I love elegies.
I love those long, plaintive songs of yearning and sadness which are the stuff of such great inspiration and communal anguish. Hearts are left bleeding on the floor. We rock slowly back and forth, locked in as the emotion slowly oozes into our consciousness. We feel the singer’s pain. We are left wracked by their angst.
“Drive All Night” by Bruce Springsteen. “Bad” by U2. “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix. These songs all take their time. They tell stories that are sometimes complicated, sometimes difficult. Always passionate and heartfelt. Always painfully honest.
“Pictures of You” by The Cure also takes its time. The song is seven minutes and thirty seconds long. We first hear the light, deceptively happy sound of a wind chime, followed almost immediately by the entire band. There are no vocals yet. The music sounds sad, maybe a little forlorn. We don’t hear the first lyrics until after more than two minutes, after an entire verse of the song has been completely played through with no lyrics. The second verse comes, and then Robert Smith sings.
“I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they’re real
I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures
Are all I can feel“
It took me a while to get to The Cure. Growing up listening to people like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Squeeze, The Cure seemed completely foreign to me. Their make-up, their gothic, alt-rock appearance and sound seemed like it was intended people other than me. People cooler than me. People braver than me. I was not curious enough. I was not listening.
I’m an idiot. I should have been listening.
The Cure began as a group of school friends in 1978 in West Sussex, England. Though their personnel lineup has changed many times through the years, Robert Smith has always been the lead vocalist and primary songwriter while other band members have come and gone.
“Pictures of You” was released on their album Disintegration in 1989, during a period where they enjoyed their greatest fame and success. And while the band came across as a group of socially withdrawn, disaffected runaways, “Pictures of You” is a beautiful love song. It is about some of those things we hold most dear.
“Remembering you standing quiet in the rain
As I ran to your heart to be near
And we kissed as the sky fell in
Holding you close
How I always held close in your fear
Remembering you running soft through the night
You were bigger and brighter and whiter than snow
And screamed at the make-believe
Screamed at the sky
And you finally found all your courage to let it all go“
Robert Smith wrote “Pictures of You” after there was a fire in his house. Walking through the smokey debris, he found pictures of his wife amongst the ashes. He found the very item that most of us would want saved if we lost our home to a fire, or flood. We want the pictures. We want the record of our own memories, and we want the memories of those who came before us.
Memories. Memories of their life together. Memories of their lives when they met. Memories of their unhappiness. Memories of their redemption. Memories of their moments of realization. The music of “Pictures of You” is driven by the consistently thick, plodding bass line. The electric guitar provides a hovering brightness that gives a little optimism and hope amidst the darkness. The third verse begins with “Remembering you…” as does the fourth verse. There is no chorus, only the complex memories of an unhappy time, an unhappy time that brought them here.
“Remembering you fallen into my arms
Crying for the death of your heart
You were stone white, so delicate
Lost in the cold
You were always so lost in the dark
Remembering you, how you used to be
Slow drowned, you were angels
So much more than everything
Hold for the last time then slip away quietly
Open my eyes, but I never see anything
If only I’d thought of the right words
I could have held on to your heart
If only I’d thought of the right words”
“Pictures of You” is a long song. The lyrics don’t start until after the first two minutes. I remember a friend of mine saw The Cure perform at a big stadium right after this song was released. Almost 20,000 people packed into an arena. All under one roof, the bright lights illuminating the stage. Smoke and sweat fills the air. The Cure begins to play “Pictures of You,” and even without any lyrics at the beginning of the song, the entire audience is locked in. Waving their arms back and forth as the sad music slowly plays. The elegy welcomes everyone. Everyone connects through the sadness, and the commonality of preserved memories, both happy and sad.
“There was nothing in the world
That I ever wanted more
Than to feel you deep in my heart
There was nothing in the world
That I ever wanted more
Than to never feel the breaking apart
My pictures of you”
Grab those pictures. Hold those memories tight. If those memories make you sad, hold them even tighter. Share them with others. Revel in the tragedy, and find relief on the other side.
“Pictures of You”
Written by Boris Williams, Simon Gallup, Roger O’Donnell, Robert Smith,
Porl Thompson and Lol Tolhurst
Performed by The Cure
Released March 19, 1990