What it means to be goth, according to The Cure's Lol Tolhurst

Lol Tolhurst (left) and Robert Smith
Lol Tolhurst (left) and Robert Smith of The Cure in 1983. Tolhurst documents the band's early days in his new book, "Goth: A History." Photo credit: Fin Costello / Redferns / Getty Images

By Scottie Andrew of CNN

Though he may not wear his hair quite as tall and unkempt as he once did, and he's ditched the smeared eyeliner and all-black dress code, founding member of The Cure Lol Tolhurst still considers himself goth.

Life looks vastly different now for Tolhurst, who played drums and keyboard on some of the best-loved albums of the late 1970s and '80s. He's still a musician, with an album on the way with his contemporaries and fellow veterans of the scene, Budgie and Jacknife Lee. But he's got time now to podcast, catch his son's concerts and write a book or two.

And yet, more than 40 years after The Cure's second record, Seventeen Seconds, cemented the group's status as talented purveyors of dark and sinister sounds, goth is still at the heart of his worldview, the people he meets and the music he connects with. 

"I think once you find something that fits you, you don't want to leave it behind - you adapt," he said in a phone interview.

That's the thrust of his new book, Goth: A History: Goth isn't a way of dressing or a genre of music, but a lens through which to see the world. Goth is for everyone, Tolhurst writes, and it's not a "phase" one has to outgrow.

"My life in Goth served as a kind of communal reverse meditation," Tolhurst writes. "By exploring the darkness of books, films, music, and paintings together, we escaped for a brief moment to better understand the place we all found ourselves in time and space. We kept floating but now (were) a little more liberated."

What it means to be goth 

Goth is still frequently painted in a "comical way" - heavy makeup, brooding attitude, occult obsession - Tolhurst said. By making light of it or focusing solely on its aesthetic trappings, people who don't "get" goth effectively "defang it," he said. It's no wonder goth resonates with those who feel misunderstood.

The reality of goth, Tolhurst said, is a fascination with "all those things that we don't really, as a culture, like to look at straightaway - death, darkness."

"It sounds paradoxical, but it's life-affirming," he said. "We don't have to be so afraid."

Goth was born from punk, Tolhurst writes, which itself was a response to the turmoil and hopelessness of 1970s England, where unemployment was rampant, racial discrimination targeted vibrant communities like Brixton in London and those who challenged the status quo were ostracized. Tolhurst and his co-founders of The Cure, Robert Smith and Michael Dempsey, saw it firsthand when they ventured into London as curious teens, witnessing clashes between police and citizens and the irascible performances by punk and post-punk artists. 

But where punk is often nihilistic - think of the Sex Pistols' sneering refrain in 'God Save the Queen': "No future/no future for you!" - goth is slightly more romantic in its clear-eyed appraisal of the state of the world, Tolhurst said. Goth has a flair for the theatrical, pulling from art and literature to articulate its sweeping themes like destructive love and aching loss - not jaded, but not defeated, either.

Part of what appealed to Tolhurst in goth, and why he continues to consider himself goth, is its "inclusive philosophy," he said. Goth was a haven for misfits from all kinds, and it didn't exclude anyone who saw themselves in it, he said: "If you say you're in, you are."

Tolhurst writes about the infamous Batcave, a central London club where goths of all stripes could commune and dance to the music of the day - Bauhaus, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nick Cave's early band the Birthday Party. As long as they could pay cover and were old enough to enter, they were welcomed, Tolhurst writes, whether they were dressed in a blazer or black leather. And because the gay community was often violently ostracized in 1970s and '80s London, queer Londoners found safety at the Batcave, too, Tolhurst writes.

Two goths pose at the Batcave club in Soho, London, in 1984.
Two goths pose at the Batcave club in Soho, London, in 1984. Photo credit: Dave Hogan / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Growing up goth and learning from Siouxsie Sioux 

The bulk of Goth chronicles Tolhurst's education in the post-punk and goth scenes: Catching an early performance by The Clash, led by an electrifying Joe Strummer, which solidified Tolhurst's interest in pursuing music as a career; touring alongside Siouxsie and the Banshees, the band's first real taste of the road; discovering Ian Curtis and his band Joy Division before Curtis' death by suicide at age 23.

Siouxsie Sioux, in particular, was an important teacher for Tolhurst and his bandmates. On stage, she bounded and thrashed, her eyes disappearing into her thick black eye makeup. She did not tolerate theatrics from her audience, though. In the book, Tolhurst recalls watching Siouxsie night after night from the side of the stage after the band opened for her, "stomping on (the) fingers" of skinheads who crowded the front of the stage to taunt her for being, Tolhurst writes, "a woman in complete command of her environment."

The hatred she faced came from within the industry, too, which Tolhurst said was still very misogynistic, particularly to iconoclasts like Siouxsie.

"She took no prisoners, which was great," he said over the phone. "But there's a hierarchy in the music business, and it's full of old guys who didn't know how to deal with her." 

Tolhurst pays homage to Siouxsie and unsung female dynamos of goth music: Nico, whose collaborations with The Velvet Underground set the dark tone for women in rock; Julianne Reagan of All About Eve and the spirituality with which she approached songwriting; Gitane DeMone of Christian Death, who continued to tour with the hardcore group while heavily pregnant.

"They should very much be given credit for changing the way that people looked at women in music," he said. "They were pioneers, absolutely. They taught me how the world could be different in a good way."

How The Cure's 'goth' records redefined the genre

The Cure frontman Robert Smith has disputed claims that the group is a "goth" band. But the dark, romantic soul of goth runs through much of the band's discography, particularly, Tolhurst said, in its second through fourth albums - Seventeen Seconds, Faith and Pornography - three of the group's sonically darkest and most critically acclaimed albums. (In the book, Tolhurst offers a helpful hint for identifying a goth anthem - it's "usually about death and love in the same song.") 

The recording of those albums was often tumultuous, Tolhurst writes, as the band lost and gained new members. Smith split his time as a fill-in guitarist for the Banshees and the group was rattled by the deaths of loved ones. But Tolhurst describes those years as some of the most rewarding experiences of his musical career. (Note: Fans of The Cure looking for insights into Tolhurst's departure from and intermittent return to the band and his relationship with Smith will find more answers in Tolhurst's earlier book, Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys.)

"The Cure's whole raison d'être is right there in those three albums," he said. "They're very much a diary of our lives at the time, so it's always special to listen to (them) and think about that."

Critics and listeners who didn't jibe with The Cure's penchant for the minor scale would often ask Tolhurst and his bandmates whether their music would make their "depressed looking" fans only fall deeper into despair, Tolhurst said.

"I'd say, 'no, you have the completely wrong end of the stick,'" he said. He nodded to the eponymous track on Pornography, a dense and menacing song whose meaning is difficult to divine. But the final words Smith sings - "I must fight this sickness/Find a cure" - are about coping, surviving and finding a way through the bleakness, Tolhurst said. 

"It's about solace," he said. "It doesn't have to be rose-coloured solace that has unicorns and hearts, and 'everything's going to be fine.' It acknowledges the dark and melancholy. And out of that comes salvation."

The future of goth is bright - well, as bright as goth can be

Goth is alive and well today, Tolhurst said, even if it looks and sounds different than it did when the Cure was recording iconic goth tracks like 'A Forest'. And he hears The Cure's influence and that of his contemporaries in this new generation: "There would be no Billie Eilish" without Siouxsie Sioux, he said.

The Irish author and academic Tracy Fahey tells Tolhurst in Goth: A History that "gothic is a mode that responds to crisis." The pandemic and political upheaval have changed the world once again - and goth will "self-regenerate" among those who feel they don't fit into the mainstream, Tolhurst said. 

Tolhurst said he thinks about the folks in smaller towns who found community in The Cure and other groups' music - they're who he was thinking of when he said he convinced a sceptical Smith to accept the group's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.

"I see all these people live in small places - their way out was us," he said. "I'm very honoured and proud of that. That's what keeps (goth) going."