By Jacqueline Howell
Thirty years later, Disintegration is both transformative and transcendent. The chronicle of a break down and survival has grown with us into a uniquely life-affirming artistic statement.
DISINTEGRATION, as is the fashion these days, is celebrating an anniversary. Or is it a birthday? With passing time, with invented mini-holidays for all and sundry, and with the ease of online, free of the discomfort of the “Happy Birthday” song, we celebrate these milestones of new classic records.
We fans celebrate them wholeheartedly. Disintegration’s anniversary is couched within the larger anniversary of The Cure themselves: a band at the milestone of 40 with no signs of slowing, a band with a face unlined and gaze still sharp, and one with a voice THE SAME as ever, as clear, even singing in the same youthful key. The Cure’s legacy is not bronzed and flattened, rather, it’s a vivid one, an event in defiance of time, age, and expectations. The Cure’s recent milestones have been marked in their own way. Conceding to the rare public spectacle, there they all were at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (providing a mini concert and even an unlikely, endearing meme for forever fans and casual observers, both). Celebrations more personal included Robert Smith’s curation of Meltdown Festival in London last summer, followed shortly by the legendary concert (/mini festival) in Hyde Park in July (filmed by Tim Pope for a future feature-length concert film) which saw 50,000 of us singing entire verses like football chants while the intro notes were still issuing into the shimmering heat wave atmosphere. Among many other cues, a DISINTEGRATION fan will never hear a stray neighbourhood wind chime the same way. It sets off “Plainsong” in our hearts.
None of The Cure’s 40th Anniversary events have been anything other than what feels appropriate for a band immune to branding, hype-resistant, stoic and incorruptible, whose genre is CUREMUSIC and CUREMUSIC only. This band, like few others, has moved into the difficult digital and downright messy social media age with their own unique take on grace. There are only rare, gem-like all-caps updates from on high. Occasional, mannered calls for pressing issues of the day. Do vote. Tour news, sent out just once, needing nothing more. The communiques are never mundane or shallow – and so millions choose to read them as personal correspondence.
April / May is the traditional season of new Cure releases, so we’ve had a lot to mark and celebrate along with the 40th. It’s also the time of year that the band’s founder celebrates (or ignores, for all we know) his birthday. In my home, we’ve re-named Record Store Day Robert Smith Day, as it fell on his birthday last year. And these last few have been special, so we’ve got to celebrate what we can, don’t we? We’ve lost too many artists we’ve loved blindly and fully, their lyrics tattooed across the skin of countless fans, their tours embedded in the fabric of countless lives, names out of songs bestowed upon a generation of babies, so many artists at once an indelible part of us, yet gone too soon, often painfully, even brutally. It seems everyone knows loss first hand now, as well as the universal pall of the Black Star, or a Firestarter, impossibly, extinguished. So we must rally for ourselves and our allies and our few worthy heroes like never before, with deeper context than rock and roll music was ever meant to carry, and especially, far beyond the industry’s low expectations for the too often dismissed post-punk “80s” which was called then “new wave” or dismissed by sneering critics as “haircut” music. Through all of this roller coaster of life we met The Cure’s music. And in the years since, we’ve continued to find new facets of The Cure, and prismatically, ways to understand our own lives.
DISINTEGRATION is, reportedly, an epic journey through early-mid life crisis. Is this common knowledge? From reliable sources? From the source himself? Or have we intuited it? I’ve only ever taken liner notes as plain fact. You feel it, though, it permeates the work, with an urgency: an artist nearing age 30, having worked a lifetime already building this strange, beautiful creature, faced with his worst critic, the one inside, and pivotal questions both artistic and personal – ones not so different than the turning 30 moment that keeps us all awake. Do I marry? Have a family? Is love lasting? Is my best (work / life) behind me? Why do I feel so Goddamned old? What am I meant to be doing, if not this?
DISINTEGRATION came after a marathon run of albums and increasingly endless tours – at an output beyond the layperson’s comprehension- since the band’s formation in 1977. It marked a private breakdown not seen by us in the crowd, in the world: fans, devotees, Walkman owners. We were not consumers then. Not users. We scrambled for concert tickets- then just $15, tour T-Shirts and programs if we were lucky. We bought records or tapes, whatever our suburbias supplied us with – only looking at picture discs and imports. Music press was sparse in my part of the world, and we pored over any interviews and photos we could find, then, so limited and intriguing. There were never live photos of The Cure, just some studio things we cherished like fine art, sketched and tried to replicate, hung on the wall. A still from a TV appearance. The one with the flowered house dresses. This band was vividly alive in their Tim Pope-directed videos, a full carnival, and immense on the record. But on the wall, they were still, inbetween. A mystery. We were not the armchair quarterbacks and all-knowing experts fans claim to be today. We did not hold scorecards or make demands. Who would hear us? We were mannered. We waited, we showed up on time, we wore out vinyl discs, then tapes, and finally CDs.
My generation (at the time of DISINTEGRATION, angsty teens with our own sheen of faux-cool) had no inkling, then, that our beloved artists got depressed. There were only heavy metal car crashes and the sad slow death of Karen Carpenter, haunting in life and death, for reference. Despite what outsiders might say about our so-called “gloomy” music, we interpreted it correctly: as cathartic, as artistically profound, as art. We didn’t imagine young, strong musicians as ill, or that they might be white knuckling through addiction and withdrawal. We were naïve pre-Behind the Music VH1. No one knew how many musicians were wrecked from the pains of the road, or cratered occasionally with boredom, loneliness, and artist-torments they suffered, maybe cold-turkey, to enable creation itself. That the realest, who leave it all on the stage night after night, too-often burn out, the downside of making it. That fans turn on artists in their necessary evolutions. Even this band who mined and explained the depths of despair, hallucinogenic love / lust / pain / anger / the madness of young feelings to us, were miles and layers far away from our experience. We never thought to explain their significance to ourselves, and if we had, it would have included embarrassing-still baby-fat-cheeked words leftover in our vocabularies from the 1970s. Words like “magic.”
England, to Canadian kids, was just an imposing land mass. The Cure was an impenetrable entity. Our small reality was as detailed as veins, and as unremarkable. But we grabbed on tight to this music. It was our version of beach party music. We liked how it changed the air in the room like no other music. It was, like no one else, romantic and cinematic, befitting our dramas. It said what you weren’t supposed to say if you were a good girl or boy. It said it plainly, openly, bravely. It said it angrily, coldly, sarcastically. It showed us that even if our own diaries met their correct fates of being ripped up regularly, that such a thing was worth sharing when done artfully: with a twist, with a beat, and with a purpose. We were moved. Changed. Radicalized towards independent thought and authenticity which is not necessarily pretty, but is also beautiful in its way.
We knew from DISINTEGRATION that raging out musically was cathartic, and cool. The Cure asserted their firm place in the world by saying “we are allowed to be dark and messy and we demand to exist, whether you like it or not.” And there was no like, only love. We’d never heard such authenticity before that was our music. The Cure’s sounds and worldview was, by now, both an intriguing puzzle, and somehow touched us at our small, suburban knotted cores of still-malleable, still fragile self-identity. We were the five percent of the culture who connected with outsider music, innately and unconditionally fell in love with a few men in makeup, and dropped our beliefs in daddy-knows-best for something more sideways, eventually leading to our own voices. Post-Cure, we didn’t need the radio anymore to tell us or reflect back to us what was good. This music was passed, in Toronto, hand to hand, or experienced live more than through the radio or MuchMusic, (our MTV). We were casualties of end-of-the-century religious upbringing, first-children–Dr. Spock- experimental kids, or midlife and publicly obvious “accidents” of illogical middle-class unions. We were all a sausage roll away from English or Irish (or both) roots. Yet, we were disconnected and felt rootless. We never visited those places. Our elders did not look back. But something called to us. Something not touristic. We were, like our first role models at home and school, quietly sad, innately raging, and good actors. The Cure, and DISINTEGRATION found us at the exact moment we needed them, articulating something wordlessly brewing in us, and the world, shaking something loose.
Ever since the South Park kids shouted to the planet that “DISINTEGRATION IS THE BEST ALBUM EVER”, capping a first-season episode (1998) which featured a very game Robert Smith himself going with the flow, it seems easy to imagine that this assertion has always been a globalized, accepted truth. This is not so. What South Park did was remarkable. It took something that felt like a secret code of the underground and shouted it from prime-time television, signaling the first anniversary of sorts for this or any modern record, then a precocious nine years old. The Cure, always workhorses, found much outward success before and after DISINTEGRATION, a record which might have been intended as a sign-off but instead would engrave their legacy among fans, young bands, and artistic souls the world over, and thankfully not the mainstream. The Cure, and DISINTEGRATION, would yet remain stubbornly apart from the terrible machine of the industry and the desperation of the encroaching digital age. They were still too weird for the boring and the mass market, and up to then, most of their music had suited only “College” radio in North America. They were, then, always cool and never overplayed. “Friday I’m In Love” broke that format forever, signaling to us fans that they could, if they wanted, write a hit justlikethat, too. The Cure would never don wacky costumes at the behest of some slimy advertiser, let their most profound song sell soda or luxury cars, appear as a school dance band on a teen drama to embarrass us all, or otherwise get cozy with the unbeautiful, crummy world of marketing. They undoubtedly turned down legions of offers that would have compromised their time and ethics. And ours. Instead, the music of DISINTEGRATION turned up very occasionally and somehow perfectly. For no reason at all, Adam Horovitz’s character in cult classic Lost Angels (1989) careens down a road in the Hollywood Hills, taking his mother’s car and sealing his fate to be committed to a mental facility, to a sliver of “Fascination Street”. That song and its appearance in film is curious as an American-only single that was a big hit on Alternative radio across North America. It’s a great song, a ramble, one that let the wider world know this was a band of skilled musicians that could do mysterious things with guitars.
It happened just like other people’s Beatlemania, only without the mania. Our manias were the underground kind, the buried under-pillow, repressed, dark sort. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that one can see the painful teenage crises that were innocently dark, like the depths of DISINTEGRATION’s journey. That the kids we were, were not alright, at all, but treading water, who dodged curses and serial killers and cars with indifferent, alcoholic shrugs. Liquid courage. Drunk words, sober thoughts. We never fought but we slammed, we threatened, we railed. We scribbled. We prayed, still. Most of us made it out.
In between albums, The Cure went to their private lives (I presumed, in “The French Countryside“, for some reason) and we went on with our own micro dramas. Having spent our youth immersed in The Cure, DISINTEGRATION, while immense and addictive, was just the latest bounty in a solid run of our life’s soundtrack. We loved KISS ME, KISS ME, KISS ME just as much. The TOP, too. The dark early trilogy we fell into after HEAD ON THE DOOR, my group of friends’ entry point. STANDING ON A BEACH kids. After DISINTEGRATION, WISH (a treasure) would feel like a natural progression. DISINTEGRATION’s legacy that has vaulted it past most of the entire era’s offerings as well as other Cure records in the public imagination happened just as organically as the fact that we’ve all grown up together, still here, still listening, still connecting. It helped that they were never playing against anyone but themselves and their demons.
DISINTEGRATION, like classic literature, is a record that you can pick up all these years later and find that it crackles with the same electricity as ever (if not more). We change, it waits. It’s for all who recognize that records over 45 minutes long have at least twice as much pressure to be great, that they are risking the wrath of all critics, but pay long odds. For we are not frustrated children anymore, enjoying a healthy outlet for our anger and pain, navigating hormonal waters and Romeo and Juliet recreations (only with anemic endings). We are tired now. We’ve seen all sides of love, that thing you can never bypass if you are human. We’ve been hurt in ways that may leave permanent scars, that can’t be junked like an old yearbook. We’ve made vows that we’ve intended to keep, Lovesongs, gone all in. We’ve known the spider-nightmares with no adult to shake us safe from, because we are supposed to be the adult, now. We’ve grappled with homesickness, prayed for rain, swam in the sea, and maybe know too much about how to drown. We’ve lost people who didn’t beat back the monsters under the bed, outside us, within, that can come to threaten any one of our tender brains. And too many of us have lost the irreplaceable: mother. The dog. Or the one person who always saw you as the child full of promise you were supposed to be. The losses are unfixable. We can only go on.
DISINTEGRATION is a record for happiness, too. It’s the rarest of records. For those past the turmoil of their youthful ways, their wrongheaded ideas of home life, who’ve found some peace, there are few pleasures greater than listening to “The Same Deep Water as You” hand in hand with your long-time love while it storms outside. There comes a point in life, a well earned, battle-scarred day, when you might breathe a sigh that you no longer miss the kiss of treachery, and can simply marvel at the bareness of all this feeling spun into wax so many years ago that will outlive you all, and that you know will be timeless. That maybe the best band of your time is only now being fully understood, written about more deeply, with perspective, at last, its inimitable music styles at least tentatively attempted by the new new wave of young bands who know that nothing will ever replace the guitar or the drum. That the only lasting, worthy voice must be singular and not one remade by A.I.
DISINTEGRATION held teenagers and adults aloft and made us feel better. It was healthy. It was lengthy. It was just right. It has a rhythm that is one perfected by The Cure alone, one that drives writers to try to translate this gift into their prose and always will. It’s the sea itself. It’s a great wave. It rolls in. It creeps out. It sweeps, and it rocks. There is happiness, and there is despair. Back and forth. Refreshingly, startlingly honest. There’s the unspoken: but then he speaks it, he murmurs it, he screams it, he shakes it in the light and transforms it into something tolerable. Then shimmery. Then pretty. Then no longer afraid. Suddenly, even anthemic. It’s still magic. Not cynical sleight-of-hand. Not cheap, threadbare, charlatan trickery, but real magic. Alchemy. Sorcery. Witchcraft. The dark contrasts cleanly with the light, in perfect balance, and there is nothing more beautiful.
The Cure are playing select festivals this summer and a new album is in the works.