Picture me, if you will, in the fall of 1989: skinny, befreckled, wearing an army jacket and a pair of Chuck Taylors. Standing alone. Bangs self-consciously plastered to one side of my forehead in my best attempt at Tony Hawk hair. And red. My hair was red. When you picture this in context, it might strike an odd portrait: I grew up in rural North Carolina, five miles outside of a mid-sized town you’ve never heard of. But before I fall into that cozy “I was so different” narrative, painting myself as the stereotypical teen-movie outsider, I want to first confess that my teenage experience was a study in ordinary contrasts. I was into skateboards, sure, but I also went bass fishing in country ponds. I listened to the Pixies, but I also went cruising down the closest town’s main drag in my friend’s Camaro, fist pumping through the open window to a soundtrack of Motley Crüe.
In the fall of ’89 I’d just entered my senior year of high school, and I’d recently been dumped by a girl named Misty Hayes. Perhaps the improbable symbolism of her name somehow diminishes my earlier assertion that I did not live in a John Hughes movie, but it’s the truth. Misty Hayes. Say it with me. She dumped me abruptly and without warning and immediately started dating a country heartthrob named Mike. Which leads us to the embarrassingly personal, painfully impenetrable confines of my high school bedroom and an intimate relationship with The Cure’s Disintegration.
This all happened at a time in my teenage experience when I was at my most mainstream, at least in terms of the mainstream that existed in rural North Carolina in 1989. That is to say that I had been steadily embracing hair metal and Camaros (even though I couldn’t afford my own) while gradually forsaking bands like The Cure. By then The Cure weren’t exactly non-mainstream—they’d already hit number thirty-five on the Billboard chart with Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me—but my friends and I weren’t speeding around in muscle cars on forgotten backroads blaring “Just Like Heaven,” no matter how high it had peaked. Because that shit was weird.
It may at first seem counterintuitive, but my increasing desire to be embraced by the local mainstream while swearing off my natural predisposition toward weirdness was triggered in large part by a particularly painful development in my life. Just a few months before I met Misty my grandfather died. I’d been living with him since I was a year old. My mother moved us in with my grandparents when she and my father separated. A year later, my father was killed in an accident, and my mom decided that we would stay with my grandparents indefinitely.
In his final years my grandfather was so crippled by emphysema that we kept a hospital bed in the living room. The few steps from the bed to his recliner would leave him gasping as though he had just finished some unseen track and field event. He had an oxygen bottle on one side of his recliner and a urine bottle on the other. It was not a cheerful household, but my grandfather was always there. And when he wasn’t anymore, I couldn’t stand the place. I wanted to be anywhere but at home, and so I spent my time in muscle cars or at parties, which is where I met Misty.
We met just before the end of my junior year at a party around a fire barrel in an open field next to a pond. We talked a little that night, though I didn’t give myself great odds: My forearms were histaminic road maps from getting up hay bales earlier that day. But just a week after the party I found myself making out with her in the back of a pickup truck as it sped toward Myrtle Beach, the “Redneck Riviera.” We were part of a loose collective of seven or eight friends on our way to experience Senior Week, even though none of us had yet graduated. Somewhere on the road between Bumfuck and the Boonies, Misty and I ended up together in the truck. The truck had a shell covering the bed where we’d separated two mountains of luggage with a valley of beach towels, creating a space large enough for lying down. I’m inclined to describe what happened between the two of us in the back of the truck with that infamous Brendan Behan quote: “One drink is too many and a thousand drinks are never enough.” We made out for two hours straight, and by the time we got to Myrtle Beach I was sick with love. It is noteworthy to remember that Brendan Behan drank himself to death.
Misty was my girlfriend for the rest of the summer and a month or so into my senior year. And then she wasn’t any more. There were crazy letters in lockers from both of us. She wouldn’t let me go but she didn’t want me back. I alternately experimented with being desperate, asshole-ish, and nonchalant about it, basic training for all my future breakups. When all else failed there was The Cure.
I bought Disintegration on cassette tape in the closest town at Keith’s Record Shop and Sock Hop—a store that impossibly, anachronistically still exists as Keith’s CDs and Tapes—and proceeded to listen to the album in its entirety, over and over, for several months straight. On one level there’s just no escaping the overwhelming but simplistic melancholy that pervades the album. A teenager looking to explore the darkest corners of himself would be hard pressed to find a better vehicle for getting there. But Disintegration’s mood isn’t consistently depressing. It is the process of misery in several acts. It starts hopefully enough, searching and boundless. Then it goes dark and menacing. In the end there’s a climactic howl, a realization that it’s all over, and, finally, acceptance.
I can almost see myself there in my bedroom, the introductory chimes of “Plainsong” delivering me to the open fields of the album’s barren landscape, with Robert Smith letting me know immediately what the weather was like: It was cold as the bejesus and it was about to rain. The summer of Misty was over. But it was a welcome sort of dreary, full of dark romance and longing, the comforting kind of misery that you could settle in with for a long night. After “Plainsong” came the dreamy, mid-tempo, “Pictures of You.” I can remember experiencing “Pictures of You” so personally there in my bedroom, that cloying earnestness that comes in the early stages after the breakup: “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you that I almost believe that they’re real.” I didn’t actually have any pictures of her other than a yearbook photo she’d given me, but it didn’t matter. The song made me imagine what it would have been like if I’d had a faded photo album of the two of us, an artifact of our shared memories.
By the time Disintegration got to “Love Song,” the band’s biggest American hit, I was practically giddy with the hope that everything might turn out okay. But “Love Song” was a dirty trick, followed immediately by “Last Dance,” with its descending guitar riff and beaten-dog lyrics: “I’m so glad you came / I’m so glad you remembered / to see how we’re ending / this last dance together.” I felt as though I had somehow conjured this song, that the album was writing itself for me. Such is the self-obsessed worldview of the teenager.
Things later got really dark with “Fascination Street” and its menacing bass line, and “Prayers for Rain,” with its monotonous synth riff and stream-of-consciousness self-loathing: “You shatter me your grip on me a hold on me so dull it kills you stifle me infectious sense of hopelessness and prayers for rain.” She wasn’t coming back, so maybe it was time to experiment with unmitigated bitterness for a while. And by the way, wasn’t there plenty of rain to go around in the beginning of all this? The next song, “The Same Deep Water as You” was nine helpless minutes of crawling decay, every note from every instrument seemingly behind the beat but somehow holding on, Smith barely able to utter the words that no one believed: “We shall be together.” How long had I been in my room after all, and had I really managed to see the other side of midnight without so much as cracking my homework assignments?
After that, “Disintegration,” the album’s title track, was a breathless explosion, a final shout of feigned defiance and an admission that, “Both of us knew how the end always is.” The end is always tragic. I’d known that from the start. What kind of sucker would expect to hold on to a girl named Misty Hayes?
The album may have been a three-act tragedy with me as its intimate audience, but I was slow to experience cathartic reversal. Surely this was obvious to everyone but me: My retreat from the world wasn’t really about the breakup; the breakup was merely a catalyst. My grandfather’s death was a rising flood that I had been trying to outrun in my buddies’ muscle cars for months. When I got dumped, I paused just long enough for the flood to overtake me, and muscle cars don’t float.
I had been hiding from the reality of my grandfather’s death. I was seventeen years old. I hid in part by turning away from the things that had begun to define me in my teens: skateboarding, various post-war literary genres, “Left of the Dial” music on the one college radio station that I could occasionally get. I avoided isolation, partied, pretended to have a great time, pretended to care about Chevelles and RATT. Then I got dumped by a girl named Misty Hayes, setting me on the path to Disintegration. “Both of us knew how the end always is.” I was adrift, alone, and a total mess, just one more fatherless son of the hopeless Old South. That’s how the end was always going to be.
Robert Smith somewhat famously retreated from his bandmates to write many of the songs on Disintegration by himself. As a whole it stands as The Cure’s most cohesive and, as a result, most powerful album. Music is informed by so much that comes before it, and of course a rock band by definition is not a solo effort. Even solo albums are almost never true solo efforts. But there is value in the retreat, in shuttering yourself from the outside world to look inward. My life, with its tobacco-stained ghosts of fathers and grandfathers, had begun to feel like a Larry Brown novel. I’d been haunted by a creeping feeling that I was destined to be defined by sadness. Ultimately I knew that wasn’t really true, that I wasn’t going to be trapped for the rest of my life in a Southern grit-lit story, but I was never going shake that feeling without first exploring it. I was deeply affected by not only not just by my grandfather’s death, but by the way in which he lived—the way we all had lived—in his final years. I was never going to be able to fully process that while whooping it up in some mulleted dude’s Mustang on a Saturday night.
The initial vinyl release of Disintegration ended with the title track. But fortunately all subsequent releases, including my well-worn cassette version, had two additional songs as the album’s denouement: “Homesick,” and the aptly titled, “Untitled.” Both were quieter than the preceding “Disintegration,” one dreary, one weary, but both implored me to just get on with it already. “Hey, hey, just one more and I’ll walk away / all the everything you win turns to nothing today / and I forget how to move and my mouth is this dry / and my eyes are bursting hearts in a blood-stained sky.” These are dark songs, to be sure, but my fear of exploring the darkness was holding me back. The Cure certainly didn’t provide my cure-all, but the album presented me with a singular, focused experience, one that I relived every night until I decided it was time to put Disintegration away, gather up the pieces of myself that mattered most, and start to imagine what might come next.