July 6, 2012
FRIDAY SOMETHING-OR-OTHER-TO-DO-WITH-BOOKS MUSIC VIDEO: The Cure
by Kevin Murphy
To hear The Cure, one must first read Camus.
At least that’s the case when it comes to “Killing an Arab,” a song included in Boys Don’t Cry, the band’s first U.S. album, released 1980.
“Killing an Arab’s” lyrics recount the murder scene from Camus’ The Stranger, when Meursault, walking in the sun along a baked beach in Algiers, encounters a (possibly) vengeful Arab man and shoots him five times with a pistol.
I waited. The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows. It was just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations—especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do; I wouldn’t get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up toward me, athwart the sunlight.
A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.
Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.
Robert Smith, the band’s principal songwriter and lead singer, condensed this scene into three verses, interspersed with a punchy chorus that runs parallel to the book’s existential themes of alienation and detachment.
Standing on the beach
With a gun in my hand
Staring at the sea
Staring at the sand
Staring down the barrel
At the Arab on the ground
I can see his open mouth
But I hear no sound
I’m the stranger
Killing an Arab
Unsurprisingly, the song has received its fair share of criticism and scrutiny. People who take the title out of context suggest it promotes racism and encourages violence against Arabs. This comes despite the plain-to-see reference to The Stranger. In an interview with Chart Attack, Smith explains his frustration:
“If there’s one thing I would change, it’s the title,” says Smith, sounding a little weary. “I wrote it when I was still in school and I had no idea that anyone would ever listen to it other than my immediate school friends.
“One of the themes of the song is that everyone’s existence is pretty much the same. Everyone lives, everyone dies, our existences are the same. It’s as far from a racist song as you can write. It seems though that no one can get past the title and that’s incredibly frustrating.
In 1986, when the band compiled their singles and released them as the LP Standing on a Beach, which included “Killing an Arab,” the album cover featured a sticker that discouraged using the song for racist or violent purposes. However, criticism subsisted and flared up even more so once the Persian Gulf War and other Arab-world related events began dominating headlines. Since then, the band has rarely played the song live, and when it does, often changes the lyrics and title, sometimes to “Kissing an Arab,” or “Killing an Ahab” — a reference to Moby Dick.
All this for a somewhat minor song from a band with rather large repertoire. Despite being one of the band’s earliest songs, “Killing an Arab” remains of its most popular, or at least most discussed.
Here it is, in all its existential glory.
Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.