writing devastation: on Robert Smith

With his stained, blood-red lips and nest of wiry hair, his brothel creepers and hollow eyes ringed in oil black, Robert Smith wanders the stage like a living ghost. The grain of the recording of The Cure’s performance in Brazil, 1996, distorts his features as he floats around in an oversized flannel; the strain of his voice echoes as it catches in his throat, the words gurgling, overflowing. Fragments of lyrics fall away, replaced by unintelligible mumbles or empty guitar choruses; the pieces of words shift out of time as they spill over his teeth. The crowd ripples with glee at the performance, cheering on the morose husk of Smith as he stumbles through “Disintegration,” the title track from The Cure’s eighth studio album.

The Cure was never meant to be a household name; a young Smith dismissed aspirations of fame, insistent that the band would never belong among the catechisms of mainstream stardom. Yet, as the group neared the end of the 80s, their success was mounting. Smith was wracked with depression, devastated by the fast approach of his thirtieth birthday and the soaring trajectory of The Cure as their shows and their audience continued to widen. An album at odds with its own creation, Disintegration (1989) was a commercial monstrosity wrung by the cold hands of the new wave Victor Frankenstein. Within three years of its release, it would sell three million copies worldwide, bolstering a legacy that Smith never wanted, steeped in gloom and heavy psychedelic use.

Watching this particular performance nearly twenty-five years after its recording, I am transfixed by the empty expression of Smith as he stares beyond the camera, the line of his red mouth flat beneath a barrage of multi-colored stage lights. The band plays on around him as he rubs the microphone against his forehead, fixing some displaced strands of hair or perhaps seeking comfort in its familiar metallic touch. His voice crystallizes as his intensity crescendos, crying out the haunting bridge:

And now that I know that I'm breaking to pieces
I'll pull out my heart and I'll feed it to anyone

I'm crying for sympathy, crocodiles cry
For the love of the crowd
And the three cheers from everyone

Dropping through sky
Through the glass of the roof
Through the roof of your mouth
Through the mouth of your eye
Through the eye of the needle

It's easier for me to get closer to Heaven
Than ever feel whole again

For a moment, I feel tethered to Smith and his anguish; we appear sewn from the same materials of social angst and a careening sort of desolation, inextricably tied to both a perverse fear of growing old and a lingering desire to never have lived. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Smith explains, “I objected to being born, and I refuse to impose life on someone else. Living, it’s awful for me.” In another breath, I find myself imagining that I am Robert Smith—is it that I want to be him, with his tendrils of black hair and smearing makeup, cloaked in dark, grungy masculinity? Is it that I feel a certain comradery in our mutual resistance to the world and the terms by which it clenches, teeth sinking into flesh—how it tears away at the hearts of the young and creative, bludgeoning their spirits?

We are separated by decades, geography, circumstance—and yet, in watching this low-resolution video dated four years prior to my even being born, I feel closer to myself, less alone.

Just last week, Smith—now in his early 60s—was featured in indie pop band CHVRCHES’ latest single, “How Not To Drown.” The music video is bathed in bright green pixels, distorted, tearing at the scattered images of the performers as they writhe against ‘screen violence,’ the thread pulled through their upcoming album by the same name. Smith’s face, worn by time and yet still impossibly familiar—the cherry-smudged lips, the slick rings of black eyeliner, the untamed hairs snaking outward—is projected on a large screen. His eyes don’t look any lighter than they did decades before as he paraded around that stage in Brazil, his fingers tied in a white-knuckle grip around the microphone, daring someone to pry it away. By the end of the video, Smith’s voice has softened, almost pleading as he settles into the outro:

I'm writing a book on how to stay conscious when you drown
And if the words float up to the surface, I'll keep them down

This is the first time I know I don't want the crown
You can take it now

You can take it now

Take it now


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