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 bass player 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.”
MUCH MORE HERE Chain Of Flowers: Stories from the 1992 Wish Tour.