothic mood and look of pretty much ev­ery film ever di­rected by Tim Bur­ton. On Adele’s bazil­lion-sell­ing al­bum 21, which fea­tures her cover of “Lovesong”. (That must have been quite the roy­alty cheque for Smith.) In the ti­tle of Frank Ocean’s magazine Boys Don’t Cry, named af­ter one of The Cure’s most en­dur­ing songs. Wher­ever and when­ever “Boys Don’t Cry” or an­other such Cure song pops up, on the ra­dio, or in a shop, or six tracks into the mix­tape that some­one made for you decades ago now. In the work of count­less mu­si­cians who have bor­rowed a lit­tle of The Cure’s magic and melan­choly for them­selves. In July, 40 years to the month since their first gig as The Cure, the group will play a sold-out con­cert in

Punk, bore­dom, Catholi­cism, Lewis Car­roll, Peter Pan, sub­ur­bia, LSD, syn­the­sis­ers, eye­liner, Jimi Hen­drix …

Lon­don’s Hyde Park, which goes to show that they can still draw a crowd upon com­mand, which makes me grate­ful that they don’t ex­er­cise that power more of­ten, if only be­cause it ran­kles to be re­minded of how eas­ily pleased I am with the com­pletely fa­mil­iar. Of course I’d be there if I could! Are you kid­ding me? I hope they open with “Plain­song” and fin­ish with “A For­est”. “A For­est” is a song that boasts the great­est gui­tar solo of all time, be­cause it dis­solves the gui­tar solo into a damp­ness of delay and ef­fects that sounds as if Smith’s gui­tar were the trees, mul­ti­ply­ing and spook­ily iden­ti­cal, in­side the for­est where the song it­self is trapped. “A For­est” is haunted by a fem­i­nine wraith, but, in de­stroy­ing the dick-swing­ing ges­ture of a gui­tar solo from the in­side, the song im­plies that it’s bet­ter any­way to be a girl, or a ghost, and for­ever. I think the se­cret to The Cure’s longevity, and the rea­son I can never quite con­sign them to the pile of has­beens, is that early on they be­gan cre­at­ing their own uni­verse, a Cure­verse, and have dwelt there ever since. When­ever you lis­ten to them, you en­ter this place, where ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing time, is un­chang­ing. A sen­sa­tion both eerie and se­duc­tive. “It’s al­ways the same,” whis­pers Smith, at the end of “10:15 Satur­day Night”. Isn’t it just. “Again and again and again and again and again,” he wails in “A For­est”, a song so bril­liantly mo­not­o­nous that it could go on for as long as some­one was stand­ing up­right to play it, and, judg­ing by the myr­iad live ver­sions to be found, some­times does. Smith’s wail is the sound of a ner­vous sys­tem on the melt. And for those of us en­thralled by Cure­verse, the feel­ing of be­ing end­lessly the same old lim­ited self, and just about to break down be­cause of it, res­onates. Per­haps, so as not to lose us in The Cure’s per­pet­ual present, a time­line is in or­der, some broader state­ments of fact. The Cure are not New Or­der, though they have some­times been ac­cused of sound­ing like it. There, got that one out of the way. The Cure formed in Craw­ley, a town south of Lon­don, close to Gatwick air­port. Smith once char­ac­terised it as “grey and unin­spir­ing, with an un­der­cur­rent of vi­o­lence”, which sounds like ev­ery sub­urb in the world. In com­ing from nowhere, The Cure have ap­pealed ev­ery­where, from the hinterlands of Syd­ney to Rio de Janeiro to Mil­wau­kee. The group’s three orig­i­nal mem­bers – drum­mer Lol Tol­hurst, bassist Michael Dempsey and Smith – all at­tended Catholic school. Rem­nant Catholi­cism runs ram­pant through The Cure’s songs. Their third and, in my view, great­est al­bum, re­leased in 1981, is called Faith. Smith favours words like “stain” and “clean”, sug­gest­ing a world­view in­formed by the no­tion of in­erad­i­ca­ble guilt and hell to pay for it. Catholi­cism has also shaped the role that sex plays in their songs, or rather doesn’t play, be­cause, truly, The Cure are one of the coyest bands ever. Coy­ness is, of course, a part of their self-re­new­ing ap­peal to gen­er­a­tions of young teenagers: the songs cut away just when things threaten to get real. As you age, it can ir­ri­tate. There’s some­thing uned­i­fy­ing about a grown man sub­li­mat­ing

Nei­ther their lit­er­ary en­thu­si­asms nor subur­ban dis­af­fec­tion stood The Cure in good stead with the par­ti­sans of the Bri­tish mu­sic press.

de­sire in end­less metaphors of com­min­gling wa­ters or, as Smith sings in “High”, “The way you fur / The how you purr / It makes me want to paw you all”. Then again, Smith can be sug­ges­tively sub­lime, as on “Just Like Heaven”, from the dou­ble al­bum Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987). It’s one of The Cure’s most beloved songs, and de­servedly so. “Show me, show me, show me / How you do that trick / The one that makes me scream, she said,” Smith sings in the open­ing verse, and if that isn’t about mak­ing some­one come I don’t know what is. I think that the song as a whole might also be about tak­ing a load of acid and pre­par­ing to jump off a cliff. What can I say? Things get tick­lish in Cure­verse. More im­por­tantly than what­ever “Just Like Heaven” is about is the way it feels, which, with its cas­cad­ing gui­tar melody and key­board trills and bright, cush­iony syn­the­sis­ers, is much like go­ing down a slip­pery dip, land­ing in a pud­dle of sun­shine and then burst­ing into tears. But back to the time­line. The Cure’s first sin­gle, re­leased in late 1978, was “Killing an Arab”, a twominute, 21-sec­ond re­write of Al­bert Ca­mus’ ex­is­ten­tial­ist novel The Stranger, deadpan but propul­sive, with a faux-East­ern riff cir­cling through it. From the start, the song was mis­un­der­stood, and of­ten wil­fully, in­clud­ing by mem­bers of the Na­tional Front, who would stand and sieg heil at The Cure’s early shows. “It is a song which de­cries the ex­is­tence of all prej­u­dice and con­se­quent vi­o­lence,” read a sticker ap­pended to copies of The Cure’s first and best sin­gles col­lec­tion, Stand­ing on a Beach (1986), named af­ter the open­ing line of “Killing an Arab”. “The Cure con­demn its use in fur­ther­ing anti-Arab feel­ing.” They rarely play it any­more. The song didn’t ap­pear on The Cure’s de­but al­bum, Three Imag­i­nary Boys (1979), but the flip side, “10:15 Satur­day Night”, did. (They still play that one.) Three Imag­i­nary Boys was not en­tirely suc­cess­ful, stranded for the most part some­where be­tween a drunken joke and an im­po­tent com­mu­niqué, though the ti­tle track did give no­tice of dreamier Cure moods to come. “In­sub­stan­tial froth … more ar­ti­fi­cial than most,” sniffed Paul Mor­ley in a neg­a­tive re­view of the al­bum for the NME. Nei­ther their lit­er­ary en­thu­si­asms nor subur­ban dis­af­fec­tion stood The Cure in good stead with the par­ti­sans of the Bri­tish mu­sic press, who tended to find them, in a word, pre­ten­tious. Ret­ro­spec­tively, it seems an odd charge, given that the late ’70s was teem­ing with pa­per­back-tot­ing, Ni­et­zsche-quot­ing post-punk bands, only too ready to share their half-ar­sed the­o­ries on alien­ation with the near­est am­bi­tious scribe. But some­thing about The Cure rubbed crit­ics the wrong way – per­haps the group’s lin­ger­ing sense of naivety, which said crit­ics were young enough to have only re­cently cast aside. Nor did crit­i­cal opin­ion im­prove when The Cure’s fol­low­ing run of al­bums – Seven­teen Sec­onds (1980), Faith (1981) and Pornog­ra­phy (1982) – plunged the group and their lis­ten­ers into dark­ness, found­ing the genre of goth rock along the way. Though I pre­fer the term “goth pop”, be­cause The Cure are a pop band at heart, not a rock band, and I could give you sev­eral rea­sons why, in­clud­ing the fact that they don’t re­ally go in for play­ing chords. It’s melody-coun­ter­point-melody, which hasn’t meant that it’s al­ways been del­i­cate. Pornog­ra­phy, for ex­am­ple, is fiendishly blunt, all pum­melling drum lines and acrid, bil­ious gui­tar parts, the whole made even less palat­able by sound­ing as if it were recorded in a con­crete bunker while the as­sem­bled per­son­nel twisted in the throes of co­caine psy­chosis. “Musical crap,” de­clared an unim­pressed Dave McCul­lough in Sounds, made for a “gram­mar school, stu­denty crowd”. When I was a stu­denty 13 years old, or even younger, I would fall asleep nearly ev­ery night lis­ten­ing to Pornog­ra­phy. I have searched my heart for a long time and can­not say now whether The Cure so con­sumed me dur­ing my early and in­deed pre-adolescence be­cause I was sad and trou­bled, and needed a sound that echoed the way I felt, or whether lis­ten­ing to The Cure made me sad, and then sad­der, and then sad­der. The fact that I kept on feel­ing this way long af­ter my Cure in­fat­u­a­tion had faded sug­gests that the for­mer is more likely. But maybe The Cure ex­ac­er­bated it. Per­haps they even started it. It would fly in the face of ev­ery­thing I know to be true about mu­sic to deny that its power can be dis­pro­por­tion­ate and its hold ir­ra­tional. But I also want to recog­nise that things, es­pe­cially art, that we are too young to han­dle can en­lighten us as much as dam­age. Or en­lighten by dam­ag­ing. I have a mem­ory of ly­ing on my back in the grass be­hind my school and look­ing at the sky while lis­ten­ing to “All Cats Are Grey”, from the al­bum Faith. And want­ing very much to shuf­fle off the bur­den of con­scious­ness for good. It is one of The Cure’s most beau­ti­ful songs: soft like a wa­ter­colour, but painted in mono­chrome. “At the heart of all beauty lies some­thing in­hu­man,” wrote Ca­mus, “and th­ese hills, the soft­ness of the sky, the out­line of th­ese trees at this very minute lose the il­lu­sory mean­ing with which we had clothed them, hence­forth more re­mote than a lost par­adise.” Have you ever wanted to be only a stone in a field? The Cure taught me Ca­mus and Sartre and Plath, when I was way too young to be read­ing books like The Myth of Sisy­phus but did so re­gard­less, not know­ing how young I re­ally was, which is the bless­ing and the curse of youth. I found a list that Smith had com­piled of his favourite books, and worked through them, and th­ese be­came my favourites, too. How many bands have ever writ­ten a song based on the work of Pa­trick White? The Cure did, in “Like Cock­a­toos”. Duly I swam through The Tree of Man. Pre­ten­tious? Maybe. But what lessons th­ese were.

One other les­son was in­ter­nal to the songs. “No shapes sail on the dark deep lakes,” Smith sings on “All Cats Are Grey”. “And no flags wave me home.” Even so. Though sad­ness en­dures, one en­dures it. Cure­verse can be the sanc­tu­ary as well as the storm. Hav­ing said all of this, I’m sus­pi­cious of peo­ple who take The Cure more se­ri­ously than they ap­pear to take them­selves. Be­cause what did The Cure do af­ter Pornog­ra­phy but turn around and make the out­ra­geous New Or­der rip-off “The Walk”? And the lamentably silly “Let’s Go to Bed”? And the lost Dis­ney theme song of “The Love Cats”? (Which may also have been in­spired by Pa­trick White.) Be­com­ing bona fide pop stars in the process. Smith has been say­ing pretty much from the start that what­ever The Cure do or don’t do, even do­ing noth­ing, it doesn’t mat­ter, it’s all equally ab­surd. I think he means it. It seems ap­pro­pri­ate to men­tion at this point that my favourite mem­ber of The Cure is per­haps not even Robert Smith, but Smith’s best friend and the group’s sec­ond long­est serv­ing mem­ber, bassist Si­mon Gallup, who re­placed Michael Dempsey in late 1979. Gallup has spent the best part of 40 years play­ing the root notes of the chords that the rest of the band don’t play – in har­monic terms, the most ba­sic thing that a bass player can do. In­do­lence raised to an art form: now that’s what I call liv­ing! And now, ladies and gen­tle­men, boys and girls, in an at­tempt to pull off the im­pos­si­ble, ele­phants-into-a-car task of cov­er­ing The Cure’s history be­tween the mid ’80s and the early ’90s, I will place two songs be­fore you. The first is well known. The sec­ond is a rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity. “Close to Me”, from the al­bum The Head on the Door (1985), is not only one of The Cure’s great pop mo­ments but comes with an ever-charm­ing video, di­rected by their then fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor Tim Pope. By now they had ex­panded from a trio to a quin­tet, and th­ese were The Cure’s clip-show years: kit­tens and cob­webs, socks and pup­pets, the hair get­ting taller and more friv­o­lous, though the day you can toss out a pop song as ca­su­ally perfect as “Close to Me”, you earn the right to look as dizzy as the spirit takes you, or so I say. The song goes click­ety-click, bomp-bomp-bomp – that’s Gallup – click­ety-click, bomp, etc. A lot of peo­ple over the years have man­aged to find “Close to Me” quite sexy, maybe be­cause the loud­est sound in it is Smith breath­ing in lit­tle hic­cups, though this has al­ways put me more in mind of panic at­tacks than bed­room an­tics. The two may go to­gether, I con­cede. Any­way, watch the video! The Cure drown in­side a wardrobe! It’s like C.S. Lewis with self-de­struc­tive un­der­tones.

They re­minded me too much of where I’d come from, and how or­di­nary it was, both my life and my love for them.

Sec­ondly: a song that I once iden­ti­fied within sec­onds when I heard it play­ing in a record store, caus­ing my com­pan­ion and erst­while date to look at me askance, as if I had just re­vealed a lit­tle too much about my­self, which I no doubt had. Re­mem­ber what hap­pens if you shake out my bag. The song is called “This Twi­light Gar­den”, and it’s the B-side to “High”, a sin­gle from The Cure’s most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful al­bum, Wish. We’re talk­ing 1992 now, and even though they’re top of the pops, num­ber one on the charts, for the first and only time, the zeit­geist is about to slip away from The Cure. Grunge, with its chords, chords, chords, is fast clos­ing in, as is dance mu­sic, in Bri­tain, and hip-hop, in Amer­ica. Since Wish, The Cure have only re­leased four al­bums, which, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Blood­flow­ers (2000), it might be best to draw a veil over. You don’t need to hear them. I think, then, of “This Twi­light Gar­den” as some­thing close to The Cure’s swan song. What I love about it is how quintessen­tially The Cure it sounds. Plan­gent and swoon­ing and melodies in­ter­twin­ing like rib­bons. The Cure never had a bet­ter drum­mer than the drum­mer they had dur­ing th­ese years, Boris Wil­liams, who made ev­ery­thing on Dis­in­te­gra­tion (1989) feel sil­very and danc­ing, even when the mood was other­wise dark as mid­night. Here, too, he ex­cels, with a ju­di­cious touch. “Your dream­ing face and dream­ing smile / You’re dream­ing worlds for me,” Smith sighs. Yet an­other Cure song about an over­whelm­ing love, which im­plies, when

The Cure have al­ways been ob­sessed with time, but halted time.

the days run out, an over­whelm­ing loss. And, so, in­side the song, this day will never end, and how beau­ti­ful it is. If Cure­verse has hold mu­sic, this must be it. Pre­cisely be­cause The Cure are so much about the hold and the pause, it is more than pos­si­ble to grow right out of them, and then, even­tu­ally, to re­turn, to find them in the place where they al­ways were. Like a few of their early crit­ics, I spent most of my early adult­hood dis­avow­ing The Cure, be­cause they re­minded me too much of where I’d come from, and how or­di­nary it was, both my life and my love for them. How gauche and ob­vi­ous, to have loved The Cure. Then I be­gan to re­alise that plenty of mu­si­cians with an aura of cool about them had also loved The Cure, or still did. White mu­si­cians, mostly – there’s no deny­ing that The Cure at­tract a ma­jor­ity white au­di­ence. Though not en­tirely. Tricky once called them “the last great pop band”. Mas­sive At­tack, the black-white soul-pop-hip-hop col­lec­tive to which Tricky was once a con­trib­u­tor, can­nily sam­pled “10:15 Satur­day Night” in their ver­sion of the reg­gae stan­dard “Man Next Door”, from the al­bum Mez­za­nine (1998). This had the ef­fect of brack­et­ing The Cure’s early song within the sonic spa­cious­ness of dub and reg­gae; the elements of reg­gae that fil­tered into punk are ex­actly how white Bri­tish mu­si­cians of Smith’s gen­er­a­tion learnt about less-is-more to be­gin with. You can draw a line, then, from The Cure, through Mas­sive At­tack, to some­one like Burial, one of the most in­flu­en­tial mu­si­cians of the past decade or so, and one, like The Cure, who in­spires an un­usual de­gree of de­vo­tion in lis­ten­ers, as if the mu­sic were speak­ing to your own soli­tude en­tirely, and, more un­can­nily, had per­haps al­ways ex­isted, sim­ply wait­ing for you to hear it. I don’t blame The Cure for any­thing, in the end. The lonely will seek out the lonely, and find com­fort in that para­dox. It’s not all tears, either. Take an­other lis­ten to Ri­hanna’s world­wide hit “S&M” (2011), and you’ll hear it: the un­mis­tak­able melody of “Let’s Go to Bed” sur­fac­ing half­way through. I still hope that The Cure have one great al­bum left in them, as David Bowie turned out to have with Black­star, and that Smith will, like Bowie did, con­front therein his own age­ing and mor­tal­ity, with­out flinch­ing. The Cure have al­ways been ob­sessed with time, but halted time. It is per­ma­nently twi­light in their gar­den. Re­ally I think it would be some­thing for their sun to set. I won­der what that might sound like. M

The Cure in Brazil, 1987. © Michael Put­land / Getty Im­ages

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