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Coachella 2009: The Cure, still sad after all these years

April 20, 2009 | 10:40 am


You have to admire a man who has spent the entirety of his adult life, so far, in eyeliner and lipstick. Looking every bit the Ghost of Angsty-Teen Christmas Past, Robert Smith has changed very little since he stole countless confused and youthful hearts during the Cure's 1980s uber-Goth heyday. He's still got the same face and stubborn pout, but his cherubic roundness has hardened into the angular resolve of a middle-aged man who has loved and lost one too many times.

Watching Smith perform from my post in the cool, damp polo field grass, it struck me that just as Friday's headliner, Paul McCartney, represented my parents' defining musical moment, Robert Smith and the Cure represented mine. I wasn't 5 when I listened to the Cure's songs; I was a hormonal, aching, irritated, inspired, vivacious and cruel 13-year-old girl who needed a band like the Cure to help me make sense of the backward young-adult reality I was so suddenly encountering.

When the band played the ominous but classic co-dependent love-song-in-denial "Lullaby," with its most aching line, "The spiderman is having me for dinner tonight," I remembered how the passively creepy little ditty used to sound so feral and ahead of its time. Especially for a girl still going to Milli Vanilli and Sweet Sensation concerts. Sunday night,  the song, along with many others the band played, sounded slightly wan and uninspired. The Cure's churning wash of guitars, lamentful and plodding bass lines and Smith's signature voice of wavering sorrow never quite came together to punch you in the guts with its debilitating one-two of deep need and thunderous want.

Almost 30 years after they formed, the Cure is still performing. Why are so many of Coachella's headliners plucked from former decades? "Because there are no new ones emerging to take their place," conjectured a Pop & Hiss colleague. 

That's why it was so refreshing to see the Killers, with their ripe talent, headlining on the main stage on Saturday night, couched between two of the reigning kings of the Boomer era and Generation X, Paul McCartney and the Cure. The Killers represent Generation Y,  an era that's still defining itself and creating its own legends.

The Cure is already legendary for a series of albums that came out more than two decades ago. When the Goth pioneers played "Pictures of You," and struck the opening notes for "Just Like Heaven," the crowd stood up and fanatically danced. Smith smiled, so we smiled, jumped and spun around, grinning at each other, remembering our former sniffling junior-high selves. This is what we had come for. We wanted more of the band's deep back-catalog of hits, not (sorry, Robert) a lagging and drawn-out run through the newer, less hook-driven work. 

And so it was no surprise to see more and more people leaving as the Cure continued to play new songs or obscure B-sides, pushing 33 minutes past curfew with a seemingly endless series of encores. That's the difficulty with today's oldies revival: If you're not playing an oldie, you just might find yourself without a crowd. McCartney knew that, and Coachella loved him for it. 

It was the first Coachella under President Obama, and after spending much of its existence fueled by political anger, with many performers speaking out against the war and the Bush administration, this year's festival found the crowd significantly mellowed and ready to relax. But that doesn't mean we wanted our favorite bands to get so comfortable on stage.

-- Jessica Gelt

Photo of the Cure's Robert Smith by Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times