The Cure are as captivating now as they were 40 years ago
The music legends will be performing live in SA for the first time in March
It was the strangeness of the man that I remember most before I'd ever heard the sneaky, deceptive simplicity of his music. Robert Smith - the dark-haired, bird's-nest-tousled, mascara-wearing, mournfully-earnest-staring frontman of The Cure seemed to be everywhere in the mid to late '90s. On teenage girls' bedroom walls and home-wrapped school notebooks; on MTV singing earnest ballads of love and loss that undercut their Gothic romanticism with toe-tapping basslines and saxophone riffs; on the shelves of CD shops where the band's middle-era album Mood Swings, with its creepy front cover of a cracked toy, was displayed in the murkily and too loosely defined Alternative section.
By the time I was a teenager The Cure were strange gods of a particular galaxy of the rock universe — godfathers of Goth, draped in black and silver jewellery, authors of songs that spoke to sensitive poetry-loving outsiders 20th-century musical inheritors of the literary Romantic movement — their tunes evoking misty, windswept moors and wilting roses.
Smith was the only constant presence at the front of an entity of musical expression that straddled the spectrum from the comforting misery of songs like Pictures of You to the wilfully happy abandonment of Lovecats, in a dizzy blend of heartbreak, love, disillusionment and morbidly self-destructive but utterly relatable and transcendent navel-gazing.
Smith, like his surname, was the late 20th-century everyman par excellence —ecstatically obsessed on Monday, horribly disappointed on Wednesday and quietly amused and perplexed by Friday.
WATCH | The music video for The Cure's track Pictures of You
Once you drank the band's Kool-Aid and started immersing yourself in their back catalogue, the trip was weird and dark and light and singularly intriguing and full of revelations.
Formed in 1978 by a group of friends from the liberal-minded Notre Dame Middle School in Crawley, West Sussex, The Cure started off their musical life as a slightly pretentious, Albert Camus-reading group of post-punk art-rockers whose first single, Killing an Arab, was — contrary to its later First-Gulf War-era xenophobic misuse — about the protagonist of Camus's absurdist bible The Stranger.
"Staring at the beach, staring at the sand," sang Smith as the rest of the band provided a suitably tinny, Arab-influenced tongue-in-cheek accompaniment behind him for a song that encapsulates — perhaps more than any other — the sheer what-the-fuckness of everyday life. It's no coincidence that the opening lines of the song provided the title for the group's 1986 greatest hits compilation that was for me, and many others, a seminal introduction to their music.
Smith was not the obvious choice for the frontman of a supposed post-punk band — he didn't display the same levels of anger, angst or political fervour of former punk-spitting singers like Public Image's John Lydon, Magazine's Howard Devoto, Gang of Four's Jon King, or Joy Division's Ian Curtis — but there was something in the particular, mournful, breathy delivery of his very personal songs that made him and his band stand out as both of the post-punk moment and different from it.
It's an in-between space that The Cure has occupied successfully for just over four decades — not-quite-post-punk, not-quite-New-Wave, almost-Goth, not-really-alternative, never-really-pop but somehow all of these and more.
At their peak, The Cure offered an intelligent alternative to the '80s celebration of excess and materialism — celebrated by bands such as Duran Duran, Huey Lewis and the News and Guns 'n Roses — that spoke to those for whom money and excess, Thatcher and Reagan were not the answer. They were smart and funny and heartfelt and always walking poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "constantly risking absurdity" tightrope between self-expression and popular acclaim.
In the continuum of 20th-Century music there's a dark, black line that runs from '60s-psychedelic-inspired Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd through to the exquisitely vampiric obsessions of The Cure and on to the angst-ridden, self-flagellating anthems of Thom Yorke and Radiohead. Without Smith and his band there would be no Tim Burton films, no Smashing Pumpkins, no Interpol, Bloc Party, The Killers and other bands that led the early 2000s revival of indie/emo music.
He'll be 60 this year and he's heavier and noticeably more jowly but make no mistake that Smith is still the distinctive, mascara-sporting, enigmatic frontman of a band whose stamp on the history of popular culture will be cemented by their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month, shortly after they make their first appearance in SA.
You wouldn't think it to look at him but Smith and The Cure are legendary live performers — frequently giving fans three hours-plus of carefully curated tonics to the bullshit of the money-grabbing rubbish that is modern life. Robert Smith is The Cure and The Cure are … well obviously — the antidote to an indefinable sense that surface changes don't actually change the way we react to the horrible, ever-present anxieties at the heart of our lived experiences. They've been telling us for 40 years but somehow, we're still not listening. Now we'll have a chance.
• The Cure headline the Rock on the Lawns Festival at Carnival City in Johannesburg on March 16 and Kenilworth Race Course in Cape Town on March 21.