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The concert's the thing you can keep the rest, says the Cure's front man

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York -- Robert Smith does not enjoy fame.

Success? He can deal with that, no problem. He's happy that his band, the Cure, can sell millions of albums -- Smith is shy, not stupid -- and that the group has devoted fans around the globe. He also enjoys playing concerts, which is why, despite his marked aversion to travel, the Cure have embarked on a three-month U.S. tour (the group plays the Capital Centre tomorrow and Tuesday).

But when it comes to the trappings of celebrity -- the screaming fans, the bulb-flashing photographers, the constant requests for interviews and personal appearance -- well, you can just leave that bit out, as far as he's concerned.

It isn't that he can't be bothered by such trivialities; to the contrary, he's very bothered by it. It all seems so strange to him, so inexplicably intense and utterly unwarranted. Take, for example, the hoopla surrounding his arrival in New York recently. Both Smith and bassist Simon Gallup refuse to fly, so they and new member Perry Bamonte crossed the Atlantic from their native England on the QE2, where they met up with airworthy bandmates Porl Thompson and Boris Williams.

Rather than slip quietly ashore, though, the group was met by TV crews and screaming fans -- which, as Smith explains during a press conference at the Lone Star Roadhouse later that day, is not exactly the kind of welcome he finds warming.

"When we got off the boat and walked to the cafe this morning, it seemed there were two obviously different perspectives," he says. "One is that people were genuinely excited that we're there, which is hard to come to terms with. I mean, if you start thinking about how we're just sitting there, and all these people are getting excited. . . . it's very weird.

"And then our own perspective is that we're doing this because it's part of what we're over here to do," he continues. "But that has made me very aware of people building us up. I mean, sitting here and doing [this press conference] has made me more acutely aware of how absurd some of it's become."

No wonder, then, one of the songs on "Wish," the Cure's new album, boasts the chorus, "Please stop loving me/ Please stop loving me/ I am none of these things." Smith says the song is a direct reflection of the anxiety he feels when trapped beneath the weight of his audience's adoration, and that he wrote the lyrics during the band's last U.S. tour, in 1989.

"This is a feeling that I haven't had for a long time," he says, "but I immediately got it back this morning." As one of the dozen photographers arrayed in front of him snaps yet another photo, Smith adds, "It's being driven home with every flash."

Gracious but uncomfortable

It's easy to empathize with Smith's unease. Even though most people daydream about having star-style wealth and fame -- 'Oooh, look!" the fans coo, "It's him!" -- few of us would ever really want to trade our privacy for the privilege of wide recognition. And as such, there's something touching about Smith's tortured ambivalence, something charming in the way he seems scared by the devotion of crowds, yet dotes on the attention of individuals.

For instance, there's a "fan table" at the Lone Star, peopled with kids who have won their credentials through a radio station contest. Early on in the questioning, one of them -- a clean-cut boy in his late teens -- goes to the microphone. "At the diner, I was the one who sent you the picture," he says shyly. "I was wondering if you liked it?"

"I did, yeah," answers Smith, seeming quite flattered that the lad had gone to such trouble. "Thank you very much."

He's just as gracious when another fan says, "I'm glad you're back," and is almost stunned when a trio of black-clad young women asks if it's OK to give him and the band flowers (they've each brought several long-stemmed roses, which they excitedly distribute).

At the same time, though, it's hard not to come away from the conference thinking that at least some of Smith's grief stems from problems of his own making. Start with the press conference itself. Because Smith didn't want to endure an endless string of interviews, the band's management severely limited press access to the band. A few lucky souls were promised one-on-one interviews, but the rest had to make due with cattle-call sessions like this one.

Nothing too deep

Granted, this arrangement greatly reduced the amount of time Smith and company would spend answering questions. But at (( the same time, the trouble with press conferences is that they don't exactly inspire incisive questioning. Perhaps that's why the Lone Star appearance was packed with exchanges such as the following:

Male fan: "A few of us at the fan table are a little curious as to why both Christmas and cats are mentioned in your music."

Smith: "I suppose that the simple, dumb answer is that I like cats."

Female fan: "First of all, are you guys all comfortable?"

Smith: [perplexed] "Are we comfortable?"

Female fan: " 'Cause I'm not. I'm shaking so hard . . ."

Second male fan: "So what did you do on the QE2? Did you play shuffleboard?"

Smith: "Yes, we did play shuffleboard. And hockey. And deck quoits."

Second male fan: "Was the food good?"

Smith: "It was very posh, yeah."

Second female fan: "Where are you guys, then, like, spiritually?"

Smith: "Oooh, it's a very early in the day for this one . . ."

And so on, with Smith and the band -- most of whom sit silently through the whole ordeal -- struggling to form polite responses to even the most banal inquiries. Fortunately, Smith is sharp enough to keep the chatter entertaining.

One heated moment

For instance, one of the crowd notes that "Wish" debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album charts, just one notch below Def Leppard's "Adrenalize." Asks the fan, "What'd you think of that?"

"I was ticked off that it wasn't No. 1," Smith answers, to raucous laughter. "And that's my method of saying I despise Def Leppard and everything they've ever done. I can't believe how popular Def Leppard are. It sickens me to see them all sitting there in Union Jacks, and yet [Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott] adopts that horrible, fake, rock-American accent." His bandmates nod in agreement.

Nor is their scorn reserved for hard rock acts, and that leads to what is perhaps the only heated moment of the press conference. When another fan asks if "any one of you like the works of Morrissey," his question is met by a sharp intake of breath from the podium.

"That sharp intake of breath was a 'No,' " says Smith.

"Do you like him, then?" interjects Simon Gallup, seemingly appalled that anyone could admire the self-obsessed music of the former Smiths singer. "Don't you think he is a self-pitying twit?" The room erupts into laughter, and Gallup warms to the subject. "I mean, anyone can write sixth-form poetry and feel sorry for himself. But if it's crap, really overrated crap . . ."

Embarrassed, the kid swiftly shifts to a question about the less-controversial L.A. riots.

It may be fun to watch such silliness, but in the end, we're left with the impression that the band could do without these encounters. So it's no wonder that one questioner asks if the band really wouldn't rather be doing something other than this tour.

"That's not a fair question," replies Smith. "Because whatever you're doing, even if you're enjoying it, there are always things that you'd rather do.

It's not really work

"I think we're all here because we enjoy this. There are certain elements of it that have become work, but still very few. We're doing this today so we'll not be bothered by it -- but having said that, there'll always be things left to do. But, no, it isn't work at all. It's really good fun."

He pauses a moment. "I mean, it's hard, part of it," he adds. "Each one of us, individually, find different aspects of it hard. Like the constantly moving on to somewhere else and never really feeling that settled; we never spend more than two days in one place, and I hate that, it has a really bad effect on me."

"The concerts are quite wonderful," says Perry Bamonte.

"But when you go out to tour, you've got to balance the enjoyment you're getting onstage alongside the things that you don't enjoy," says Smith. "As I said earlier, there are certain parts of the tour that I really, really hate, and which have a very bad effect on me. But as long as I personally think that these two are balanced in favor of going onstage, then we'll keep playing concerts.

"There probably will come a point when the balance shifts the other way, and it won't be worth it," he adds. "But at the moment, for about three hours onstage, you forget everything else. And that's why [doing these shows] is such a brilliant feeling."

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