You Can’t Underestimate Goths

TUESDAY, 31 MAY, 2011

I am not at the Cure show at the Sydney Opera House*.

Let’s go back.


The Cure are touring! Excitedly Jon and I had discussed this in the office weeks earlier. I’ve seen them before, once, in 2007, one of the first shows I ever reviewed (I think poorly. It was a Friday, so probably a quip was in there I’d thought was pretty clever then, something about love and that song — such insight!) Jon has seen them three times: in 1980 at the ANU Bar in Canberra, in 1984 at the Hordern Pavilion and in 1992 at the Entertainment Centre. That tour, in support of the Wish record, had only eventuated on the furnishing of 38,000 fans’ signatures. That time was the height of Robert Smith’s flight-aversion phase, which was, he told Blender Magazine in 2004, like all great rock and roll swindles, a ruse; an excuse Smith concocted in order to travel on the QE2, rather than suffer airline food. Also, so as to not be separated for too long from his wife, of whom he is extremely fond. The less touring The Cure did, he rightly figured, the less time he’d have to be away from home.

Now Pav, who had likewise persuaded the notoriously prickly Jason Pierce of Spiritualized to play ‘Ladies in Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ in its entirety at the Sydney Opera House — against his express on the record statements that he would never play it again in his life — just by asking, had also convinced The Cure to come out here for the Vivid Festival. Had just asked Robert Smith to come and he’d said yes. The famously churlish Robert Smith, who had, when The Cure played ‘Primary’ on Countdown, flagrantly not played his instrument in a rather considerable fuck you to lip-synched, pre-recorded television performances:

I’m not at The Cure because, among other reasons, I am nursing a fresh root canal which hours earlier a dentist had administered to my jaw, painlessly thanks to a pharmacological arsenal straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Normally not being at one of the most sought-after ticketed events of recent memory at which one of the most sacred bands of my adolescence would play for hours in one of the most gorgeous rooms in the world would bring upon me a great, crushing sadness. This night instead I am concerning myself with trying repeatedly to make our cat wear a scarf, and with touching my face to the face of another person who was subjected to this, while I apparently asked over and over, “But which face is my face?” in between being transfixed by Mariska Hargitay’s boobs on Law & Order (they were just out there that one season.)

Clearly, I am in no fit state for anything.

So, luckily Jon is going in my place.


We’d theorised what the Cure were going to play. I predicted it would be low on hits. Vivid allows its artists to play what they like. That’s largely the point of the festival.

“I hope so,” Jon says. “I’m a real fan of the first three records.”

“I’m in the Pornography through to Wish camp,” I say. I was, to put it mildly, extremely sated by their 2007 shows, in which they bathed the adoring Entertainment Centre crowd in essentially a three hour long greatest hits show. It was glorious, and endurance-testing, and some of us were seen to stand and touch our toes, to arch our backs, stretch our arms to the ceiling. Small price to pay to see one’s teenage angst writ so large, so joyously, communally and not ironically, as adults.

Jon says, “If they came out here and said, ‘We’re only going to play the first three records, in sequential order’, then I would really want to go.”

“The band will play three albums in their entirety: Three Imaginary Boys, Seventeen Seconds and Faith,” announced the Sydney Morning Herald the following morning, in an article I forwarded to Jon. “Are you pulling my leg?” he wrote back, as if it were so unbelievable that this would happen, totally unbidden, even though nothing like it had ever happened before.

“No, I’m not.” I wrote back. “Do you want to go now?”

Many heads are in hands the morning the tickets go on sale, and we are bereft, Jon and I and everyone we know. “You can’t underestimate Goths,” he says. “Think of them out there, lining up overnight on the coldest night of the year so far, in their little fingerless gloves.” The goths had also, evidently, broken the internet. The ticket site crashed, no one got through. Twitter was peppered with outrage. The scant five thousand tickets gone in a minute or two.

I have a review ticket, but there is only one. I give it to Jon, because how can I not? I’d seen the Cure show of my dreams already, Wish having been one of the records that piqued my initial awareness of pop music, aged eleven, and I’d seen the band play most of the tracks off that album last tour. Jon’s not written about music in over a decade, but he will now to see this show after several days of convincing from me, convincing him that it’s a fair trade.

“Well, I was really looking forward to hearing All Cats Are Grey. And I don’t even like cats,” he says.

“So, how was it?” I ask the next day, fingering my jaw and thinking sadly of the extra ticket which had come my way the day before, when I was three feet high and rising while someone scraped dead teeth from my skull.

“Some things are beyond review,” Jon says. “The band being there is almost irrelevant. It’s about nostalgia, it’s about who you were at that time in your life. The experience is not outside you, it’s happening inside. But I sent you some notes.”

“Okay, let’s go back 33 years…”

I haven’t sat at a concert with a pen and pad in my lap for a decade, but it feels less weird than I thought it would. In fact, scribbling thoughts is strangely comfortable. Which makes me a total hypocrite because I still find something profoundly depressing about all the people watching the concert on their phone screens, as if real life no longer exists, or is valid, until it’s mediated by technology.

The band hasn’t really attempted to update the sound, which is brittle and trebly. It takes a bit of class to not mess about with history, though certainly there are embellishments — a key shift here, a guitar line there. And everything has sped up. Is it adrenaline or a wish to fast-forward through the album? Some songs are being trashed through with obvious relish.

Two tickets to this show apparently went on eBay the other day for $6000. Over my shoulder are a couple of people who’ve flown from New Zealand. Directly behind me are a pair who have made it up from Melbourne. In the foyer, I heard a couple from California excitedly recounting their journey here specifically for this evening. There’s an empty seat in my row. Somewhere a fan is howling**.

Having dined out on all the obvious cheap jokes beforehand, actually have to admit there’s not a Goth in sight. Not even an emo kid. Though you can pick a few of the ex-goths. They’re the ones whose faces look 40 and hair looks 70.

I wonder, does he even like these tunes? Smith seems to be smiling, even laughing from time to time, so I’m guessing he has affection for this album (Three Imaginary Boys) and the memories surrounding it. Anyone could see there are gems here, but there are also lumps of quartz. Thirty years seems like enough time to forgive yourself for your early imperfections, so I presume he’s having fun.

Why is “Fire In Cairo” my favourite song on this album? I can’t find an answer, but it still melts me.

During Seventeen Seconds: The songwriting leap from the first to second album is quantum. Not so much in tightness, but in ambition. Having said that, they’re more about feel and tone than shape. They’re obsessed with sound as much as structure and some just drift away…

There’s a guy a few seats along from me actually reading a Camus novel at a Cure concert. No, really, tres adorable. Thirty years ago, I too would have thought that made me look enigmatic.

“A Forest” is just thrilling. Pulsing. Exhilarating. A rush.

Bob said a few words between songs during Three Imaginary Boys, but he’s retreated into the music now, not talking. Maybe it would break the spell. Or maybe he has to work really hard to remember this stuff.

During “Faith”: There’s something undeniably lovely about watching what is, in essence, a birth re-enactment without the wailing and the drugs. Smith’s talent was obvious early, but across these three albums you can see its scale coming into focus. Each record seems like a blueprint for the next one. This concert is like reading a biography.

Interesting. They’re making these songs fatter, deeper, more robust than they were on record. There’s menace and swagger in “Other Voices”. And “Primary” is like being run over. In a good way.

I thought beforehand that Seventeen Seconds would be the killer, but it’s Faith. This is where the band really found a voice (even if Joy Division fans will note the Steve Morris drum pattern in “All Cats Are Grey” and the Peter Hook bassline in “Faith”). Or is it just that Faith is the most suited of the albums to this venue? Its cathedrals of sound, stately and elegiac, reach upwards to the concert hall ceiling.

Wow, this feels churlish, but I want to whisper a sacrilegious truth: the Cure are not actually a brilliant live act. The cheeky, playful Smith from the music videos has never been the Smith you see on stage. The songs have always had more presence than the band. It still feels like a privilege to be here though.

Encore: Smart, smart, smart. They’ve saved all the extra tracks from Boys Don’t Cry (“Plastic Passion”, “Jumping Someone Else’s Train”, “Boys Don’t Cry”, “Killing An Arab”) for the encores. They also play a clutch of early b-sides. Obviously, Smith knows exactly what beats at the heart of every fangirl and boy.

And then it’s back to chronology: “Charlotte Sometimes”, “The Hanging Garden”, “Let’s Go To Bed”, “The Walk”, “Love Cats”. The last three are tossed out to a delirious room as the third encore. Just a casual reminder of how many amazing songs Smith has come up with.

All Cats Are Grey, The Love Cats, “as perfect as cats” … the internet meme was invented for Robert Smith.

Looking at other people scribbling notes. How do you review an event like this one? It’s about personal connection, about nostalgia. Presenting albums in their entirety is time travel, transporting you back to your own experiences of the era. For the 2500 people in the room, these albums mean 2500 different things. For the five men on stage, they’ll mean something else. The event is a celebration. It’s not here to be critiqued. Glad I’m not actually reviewing this.

Three hours and 45 minutes. Robert, truly, thy surname is Springsteen.

Elmo Keep is a writer on Hungry Beast and a freelance music journalist. Jon Casimir is Hungry Beast’s chief of staff, writer/producer of the Gruen Transfer and was a music critic at the Sydney Morning Herald from 1989-2000. They both agree that clearly all cats are not grey, but that it is really a great tune.

*Go to the damn dentist regularly, that is my advice. This is the first world! Dentistry is a modern miracle.
**See above footnote.