“We can’t make it. We are ready to die when we are born. We are the patsies. And I hate the intellectual freak who realises all this and condescends to it and makes himself seemingly superior because he feels Ire just doesn’t belong and therefore is.” (Charles Bukowski)
“I look inside myself and see my heart is black” (Jagger/Richard)
HE STARTS OFF BY picking half a lemon (his favourite fruit) out of the fridge and sucking on it and this slurping is driving me up the wall because I’m speeding but I can’t say anything because he’s a popstar with a capital P just like the Pope, so I smile politely whereas I’d rather wring his fucking neck. What’s worse is that this intellectual slob knows that I know that he knows because nothing passes unseen before the candid blue gaze buried in a pudding face.
At Fiction Records’ headquarters which is a house but not a home near Baker Street, Robert Smith arrives late as usual in his “Russian junkmobile” (a jeep) and wants to sit outside because it’s a sunny day. How strange… That’s one of my preconceptions squashed right away (at least I have the grace to admit it). I would have preferred to stay in a nice cool dark room and so the tables are turned. And keep on turning for two-and-a- half hours.
I’m not being bossy, just practical when I ask to please take your hands away from your mouth because I can’t hear what you’re saying. Poor Robert – everything’s upside down. Interview time – turn your insides out. Actually, if the truth be known, the surgeon would find him in perfect health, his father- confessor would find his soul fully-clothed. Because, to Robert, life’s just a never-ending story. The Cure proffer and thrive on lies. I don’t mind being spun a yarn or two as long as it doesn’t turn into a blanket. This little fly has got a brain; he manages to pull a few legs and never jumps into the web. Robert’s really into role-playing, as you can see. Not only at work, but also at home in his recently acquired flat in Maida Vale with his one and only-ever girlfriend Mary.
A lot of that role-playing is sort of true. I made a video of us the other week. I left a video-camera in the corner of the room and after a couple of hours you forget that it’s on and I was quite horrified at the amount of rubbish we say to each other. It’s like listening to mental people.
The thing is, we’ve known each other for so long that I don’t have to finish saying things. It’s got down to one word and she knows what I’m going to say. It makes conversation really … I don’t dress up anymore, Mary does though. She used to dress as a witch to scare little children and she likes to practice on me. I feel more natural in the company of people who are mentally unbalanced because you’re always more alert, wondering what they’re going to do next… it’s funny if you’re with somebody who suddenly starts crying. Well, it’s not funny, it’s quite disturbing. She likes that, more so than I do. I can never take anyone back to the flat because I never know who is going to answer the door. She says ‘please don’t bring anyone back because I’d feel restricted’. The only person who has been to the flat in the last three months was Simon Gallup, our bass player, but then she was just wearing my pajamas – I think she was pretending to be me! Not that I wear them anymore – except for fashion purposes.
A hint of Robert’s preconceptions of me and THE FACE slip out. Indeed, he devotes a full 15 minutes to sermonizing about the dubious morals of people who set themselves up as arbiters of style, how much he hates THE FACE etc. etc., which was a foregone conclusion anyway. He says he “couldn’t bear” to know any “trendy people” and yet The Cure’s clothes are made by John Flett. St. Martin’s toast of this year; and Michael Kostiff, who designed Siouxsie Sioux’s flat and Susanne Bartsch’s new shop among other things, has been involved with The Cure since doing the sleeve for the Pornography LP.
Both are achingly fashionable persons (for their sins). All of Rohert’s haranguing falls on deaf ears though because I agree with most of it. So I look at what I see and then I write:
A face that cracked a thousand mirrors. A voice that cut a thousand throats.
I CAN IMAGINE one of our songs inspiring people to suicide but not to murder.
Robert Smith has collected a lot of wayward souls during his prolific career. Diehard disciples who believe that Robert’s songs of pure pearly pessimism are parables about themselves. It’s true about me: Bob told me so.
It’s a popular misconception that Robert Smith is a merchant of doom and gloom. A cosmic prophet and very, very weird. He’s not at all, of course; he is one of the fortunate few who has very clear vision (maybe 20/20, which would make him a genius in George Bernard Shaw’s book) which he has not allowed to be dulled by circumstances and daily living. There are some people who look up to Robert Smith as the savior of modern music; these same people treat music as a religion. Confus- ing Robert Smith with Karol Wojtyla in front of the mike. It’s a fact that Robert readily acknowledges.
I’ve met some people who are really obsessive about music. And a couple of people who are obsessed about me. But if it wasn’t me, it would probably be religion; they just need to be obsessed by something. I can’t do anything about those people.
Give money to the Church or money to The Cure. What’s the difference?
None. You get about the same amount of salvation from both… I met the Pope – not the present one, about three Popes ago. I was quite young, and I was in St. Peter’s and there was a mass and he was carried in on a chair and I grabbed hold of his hand… Severin went to a place in Rome called Club Vatican where he was served by nuns. He reckoned they were real ones but I didn’t believe him. All nuns are thieves anyway.
He just doesn’t care, does he? He’s really quite reckless, this Smith person.
Look, I know five nuns. One of them is related to Mary. They’re really bitter about life in general. One of them is a good nun, the other four are pretty dodgy. The best place to meet them, since you ask, is Heathrow Airport. They’re always coming and going. If you sit in the gallery bit, you’ll see hundreds of nuns each hour and they always run about together and they’re always carrying records in bags.
Did you know, Robert, that Madonna thinks nuns are sexy?
What does Madonna know? I hate her. She looks like she stinks.
WHEN I LEFT Sheffield in 1980, I left a lot of things behind to die. I burned my green mac along with memories of pub and smalltown disco gigs by The League, The Cabs, The Comsat Angels, The Fall and The Cure. I never really took to The Cure – Magazine and A Certain Ratio appealed more – even though I can remember being with the green mac and Penguin Nietsche mob down at the Limit Club on West Street when The Cure played on the tiny, ten feet square stage. Of course it was mandatory to have Killing An Arab and A Forest in your record collection, even if it was just for appearances’ sake, but who would have thought that six years later they’d be playing Wembley?
To illuminate this inconspicuous progress I read The Cure’s clipping file, collected the six Cure albums that any self-respecting ‘black’ person would have already, and had a long conversation with The Cure’s affable manager, Chris Parry He saw the Sex Pistols at Barbarella’s in Birmingham in ’76 and got “pretty pissed off at Polydor where he worked as an A&R man, when the company ignored his suggestion of signing them. In fact, Chris Parry can be seen as one of those pissed-off A&R men in The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. He saw The Jam at the Marquee in February ’77 and signed them to Polydor immediately. Other people he signed include Sham 69.
When a cassette from Robert Smith landed on his desk in July ’78 and. once again, Parry’s advice to sign The Cure – then called Easy Cure – fell on deaf ears, he decided to leave Polydor and set up his own company, Fiction Records. Parry paid for and produced Killing An Arab and 10-15 and soon negotiated a deal for Fiction product to be distributed through Polydor. How does he feel about the group now?
Well, no-one take things too seriously, he says. They have a certain type of fatalism and sharp humour associated with all this nonsense. There’s been very little hype, to use an old-fashioned word. It’s all been very laid back, he adds, using another old-fashioned term.
Robert’s involvement with the Banshees and his two-month project with Steve Severin which went under the title of The Glove and resulted in the Blue Sunshine LP – named after a film about homicidal mania triggered by LSD taken ten years earlier – was made possible deliberately by Parry.
During the time of Faith and Pornography Robert was going through a personal crisis in his life and he went through a period where he was very caustic and cynical about what The Cure were doing. After the Pornography tour, the group, in effect, disbanded. I told Robert to take a year off, things were getting stale. The band weren’t getting on very well and Robert wasn’t getting on with Simon.
Bass player Simon Gallup left in 1981 and joined again in spring this year for the new album The Head On The Door. Robert readily enlarges on his break-up with Simon, who had been an integral part of the group.
We fell out because I thought he’d changed too much. He started pretending to be someone else who I didn’t really like. Also. he didn’t like me anymore; he thought I was being very selfish and ignoring everyone which I probably was, hut that’s up to me. I didn’t feel comfortable with him anymore. He was my best friend for so long and then I realised that I didn’t enjoy his company and, given the choice, I wouldn’t spend any time with him but he was in the group so I had to.
So we fell out and we had this fight, one fight too many, in a bar in Brussels, because I thought he was being too stroppy to a young barman and he thought I was defending someone just for the sake of it and it escalated from there. I left the club at about five in the morning and got a cab to the airport and waited for the next flight home. I left all my clothes there. It was very dramatic. After about 18 months of not seeing him. I thought ‘this is silly, I can’t not like him anymore’, so one night I went to this pub where we all used to drink and I knew he’d be there. It was quite funny ‘cos when I walked in, it all went quiet, just like a Wild West film, but I just walked up to him and started talking to him. Now he’s in the group again.
Thus Simon was welcomed back to the fold, which seems to be almost family-orientated: Porl Thompson, who plays assorted instruments and does the group’s artwork under the pseudonymous Parched Art cup-of-tea logo, lives with Robert’s younger sister who’s a programme controller at Radio Three.
IRONICALLY, The Cure LP I like the most is The Top, recorded during the period when group relations were most strained. Smith reveals that he played all the instruments, as well as writing and singing all the songs. It was – in effect – a solo album, which closes with the title song, the last lines of which are: Please come back/All of you.
The Top seems to be very drug-related; the song titles (Piggy In The Mirror, Bananafishbones, The Caterpillar, Birdmad Girl) all reek of one-tab acid jottings. I was convinced that I would be meeting a major acid causality and I knew I’d be on safe ground with this topic.
The last time I did acid was at Christmas. The first time I tried it was with Severin a few years ago and I was fucking devastated for a week! I think they were God pills! It was clear light-blue square gelatin tablets from America. Jobson was there as well. I think he’s the funniest person I’ve ever met. Anyway, it was snowing and all the world was white. I suffered quite a lot.
But, no, I don’t take a lot of drugs, although The Top was pretty drug- orientated, but only ‘cos it was fun. The thing is, I never change at all after taking LSD, no matter how many times I take it. It hasn’t changed or altered my perception of the world at all, which is what it does to some people. In that sense, I’ve always had a very distorted view of reality, my sense of values has always been the same. When I tripped for the first time, I realised that it was just like I was anyway. I stopped taking it in the end because I just felt sick and got a headache. It’s like drinking…
Ah yes… drinking. I was about to move on to that subject. Judging by past interviews. drinking is Robert’s favourite pastime. Indeed, he seems to equate alcoholism with genius and speaks of it as a virtue. Names of the great who drank themselves into the grave drip off his tongue: Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Brendan Behan.
You get drunk for different reasons. You can get socially drunk or you can get drunk on your own and get very morbid and tedious … No, I don’t think it’s to numb the pain of living. The worst thing is when you want to do something and you can’t – that leads to bad drinking. But people like Dylan Thomas just drank for the pleasure of drinking. Drinking’s recreational, I think. I used to get drunk on my own a lot but I don’t anymore. To use Dylan Thomas as an example, who ended up killing himself through drink; he did it just because it’s good fun. I’m not sure if it’s the same in the latter stages of addiction. I imagine he drank for three reasons. One. because it’s good fun; two, because you become almost mythical, it’s like you become a legendary drinker which is an idea you can become addicted to; and the third reason is probably because in the latter stages of addiction, you don’t have much choice at all!
I’m almost an alcoholic now, I haven’t had one night this year when I haven’t been drunk – a sad admission I suppose.
But if it is true that 26-year-old Smith is as well-known in France as Bowie and Jagger – according to Chris Parry, whom I’m inclined to believe (The Cure’s dark romanticism appeals readily to the teenage French mentai- ity) – then Smith the Gallic superstar should surely keep a tighter rein on this habit, set a better example for the thirsty French.
Ummm, I’m always terribly aware of it. It all goes on my face. If I look in a shop-window or see a photo, I always think ‘God, I’m so fat and awful’, so then I stop eating but I compensate by drinking more. But I really like lager, which is the worst, so now I try to drink vodka instead. At least I’m not a professional drunk in the way that Tom Waits sometimes is.
Yes, but Tom Waits has weathered better and writes better songs with beautifully warm, human lyrics. Don’t you agree Robert’?
No. I think he romanticizes everything. He doesn’t give a true representation of Amer- ican life – or being drunk, for that matter. I think that someone who lived out of the bottle whilst living in a trailer somewhere in America is more qualified to comment on America, if not drinking, than a boy from the suburban new town of Crawley with dyed black, back-combed hair who lives in a plush parcel of prime real-estate with every mod- con stashed inside to distract him. I mean, would Tom Waits dance with Bananarama?
Tell me that story, Bob…
How do you know about that?
Well, we did this Dutch TV show and Bananarama pretended to mime playing the instruments because the boys were too pissed and they just danced. I mimed the song because otherwise we would have had to do the song over and over again. I fell over when we’d finished.
Bananarama are the first people I’ve met who’ve managed to keep up with us drinking.
ROBERT’S ROOTS ARE buried deep in the early days of Punk. He’s neither forgotten those days nor has he turned his back on them. All punks were dedicated artists. he declares. The rebel spirit has remained inside him and even escapes sometimes. Brushes with the Continental forces of law and order have not been infrequent; Robert has been arrested in Germany for pissing against the side of a Mexican bar, apprehended for vagrancy in Paris, and clapped behind bars for a few hours after being picked up on a beach in Rotterdam for indecently exposing himself at six in the morning.
The Cure tour almost constantly and have a large following in some rather obscure places. They see themselves as an international band who make international music. Robert seems to be rather embarrassed about that slightly pompous statement but insists strongly: I’d hate to be considered as a British band, it’s the worst thing in the world. I hate the idea of being nationalistic, it’s just gar- bage. Same as if I was American, I wouldn’t be proud of that either, and if I was French. I’d hang myself. I hate religion and I hate nationalism. They’re both so redundant. I can’t see any reason why there should be such things as countries.
In most interviews, Smith does tend to ramble. His favourite subjects are: What I dreamt last night; It’s horrible being a popstar and having a lot of money and lots of yukky girls following me around. What I did on holiday/on tour.
I can tell you that last night he had a rather mundane dream about having someone else’s name tattooed on his forehead but normally he has violent war dreams. His current tour stories center round a bit of farmyard non- sense.
I took a lamb on tour but it was a stuffed one; it was full of strawberry scented soap and I used it as a pillow. I used to rest my head on it in the van. It wasn’t a real dead one, it was like a pajama case. Ah, the goat story was a lie. It is true I’ve got a brother who’s got a farm in Wales but I lied about the pet pig. I’ve never owned a pig in my life although I did give my brother some money once to go and buy some pigs but he spent it on fencing instead ‘cos he thought it was unethical to he a pig farmer.
There are some things that invoke more than his habitual inventions of world-weary cynicism and sardonic banter from Robert. He has been working on-and-off writing music for a ballet that has yet to he choreographed. In fact, the music has been finished hut little will come of it now, Mainly it’s the fault of the boy I was doing it with. He suddenly decided he wanted a change of cultures and got on a plane and went to Japan. He’s since become quite famous. He was one of the young choreographers for the Royal Ballet. It was all based on Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. I fall madly in love with people in books. Honestly. When I read Mervyn Peake I fell in love with Fuschia and when she died, I really regretted reading the page where she died because I could have kept her alive. It’s the same with Elise in Les Enfants Terribles. I thought it was so perfect and so naive.
From Dylan Thomas to Peake to Cocteau. I wonder if Robert is one of those Penguin Modern auto-didacts (look it up) or, Heaven forbid, a closet existentialist!
No, I’m not. There’s so many different ways of interpreting existentialism that I find it very difficult to decide. In one sense, I always agreed with the idea of being the centre of your own existence and manufactur- ing your environment and God and every- thing comes from you, but now I’m not so sure. I don’t care to be honest. I have no philosophy or interest in anything like that – this week. I’ve got to the stage where I’d rather play football than be an existentialist. What a delight and a surprise to meet a ‘popstar’ who doesn’t pander to his public image! On the subject of existence, then, what were Robert’s views on the noble Live Aid effort?
We weren’t asked but we wouldn’t have done it anyway. We don’t sell enough records to be honest. You had to be really mega to make it worthwhile. I thought it caused a lot of good, the only sour bit was that the whole thing was quite unnecessary because if most of the people involved had given a percentage of their personal wealth, like the people who sent money in, then it would probably have doubled the overall total. I thought it was one of the most fucking boring things that had ever been on television. Freddy Mercury was alright hut the best bit was Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Ron Wood ‘cos it was so embarrassing. It was humiliatingly bad in the extreme! They were brilliant, they were so awful!
BUT CAN WE GO back to Bob The Outsider, Bob who’s never worn a watch in his life, calls everyone Bill (‘Bill’ Parry, ‘Bill’ Polydor, ‘Bill’ Fiction, ‘Bill’ FACE) to put everyone on the same level and once kept his thumbnail on a piece of string. Bill Smith can be frightfully serious sometimes. He’s been sweating bricks over a real book” that he’s been trying to write since … he can’t remember.
I decided last year, that if I put together all my attempts at writing a book I’d have a book of short stories with no endings. It’d be like 50 first pages in paperback. I’ve known the title for ages. Every story is different but they all have the same title. Mary thought of the title actually. It’s called The Glass Sandwich. I get very serious about it when I feel myself slipping. It’s a good mental exercise but most of the stories aren’t very entertaining.
An official Cure fan book is also being prepared by Robert with the aid of Liddy Goubard – a French journalist who writes for Liberation. It is planned to read like a set of scripts from a very odd comedy show. Liddy has interviewed everyone who has been involved with The Cure since the year dot, and Bill Smith expresses horror when he listened to the cassettes. I must give over the idea of being far more in control of my destiny then I really am!
After the chart success of In Between Days, The Cure are one of the lucky few who have retained their cult-cred indie status whilst appearing on national chart shows like Top Of The Pops. Bill confesses that he feels uncomfortable on TOTP. I can never shake it. Mainly ‘cos I can see the audience and they always look so fed up. I always feel really sorry for them, they probably go expecting a big party and it’s the most awful experience and you can see it on their faces. Besides, I’m not much good at pretending I’m having fun. We usually get really drunk but then I forget to mime. Our records always go down after we’ve done TOTP, with one exception, and that only went up one place before it dropped. We actually do the show as a career move to stop ourselves from becoming too famous!
A chuckle slips from the corner of two thin lines that serve for a mouth – you know Robert Smith’s mouth, the smudged, bleed- ing, bright-red-lipsticked gob that has become his trademark. Why has he made a virtue of a facial feature that’s hardly there?
Ah, the lipstick. I don’t put it on properly because people would think I was doing it for reasons of vanity whereas I do it for reasons of theatricality. I used to wear it when we did Pornography, I used to wear red lipstick all round my eyes and all round my mouth, so that when we were on stage, I’d sweat and it’d all run so it would look like someone had punched me in the mouth and my eyes were bleeding. I had to stop it though because my eyesight started to suffer. I kept the lipstick because it’s so out of character for me to do something like that.
Out of which character? The one he’s chosen to present to me today or one of the many different characters he’s played in the past? I doubt if any music journalist has met the real Robert Smith or Bill Smith. Maybe they’ve encountered Mary a couple of times. What I hear is not a voice but an echo of too many interviews, too many gigs, too much bullshit that isn’t even entertaining to him anymore. Yes he’s tired, but not from lack of sleep as he professes but tired of being on the casting couch which he has to be over and again to win the part – the lead role of megastar – and the prize of the ear of the world plus solitude.
He sees this interview for THE FACE as one step nearer to the day when he can fold himself into the lotus position and delicately wave two fingers at people like me. But mortal Smith at least realizes the painfulness of human being (and capitalizes on it). There are an awful lot of Cure fans out there but then there are an awful lot of lonely people out there too, wandering and wondering.
© Fiona Russell Powell & The Face