BY BUNKONG TUON
While growing up in Massachusetts in the 1980s, I listened to what everyone around me was listening to: pop music on the radio. Madonna, Expose, Bon Jovi, Rick Astley, and Richard Marx. I was particularly moved by the music video of “Hold On to the Night.” At the time, I thought it was so romantic: the dark atmosphere, the spotlight shining on Marx like a halo, the singer sitting behind a black piano and, with eyes closed, tenderly singing his pop tune in front of an audience made up of young female fans.
Now, with hair greying, seeing that video some 30 years later, I don’t know which is more disturbing: Marx’s mullet and shoulder pads or the infidelity that Marx was singing about?
So it goes with listening to what the mainstream media and culture tell you is cool. You do things because you are told to, not because it’s meaningful – or that it speaks to your whole being. You don’t question. Critical thinking is not the purview of mainstream culture. The sheep mentality is.
After dropping out of Bunker Hill Community College in 1991, I moved to Southern California with my aunt and her husband. They left Massachusetts to pursue the Cambodian-America dream: own a donut shop, make enough money to send their children to college, and buy a home. Around this time, I enrolled at Long Beach City College, where I learned to read and write. I was also beginning to take music more seriously. No one on the radio was singing about the deep alienation I experienced growing up as a refugee and orphan. I was the only Cambodian in middle school; at home, I was an orphan surrounded by cousins who had both of their parents. It pained me to see my uncles and aunts shower their affection on my cousins.
I was a hurt and angry young man, and I wore black to let the world know I didn’t care about anything. I was interested mainly in rebellion, which I found pervasive in the counterculture movement of the 60s, the music of rock ’n' roll, and the figure of the Dionysian rock star in Jim Morrison. I bought into the Jim Morrison myth, collected all the Doors albums, memorized the lyrics, and read Morrison’s poetry books. Needless to say, Morrison introduced me to Nietzsche, Greek tragedy, myth, ritual, and shamanism.
Soon after, I exhausted all available resources on the Doors. I then remembered a kid I used to work with at a movie theater in Massachusetts. I was an usher and he popped popcorn all day in a small windowless room. Sometimes I’d go and get huge plastic bags of popcorn from him to bring to the concession stand. His name was “O’Leary” (back then, we called each other by our last names). He was tall and lanky, hair short on the back and long on the front, combed to the side, and he wore black most of the time. Unlike us ushers, he wasn’t required to wear uniform because he didn’t have to show his face in public.
O’Leary was “weird,” I was told by co-workers. But who was I to judge? Being one of the few Cambodian students at my high school, I was visibly different from my peers. I was also shy and awkward around people, and I was uncomfortable in my own skin. In fact, knowing that O’Leary was considered weird piqued my curiosity and made me hopeful. Maybe he and I, two weirdos, could become friends, I thought to myself.
I remembered going into the popcorn room and discovering this loud and strange music coming from the cassette player. O’Leary was wearing a Cure’s Disintegration t-shirt, and “Pictures of You” was playing. I remembered the sounds of thunder and rain, then the guitar riff, the pounding bass, and Robert Smith’s melancholic voice. It was high-pitched, full of sadness and longing, so different from Morrison’s. I thought it was strange, unusual, beautiful. But I didn’t do anything after this encounter. O’Leary was still O’Leary, the popcorn guy. And I went back to the concession stand, clocked out later that night, got home, and listened to my Richard Marx.
Five years later in Long Beach, something changed. After dropping out of college, I went back, craving to learn how to read and write. I was also taking music more seriously, as if it was a religion. One day, remembering O’Leary, I went to a local Target store, searched the “C” section of the music department, and found the Cure’s “Wish” cassette tape. This was in the early 1990s, and because “Wish” just came out with its hit single “Friday, I’m in Love,” it was the only Cure album that was available at department stores like Target.
I put “Wish” in the cassette deck, got out of the parking space, when the opening track “Open” came on. I lowered the volume, slowed down the car, then pulled over and just parked in the middle of the lot. I turned the volume back up, and I felt dizzy. The guitar sound was swirling around in my head, and I felt the swarming lights, the heavy smell of cigarettes and drinks, and the inaudible noise of people trying to talk at a club. And then there were these words:
And all the faces that I make
And all the shapes that I throw
And all the people I meet
And all the words that I know
Makes me sick to the heart
Oh, I feel so tired.
And the way the rain comes down hard
That's how I feel inside.
Loneliness and alienation overcame me in the Target parking lot that afternoon. But I also felt alive. In feeling loneliness, paradoxically, I also felt less alone. That’s the magic of art. It helps take the heaviness of what you feel by allowing you to feel it over and over until it has less power over you. It’s what therapists aim to do when they ask patients to tell repeatedly their stories in a safe and controlled environment until the traumas is somewhat released.
Whatever money I made working as a janitor, I bought music and books. I began collecting the Cure albums. This was also the time I discovered the Smiths. And I was learning how to write. In front of the old typewriter, I hammered the keys, writing songs, poems, and stories, while the Cure or the Smiths were accompanying me on the cassette player. I remember excitingly telling a friend about the Cure one day. He said, “I don’t like them. The singer’s voice is too high-pitched, too whiny.” Then he concluded, “It’s kinda gay.”
I was not one to argue, so I kept quiet. But I knew then like I know now why I was into this kind of music. It was strange, different from what was on the radio and television, different from what the popular kids in high school listened to back then. And I don’t just mean difference in form, where the music breaks from the three-minute mark of pop music and is free to explore not only the feelings but experiment with sound, such as the guitar used to mimic the sound of faucet dripping in “10:15 Saturday Night.”
I am talking about another kind of music, a different value system, an alternative world. There’s the literary, such as the retelling of Camus’s The Stranger in “Killing an Arab.” There’s the gothic, in such songs as “A Forest” and “The Hanging Garden.” There’s the silly and playful, such as in “Let’s Go To Bed”; then there’s the frighteningly fun “Lullaby.” And one of my favorites is the surreal “Bird Mad Girl,” with such striking lyrics as:
She flies outside this cage
Singing girl-mad words
I keep her dark thoughts deep inside
As black as stone
As mad as birds . . .
Oh, I could be a polar bear.
I understand the Cure is known mostly, somewhat mistakenly, for their doom and gloom. They are post-punk and early gothic, after all. But there’s also so much happiness and joy in such songs as “Doing the Unstruck,” “Mint Car,” “Why Can’t I Be You?” and “The Love Cats,” that you can’t help but move your feet and, when no one is looking, shake it a bit.
And then there are those songs that made me cry. It’s not the story in “Boys Don’t Cry” that moved me to tears, it’s the sentiment. Coming from a home where gender role was prescribed clearly and rigidly, where if you were a boy, you weren’t encouraged to express your feelings, especially those of hurt, pain, and sadness, that song got to me. Robert Smith was no Jim Morrison, the lizard king who bared his chest (and more), snarled in front of the camera and performing madness and masculinity as if he were in some Dionysian play. Smith, with his makeup and messy lipstick, presented a different way of being, less heterosexual and heteronormative, and for me, less pressure to perform a certain type of masculinity.
But the one song that hit me singularly hard, one that I played over and over, until my lungs almost gave in from screaming and I wept, was “The Exploding Boy.” I grew up with one particular uncle who was abusive. The stuff he said to me was more damaging than any beating, where each word, both cunning and mean, was a hammer to my head, slowly breaking down any good sense I had of my self. So I screamed the words to the song to free myself from this pain:
I couldn't hear a word you said
I couldn't hear at all
You talked until your tongue fell out
And then you talked some more
I knew if I turned
I'd turn away from you
And I couldn't look back.
At several points in my life, I wanted to run away from home. That uncle was domineering and abusive, and I felt no one at home was listening to me. And school was a quiet hell. I wasn’t bullied; I was simply left alone. I had very few friends. That song brought me back to those painful, awful times in my early life growing up in Massachusetts.
Before graduating from college, I was able to see the Cure live in Irvine with a friend. It was my first big show. My friend picked me up from a studio apartment in downtown Long Beach, and off we went. Once we got close to Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, we found ourselves crawling along with the concert traffic. I thought we were going to be late for the show. Little did I know, we were actually early and so we walked around.
I had never seen that many people gathered in one place before; some of whom were tattooed and pierced. I didn’t feel like I belonged. But all that was forgotten once the Cure came on stage. Smith was happy with his red lipstick and black mascara, strumming his acoustic guitar and singing into the microphone. Simon Gallup, with his long ponytail, stayed low with his bass, moving around and attacking every corner of the stage. And Porl Thompson was, as expected, awesome. The crowd erupted. The Cure played their hits and then-newer songs from the album Bloodflowers. Then “Doing the Unstuck” came on, and everyone got up and danced. Smith sang in his happy and playful fashion. I looked at my friend, who was smiling and moving along to the beat. Still self-conscious, I moved my feet, smiled, closed my eyes, and sang along with the crowd:
It's a perfect day for kiss and swell
For rip-zipping button-popping kiss and well
There's loads of other stuff can make you yell
Let's get happy!
It's a perfect day for doing the unstuck
For dancing like you can't hear the beat
And you don't give a further thought
To things like feet
Let's get happy!
After college, I returned to the East Coast for graduate school. I listened to the Cure, but their significance had waned on me. Now, I’m a college teacher, husband, and father. I don’t listen to the Cure the way I used to anymore. I put a Cure CD in the car stereo on my way to the grocery to pick up milk and cereal for my daughter. Sometimes, nostalgia kicks in and I listen to them and Morrissey on YouTube late into the night.
When my daughter was around 18 months old, I used to play for her the music video of “Just Like Heaven.” My daughter bounced, her hair in the air, and bellowed out “Show me, show me, show me.” And when Robert Smith sang “spinning on that dizzy edge,” my daughter spun along, her tutu swirling. It was magic. The kind of thing that erases momentarily all that hurt from youth and connects me deeper to my daughter, where loneliness is extinguished and, in its absence, there is only pure joy.
Bunkong Tuon is the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books, and a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly He is also an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.