After nearly 15 years as the pope of mope, the Cure’s Robert Smith longs to let his hair down, watch some soccer, and read a good book. But not until he’s trashed U2 and Morrissey. Susan Compo walks down fascination street.
Robert Smith looks remarkably well for a man who’s spent the morning in a graveyard: eyes the color of retouched travel-brochure sky, healthy pallor and bearing, and brandishing a bottle of Evian. The cemetery is, it should be mentioned, a TV-sitcom graveyard, making it quintessential Robert Smith, as the sad-on-the-outside, happy-on-the-inside picture of him has come to replace the gloomy Gus persona he’s usually attributed with.
“You know Newman and Baddiel?” he asks, referring to a young, cool alternative comedy team who’ve proved especially popular with British students. The duo feature a character ‘so depressed” he’s obsessed with, you guessed it, the Cure. The twosome are in the midst of filming their new series, and Smith has, once again, made a cameo appearance. “One of them dies, so I’ve been in the graveyard all morning as a mourner,” he explains.
In the afternoon sun, Smith looks and sometimes acts like the rock star he is, someone who embraces the status but still struggles to keep the adulation in some kind of fish-lens perspective. “I had my first day at home this week for a long time,” he enthuses. “I went into the garden and I pulled out two years’ worth of weeds. I really enjoyed it!”
In a lot of ways, Smith isn’t that different from the alarmingly self-possessed, determined 20-year-old I met after a Cure show in London, in the early spring of 1979. A score of records, stacks of stadium tours, and loads of money later, he’s still at once disarming and justifiably guarded, prone to ramble, quick off the mark yet tactful and protective toward those who matter to him, including his fans, who are devoted to say the least. Look up the word “melancholic” in any dictionary and you’d find their images sketched darkly beside the fine print. If Tanya Donelly thinks Belly has “a nerd fan base,” she should try these: Malcontents tend to give nerds a good name. When Smith admits to me that he’s thinking about getting cats and rabbits “when they’re little, so they’ll grow up loving each other,” I half envision a group of fans descending on his seaside home, looking like the cast of Carnival of Souls and carrying the creatures by the basketloads.
“I’m sort of worried about the fact that we’ve become quite popular in America,” Smith confesses (he considers U.S. fans the most, um, vehement), “but this is it – we’ve hit our level. We won’t get any bigger, which is a relief in a way!’
The satisfaction is something that doesn’t really extend to Show, the Cure’s latest film and live album, which was intended to upstage the lethargic Cure in Orange, but in effect is almost indistinguishable from it. You’ve heard of the Last Action Hero? Here’s the No Action Hero. The film was edited by Smith and done without the Midas touch of Tim Pope (marking a temporary split of the longest marriage on record of director to pop group). Regardless of the size of Smith’s sneakers, it seems filmmaking was just too big a pair of shoes to fit.
“We were kind of cajoled into sacrificing Tim’s imagination for someone else’s workmanlike abilities, and I really wished that we’d used him. It would have been a much better film.”
Show, however, directed by Aubrey Powell, whose credits include Paul McCartney’s Get Back concert film, is not a debacle. It’s not Heaven’s Gate or Howard the Duck or, more appropriately, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It starts lovingly, with sepia shots of happy fans headed for the Detroit concert where it abruptly cuts to color like, well, Oz.
“That was it, that was the idea!” Smith insists with a glint in his eye. “The whole idea for the color was portraying that sort of magical world that was almost unreal, like hyperreal, and I thought of introducing us as characters because, despite ourselves, it’s very difficult not to ham when there’s a camera around.”
Show might not be Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii, which Smith cites as his favorite rock film, but it’s no Truth or Dare either, which comes as no surprise from a man whose lyrics are coy yet prim, getting kiss-me close with listeners and then cutting away to clouds and water and whatever, ever avoiding the actual graphic. It’s the perfect end-of-childhood dream, just like lyrics such as “I don’t need you any more / You’re nothing” are its nightmare. Show has no backstage banter, no antics, not even a shot of Smith’s perennial Mary, who was described so aptly in the last SPIN article about the Cure as his companion of “about 300 years.”
“Show is there for posterity really,” says Smith. “I think it’ll be watched more in the future. I suppose in a way a film of people who have either died or given up is interesting. That’s why this film will be more interesting in about five or ten years, in a funny way.
“My only reluctance about making the film was that it was another period of looking back, a retrospective. And I just sort of worry because that’s what record companies do to groups when they’ve run out of ideas!”
Its release also signals the end of years of Cure-intensive work for Smith and affords him the dubious luxury of time off, to pursue going on an archaeological dig as an observer (“like a medieval one in North England””, taking piano lessons and buying a grand (“they influence you mentally, make you feel more inspired”), and reading. “Reading is something I’ve really missed, not being able to enter people’s worlds. But I never seem to have time for it: I’m either too tired or I’ve been drinking. Last night I don’t know where I ended up! I remember walking through a hotel reception and it was daylight. I was still drinking at six o’clock in the morning and I thought, I wouldn’t be doing this if I was at home.”
He sounds exasperated. “I started out in the Cure reflecting things that I thought were important, and it’s reached a point where it takes over and becomes the thing that is important. I’d like to take a lot of time off – maybe all through next year – and do things as a person rather than a singer or someone in the Cure. But I suppose it was always at the back of my mind that people would forget who we were. There’s always people around sowing seeds of doubt. ‘If you go away for too long, you can’t really come back.’ I’m confident enough now to know what’s rubbish. I think if we took a two-year break, it wouldn’t matter at all as long as what we did next was good.”
Smith’s projected holiday also includes a prolonged stay in America to coincide with the World Cup, and doubtless involves another trip to Universal Studios Florida, so Smith can go on the “Back to the Future” ride at least three or four more times. Yet all play and no work makes for a dull boy, so Smith has plans to record the new Cure album in the U.S. “I’d like to record somewhere really different. Rent a really big house and get a mobile in and set up in the dining room. Maybe New England; it’d be nice in September or October. Very us.”
That he lives now in the English South Coast and not in London, which he finds “drives me mental, the dirt and the noise,” provides a familiar solace for Smith, who left the now-ridiculed beach resort of Blackpool as a child. “I have such strong memories of it that I don’t know if I would want to go back: the promenade, the beach, and the smell, it’s a magical memory, that evocative time of innocence and wonder. My earliest memories are sitting on the beach at Blackpool and I know that if I went back, it would be horrible. I know what Blackpool’s like – it’s nothing like I imagined it was as a child. I think I would like to go there when I’m older because then I shall probably have similar impressions, because I’d be more decrepit and my eyesight would be so poor. Even now things are becoming impressionistic!”
Vision aside, Smith insists, almost regretfully, that he doesn’t feel that old. “I worry sometimes that I don’t feel as old as I am, it’s something wrong. With the press, it’s the age thing that makes me laugh the most. An interview I did mentioned my age three times- for no apparent reason! The following issue was Michael Hutchence. Now, I don’t really compare how we look or anything, but I don’t think I look much older than him. Certainly not close up! And yet no mention’s made of his age or INXS’s age and the combined total of INXS’s age far outweighs the Cure’s age!
“Before the Wish tour, I wanted for us to travel around Britain and have that feeling we used to have, a small group against the odds going really close to the audience, where you can’t get away with the light show. But then I remembered why I hated it: It’s dingy and it’s smelly and it’s nice that we don’t have to play these places.
“Then I see INXS doing it, and this pandering interviewer saying to him, ‘Oh, did you start out playing small places?’ Well, everyone started out playing fucking clubs! You don’t start out playing stadiums. And he spouts all these contrived reasons for doing it. And then they did that song with all the models in it and he said it was saying that women don’t have to conform to this notion of beauty, while all he fucking does is go out with models! He’s become my most hated person of the moment.”
One can only wonder where that leaves Morrissey.
“I have never liked Morrissey and I still don’t. I think it’s hilarious, actually, what things I’ve heard about him, what he’s really like, and his public persona is so different. He’s such an actor. There’s one particular photo of Morrissey in his swimming trunks sitting by the pool in Los Angeles. I bet that one hasn’t been approved!”
Smith has hit his stride now, and there’s something reassuring about having achieved that level of success and still having these pet peeves, these hate objects that haunt the mental mantelpiece like Jeff Koons objets d’art. Such grievances were a large part of what prompted the Cure to form in the first place, a reaction against pop stars past and present.
“I don’t dislike my peers because they’re still around and remind me of what I’m doing. I never liked them anyway. I never liked U2, the things they’ve done over the years. Bono’s so totally absorbed in the idea of himself as almost messianic and then to turn and realize he looked a complete prat and say, ‘Oh, actually, it was irony.’ The single with the Edge intoning platitudes over a really tired backing; if we were to do something like that it wouldn’t get past the demo stage. I’d think someone in the group was taking the piss!”
He pauses in disbelief, perhaps to take a breath and then says quietly, “Mary was telling me I mustn’t be horrible about other groups in interviews. She says I’m always talking about people I hate and I sound bitter. But I don’t do it viciously and it doesn’t matter one way or the other what I think. I don’t really mix with groups. I read who was at Suede’s concert and there’s this list of celebs, I’d cringe to be part of that list. It’s this imaginary world that they try and foster on the public where everyone knows everyone else and they all go out for a drink together at the end of the day. It’s rubbish!”
In the charged atmosphere (by now my hair’s standing on end) we take a break. Smith goes downstairs to see his brother and sister-in-law’s new baby, naming them as if I were intimate with his family. He’s got oodles of nieces and nephews on whom he dotes. When he returns, refreshed, he announces, “The baby’s got such blue eyes. He cried when I picked him up, though.” Later he’ll lean down to kiss the baby goodbye and the infant will react with calm wonder.
“Suede,” he continues, “is just rehashing old Bowie songs. It’s kind of missing the point, but probably if you’re 16 or 17, it is the point. But having been around 34 years now, I’m seeing things being reworked and it probably didn’t happen before, before the ’60s, because everything was being invented. I suppose a lot of house and techno and rave is new. I listen to a lot of dance music at home, some of the really out there stuff. I don’t dance to it, I just listen. It’s really hypnotic.
“I don’t find the technology threatening. A lot of people my age, my generation, find it difficult to immerse themselves. But I would never preclude the idea of using any technology if I thought it suited the end result.”
A career of the Cure’s longevity and magnitude, regardless of what Smith says, has to involve image-conjuring with a view to posterity. The gloom tag has proved difficult to shake.
“To do something like ‘Friday I’m in Love’ and to have that video and still have people say ‘the doom and gloom merchants,’ it’s just irritating. It’s 12 years ago. But we’ll always be stuck with it. When we did Disintegration people said we were going back to our roots, whereas in fact our roots are ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and that sort of idiot pop.
“I suppose the fact that we’ve done the film shows that I am worried about how the group is remembered. I’m not bothered on a personal level. I don’t worry about my epitaph, for instance. I don’t want to be remembered for anything in particular other than being in a pop group which was good.
“A lot of what we do,” he explains, “in some respects it’s charming. Things always go wrong, there’s a haphazardness. I would hate it if it was a big, streamlined operation. There’s only three or four people who work here so inevitably. . .” He trails off, albeit for a nanosecond. “Also, I want to be involved in everything. I suppose that’s another reason why things go wrong sometimes. I get involved in these minute things, the spelling of the dolly grip’s name. But he’ll know and his mum will know!”
On the steps outside Cure Central, Smith is photographed by two Dutch fans, who let out a gleeful “Oooh!” when I tell Smith it was nice to see him again after 14 years. Smith takes my hand and then disappears into a taxi. The two boys follow me for a few short, trendy blocks before quietly giving up the pursuit.
“I sit looking up at the sky like millions of other people,” Smith had said to me earlier. The nicest part is we get to hear what he sees.
© Susan Compo & Spin Magazine