From Andrew Mueller's From the Vault (Thanks @moggieboy):
FRIDAY I’M IN CHICAGO
The Cure in America and Canada
From "Rock & Hard Places"
ONE of the joys of travelling as a reporter is the opportunity to work with great photographers, and I’ve been unusually blessed in that respect – as I was on this trip, travelling with Melody Maker’s Stephen Sweet. And one of the frustrations of working as a writer is realising how little impact thousands of your words might have when measured against a single frame snapped by a great photographer, which was what happened when this story originally ran. I’d mumbled something to Sweet about maybe focusing on the odd relationship between The Cure’s Robert Smith and his mascara-smeared legions of lookalike fans, and Sweet nailed it the first night, outside the band’s hotel in Chicago. The scene is described, and done insufficient justice, below – Sweet shot the encounter between Smith and an especially ardent adherent from behind the singer’s shoulder, deftly capturing the worshipper’s supplicant gawp and Smith’s wincing, forehead-rubbing awkwardness. I still think it’s one of the best illustrations of the dysfunctional relationship between celebrity and celebrator I’ve ever seen, and its potence is diluted not even slightly by the fact that the anguish discernible in Smith’s expression was due, in truth, to the fact that he was just plain sloshed. The camera, in those pre-Photoshop times, may not have lied, but it didn’t always declare the whole truth.
What is lacking in the story that follows is much in the way of any meaningful attempt to understand the cult of Robert Smith from the perspective of its adherents. This was partially due to constraints of time, but mostly down to your correspondent’s pathological aversion to boring nutters. I could understand being a fan of The Cure, because I was – and am – one: indeed, a little over two years before I did this trip, I was living, back in Sydney, in a room dominated by the black-and-white “Boys Don’t Cry” poster, and I would still doubt the sanity of anyone prepared to argue that “The Head On The Door” wasn’t one of the dozen best albums of the 1980s. I just don’t understand the urge to appropriate your favourite singer’s haircut and taste in mis-shapen jumpers, and regard his every pronouncement as freighted with Delphic sagacity. Which is to say that I don’t understand uncritical reverence for anything, which is, I suppose, to say that I don’t understand quite a lot of the rest of my species terribly well. However, I believe that the analysis of his own flock that Smith delivers later in this piece is both astute and compassionate, or at least blessed with more of both those qualities than anything I might have come up with on my own.
Fame is a phenomenon that generally conspires to make both the admired and the admirer look ridiculous: I suspect that this is what I was trying to demonstrate with the random observations of The Cure’s celebrity inserted throughout the narrative. The best that all concerned can do with any variety of notoriety is refuse to take it seriously, and I’ve rarely since seen anyone cleave to that attitude quite so splendidly as The Cure.
“HERE, look. No, over here. See, I’ve invented this game for you. And I’d like you to play it.”
The face – that great grinning shambles of lipstick, pancake and hair gel that I’ve only previously seen on magazine covers, television screens and, I’ll admit, the walls of the bedrooms I occupied during my teens – is inches from mine. We’re in a dressing room backstage at The World, a modestly-named arena an hour and a half’s drive from Chicago, where The Cure have just played a superb show in front of 15,000 people. I’m sandwiched between Robert Smith and long-serving Cure bassplayer Simon Gallup on a black leather couch that might conceivably seat one in any kind of comfort.
“Look. On the table.”
While Gallup has been asking me about a couple of friends of his back at the Melody Maker office, Smith has been arranging the contents of a bowl of M&Ms on the polished black table in front of us. From where I’m sitting, there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to what Smith’s doing, but as we’ve only just met and I’ve got to get a cover story out of this, I figure it’s as well to humour him. I nod, and smile, and wish I wasn’t quite so sober.
“Right,” Smith continues. “Now what you have to do – and pay careful attention to this, right – is move that red one there at the bottom up to the top without,” he pauses for effect, “touching any of the others.”
Ah. Smith, it must be said, is drunk. Heroically so, in fact, and operating according to the deranged and indecipherable logic the state engenders, which is to say that while I’m sure this is all making cast-iron sense to him, I haven’t a clue what he’s talking about. I turn to Gallup in some faint hope of support, but he’s got his head in his hands, is muttering intently to himself and clearly has no wish to be disturbed. I’m on my own.
“Come on,” says Smith. “I’m waiting.”
I’m thinking that somewhere, in some little-regarded footnote in a dusty thesaurus stashed in a dank corner of a cobwebbed attic owned by some mad, bearded, elderly professor, there’s a cracking French or Latin phrase for “the fear of making an irredeemable plum duff of oneself in front of one’s adolescenthood heroes within five minutes of meeting same for reasons you can neither control nor comprehend.” Still, I steel myself, extend a trembling digit to the small red sweet, push it around the others to the spot Smith had designated at the top of the table, and sit back, trying to look nonchalantly triumphant. There follow some seconds of confused silence, broken only by Gallup’s mumbling.
“Right,” says Smith, eventually, and buries his fingers deep in his hopelessly congealed thatch. “Ah. . . okay. I can see I’m going to have to make this more difficult.”
I’M staying in the Claridge Hotel in Chicago, a renovated terrace house in which the halls are lined with glass cabinets full of antique toys. Amusingly, the hotel also has a complimentary stretch limousine service, and a driver with enough of a sense of humour to cope with directions like “Oh, I don’t know, just drive around for a bit and let me wave at people”. When I come back and turn on the television, there’s one of those uncountable, indistinguishable sub-”90210” teen angst soap operas on. This particular episode revolves around an outwardly normal, obviously beautiful, and tiresomely over-achieving young woman who takes a stack of pills in an effort to kill herself. On her bedroom wall, looming above her as she belts back the downers, is what the show’s producers doubtless imagined was a definitive signifier of tormented youth: a poster of The Cure.
IT is decided, after a couple more hours of drinking and slurring by all present, that The Cure will give myself and photographer Stephen Sweet a lift back to Chicago on their tour bus. While we huddle on a couple of couches, The Cure’s crew move into fluent action, packing up and rolling out everything non-human in black flight cases. Someone takes off the Sensational Alex Harvey Band CD that has been playing at excruciating volume since I arrived. “I was enjoying that. . . ,” protests Smith, half-heartedly. “Someone threw it on stage tonight. . . “ He stops, looks slowly around the room, then embarks on animated ramble about how Alex Harvey reminds him of his wife, Mary, and about something that once happened with his brother and some French women, which I can’t follow at all.
Gallup, meanwhile, is flinging surplus crisps, unwanted carrot sticks, empty cups and Robert’s M&Ms at the nearest available target, which turns out to be The Cure’s record company boss, Chris Parry of Fiction. One of The Cure’s minders makes him stop. Smith, by now, is wrestling on the floor with another of the band’s minders. It’s hard to say how serious it is. Given that Smith has the upper hand, it’s probably fair to surmise that he’s trying harder than the minder (I mean, Smith is a big bloke, and probably more than capable of looking after himself, but the chap he’s locked in combat with has arms thicker than my entire body and looks like he could kick-start a 747). A couple of crew prise the two apart and organise everyone onto the bus. As we pull out of the venue, the few dozen cars that have been parked, waiting, in the darkness alongside the road, start their engines and follow us.
The bus is as well-appointed as you’d expect, given that it’s carting about a bunch of 30-something millionaires whose singer is pathologically terrified of aeroplanes (The Cure crossed the Atlantic on the QEII). There are lounges fore and aft, a small kitchenette, a toilet, at least two televisions, a video and, inevitably, a stereo capable of broadcasting to all points within six zip codes in any direction. The Cure’s on-board listening this evening rather belies their reputation as arch miserabilists: T-Rex’s “Hot Love”, Gary Glitter’s “Didn’t Know I Loved You Till I Saw You Rock’N’Roll” and, perhaps surprisingly given the bickering over stolen basslines traded by the two groups down the years, New Order’s “State Of The Nation”. It’s while Smith is on all fours in the bus corridor, cradling a beer in the crook of his elbow, bellowing along to Middle Of The Road’s “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” in a hearty roar quite removed from his patent wracked whine, and trying, for reasons known only to himself, to tie my shoelaces together, that Gallup, entirely unprovoked, makes an announcement.
“I can cook, me,” he informs the bus at large. This is greeted with total indifference.
“I said,” Gallup says, focusing this time on Sweet, “I can cook. I can.”
“I, uh, don’t doubt it,” replies Sweet, polishing his lenses with a view to recording the carnage unfolding around us.
“I’m one of the greats,” continues Gallup, swaying back and forth
“I, uh, don’t doubt it,” replies Sweet, polishing his lenses with a view to recording the carnage unfolding around us.
“I’m one of the greats,” continues Gallup, swaying back and forth for reasons not entirely to do with the movement of the bus. “And I’m going to prove it. To you all. To you, my people, to whom I am a river.”
Gallup approaches the stove and begins waving ingredients around. The dusting of herbs and generous squirt of Worcestershire sauce that congregate on one shoulder of my jacket suggest that the tottering gourmet is working on Welsh Rarebit. Smith, meanwhile, has hauled himself upright via my left knee, a table and a handful of my hair, and has descended again on his long-suffering minder, whose job description appears to encompass punchbag as much as protector.
Gallup’s culinary tour-de-force stumbles to a finish. He arranges it on a paper plate, and with a slurred “Ta-daaa”, taps Smith on the shoulder and presents it to him, having evidently forgotten who he set out to impress in the first place. Smith disentangles himself from a headlock, takes the plate from Gallup, looks at it briefly, emits a maniacal cackle, and flings it across the bus, where it bounces off the wall just above where guitarist Porl Thompson is sitting, quietly reading.
“Piss off,” he murmurs, without looking up, and turns the page.
“WISH”, the album The Cure are in America touring with, went straight into the American Billboard Chart at Number Two. It was kept off the top spot by Def Leppard. Robert Smith claims that this doesn’t bother him. I can’t believe he means that.
AT The Cure’s hotel on the bank of Lake Michigan, there’s a bigger crowd waiting for us than most bands ever get coming to see them play. This happens everywhere The Cure go, but the Chicago crowd are going to be luckier than most – depending on how sociable the band are or aren’t feeling after a show, the tour bus is often sent off empty, while Smith and company are spirited away in anonymous, windowless, minibuses.
An obviously time-served plan is immediately in effect: two minders get off the bus, explain that the band will be coming out shortly, and will sign things and chat for a bit, but they’re all very tired, need to get up early and so forth (Gallup and Smith, at this point, are waltzing, cheek-to-cheek, unsteadily up and down the bus, each humming a different tune). The minders arrange the mob in an orderly queue between the bus and the hotel door. Porl Thompson, drummer Boris Williams and guitarist/keyboardist Perry Bamonte make their way briskly along it, signing t-shirts, shaking hands, exchanging brief pleasantries. The queue is then re-straightened, and Simon and Robert appear, holding hands and smiling shyly, like children being presented to friends of their parents.
It takes Smith half an hour to get inside. Most of the fans are just enthusiastic and excited, though there’s a few who give every appearance of being unhealthily obsessed. At least three are in floods of tears and hyperventilating, and there’s one that Smith just can’t seem to get past –
the kid is a lot shorter and slighter than Smith, but in every other respect looks exactly like him, from his oversize white sneakers to his baggy black shirt to his powder-pale face to his artlessly smudged lipstick to his uproariously tangled black hair. The scary bit is that the kid doesn’t say anything, just gazes up at Robert with a daft, adoring smile. “Look. . . ,” Robert starts saying, then rubs his eyes. “I mean. . . “ One of The Cure’s minders notices what’s up, and hustles Robert past him.
Another earnest mascaraed waif, who’s seen me get off the bus just before Robert, comes up to me with her “Wish” tour poster and a marker pen.
Uh, I’m not in the band.
“Yeah, but you know them.”
Well, I only met them a couple of hours ago, and I meaningfully doubt that they’re going to remember it in the morning. I don’t know if that counts.
“Oh, please. Would you?”
I take her pen. With love from Andrew. Melody Maker, every Wednesday. Still only 65p.
ON the plane to Toronto, I’m reading the entertainment liftout of The Toronto Daily Star, which has Robert Smith on the cover, his face bathed in a green ink that makes him look like a QEII passenger who’s wishing he’d flown after all. Inside, the Star’s resident rock’n’roll hack has bashed out one page of cribbed Cure history and a couple more pages of the usual lazy rubbish about doom, gloom, misery and despair, all rounded off with a few of the standard jokes about Edward Scissorhands and how, gosh, Robert Smith looks a bit like him. Also included for the edification of the readership are “Ten Frightening Facts About Robert Smith”. Among these lurk the revelations that “His mummy knitted him ten pairs of socks to take on the current tour” and “He has a habit of sticking his fingers in his mouth when he talks, which makes him look silly”.
IN Toronto, The Cure are playing the Skydome. The Skydome is a vast concrete barn that can be configured to hold 80,000 fans for a Blue Jays home game, or 25,000 for a Cure gig. When weather permits, Skydome’s roof can be opened to the heavens. The fact that the heavens above this gaping slit are dominated by the endlessly upright form of the CN Tower must make Toronto something of a must for holidaying Freudians.
Backstage tonight, after a performance that was perhaps more competent but rarely as passionate as the one in Chicago, the mood, appropriately, is more subdued and, not to put too fine a point on it, sober. Members of The Cure and the support band, Cranes, sit quietly waiting for the tour buses, lost in Skydome’s labrynthine tunnels, to find them. Assorted press, record company types and examples of that breed who always end up backstage without anyone knowing quite how, or why, or who they are, mill aimlessly about. Thanks to the increasing road fever being experienced by The Cure’s tour manager, the backstage passes these people have affixed to their jackets don’t read “Guest” or “VIP” but “Freeloader”, “Blagger” and “No Idea”. Mine says “Poser”. Porl and Simon are playing with Porl’s new toy, a sort of cross between a Polaroid camera and a fax machine that instantly prints out blurred, grainy, black and white images of whatever has just been photographed.
“See?” says Porl, pointing at a hopelessly blotched and smudged sheet of thermal paper. “It’s you and Gallup”.
After being hit by a tank, possibly. What’s it for?
“For?” asks Porl. “Well, it’s for. . . for rich idiots with more money than sense.”
He goes off in search of a more appreciative subject. Smith appears with two handfuls of beer bottles and apologises, definitely more out of politeness than remorse, for the carryings-on in Chicago. “It was just a good show,” he says, “and everyone was just in a good mood, and that can tend to get out of hand”.
Smith suggests that we should go and sit somewhere quiet and talk about stuff before the buses find us. At no point does he put his fingers in his mouth. I forget to ask about the socks.
“It’s a funny tour, this,” he begins. “Everyone’s been in such a good mood the whole time. Staggering! There’s only been one violent row in twelve weeks, and that was really early on, when we were all still settling in.”
As I saw in Chicago, The Cure kidding around and unwinding backstage could be mistaken for a Wild West all-in. An actual violent row must be something to see.
“Yeah. . . the arguments, when they happen, do get pretty intense. I mean, one-on-one, we’ve had few set-tos, but there’s only been one big group row, which was very easily sorted out. I think it just comes from a constant reappraisal of what we’re doing. The first couple of weeks were quite intense. We had a lot of MTV and record company bollocks which we went along with, which was a bit dumb of us, really. We used our days off very badly. Since then, we’ve used them wisely.”
What do you do?
“Do? We don’t do anything.”
Smith, as he points out himself, is more constrained than most people in his position in terms of going outside for a bit of a walk, or trying to see the sights. He. . . there’s no other way to put it. He really does look like Robert Smith. This isn’t as fatuous a statement as it sounds: a lot of famous people, in the cold light of reality, look nothing like they do on television, or at least can get away with not looking quite like they do in magazines. The hair alone ensures that Robert Smith is unmistakeable. Robert Smith, possibly uniquely, has a famous shadow.
“Last time we were here,” he says, “we were also playing stadiums, but somehow people still didn’t know who the fuck we were. People in, like, Reno didn’t know who The Cure were, but this time they do, and it’s quite strange confronting that.”
It has its points. Having previously fronted American customs to tell them that I’d come to interview bands called Violent Femmes or Hole, it was nice to be able to say something that impressed them.
“Exactly. And it’s the first time that’s happened. And because of that, it’s still quite funny. Like, playing the Rose Bowl still just feels like. . . like a mistake, like it shouldn’t be us playing there.”
THAT afternoon, on CNN’s “Entertainment News”, a reporter at the Chicago show accosted one of the legions of Smith lookalikes on hand and attempted to gain some sort of insight into The Cure’s success. “They’re great,” replied the Smithette. “Really alternative.”
“THE fans. . . I dunno. Things started bothering me on the last American tour. We’d reached a certain level, and people knew where we were staying, and they’d check into the same hotels, so I’d have people camping in the hall outside my room, not just one or two but lots, sitting in the corridor and listening through the door, and it made me very. . . uncomfortable.”
Smith sounds almost as if he thinks he’s being unreasonable.
“But at the same time, I couldn’t really go out and tell them to fuck off, because really I should be pleased. But I wasn’t. So I’d just lie there and agonise over it, and it was driving me mad. So this time we’re all checked in under ridiculous assumed names, our hotels aren’t listed in the itinerary, so only we know where we’re staying, stuff like that.”
It still must be bloody strange looking out at an arena full of people all trying their damnedest to look like you. A bit “Life Of Brian”, I’d have thought: you know, “Yes! We’re all individuals!”
“Well, we went to this funny little diner a couple of weeks ago, somewhere between Denver and St Louis, or wherever. Anyway, horrible little town, full of people who aren’t particularly friendly to people who look like us. Anyway, we went in, and what must have been the only two Cure fans for miles around arrived just as we were finishing our meal – someone must have phoned them and tipped them off. And they were all dressed up, and made up, and wearing black, you know.
“I mean, I don’t know why they did it, but at the same time. . . when they walked in, everybody in the place went ‘Oooh’, like they were obviously the local weirdos. But when those people put two and two together, they had a kind of new-found respect, like, ‘Oh, we know this band, and these people are fans of this band.’ So I think people do it for that reason, to step outside the norm. And in some of the places we’re going, that must take a lot of courage. I think, really, it’s just like warpaint, or tribal feathers or a. . . I dunno, a kilt, or something.”
On “Wish”, there’s a song called “End”, which contains the repeated line “Please stop loving me/I am none of these things”, which. . .
“Yeah, in part. But it’s mainly directed at me. The bit about ‘All the things you say/And all the things you write’ is me talking to myself. There’s an irony there when I’m up on stage doing it, but I realised that there would be. I do feel quite self-conscious that people are taking it as if it’s directed at them, though.”
People come over roughly every five seconds to tell Robert that the bus is on its way, or about to arrive, or here now, but he doesn’t seem in any hurry – it’s not like they’re going to go anywhere without him. He carries on talking about the tour, musing on the irony that when The Cure came out to America a few years ago to tour the epic doom-fest “Disintegration”, crowds threw flowers and teddy bears onto the stage,
“Whereas this time, when we’ve come out with a much more upbeat record, you know, ‘Friday I’m In Love’ and all that, we’ve been getting a lot of phials of people’s blood and Baudelaire books”. He bites quickly when I try to bracket The Cure alongside Simple Minds and U2 in a peer group of post-punk bands that have gone megaplatinum – Smith dismisses both, with a theatrical snort, as “Competitors for the title of most foolish-looking-into-the-middle-distance band in the world”.
He’s also entertainingly indiscreet about his former bandmate and pending legal adversary Lol Tolhurst, gleefully reciting choice excerpts from the universally appalling reviews garnered by Tolhurst’s post-Cure band, Presence (“I can’t fucking wait for the court case”). In the piles of stuff being stacked onto the bus is a gift that has given to Robert by an associate of the band: a Lol Tolhurst dartboard.
“The thing to keep remembering,” says Smith, finally, “is that we’re a very foolish band. And we always have been.”
AS Sweet made his way into the photo pit in Chicago, he was approached by a couple of local kids, who wanted to know if he’d be meeting the band. When Sweet said yeah, they gave him a passport-sized photograph and asked if Sweet could get Robert to sign it. It was, they explained, a picture of a friend of theirs, a huge Cure fan. She’d been killed six months ago in a car-surfing mishap. Sweet took the photo, and the kids’ addresses.
In Toronto, when Sweet gives Smith the photo and explains the story, Robert looks utterly at a loss. After staring at it, shaking his head silently for a few seconds, he borrows a pen from someone.
“What,” he scrawls across the top of it, “can I possibly write?”
And he signs his name to the bottom.