in praise of robert smith, patron saint of suburban teen goths everywhere
Growing up, writer Patrik Sandberg thought of The Cure's Robert Smith as something like an imaginary friend.
Robert James Smith was born in Blackpool in April of 1959, a little more than twenty-five years before I was. Both of us were raised Catholic and later became atheists. Both of us wore dresses as kids, were beaten by our male peers, were diagnosed with "personality crises" by our school administrators, and suspended for reasons relating to our attitudes toward religion. I never realized any of this until I began to write this essay. We both took piano and guitar lessons as kids, only he was, apparently, better.
When I was twelve, it was announced The Cure would be headlining a Christmas concert for the Bay Area alternative radio station "Live 105." When my parents forbade me to attend, I locked myself in my bedroom and threatened to commit suicide (it didn't help that Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins were also on the bill). I tried to jump out the window, but I couldn't figure out how to get the screen off.
As a gay, goth adolescent in the American suburbs - furious, skeptical, paranoid, isolated - I was drawn to Robert Smith's unfathomable majesty. He was almost like an imaginary friend.
There is a sense of wonder that originates in early childhood-the first time you see a Muppet open its eyes and speak, or when Roger Rabbit walks out of a cartoon and into a live-action world-which is part of the aura and the mystique that Robert has maintained for me forever. He's like Mickey Mouse, if Mickey's romances and nightmares and torturous, self-inflicted eviscerations could cut like a switchblade into your psyche and break your heart with each goofy cartoon antic, making you feel less at odds with the world-or, even better, more at odds but happier for it.
Working in magazines, my job has entailed tracking down hundreds of high-profile subjects. Each time I've reached out to Robert in an effort to coax him into the light, I am reassured with a promise of never. (Morrissey, on the other hand, never goes away and espouses sanctimonious opinions regularly. Perhaps that's why he feels so millennial. Robert seems to exist in another place and time.)
In its first season in 1998, South Park featured Robert in an episode entitled "Mecha-Streisand." In the episode, based on popular Kaiju films like Godzilla and Terror of Mechagodzilla, Robert emerges to battle and destroy a mechanical Godzilla version of the imperial, self-obsessed Barbra Streisand. For Cure fans, it was a strangely apt portrayal of Robert: savior, underdog, and poetic creature in hiding, who emerges from a chrysalis every so often to right our cultural compass and save us from the miseries of modern pop.
The Smith method is anathema to the ways in which most music stars operate (and strategize), especially today. Robert reminds us of the power of mystery and the stunning emotion that accompanies a reveal. He disappears without a trace and re-emerges with thundering noises that remind you how fragile and terrifying your life is, and in these moments, the hands of the clock stand still.
Robert's melancholy spell extends like a cobweb across generations, touching different points and connecting a dark civilization. In other words, Cure fans know each other. I've been to several Cure shows, but I've only seen Robert up close one time. The Cure was headlining Coachella, and Robert came out of his trailer to watch My Bloody Valentine. As Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher's guitars carried on a space-warping, sonically paralyzing wind of sound, Robert turned to his friend and shrugged, rolling his eyes. He was either taking the piss, or he was bored of it all. Just then, people began to notice him. iPhones came out of pockets and the all-surveillant general public fixed its unblinking eye on our dark star, and within seconds, he vanished.
In fashion, people dress in black without understanding the culture of emotion behind the style. In being the poster boy for goth, Robert gave millions of people a false entry into a world they're lucky not to understand. Robert would end every single one of his friendships when recording albums like Disintegration. He would take LSD and channel very real suicidal impulses into sound. NME described Pornography as "murderous." Critics gave the band terrible reviews, telling them time and again to "cheer up". However, the sadness of Robert tends to eclipse his other characteristics: his humor, his joy, his pleasure in indifference, and his ability to find amusement in the dark. He's threatened to quit touring numerous times, and stadium audiences have brought him to the brink of nervous breakdowns.
Robert Smith is my style icon but it has zero to do with the way that he dresses, despite the fact that I've adopted his penchant for black jeans, comic T-shirts, and white Nike Air Force Ones. (Almost twenty years after locking myself in my bedroom, a pseudocidal pre-teen faggot on the verge, it turns out I ended up dressing like him by accident.) But his eternal honesty and blatant disregard for social pressures make him more stylish than anybody alive. He threads the needle straight through the eye.
We'll be rolling out stories by our favorite writers on their personal style icons all week. Read them all here. Who's yours?
Text Patrik Sandberg
Photography Richard Bellia