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If you love music, you can probably name a band that changed your life, that was a catalyst for your attitudes and tastes and ideas. That's not to say you got stuck on it forever, or that you never branched out into other things. But discovering that band was such a huge turning point that you still think of it in before-and-after terms.
The first time I heard The Cure, it rocked my 13-year-old world.
Until then, I was caught up in the awkwardness and drama that is middle school. I worried about what people thought of my geeky self -- the tall, frizzy-haired four-eyes who never had a boyfriend, never had a real kiss except a half-assed smooch from the minister's son in the church basement. Kids in my small Pennsylvania town were all about conformity, from wearing crayon-colored Benetton sweaters to eagerly consuming the cheesiest mid-'80s radio hits ("We built this city on rock 'n' roll!"), and my self-expression branded me a weirdo even when I was attempting to fit in. When acid-wash denim was all the rage, I did a slash-and-burn on my black jeans with scissors and bleach, and the result was more Sex Pistols than suburban mall rat.
Flipping through the channels late one night at my grandma's house, I found an MTV show called 120 Minutes. The show was so named because it was the only two hours in the week when I could see bands like Echo and the Bunnymen or Bauhaus, but they really should've called it 180 Degrees. It was all kooky videos I'd never seen before -- completely different from heavy-rotation fare like Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me."
I stumbled on a hidden treasure trove. And the dark, glittering sapphire that caught my eye was The Cure. The band's video for "Why Can't I Be You?" was a manic, strobe-lighted freak show, with Robert Smith running around in a furry suit and his bandmates prancing past the screen dressed like Dracula and Humpty Dumpty and a giant pair of red lips. By the time Smith announced, "I'm smitten I'm bitten I'm hooked I'm cooked I'm stuck like glue," I was in total agreement.
The Cure's Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me album -- on cassette tape, of course -- sucked me into a murky, psychedelic universe of shimmering guitars, brassy synthesizer and ominous drums. It addressed everything an alienated teen could feel: sweeping romance ("Just Like Heaven"), longing ("If Only Tonight We Could Sleep"), regret ("Like Cockatoos"), unhinged excitement ("Hot Hot Hot"). And it didn't candy-coat life the way mainstream pop did, or pump it full of greasy testosterone like hair metal. In those years that led up to the early '90s explosion of alternative rock and grunge, The Cure opened the floodgates of my music collection to New Wave, goth, industrial and punk.
It also opened me up to the possibilities of making out with boys who wore black eyeliner or had weird hair and who didn't care if they were called fags. I filled my wardrobe with black clothes and started stockpiling tubes of L'Oréal's "Drumbeat Red" lipstick. Pictures of Robert Smith, with his mischievous crimson smirk, seemed to say, "Go for it -- you don't care what anyone thinks." By the time the big eighth-grade dance rolled around, I had traded my glasses for contacts and smoky eye shadow. One of the popular boys I'd had a crush on since kindergarten even asked me to go with him, but by then I figured it would be more fun to go stag. In a sea of pastel flowered Laura Ashley dresses, I was the one in a strapless black minidress and heels.
Thanks for the style advice, Robert.
Delving into The Cure's back catalogue, I realized that Kiss Me was actually one of the band's poppier albums. Head on the Door had the same kind of appeal. But I was drawn even more to Pornography, the 1982 LP considered to be The Cure at its most desolate. "It doesn't matter if we all die . . ." Smith wails in "One Hundred Years." So bleak. So cathartic. Such a perfect gloomy soundtrack to my parents' divorce.
The Disintegration Tour came to the Spectrum in Philly in 1989, and it was my first real concert. My mom drove me and my pal Alena down for the day, and we spent the afternoon looking at spider-web fishnets. With hair teased and tangled just like Robert's, we hoped that nobody around us would know we were 14. Especially the guys. Alena and I had a hard time seeing Robert on the stage, but we had plenty of fun sneaking glances at the cute goth boy across the aisle.
In high school, listening to The Cure was a way to bond with other like-minded kids. My friend Megan and I would listen to "Fascination Street" to get dressed up in our doom doll best and go to the mall just for kicks; redneck mothers with poufy bangs would see us and steer their kids in the other direction. At the local under-21 club, a flock of black-clad teens in pointy shoes and white face powder (myself included) would huddle in the corner and smoke clove cigarettes until the DJ played "Love Song" instead of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long." "Just Like Heaven" reminded me of a far-off skater boy I fell for.
But by the late '90s, The Cure had lost a lot of its momentum, and fans like me had already gotten distracted. I kept the eclectic, Cure-inspired musical tastes but dropped the Drumbeat Red, at least on a daily basis. In college, the band was still on my radar screen, but it had a lot of competition.
Then several years ago, I reconnected with the skater boy, who was all grown up. We wound up getting engaged, and were in the middle of planning our own wedding when he was asked to be a groomsman in a friend's wedding. He patiently stood up front throughout the entire ceremony, beaming with happiness for his buddy. But after the bride and groom sealed the deal, they headed down the aisle together to the tune of "Just Like Heaven." I could see my man's eyes widen in shock. "That's our song!" he mouthed. "I know!" I mouthed back. It's no surprise that such a popular tune would make its way into our friend's wedding, but nevertheless, we couldn't include it in ours.
The disappointment was long gone when we went to Coachella this year to hear our song performed live. After a bunch of younger bands played sets that hinted of Robert Smith's tortured lyrics and voice, The Cure headlined the second night, mixing old favorites with a batch of songs from a new self-titled LP that combines the dark, regret-filled sounds of earlier albums like Faith with the upbeat melodies of Head on the Door and mysterious rhythms of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. It was a satisfying way to end a weekend of anticipation. And I wasn't alone. From the looks on the faces singing along to every word, I realized that my relationship with the band probably hasn't been so different from that of thousands of 20- and 30-somethings who have their own tales of lipstick and hairspray.
I was older, a little wiser, a lot less gloomy -- and even happy. Sometimes a band really does live up to its name.