Armagideon Time

I fell into the punk thing fairly late in my adolescence. My teen years were the back half of the Eighties, and were mostly spent in a self-imposed bubble of Sixties pop and soul music. The life-altering epiphanies of the Repo Man soundtrack didn’t happen until the spring of 1989, when I seventeen years old and trying to forge a sense of purpose in the wake of my mother’s death.

Even after I made that leap, the scene’s puritanical disdain towards “posers” and “artsy types” continued to insulate me from anything that wasn’t three-chord bursts of righteous aggression. There were a handful of exceptions — mostly involving girls I awkwardly pined for — but the bulk of the “classic” alternative-slash-college-rock scene of that era flew well outside my radar.

An example: During my sophomore year in college, a high school pal and I drove up to Vermont to visit his off-again-on-again girlfriend at her school. When we got there, my friend pointed to a weedy dude with a shaved head in a flannel shirt and said “Hey, it’s Michael Stipe” and I nodded because it seemed like the correct response.

After a half-hour of trying and failing to locate my buddy’s girlfriend, I told him that maybe he should ask that guy he knew.

“What guy?”

“Michael Stoop? The one you pointed out when we got here?”

“MICHAEL STIPE? FROM R.E.M? It was a j — forget it.”

It wasn’t until I started hanging around with my punk rock pal Leech that I finally started to understand jokes about Morrissey and Suzanne Vega, thanks to his endless capacity to ramble on about music trivia. Even so, I was just a couple of months shy of my twentieth birthday when I listened to the Cure for the first time.

I had just starting dating Maura. I knew Maura had liked the Cure. Therefore, I somehow came to the conclusion that listening to the band would grant me some crucial insights about her inner life. A used copy of the Staring at the Sea singles compilation showed up at In Your Ear’s new arrivals bin, so I dropped three bucks on it and brought it home to analyze.

What I did not grasp (among so many other things) was the Maura’s use of past tense when describing her love of Robert Smith and company. She’d given up on them after The Head on the Door, some seven years prior (back when she was a sixteen year old punk rocker and I was a shaggy thirteen year old grooving to Dire Straits and the Blues Brothers soundtrack two towns over).

Still, I liked enough of what I heard to follow up on that initial purchase. Starting at the Sea is simultaneously the best and worst introduction to the Cure, as it covers the band’s furtive lurchings from punk-inflected pop to post-punk minimalism to claustrophobic apocalypticism to glum dance pop to semi-psychedelia to marketable self-caricature. The only common threads between the collection’s tracks are solid songwriting and Robert Smith’s idiosyncratic vocals.

I gravitated toward the later end of the spectrum, which led to further cutting remarks from Maura but didn’t stop me from buying a copy of the Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and spinning it during fits of overwrought romantic angst. The phase didn’t last long, and I eventually moved on to less contentious mope music.

My Cure t-shirt was handed down to Lil Bro, I took the “Boys Don’t Cry” poster down from the wall of my room, and any thoughts about the Cure remained on the mental backburner up through the second half of the Nineties.

After the comedy troupe I was part of exploded on the launch pad, another former member and I stayed in contact through weekly Warhammer 40k games. We usually gamed at his apartment, but there were a few times when his roommate had other plans or the place stunk past the limits of human tolerance. On those occasions, we’d set up at his girlfriend’s place while she was out taking classes at Boston University.

The dig were exactly what one would expect from a upscale goth with well-off parents — bay windows with a benches for a black cat to nap on, bookshelves filled with tomes of gloomy poetry and occult lore, framed Aubrey Beardsley prints (with French captions, natch) on the walls, the inescapable scent of incense and cloves. She also had a high-end stereo system and a decent music library, so my gaming buddy would toss in some random disc to play while we waged war with our miniature armies on the hardwood floor.

One of the albums he picked was Seventeen Seconds, the Cure’s 1979 sophomore effort in which the band hit their chilly postpunk peak. It was part of the band’s discography I’d overlooked during pervious flirtation with the band, but one that synced perfectly with the drift in my listening habits from aggro to atmospheric. Chilly and somber, it put me in mind of the Euro-minimal museum exhibits my mom used to drag me to when I was a kid, or the silent monochrome winterscapes of the North Woburn woods after a blizzard.

It epitomized the concept of stark beauty.

There was a used CD place on the walk back to the Green Line, which happened to have copy of Seventeen Seconds in stock. I picked it up and it entered heavy rotation on the Sony boombox that replaced my ailing component stereo system up through the new millennium. It also became the inspiration for a (mostly) jovial ongoing debate between Maura and me over the “best Cure album.” (She swears it’s Pornography. I swear it’s Seventeen Seconds. We do agree that both albums are great and that Robert Smith since has devolved into self-parody.)

Seventeen Seconds was near the top of my list of “essential albums” to seek out on vinyl. Unfortunately, the days when one could buy the Cure’s entire LP output to 1990 for under twenty bucks were well and truly over. Both the original pressings and 180g reissues skirted the limits of what I’d be willing to spend on a single album. After a few months of grumbling equivocation, I finally gave in and bought the Rhino Records re-release.

I couldn’t help myself. A cool autumnal breeze blew through the bottom floor and the house, some primordial impulse stirred within me, and the next thing I knew I was staring at a confirmation of purchase page.

Related posts:

  1. Every Record Tells a Story #49: Worse than the disease
  2. Back to Wax #5: Returning the gift
  3. Back to Wax #7: Numan from old bottles

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