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What Ails Him?

The last waltz? Robert Smith and The Cure bid farewell on Bloodflowers.
Paul Cox

It would be so easy to dismiss The Cure as a band that has outlived its usefulness, that exists long beyond its expiration date. Its best, or at least best-known, moments live in another time, one long since past -- the 1980s, to be precise, back when "Let's Go to Bed" and "Boys Don't Cry" and "The Love Cats" and "Hot Hot Hot!!!" were as inescapable as boys in mascara and girls in tattered black gowns. That band seemed so of a moment, fusing punk's sovereignty and New Wave's delight with the burgeoning Goth movement's pale-faced despondency. Listen again to Standing on a Beach, 1986's absolute best-and-rest-of, and 1987's double free-for-all Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and it becomes wonderfully clear how much The Cure band was part of that decade's soundtrack -- all those swirling guitars and pitiable words, that deceptively happy jingle coupled with a baleful jangle. The Cure was, once upon a long time ago, an inescapable presence, even if you weren't quite paying attention.

That the band still exists today is something of a mystery. The Cure released only two studio albums last decade: 1992's modest hit Wish (it did contain the single "Friday I'm in Love") and 1996's capricious Wild Mood Swings; around the time of the latter, front man Robert Smith -- the only remaining original member of the band he founded in suburban Crawley, England, in 1976 -- said the band was pretty much done for. Had been for a while, he hinted, though various lineup changes over the years revealed the obvious: Smith was the band. That, it seemed, was that -- a tearless goodbye for one of rock's saddest little bands.

Yet two months into the year 2000, 24 years after its formation, The Cure is releasing its 13th studio album, Bloodflowers. That it ranks high among the band's best albums -- nine sublime songs of such understated, roiling beauty you're tempted to revisit the entire back catalogue with a revisionist's sense of wonder and awe -- is the sort of thing for which the word "irony" was invented. Three decades of existence would destroy most bands, reducing them to fragments, rubble and shadows; as it turns out, some groups just need a little more time than others to get things right. As it is, Bloodflowers is fashioned from the best pieces of 1982's Pornography and 1989's Disintegration, down to the lifted fragments of words and melodies that surface on Bloodflowers. There's a reason the cult speaks of the new album as the final piece in a trilogy: Because it evokes the best of yesterday's ghosts, makes tangible and compelling the echoes of albums that spoke directly to an audience that looked to Smith as its pale and forlorn leader.

Yet, as it turns out, Bloodflowers is also The Cure's final album; this time, Smith says, the farewell is real. He has already begun working on a solo album on which he may or may not sing -- all the better to defuse expectations attached to the brand name. Like John Elway and Michael Jordan, The Cure exits on a proud moment. If, in fact, this is the end of the band, there is no better way to say goodbye than with Bloodflowers, a record that contains songs such as "Watching Me Fall" (on which Smith sings of "the ordinary me"), "The Loudest Sound" (silence, it turns out), and "Out of This World" that are very much the product of a 40-year-old married man making peace with his role as tour guide for what he calls "a ragtag army" of followers.

For his final act -- his final gift, perhaps -- Smith offers what he can only describe as "the perfect Cure album." He likes to think of Bloodflowers as a distillation, a brand-new best-of, a history lesson made relevant for tomorrow. And so it swirls, it gyrates, it moans and groans, it grins slyly as it sheds a little tear; and, of course, it sounds like what you and Robert Smith expect a Cure album to sound like, though never does it bog down in nostalgic reverberations. Sad to think that just as The Cure becomes vital once more, it waves adios.

Perhaps that is why, during the course of a nearly hourlong interview from his home in England, Smith is contemplative, offering answers that almost become monologues. He speaks of the past, of his desire to appease those Cure cultists who grew up and shed the makeup but never filed away Pornography or Three Imaginary Boys or The Head on the Door on the never-to-be-heard-again shelf. He talks about the 24-year-old lad in a dress who started The Cure just to be heard, and of the 40-year-old who couldn't give a damn what anyone thinks of him. He laughs when he gets too deep, but pushes onward -- unashamed, unabashed, perhaps even a bit unfulfilled. One gets the sense that he'd say much the same thing speaking to no one but his mirror. It would be unfair to Smith to condense his thoughts into sound bites. The Exploding Boy speaks in paragraphs.

 


New Times: In 1996, you said that the sporadic nature between releases, especially in recent years, has kept you from trading on the brand name of The Cure -- how you can deflate expectations because of the time lag. That may be the effect it has on the audience, but what effect does it have on you?

Robert Smith: Among a certain section of our public, there's a certain hope that we're going to release an album like Bloodflowers. Wild Mood Swings was not critically well-accepted, and a lot of fans didn't really get into it, because it wasn't what they wanted. I think Bloodflowers has proven that Cure fans do want a particular kind of Cure album. But it's only going to happen when I feel like doing it.

NT: What does that do for you? Certainly, you make music for yourself -- you make it because it means something to you. You can't change the way you write, the way you think, the way you feel just to accommodate an audience's whims.

RS: No, but I suppose people over the years are aware we've come out with albums that have built up that hard-core Cure following, people who know we're capable of making that kind of music and don't understand why we don't make it all the time. I mean, we don't do it all the time because I don't want to do it all the time. It would drive me mad. But with Bloodflowers, I wanted it to reflect the history of the group -- the last 10 years and how I felt about the group. I wanted it to sound more like The Cure than anything else we've ever done before.

NT: But that must be an incredibly difficult thing to do. Given the various lineup changes, the eclectic nature of such albums as Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Wild Mood Swings, I would almost assume it would be difficult -- and you would resist -- to define "a Cure sound."

RS: Yeah, I always have. I fought the valiant but useless fight against it, the idea of a Cure sound. And I personally don't think there is such a thing as a Cure sound. I think there are various Cure sounds, and there are very distinctive sounds of Cure lineups. There's the early '80s three-piece sound of me, Simon [Gallup] and Lol [Tolhurst]; it was a very, very distinctive sound, and it couldn't have been anyone else. I think the Disintegration sound made by the five-piece lineup was very distinctive. This lineup with this album is developing another very distinctive Cure sound, and it's a combination of some of the elements of what we've done before -- a combination of a certain string sound and a piano and Simon's six-string bass. It's very Cure-like. It just sounds like the Cure. In the past, I have reacted against that: "How dare you try and say we only sound like this when we've done songs in a million and one other styles?" But the fact is, in my heart, I know that we do do a particular kind of music better than we do anything else. The way we've done songs like "The 13th" and "Wailing Wall" and "Hot Hot Hot!!!" from the Kiss Me album. We attempt different styles, and it's good -- I get great satisfaction from that kind of experimentation, no matter how small it is -- but I really know that what it all boils down to is there is one particular kind of atmospheric type of music that I enjoy making with The Cure more than any other kind of sound. That, to me, is The Cure's sound. Whether you can define it as an actual sound, I don't know. But I do know instinctively when we're making that kind of noise.

NT: You and others have talked about Bloodflowers as being the final part of the trilogy begun with Pornography and Disintegration. Is it that simple?

RS: No. I initially said that to alert the Web-based Cure community that the next album was in the vein of Pornography and Disintegration. It was more of that type of album -- it had a theme, it had a sound, you weren't going to suddenly jump out of your skin at any kind of sudden changes in mood. It wasn't an album like Kiss Me or Wild Mood Swings. It was the other type of Cure album, if you like. And with the others in the band, I actually sat them down and played them Pornography and Disintegration and said, "These, to me, are the two high points of what we've done as The Cure in this idiom, and I would like us to make a third part of an emotional trilogy."

 

But, of course, it isn't the third part in a trilogy, because for me, the third part of a trilogy means it can only work if you've read or heard or seen the first two. Otherwise, it makes no sense. But Bloodflowers is a work on its own. You don't have to have any awareness of Pornography or Disintegration to appreciate it. But it's more of giving the band and the fans a sense of what the album should be, really. It's been now taken as something that's like a resolution of all the problems and questions I asked on the first two albums -- as though it's a nice way of tying up things from those first two albums -- and, of course, it's not. Simon did say we should make the prequels. We can still call this the last Cure album, but we can start making the Cure albums that should have been before Three Imaginary Voices. It's a fantastic concept. Unfortunately, someone got there first.

NT: They're related certainly in terms of styles, sounds and themes. But people tend to disregard the fact you're at a different point in your life during the making of all three of those albums. To lump them together almost seems to give each of them, especially this one, an added layer of meaning that shouldn't necessarily be read into them.

RS: I mean, I did myself use Pornography and Disintegration as touchstones. I nicked a couple of phrases from Disintegration and a couple of lines from Pornography and kind of worked them into Bloodflowers songs. Just droppin' little clues. I wasn't trying to patch together some kind of tapestry of Cure things we'd done before. But I thought I liked that, and thought I could do that kind of thing a little better now. There are elements of both albums. But Bloodflowers is, for me, a totally different sound. You're right -- as an artist, I feel totally different now than how I felt certainly when I made Pornography and, to a lesser degree, Disintegration.

NT: Do you make music for the same reasons you did when you started this band?

RS: There's two threads running through what I do. There's a part of it that's just the creation of music from nothing, just sitting down and writing songs. It's something I did a long time before The Cure and something I will do a long time after The Cure. I enjoy doing that more than anything else in my life. That's the reason I started, because I kind of wanted to share that with other people. I really enjoy playing music with other people. Writing music is just sort of what I do, and I find it to be the most natural thing in the world. I've never, ever had a problem with writing music. It's something I do, and I can't do anything else. I'm no good at painting or sculpture; I'm not artistic in the slightest. But I am able to write music. I'm always thinking of things and having pictures in my head when I'm writing, and I jot them down and develop them. It's something I need to get out of my system, and that's always a natural thing, something I've always done. Putting those two things together, making a song that's going to be heard by other people, that's what The Cure exists for. This particular band exists for me to fill that need.

We're getting into kind of weird territory, because why do I want other people to hear what I do? The simplest reason, which is probably the most honest one, is I still hugely enjoy hearing new music that makes me feel something. It only happens with one CD every couple of months, and I will put it on and think it's fantastic, and it makes me feel really, really good, and I've got one more thing to listen to in my life. And I always wanted to add to that pool so that someone somewhere with the same sensibilities as me would listen to what I did and think, "That's really good." I figured if no one was making new music, there'd be nothing for me to listen to, so I found it very natural to join it. That was basically it.

 

Obviously, beyond that, there are a number of other psychological reasons -- (he laughs just slightly) -- which I have attempted to come to terms with over the years. Some of them are because of my upbringing, because of who I wanted to be, I find some of those reasons very ugly. There's the desire to be heard, and in a strange way, I feel like there's a lack in me somewhere, that I need that to be filled with something, and it's . . . uh . . . what it comes down to is as a public performer and someone who's done things for a long time, when I'm at home, I find it incredible that I do what I do. I really find it weird. When I'm onstage, I find it really exciting, and I feel ultra-alive. But I miss that side of it less and less as I get older. I still enjoy it much, but I don't feel the need to do it, so I suspect at some point, the need to make albums and the need for other people to hear what I am doing will probably fade. It has kind of diminished over the years. Obviously, it's going to happen when I die, but I wonder whether it happens before that and I have a period of public inactivity before my demise. Then, it might never happen. I might always feel this little itch. And I think the Internet is there for me to use as an artist. If I do want people to hear what I'm doing, I don't have to make a big deal about it. I can just upload on to our Web site, and it's there if people want to hear what I'm doing as a musician or as a songwriter. I'm lucky in that I don't need to make money out of it anymore and I've got a brand name, if you like, that people will expect to hear something of a certain quality. I can see how I can move away from being out of the public eye as much and as someone people see as being Robert Smith of The Cure.

NT: The thing that fascinates me about bands with loyal, almost cultlike audiences isn't the audience so much as the impact it has upon the performer. What is it like to create that audience, to amass such a diverse group of people who need to hear the same thing, who find the same thing from a stranger? Was there a moment when you realized you were someone to whom an audience would gravitate?

RS: I know this sounds strange, but I remember signing my first autograph really, really vividly. I remember thinking, "This is the start. I should remember this moment. It's the start." We were backstage in Newport in 1978. The next defining moment for me actually was the Pornography tour that we did of Europe where we had an army of people following us around from show to show. It was a ragtag army, and I thought then, "These people see me as their leader," and I remember feeling really, really uncomfortable with that. Even now, I must admit, my own self-image is not someone who is at the center of things or who is leading this ragtag army. I feel part of something, but I don't really feel responsible for it. I don't know if that's me tricking myself.

There's a kind of warmth that exists in the Cure audience, a genuine affection for the band, and I find that's a really great thing to be part of. Even though we're seen as gloom-and-doom a lot of the time, Cure fans get a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction from what we do, and that makes me feel good in turn. But then we get back to the psychological reasons why it makes me feel good, and I don't know. Because I'm not lacking in confidence. Normally, people who want to make a loud noise is because they need the approbation of the people, they need the audience to validate what they do, and I've never really felt that. When we've done something for public consumption, I always feel it's worthwhile for me to do it, because I enjoy the process and great satisfaction from making something. But when you do anything for other people and you see other people smile, it makes you feel good. It's a simple human thing.

NT: Especially over the last few years, the Internet has allowed fans to come together outside of concerts and record stores. They can share the feelings all the time. I assume that's a wondrous and weird thing to see tangible how you affect people, the things they write about you, the way the fans interpret you through poetry, essays, even fiction.

 

RS: How I've dealt with it. . . . With the song "Watching Me Fall" and probably "Out of This World" as well, what drives those songs is how I have divorced my life. . . . I live two really different lives, and if I go to fan Web sites, I see the person who's being dissected as Robert Smith of The Cure, and I don't actually see myself in that. So it's not that hard a struggle for me. I almost see myself in the third person. I know it sounds like a road to madness, but my own self-image is one that's conducted a relatively normal life at home, and what I do in my other life, it's almost like I'm in a film. That's why I wear the makeup. I've very consciously divided my life into two distinct areas. I have a very private life, and that's where I make music, where I create the music. The performance side of it and the part the fans get, that's actually someone else.

The year we made Pornography and went on tour, I couldn't reconcile the public and private me. I reached crisis point that year, because I was slowly going mad. I wasn't quite sure as to what on earth I was doing and who I actually was. Since then, with "Let's Go to Bed" as the catalyst for it, I developed this other me. It sounds very dramatic. (He laughs.) It's not like I'm wandering around with voices in my head. But I have this shift into this other mode, and so when I see myself being taken apart, whether in a nice and affectionate way or in a critical way, I don't actually see me being taken apart.

NT: The private person makes the music, and the public person performs it -- there is still a great link between those two people. I mean, on the Internet, there's someone referring to you as "the confused adolescent adrift in suburban heartbreak" who "finds beauty in the bleak." I wonder, does it ever feel as though there's a responsibility to this ragtag army? For better or worse, you are their leader.

RS: But that's what I am getting it. That supposes that you do actually feel that responsibility, and I don't. I never felt responsible. In the past, I talked about my drug-taking. During the 1980s, I was hounded by the U.K. tabloids in much the same way many artists are. It's one of those stock kind of things that happens. And people said, "You can't talk about drugs. People look up to you. You've got to feel responsible." And I thought, "Well, I don't. I don't feel responsible in the slightest." If people like what The Cure do and get into it, I know I won't let people down, because I'm not going to let myself down. I'm not going to do something stupid. I'm not going to sell out. My price is way too high. I've no reason to do anything other than things I want. I've no reason to worry, "What will happen if I fuck this up?" I am only answering to myself. I don't really worry that other people are going to feel let down. I've done some really stupid things in the past, and people have said, "Well, why did you do that?" And I shouldn't have to explain to other people why I do things. I've never accepted that -- that I owe that to people. That isn't fair.

NT: Is working on your solo record an especially liberating thing? I mean, you're almost damned if you do something Cure-like and damned if you don't.

RS: Part of me fears the expectations of what I do on my own are going to be so fantastic there's no way I am going to satisfy a single person. I suppose because there's no precedent for me doing something on my own, there's no way I could satisfy anyone except for myself, and that's why I'm doing it. I know what I want to end up with, and I know why I'm doing it on my own. Then, I will wait and see if anyone else ends up getting into it. It's different from The Cure. It's weird, not like songs. It's just up to me. It's something I've never tried before. It's just something for me, and I would just like to see if I could make it work.


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