With their 80s heyday long behind them, The Cure had been written off by many as Goth hasbeens. Then they release their best album in a decade – and Robert Smith says it will be their last. Caroline Sullivan asked him why
n October 1998, an American beer company staged a mystery gig at the London Forum, starring a “top international band” whose identity was kept under wraps until the minute they walked on stage. Speculation centred on Blur and Oasis, which made the disappointment that much more acute when the curtain finally went up on a familiar dishevelled figure in makeup that had apparently been applied by a five-year-old. Voicing the thoughts of many, someone in the balcony sighed, “Oh, it’s the Cure” in the sort of tone you would reserve for “It’s the postman.”
Only an American brewery could have mistaken the Cure for a hot band in late 1998. Eclipsed by Britpop, they were a group out of time. Their last album, 1996’s Wild Mood Swings, lived up to its title by mixing morbid gothscapes with salsa in an ill-judged attempt to update. Considered the worst release of their 20-year career, it sold “only” one million copies, and a 1997 best-of, Galore, sold even fewer. To put it bluntly, the Cure and their doomy world view were part of an era nobody wanted to remember.
Clearly as delighted to be there as the crowd were to have them, they meandered glumly through their set. As ever, Robert Smith was the focal point, dominating the stage as only a hefty bloke in lipstick can. But there was a poignancy about him that night, if poignant is the right word for a man who had sold 27 million records and still had the allegiance of thousands of “disenfranchised” (his word) ex-Goths. It was embodied by his heterosexual-in-make-up look, which was confrontational when he pioneered it in the 80s but had since been adopted by everyone from Marilyn Manson to Kevin Rowland. And here he was, still clinging to eyeliner at the age of 39. Tragic.
Sixteen months later, it’s a different story. It’s February 2000 and Smith is lounging around a swanky Mayfair hotel, ready to take his band into the 21st century. There’s a sold-out show at London’s Astoria tonight and a new album that’s won the Cure their best reviews in a decade. Smith has recovered from the low ebb of the Forum and his black eye pencil has been applied for enhancement rather than shock value.
He remembers the Forum show with little pleasure. “I got into ‘principle’ trouble with that one. We got an absurd amount of money to play one gig and it was the one time I’ve ever compromised myself. The others threatened to mutiny if I turned it down.”
This is the rockster who refused to allow himself to be “done” on Stars in Their Eyes because, he says vehemently: “I loathe kitsch and irony. I hate that sardonic little ironic smile, it’s the worst type of patronising thing. This is pretentious, but I’ve always liked to think I’m doing it for art.”
Which is exactly why Cure fans – and they’re still legion, posting messages on websites with names such as It Doesn’t Matter If We All Die – see Smith as an almost mystical figure, ploughing his own bleak furrow in an age when other stars collude with Hello!. We’ll never see his south-coast house in the pages of gossip mags, or his wife Mary, who’s been in his life since he was 18, in the front row at Versace.
Ever since the Telegraph printed his address while reporting on a court case brought by former drummer Lol Tolhurst (“A malleable person. It took me a long time to get over the anger”), Smith won’t even reveal where he lives. “I beg of you to please just say Brighton,” he requests. He actually lives not in Brighton but about 20 miles from his home town of Crawley, West Sussex, where he started the Cure in 1976. His publicist, whom he shares with the Spice Girls, describes his current residence as “a really grey place where you’d never expect to find a rock star”.
Smith has just taken a £65 cab ride from there, arriving at the hotel a few hours before he’s due on stage. Everyone in reception watches him arrive, as you do a geezerish six-footer with eggbeater hair and mascara.
But where’s the lipstick? “I put some on before I left. I wear make-up every day. I must’ve bitten it off in the cab,” he says a few minutes later, settled into a suite with two bottles of orange juice.
I ask if I can make a suggestion. “What?” he asks warily. His usual shade is too dark, I venture. His skin has a yellow undertone, so he needs a brighter colour. “I haven’t got yellow in my skin!” he protests. “You mean like I’ve got jaundice?”
I swipe some Clinique Golden Raisin on the back of his hand. “Too much brown,” he decides instantly. No, it goes with your eyes. “But they’re blue,” he says, wavering on the cusp of a fashion decision. Ultimately he fails to be swayed by the argument that brown better suits the nearly-41-year-old gentleman. And at the gig that night, his mouth is defiantly crimson. “I was sent a big box of lipstick by an American company called Jane that’ll probably outlive me,” he explains.
Having crossed the rubicon of 40 last April, Smith is finally happy, or as happy as someone who still despairs of “the futility of existence” can be. He looks unfeasibly healthy for someone who used to have drink and drug binges, he still adores his wife (“I’m amazed that the girl I fell in love with is still in love with me. I haven’t had any other girlfriend since we started going out at 18”), and he’s even been on South Park, which helped Uncle Bob’s credibility with his 22 nieces and nephews.
Things are encouraging on the professional front, too. The Cure – whose ever-changing line-up includes not a single founder member except Smith – have just announced their biggest British date in years at Wembley Arena in April, and this week they release the album Bloodflowers, which many count as their best since 1989’s landmark of gloom, Disintegration.
There’s a sense of freedom: being out of the loop has allowed them to be themselves, and with the ghostly, desolate Bloodflowers, they’ve rediscovered their soul. Admitting that Wild Mood Swings was “mixed up and incoherent – it even confused me”, Smith sees Bloodflowers as his redemption, the last part of a trilogy that began with 1982’s acid-deranged Pornography and continued with Disintegration.
“The tone is melancholy and regretful,” he confirms cheerily. “The dominant theme is time passing. There’s nothing beyond, no hope.” This typical bit of Smithspeak chimes with his latest announcement of the band’s imminent dissolution: “At the moment, I can’t imagine making another album. I haven’t written a song for ages and have no desire to.”
It also suggests a mid-life crisis, perhaps? Not at all, he insists, gingerly inserting a finger into the frazzled mass on his head. “Forty doesn’t bother me at all. Thirty did ‘cos I considered it to be old, but 40 is just a bit older. When I was very young I never even considered being 40. Like anyone else who listened to Bowie I thought I’d pack my life into 25 years and that would be it. But if anything I’m much happier and healthier now.”
Smith’s car arrives to take him to soundcheck, and the conversation continues en route. A few minutes later the car pulls up outside the Astoria and dozens of fans instantly surround it, all intent on talking to Smith. “Ultimately I’d like to make film music so I wouldn’t have to be a public performer,” he sighs, preparing to meet his people. “Because it means shaving and putting on make-up and steeling my resolve.”
Then he’s outside, signing autographs and posing for pictures as a gang of Japanese girls clamours for his attention. He assumes the professional rock star’s attitude of pleasant aloofness, never stopping even as he signs and poses until he finally eases through the crowd and into the building.
His last words before getting out of the car are: “I don’t love being the centre of attention. I’ve always worn black because I don’t want to be noticed, and it’s paradoxical that I’ve ended up being the singer in a group. The driving force in the modern world is to be famous, but I have a naive desire to be an artist.”
© The Guardian