An Open Letter to Robert Smith of The Cure
Firstly, I hope that you’ll forgive my familiar tone. I don’t know you, have never met or interviewed you, and have only been in the same big room with you once. (The “Wild Mood Swings” tour, Las Vegas, 1996. You wore the jersey of Vegas’ International Hockey League team, the Las Vegas Thunder, and I remember thinking that it made you seem like a regular guy, despite the hairspray and whiteout. A regular Canadian guy, but still.) And I’m not what you’d call a big fan. While I like The Cure’s music just fine and even own a trio of the band’s records (“Disintegration,” “The Head on the Door” and, wait for it, “Galore,” a freaking greatest hits), I am nothing compared to my friend Kristin, who once had your face six-feet-tall on the wall of her apartment, or my friend Jim, who I think once reverse-engineered your songs in an attempt to discover your musical genome.
I am a dabbler. As I said, I currently own three Cure albums and I’ve owned seven in total. (Loaned “Pornography” and “Standing on a Beach” to girlfriends and lost them in breakups. Traded in “Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me” and “Wild Mood Swings.”) Yet for this seeming indifference I have a real respect for you, and for The Cure. When your music connects with me, as it has a tendency to do at this receding time of year, it manages to burrow into my soul and stay there. Off the top of my head I can name five Cure songs that have affected the course of my life, or even changed it outright. It was purely a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
I connected with “The Walk” in January 1985. This is the first song I remember hearing at Nightscape, an all-ages club in Santa Ana, California. I’d been living something of a sheltered life up to that point, the combination of suburban and religious upbringings — and your song, played at discotheque volume, sounded like a transmission from another galaxy. I actually shivered in my black U2 t-shirt — the only piece of black clothing I owned at the time — as I stepped tentatively to the dance floor and broke into an awkward shimmy. Today, Robert, I own many pieces of rock-star black and my shimmy is moderately less awkward, and “The Walk” continues to thrill me.
I connected with “A Few Hours After This” in August 1985. I had my driver’s license and my first car and was beginning to explore Southern California as I never had when my dad was driving — I stopped at taco stands, took the Balboa Ferry (“We don’t need to use that; we can just drive around the peninsula”), and pulled off the road simply to stare at things. One day, while driving the Pacific Coast Highway south from Corona del Mar to Laguna Beach, I pulled off the road to drown my eyes in the blue expanse of the Pacific … and “A Few Hours After This” came on a mix tape and bestowed a charm on the moment. For the first time, I became conscious of the fact that the world was a fact, and that there other people and other places on the other side of that horizon. Years later I stood on a beach in Thailand and confirmed it, though I owe that moment to Kula Shaker’s “Mystical Machine Gun.” Be that as it may.
I connected with “Just Like Heaven” in October 1987. This one’s about a girl, Robert. Her name was Jennifer, and she had a heart-shaped face and a magnificent spill of black hair that cascaded over her right eye. I had a crush on her that dated back several years, and one night it was fulfilled while this song played in the next room, followed immediately by Gene Loves Jezebel’s “The Motion of Love.” Then her ex-boyfriend burst into the house and tried to kill me.
I know you’re not surprised by any of this. When you put that song out in the world, you knew what it would do. Love songs, good love songs, break as many hearts as they unite.
I connected with “Gone!” in September 1996. This largely silly song was witness to more sad business with a girl. I’d prefer not to talk about it.
I connected with “Pictures of You” (single edit) in October 2005. Some 15 years after I heard this song for the first time, it finally connected with me. This is the reason I’ve kept that greatest hits CD, Robert: It’s the only place I can get the shortened version of this beautiful song.
I like the original, longer version well enough, but the shortened “single” mix — 4:41 versus 7:19 — removes everything that I didn’t know I disliked about the original mix. The instrumental passages are streamlined. Most of the reverb and murk has been stripped away, the vocals and guitar have been warmed up, and the drums are sharpened. (And I love, love, love the “skipped heartbeat” after “You were always so lost in the dark”). Every review of this song I’ve ever read, even the postive reviews, call it “icy.” This version could melt anything down to its atoms.
Sometimes I enjoy the way The Cure rambles on, Robert — but when you’ve got a love song this perfect, it’s best to focus it, make it lethal. The best love songs are stealth weapons, small enough to get inside you and powerful enough to grow to a thousand times their size once you’ve taken them in. That’s what happened with “Pictures of You,” Robert: It got into my underneath stuff and detonated, mixing the past with the present. I saw my new city of Seattle clearly for the first time, and became even more excited by the possibilities it offered. And one day, while riding the bus home from work, I could swear I saw Jennifer riding a Vespa up to Queen Anne.
For these songs, Robert, and for making several of my friends very happy over these past three decades, I give you most sincere and humble thanks. Once more, I’m tempted to dress like you for Halloween — though I’ve no idea where I’ll find a Thunder jersey. Even I thought the team kinda stank.