I was 16 when I discovered The Cure.
The church dances I felt obligated to attend as a teenager were torturous. Though I am still plenty introverted as an adult, I was positively reclusive as a teen. There were girls there, and I did like music, so maybe I was more enticed than obligated. At any rate, I wanted to enjoy going to these things, but really didn’t. All I felt was a mountain of anxiety, sitting at the back of the darkest half of the gymnasium. Alone, I listened.
The music was usually the same uninspired Top 40 fare every time. Not all bad, but spotty. This night, though, was different. The kids never got to control the equipment, but we could make requests. I’m not sure if it was the DJ’s choices or someone whispering in their ear, but they started playing music I’d never heard before. It sounded sophisticated and exciting and slightly weird, and it really spoke to me. One song in particular came on with the final words “just like heaven”, and it really made an impression on me. The sound of the guitar, the pretty tune, the unusual voice, the painterly lyrics—what poetry was this? Who was this? Above the music, I heard some kids nearby talk about “the cure”. I repeated it to myself so I wouldn’t forget.
The next chance I had—maybe it was the next day, or the next week—I walked to the store near my house that I knew had music. The “C” section was stuffed with cassette tapes for The Cure, but none of them had any song with “heaven” in the title. No, this album was called Disintegration, and its cover was a very pale face floating beneath a sea of gauzy flowers. Thinking that I had maybe misconstrued the name of the song at the dance, and being intrigued by this very artistic album cover, I bought it and hoped for the best.
It was sadness made beautiful.
Laying on my bed back home, the new cassette tape hissing quietly, I listened with anticipation to the sound of chimes ringing in the wind, gently trailing off into silence. If you know this album, you know what comes next. “Plainsong” was a wholly unexpected explosion of orchestral synths and silky guitars. Even through what were surely terrible headphones, the music was enthralling. It was like nothing I had ever listened to before; the music seemed to play forever before anyone started singing. And when the singing started, it was no “Just Like Heaven”, but it was unquestionably the same voice. Like that song I had heard at the dance, he sounded melancholy, and so did the words. It spoke so immediately to my 16 year old heart that I could hardly believe it. It was sadness made beautiful.
My parents ever understood why I loved this album so much. Why I wrote the lyrics of “Prayers for Rain” on my school notebook and wore a Disintegration t-shirt to school way too many days in a row. One night we had family “music appreciation” where we all played a song that we enjoyed. About 2 minutes into “Plainsong”, their patience ran out and one of them asked “When is the song going to start? Is this it?” I was seriously annoyed, but this music wasn’t for them. It was mine. I knew what it was and why it was great.
It’s no understatement to say that Disintegration is the most influential album I’ve ever listened to. From that moment, I started getting adventurous about seeking out left-of-center artists, looking at more obscure music magazines for other bands that looked different or were identified as Cure-adjacent, and quickly shifted my entire focus to what are now known as all-time classic 80s alternative bands like New Order, Depeche Mode, The Sundays, Pet Shop Boys, and The Smiths, plus emerging bands like Cocteau Twins and Lush (and, naturally, The Cure’s whole back catalog). I filled every available minute of my life listening to all of it.
The 90s weren’t far away. It wouldn’t be long until grunge exploded, and I would fold a lot of that music into my collection, too. But I listened to The Cure pretty heavily for a good stretch of the 90s, and—to this day—there’s no question that a lot of what I enjoy listening to tracks back in one way or another to The Cure and, specifically, to Disintegration.
The album is a touchstone for many, many people, so my experience is not necessarily unique, but it is mine. I really don’t know if I would love music as much as I do, or have felt the compulsion to venture out into alternative musical veins, if it wasn’t for Disintegration. I know that this album embodies a very difficult time, and I can’t imagine that it was easy to write. But, it showed me that men could be—all at once—colorful, moody, expressive, unusual, sensitive, and emotional. It gave me new sounds, new perspective, new avenues, and a new vocabulary for expression.
A new me.
Thank you, Robert.
(And happy birthday.)