At the end of the first vinyl age, a thing we called just records, then, The Cure’s Mixed Up was the last record I purchased before switching to CDs fully. In the confusing time of the late 80s formats competed and co-existed; we’d buy records, tapes or CDs, whatever was available at that moment of that shopping trip, or whatever was more affordable.
CDs were “the future”.
Tapes were perfect escape routes to a new portability, of soundtracking ourselves: through the bike ride, the bus trip, the boring class.
Records were of both our parent’s world and ours, a blurry place of shared, too heavy to move equipment, expensive components prone to static shocks and unsupervised wild abandon-fueled casual destruction.
The records would sit, left behind in attics or basements when we left home. But my generation is now finding that despite gross negligence, dust, damp, mold and the accumulated dander of four cats in a family basement, they still play after 30 years. Records are unearthed like elegant vampires, thriving far from direct sunlight, their only real enemy, and despite the 80s hype, have proven to be less vulnerable than those easily scratched CDs. They last better than many cheap books and magazines that definitely did not live in smoke-free homes. They do not rot like tapes. They are not insidious like easily corrupted digital files and disappearing flash drives. That shit’s for Taylor Swift.
Finding some of my original stack of Cure albums at my parents’ house this past summer (under materials for a long delayed wall building project) was as if everything I’d been writing about and experiencing and creating for 18 months as a burgeoning music writer had cracked open a portal to myself, to my very heart, and its buried treasures I assumed were in landfill. But it turns out we were just buried in a lot of clutter and unfinished projects.
The basement musty smell embedded in the record sleeves took months to live with. Meanwhile, with no turntable, I held them occasionally, reading the liner notes – the fine print that tells a long buried story.
The liner notes and the fine print on an album were all important. I’m not sure if the newer artists have been able to create this key element or need to study up:
This was the way we got to know our beloved bands in precisely (and only) the ways they wanted to be known, a million miles away from a Wikipedia, in their one or a few photos and coded messages that would reveal, always, a band’s authenticity or its opposite. And I read every thank you section on every album with a detective’s eye, sensing the secrecy of the world of hidden cool that needs not shout.
There is no envy like the envy I felt for the names thanked, famous or cryptic, nicknames or initials; I pored over these liner notes of the 80s and 90s. Often there were no lyric sheets and those I would transcribe by ear, my own version becoming authoritative to me, embedding them in my brain forever like real research. It seemed to me then, and even more now, that there is no greater calling than to write the liner notes (an essay) for a record or box set. The job better still exist in this goddamned vinyl resurgence because it is its own award/reward for a type of job that lives in the dark most of the time.
On the brief Disintegration liner notes it reads, in the all-caps type that we know today in the era of digital communication signifies the personal hand of Robert Smith:
THIS MUSIC HAS BEEN MIXED TO BE PLAYED LOUD
SO TURN IT UP
This was your chat with the man himself. This was the special feature. The meet and greet. Even you, even me. All these mini-discoveries from holding and reading the physical thing that the music lived in were important, vinyl’s essence, a link to our deeper selves and the ways we obtained, valued, heard, AND really listened once.
The unburied trove of my Cure records were still just ephemera, mostly, until six months later when emerged as a self-Christmas gift, no less (how wonderfully retro!) our first proper stereo in 15 years.
It was the season of The Cure on a world tour, the best season that comes around only every couple of years. It was the season of The Witch, of Black Philip, and of me. It was the season of joking about witchcraft, of reveling in the miracle of Nothing’s blackness as a portal to transcendence & joy (it’s back, y’all!) of imagining signs and of vibrations and new feelings, of conjuring and creating and bending the world just a little- you can have your superstitions and I’ll have mine-
-of writing about the most essential music both live and recorded and discovery and rediscovery in the dark and in the blazing sun, in spite of the lore of burning or melting we all sparkled and laughed from the stage, from the barrier, from the back of the room, all in this together. Despite all the dull dystopia of modern life that is darker than the most byzantine Cure track, but as cold and inhuman as an insurance form, it was a season of smoke escaping from a tiny cracked window, that’s all it takes, a crack, the wind will take it. And oh, yeah, it’s a smoke signal.
In the well loved, sometimes played out and destroyed records of my youth was an anomaly. The Cure’s Mixed Up remix record looked new, untouched, its two records impossibly unscratched. How could this be mine? The well-used objects I loved had to be marked and devalued to protect them from theft- they looked like evidence of battle or hatred: beaten, water-sogged and ridden with oily fingerprints. But I didn’t care for it back then. I played it a few times and then moved away from it and home.
The Cure’s Mixed Up was released after Smith’s “midlife crisis” masterpiece that is Disintegration. Now, in 1989 I knew naught about 30, I was busy white-knuckling through my late teens in my own crises. But it was understood innately, emotionally, and at the soul level. Oh, and musically! My best friend wanted to marry Robert Smith, my boyfriend wanted to be him, and I just wanted to feel better. To feel understood. To find and ride the line between utter boredom and screaming, blind ambition, a chronic pain that was blunted in the usual way. All of us spoke Cure to one another as much as English or local slang of our childhoods. All of us wrote long letters or notes, grafitti’d and defaced our biblical verses of our records wherever we could, mostly just mimics of something far greater than our clutch, than our puny lives.
For awhile, my attachment and appreciation and love of The Cure’s music, my self-soundtrack, was mixed up with that life of mine at the always difficult teenage years. I had mostly flawless skin but a permanent broken heart that attracted other broken people to my orbit, and we’d work on ripping scabs off one other, bruise on bruise. I had to leave it all behind. It was not nostalgia, but its opposite. I couldn’t even have my nostalgia. This is probably why I enjoy certain forms of nostalgia now, in carefully edited bites, so reverently. But there is a difference between nostalgia with its rote habit of affection for what is gone forever and love in its urgency hidden inside stoicism.
A five-year break from the old stuff was required (two eras), although Wish made it back into my life in a slightly later era (eras are but years and relationships when you are young) (and is a criminally underappreciated masterpiece you need to go and listen to right now if you have a heart and ears. Notice here how cleverly The Cure mixes light and darks, expert Sweetie Pop with something oceanic called “The Edge of the Deep Green Sea” which either leaves me speechless or makes me itch to write 5000 unreadable words of biblical fangirl shit-) Wish is deep enough to have brought me back to my devotion, to share with my new love who loved it, to keep it handy for growing pains and anger and waves of a real relationship, and to laugh about it all now, still hand in hand. He loves The Cure as much as I do, naturally, the records are safe, treasured and celebrated and so are we, at long last.
-that said, the worst and most enraging knee jerk criticism about The Cure, even worse than 1950s toned sneers about makeup or the like is that because we 70s or 80s kids loved it in our teens it is something that belongs in the past. “This reminds me…I used to listen to this…” this laziness in the media and in the vocal audience at home. Unfortunately, much of the commentariat of public discussion on Facebook or Youtube, or woeful horrid articles about this fine band in the British press, the very people who would settle for that means and mode and quality of communication with its permanent shallowness, are not real Cure fans. These people who just share and share and share what is stolen- content hosted on Youtube accounts people “own” with car ads and garbage that are the antithesis of The Cure’s every musical note and public act and artistic creation – are not celebrating or experts in anything except minor league corruption.
Real Cure fans own the music and see every tour (as triumphant in 2016 as ever) if they have the money and means and are blessed by geography as we privileged are in this world, and don’t need to crow about it for a few likes or emojis on public social media – unless we are drunk and we do it very late at night to telegraph love to some other like minded soul in the dark belly of the beast we’re all Matrixed into across most of the world, when it feels exactly like the long-ago thrill of a pen-friend’s letter, a note in your locker from your crush, a lighthouse above the rocks; or unless we feel like wishing Merry Christmas to the man himself, you know? If you’re going to drunk dial, might as well try to buzz god and cut out the middleman.
But that caveat aside, how cheap culture and digital communities have gotten, how quick, how low. How it is. How dull its shine. Its noise interrupting signals of real music with all its beauty and fire. It’s a crying shame, it is. Us soldiers bought the Head on the Door record and then the tape and then the CD and maybe the digital version and now I’ve just bought the record again. And I cried, because it was actually bought for me as a surprise, and it’s all new again. That’s the price of love, of art and its still a fucking bargain at any price. That’s the potential of love. Of ART.
Now, if New Kids on the Block were the band in question, the pang of embarrassed nostalgia and wistful half-detachment, the knowledge that the shit is not worth paying for in the clear eyed light of adulthood would be entirely sound. But do not get it twisted! Untwist that shit. I am talking about The Cure. Maybe some of these thoughtless commenters are not utter idiots, maybe a few are just detached from their youthful selves (but still, that’s a crime) because music like this is not an old Polaroid where you say “ah! I used to love this, this takes me back…”. The Cure’s music was so immense, that while some of us were teenagers, and discerning teenagers of today still find it and fall in love and see it as a map through and out of the darkness of much of human experience itself, an essential tool, it wasn’t teenager music. You were just lucky to have it EARLY. As a gift. If you didn’t have a traumatic youth, or were not a deep and broody sort, great. You now had for a few quid a gift from the future that you might need at 25, at 30 or at 40. I’ve finally figured out enough of life to know that I’ll need it even more at 50.
The Cure’s music was a message from the future! Like Bowie et al was for The Cure and a FEW other iconic bands that formed in the 1970s and early 80s. Never mind the hair, the perfect hair that millions tried to copy and a few pulled off, the hair is a uniform that separated ally from enemy, and still does. That’s all. You know on sight what side you’re on. And so do they.
In the wake of Disintegration, and into Wish, The Cure received the frightening gift of massive American success with all its tentacles of evil compromise, money attached to things you’d never do as a real artist who was not desperate for a gig and a need to mix with people who’ll drain your energy and threaten your creativity with their lack of same. And this was no boy band- they’d been wise to this game for a decade or more. So The Cure would then begin to regularly announce their imminent end/break up/ last tour. The artists you enjoy and even admire are most interesting when they face their crises- and some do not survive them- commercially, critically, or even actually.
But these artists somehow weathered it all, pulling back from those tentacles which would have put them and us ride-or-die fans all through some sort of meat grinder out of Pink Floyd visuals, and so we owe them a debt. A very small but important debt – to continue to return to good music that comes to us in our privileged cities of the world. To carry the flag without being reminded of it on a Nike ad, or a bad film’s trailer, or a Youtube spot for a $6.00 household cleaner no matter how sexy some asshole on Madison Avenue is trying to make Mr. Clean. To keep it real in return. To not need to be marketed to, for we never did need that. We were innovators and early adopters once. We had our ears to the ground. We understood vibrations and light and dark magic as it was thrust at us from authority figures with their carrots and their sticks and from boys we liked who would give us precious tapes we’d never heard of even if it was their only redeeming quality in a string of turmoil and casual betrayal. Their weed was just oregano, their hearts were already hard as tootsie rolls but boys like that knew things like music, like style.
None of us are 16 anymore, does that make us irrelevant? Retro? And all of us whose hearts beat to the same rhythms as this (“Close to Me”) and memorized the song’s opening door creak thousands of hours ago, are 16 where and when and how it matters. In music. Including Robert Smith. Simon Gallup. Reeves Gabrels. The army of fans worldwide. My partner and our two year old baby called DISARM. We started late. We buried it, told and believing for a while that adulthood meant something drier and more builder beige, wall to wall carpeted and corporate than anything good and exciting can ever be. The music would have always shaken us out of that lie and kept us clean and honest. Selling out and real music cannot co-exist.
Some stat says people turn away from music in their 30s. But ignore the stats. YOU ARE NOT A STAT! There’s so much gold in them hills, you weren’t ecstatic blaring your records only because you were a teenage drunk with the house to yourself- if you were blaring them to try to catch your crush down the street’s ear who wasn’t even worth a bat of your lash-you were really doing it because the music was bloody brilliant. And so were you. And there was so much of it that was so brilliant that it is timeless. You know, like they tell us The Beatles or Dylan supposedly is? Brilliance didn’t stop in 1973 or die with Lennon. The crass commercialization of the Baby Boomer’s toys and preoccupations has to go away now, its been leeched of all meaning. Our Beatles and our Rolling Stones and my Bowie is Robert Smith. And not just mine. The problem is that journalists of Smith’s time refused to see it then, and can never admit how wrong they were now. How they were the clowns, not the guy in the makeup. Those media elites. Those fools. The Cure and their fans including most of the important bands that formed in their wake accept that deepest recognition and influence and admiration and a body of uncorrupted work that will live forever will have to do and we simply laugh at the media, at the tourists, at the “fans” who are both dumb and arrogant enough to claim they could outgrow this shit, while kidding themselves that McCartney and Lennon’s teenage asides written in between groupies still matter.
You want to find some new music? Check out Three Imaginary Boys, Seventeen Seconds, Pornography, Faith, The Top, The Head on the Door, Standing on a Beach the Singles (and especially those b-sides, now that you have the albums) Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, Disintegration and Wish. These works comprise just 15 years of one band’s early career output who is still achieving and record breaking in the only records that matter now: quality of performance and endurance in both sprints and marathons and stunning and healing and catching us from our falls and providing therapy that will not kill you or bankrupt you or make you an asshole like others will in the hands of the less competent, more jaded, more corrupt counsellors who can’t write scripts and are just failed actors and artists with some night courses. Instead of always crowing for new music like some kind of TV baby with no impuse control, like baby birds, may I suggest that those records could keep you entertained, consoled, soundtrack your divorce, your wedding, your housecleaning, your party, your funerals real and spiritual, private and public for years to come? It’s your soundtrack, it’s not been ruined by shitty samples in the shittiest hip hop and its never sold out. It’s immune to that. If the music’s worthiness is not shouted from every rooftop across the big media cities of the globe it’s time to question what’s paying the rent on those roofs and what those writers even know of music and art and life anymore. Or ever.
I regret my time of indifference to my favourite band. I was a dutiful collector but I was not ready for remixes. It was ahead of its time, naturally. In the UK in the late 80s like anyone worth their salt, Robert Smith was exploring the new world of U.K. and European Electronic, Dance and Underground music that inspired him, that was different from his own, how else to get inspired? At 20, I knew naught of inspiration, of needing to change, but I was about to. I would meet someone at 21 that I share music appreciation with still, and he was into all those forms of music while I was stubbornly stuck in 1986. For awhile. Doing the Unstuck.
And now, uncovering all my well-earned old treasures on vinyl, I have a near-mint copy of The Cure’s Mixed Up, which is also almost new to me, after 20 odd years of ever-changing & eroding music, post-modernism, the expected normalcy of instant remixes and a culture of pastiche. Of a lifetime being mixed up and of finding that these songs still and will forever matter through changing times and shedding skins and decay and rot around us that cannot touch real art. And this old record of mine emerges, positively elegant. Gently reworked by Robert Smith himself (a fact I missed back then, I was so burned out at 20) lightly changing the structures, speeds, layers, reverb and echoes of treasured songs from their entire decade’s gorgeous output from “A Forest” to “Fascination Street”. Take these two and call me in the morning. Or drunk tweet me tonight.
You can hear music that might have been flirting with the idea of film soundtrack use, if only the worthy and correct film offers had come through, and it seems they didn’t. You can hear an artist needing to grow and adapt and find inspiration in his own work again, in necessary resistance to the possibility that large swaths of the planet, people like me who were slow on the uptake and almost too loyal, too nostalgic for their age, too fearful of life, would dig their heels in stubbornly. Fans who were in a brief crisis of staleness in their own lives, stuck in an unhappy record groove, knowing all the words and punctuating sounds but ignorant of thecommercialized threat of big ugly crowds and their chants that threaten artistic destruction, the crowds that immobilize music into an airless prayer chanted out of rote stripped of feeling. At the football stadium. In the club. On television.
These are places that real music needs to be sheltered from, even if they appear now and again, and rouse and rally as well as some fast food pop released under the name of a silicone filled phony whose angst or realness is written by old bald Scandanavian men faraway. That type of thing, the rejection of change and music so real it hurt, and the resistance to corporate shit meant to make us feel shitty, we’d have to learn to run from. And we are learning still that we must be vigilant about our ART of our Time. It seems to me that too many one time music lovers left so much impeccable, timeless music shattered like crushed beer cups in an exit stampede on the way out of our youth that was actually charmed as we strutted through our little patch accompanied by the coolest soundtrack ever made. We get stale sometimes. Real music never does.
Jacqueline Howell @jacksdisarm