Lol Tolhurst, Co-Founder of The Cure, Literally Wrote The Book on Goth History

Goth The Cure

If you’re going to read one book about goth culture, you might as well read the one written by a co-founder of the gothiest goth band. Lol Tolhurst’s new work, Goth: A History, is a must-read for any Cure fan and an entirely pleasing experience for anyone interested in the subculture. Far from an encyclopedic text of a few thousand bands you may have heard about if you ever shopped at the one place in town that sold band shirts and leather jackets (looking at you, Chicago’s The Alley), Goth is an engrossing memoir/history lesson in the happy-sad subculture. 

We spoke with the author about how his upbringing shaped The Cure, the texts and films that inspired the subculture, and why crises lead to goth. 

Dread Central: Reading this made me feel like a teenager. I was taking notes on art I was unfamiliar with, like The Little Red Schoolbook, musicians like John Martyn, and films like The Rebel. What do you hope the reader gets from the book in terms of a goth education?

Lol Tolhurst: Precisely that, an education.

I don’t want to sound pompous, because it’s going to sound pompous, but I know from whence all of this came. Because it’s been my whole life. For Goth, I just picked out the most obvious signposts for me. There are a lot more and I said that in the book as well, because the thing that was hard for me about writing Goth was trying to figure out what kind of voice I was gonna have because I’m not a journalist. That would be more like John Robb’s book. That would have required a lot of research. And I kind of hate research, it’s like homework.

I did have a researcher. There’s a story there. The first guy I had was a friend of mine from Colorado, who’d written a great book on David Bowie, Jason Heller. It’s very meticulous, there are things in there about Bowie I didn’t know and I thought I knew everything. He was my researcher for about a month until he got sick, so he couldn’t do it anymore. I asked my son, who lives in San Francisco and has an MFA in creative writing, to write me a couple of pieces. I just wanted the facts, I didn’t want any opinions. Then I showed them to my agent and said, “What about this guy as a researcher?” I didn’t tell him who it was. He went, “Yeah, he’s good.” I said, “Okay, that’s my son. So we’ll hire him.”

But then the thing that you haven’t come to yet, unless you’ve got an older child, but the thing that I did that worked really well was that I said to my son, you got the job, we’re going to hire you, but I’m not your boss, this guy is your boss. I’m going to ask you for things that I need and you’re going to send them but this guy’s your boss. I didn’t want him to call and be like, “Dad, I can’t do it this week.” I wanted somebody else to change him for things and that worked out fine.

A lot of fathers and sons sort of bond over shooting hoops or whatever and we bonded over this book. It was really a good thing to do. Plus, I said, “Now it’s time to pay the old man back for all this money I’ve spent on sending you to school.”

Dread Central: I feel like it’s an okay time to mention your background because you obviously have a very good relationship with your son, and you write about this in the book. I like that you address the financial differences in your and Robert Smith’s background. I’ve always thought the reason Kurt Cobain was punk and Trent Reznor was goth was due to means and family life. It seems like without your not-as-rosy background as Robert, maybe The Cure isn’t The Cure? Is that fair?

LT: Well, yeah. One of the things I hope I get across in Goth is that most music comes from a variety of sources, not just the artist. It comes from the environment. It comes from all of those things. The cleanest example is punk. At the end of the ’70s, especially in England, it was very dismal. I can remember going with my mother to the post office in our town.

I lived in a little town south of London. We’d go into the post office every week to have a look at the schedule to see when the electricity was going to get turned off in our town, because there were so many strikes and they had the army in to run power stations and stuff. It was very dismal. All the supermarkets were like, sort of old Eastern European markets with bread, eggs, and milk and that’s about it. Out of that came punk. 

Yeah, music comes from our art. But it all comes from the environment. Remember when people first had Google Earth? They were all looking around where they used to live and had a look online. After I did that, I called up Robert. And I said, “You know what, I had a look around where the places we used to be when we were teenagers and it is absolutely no surprise to me why we sounded like we did, because it’s there. It’s there in the dark, dank countryside. It looks exactly like what we sounded like.”

Robert’s dad was a good model for me to look at because he was involved. His birthday was the day after mine. And for every year, up until maybe a couple of years towards the end of his life, he always remembered my birthday, he would tell Robert, “Tell Lawrence happy birthday for me.” He was somebody who was a good example when I was a teenager. I spent a lot of time at the Smiths’ house, I saw how things ran.

Robert’s father was in the Second World War, but his experience wasn’t the same as my dad’s. He was in a different branch. My dad had signed up for the Navy way before the Second World War came, he was in the Navy for 15 years. The time that I was in The Cure was really the time my father spent in the Navy going around and seeing all sorts of terrible things for a 20-year-old to see. That shaped his whole psyche, which is why I’m very, very much an advocate for mental health and treatment.

I realized that music and literature were my way out. 

When I was 14, I went to the library. And the way it works in England, you had one library ticket that would allow you to take three things out, like three books or a book and two records or something like that. But I had managed to finagle three tickets, I was able to take like, nine things out at a time, like a whole bunch of records, a bunch of books, and I spent that summer reading and listening to stuff, you know, I didn’t care what I listened to it records, I just take the next three records and listen to them. So that was my education that summer. 

I learned this is something I can do. This is how you can change things with this. 

DC: I’d say the biggest thing you write about in the book other than actual music, which is a lot of the book, is Catholicism. You grew up a Catholic. Were you drawn more to goth because you grew up Catholic? Do you think anything can replace Catholicism or religion as a whole as a pushback against normalcy into becoming a goth?

LT: Well, it’s interesting you say that, because that’s part of the process I’m going through for the next book. That’s the thing I’m thinking about. 

I was talking to Kathryne Mannix, an English doctor who’s written some books about the conversation about death, because we don’t have it. We all sort of pretend it’s not going to happen. 

I had a funny experience a couple of weeks ago. I was in Brooklyn doing a book talk and I said, “You know, nobody, none of us in this room,” there’s like 200 people in the bookstore, “none of us are getting out of here alive.” It was definitely silenced. I thought for a second and realized they interpreted it differently. I said, “No, no, everybody’s safe. It’s just we all go along, assuming that this is it, this is what’s going to happen, and it’s going to be this way forever. And then all of a sudden, it isn’t, you know, and that becomes more apparent when you get into your 60s.”

One of the real purposes of Goth and that way of looking at things is it brings those things into your forefront, it brings it into your consciousness. 

I still have a belief in something outside of myself that is just not aligned with mainstream Catholicism or any religion really. That always looked like the manifestation of man’s power over other men. That’s part of the thing that I want to explore for the next book 

DC: Two of the biggest reasons you became who you are are two men not typically associated with goth: Joe Strummer and John Peel. In the age of the internet, how important are figures like this when there’s, in theory, no barrier to entry for any culture or subculture?

LT: Wow, that’s a great question. You know, the internet was good and bad. Without the internet, you have to spend a lot longer trying to get things across to people. For The Cure, college radio was very good for us, it got the word out. And the other thing that got the word out, which I suppose I don’t think we were that sort of enamored with at the time, but obviously worked was MTV. When we made videos, nobody else made many videos. At the time, maybe there were like six videos out a week. So they kind of had to put us on because 15% of their programming was gone. 

There’s not that sort of connection because it’s all fragmented. Although there are semblances of it. My son has a band. And he went on tour last year with a bigger band. They played the same kind of tour that I would have played 40 years ago. I went to see some of the shows and some of the places I went to looked familiar. They looked very old. They’re the same places we played, they just got a different name.

I think the experience of people going into gigs now is better because of the pandemic being kind of gone a little bit. The strange fact is times of great crisis tend to produce great art and we’re living in pretty desperate times in lots of ways right now, the rise of new fascism and stuff. It’s all there. 

DC: On page 124 goth historian Dr. Tracy Fahey says, “Gothic is a mode that responds to crisis.” Is it difficult to maintain a goth-type output when the crises have been solved, or at least addressed?

LT: Good question. The answer is, I don’t really know. I think I’ve had this kind of way of looking at the world for a very long time. It’s a bit good and bad. I have some friends here in LA who own a store, which is ostensibly a goth kind of store. And I would say they’re pretty happy people because they are living the life that they want to live. They don’t go home and take off their uniform and put on their goth uniform. 

I see a lot of older people at shows and things and I know they still dress the way they did. I think it’s probably easier to be an older goth than it is to be an older heavy metal fan or something, being a middle-aged man and trying to squeeze yourself into leather pants is kind of hard.

It’s not really a subculture, it’s more of a way of life. It survives because there’s always a place where it can be. I see it all over the place. I’ve traveled all over the states for the last 40 years, I’ve been all over the place, and I can walk into any small town and go to a local coffee shop and I can spot the five or 10 kids who don’t even know they’re going to be goth.

DC: You kind of do two things at the end of the book. On page 220, you say, because you’re an elder goth, it’s about self-determination, it’s about feeling comfortable in your own skin. And then three pages later, you close the book saying goth is the last true alternative outsider subculture. I think I understand that correctly. But I think to a lot of people that sounds like opposites. 

LT: I think maybe it’s just the process of getting older anyway. It’s funny because I remember when I was writing Cured, which is like, almost 10 years ago, my agent at the time said he would never commission anybody to write a memoir under 30 or even under 40, because they have no perspective on what happened in youth. He was right. There’s a lot of rebelliousness at the beginning. But at some point, you have to grasp a couple of things and go, what do I really believe? What do I really think? 

Goth is a good place to start with acceptance of the world and yourself, rather than going, “Okay, hands up, please tell me what you want me to believe, and how you want me to believe it. And then I’ll just go along with it.” 

DC: Some of the films mentioned in the book are Nosferatu, Stroszek, The Hunger, Metropolis, The Golem, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Blade, The Crow, The Doom Generation, The Craft, The Matrix, Twilight, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, This Must Be the Place and Only Lovers Left Alive. Are there any films you intentionally omitted?

LT: I omitted things that were too like parodies, you know, or, you know, sort of slightly tongue in cheek.

DC: The book ends with an in-memoria and a quote by Joan Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

So as of right now, what do you fear?

LT: There’s an old saying in the music business, you spend your whole life making your first album, and then you get six months to make number two. This is what’s happening now. 



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