End of last month, I was holding gold dust right there in my hot little hand: a ticket to ride to The Cure’s solo show at the Royal Albert Hall. I tried to recall when or which record got me into them. It must have been in the late 80’s or early 90’s, when my most prized possession was a no-nonsense Grundig cassette player with instructions in German. Every afternoon sharp at five minutes past 3 o' clock there I was, unfailingly tuned in to Bangladesh Betar’s World Music programme. We did not have the wide and ineluctable access to music that today's generation in Bangladesh has – from music channels on satellite television to freely downloadable mp3s on the Net – and effortlessly collects. Back then being a music enthusiast in Dhaka meant humping through a few, and dare I add, unfashionable things: a) relying heavily on the radio, b) haunting the dusty precincts of your local music shop and c) incessantly checking out the goods in those daring, WTO-defying "recording stores" existing as antitheses to every copyright law on music and downloading them into our ‘Walkmans’. Remember Walkman? Sony? No? Oh well!
One’s musical education was largely dependent on what the usually gnomic music shop assistants would recommend. One had little access to music magazines: if I could get my hands on any back issue of the Rolling Stone, Mojo, Q or even the relatively cheap New Musical Express, I would devour them cover to cover. And if you were even halfway as obsessive as I was, you preserved those magazines; archived them like Mughal miniatures. The other option, for the few luckier ones, was having a member of the family going abroad every now and then. It would then boil down to basically a balance between music and comic books, with some prioritizing of other very necessary items such as advanced Lego models, funky t-shirts and cool trainers. All designed to score big with your mateys. Since one’s shopping request was not supposed to resemble an inventory list; the process was a tortuous one.
However, I digress, so back to what I began with.
I first fell headlong into the depths of the hallucinogenic charms of The Cure when I came across The Caterpillar, an infectious, bittersweet number from The Top, arguably their most psychedelic album. The Caterpillar crawled through my head like a spell, a mesmerising mantra. Till then merrily biased towards all things that sounded ‘loud and fast’, Robert Smith’s band proved to the perfect antidote, the muse of my hopeless teenage years. In addition, The Top had to be a taster for what was to come in future, for I became intrigued with their style of playing. Meanwhile, most of my friends grew out of pop music (or maybe, to paraphrase Nick Hornby, the guru of life in the music lane, “they never properly grew into it”) and got rocking with the big-haired bands. Along with my school friends, I would occasionally partake in the-then exotic ritual of exchanging posters, pin-ups, stickers, fake tattoos, badges and other useless commodities from the “official” merchandising departments of Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Metallica, Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Guns N’ Roses, et cetera. The Cure, however, didn’t have much of a following in my crowd. Their glam goth look - the eyeliners, glossy lipstick, and white powder (in contrast to their dark hairs) on the band members’ faces… well, might have been too outre for the average Bong musichead!
Robert Smith, the lead vocalist, guitarist and frontman of the band, is responsible for all their lyrics. Smith is hip to lit. Charlotte Sometimes goes back to Penelope Farmer’s novel of the same name, The Drowning Man was inspired by Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, and How Beautiful You Are is a retelling of Les Yeux du Pauvre, a poem by Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen.
In 1978 the Cure came out with Killing an Arab, their first single. In the post-9/11 world, where old meanings in everything from geopolitics to the arts underwent wholesale changes, their song acquired a new, unwanted meaning. Even though they had originally written it in reference to Camus’s iconic book The Stranger. Seen as inciting hatred and misogyny Smith himself pleaded with radio stations not to give it air time, and the far more recent album Standing on a Beach which carried the song had a sticker “advising” against the racist usage of the song. The Gulf War, naturally enough, again gave birth to controversy, and the song received negative press coverage. The Cure reacted by changing it to Killing An Ahab (in an obvious nod to the great white whale!) and a whole another version: Killing An Other – Camus’s novel is after all about the outsider, what is now termed as the Other.
We, all 5000 plus of us at the Royal Albert Hall, on March 28, all punching the air in excitement, had no time for racism or mindless violence. Roger Daltrey of The Who, came on first to promote his charity Teenage Cancer Trust, and to introduce and thank The Cure, who were donating all proceeds to the charity. Without further ado, we went straight for the hallucination: Plainsong (from my personal favourite Disintegration album) that opened the three-hour long set. During the concert, taking a look around the magnificent hall, I could find no way to cram the audience into a single frame: all types were there. When the time came for Lovesong, a woman next to me held her mobile phone high in the air, but not to take photos. “My husband… I had to call him… we had our first dance to this song. He is in Dubai for work”, she explained misty-eyed when the song ended. It was a special night for me too; in a way, I had been waiting to see this concert for over 22 years, and it lived up to its billing. It was a whole lotta night, every inch of it.
And at the end, the old question again returned to me: what was it about their mostly melancholic songs that attracted me and not my friends? Damned if I know. Stepping outside after the show, around quarter past 11:00 at night, Kensington Gore was cool and crisp. The soft streetlights seemed wistful, taking me back to my Dhaka days, and perhaps gave a clue: it could have been my constant sense of despair, a feeling of hopelessness – the sorrow that never leaves some of us Dhakaites.
Sample Robert Smith’s melancholia: www.thecure.com/words