Lol Tolhurst, a founding member of The Cure, has witnessed the evolution of the goth subculture over more than four decades. In this exploration, we delve into what it truly means to be goth, beyond the stereotypes and aesthetics. Tolhurst’s perspective, as shared in his new book “Goth: A History,” paints a profound picture of a subculture that defies convention.
Goth’s Deeper Essence
Goth, often caricatured as brooding, occult-obsessed individuals with heavy makeup, is, according to Tolhurst, a far more profound philosophy. It delves into themes that society often shies away from, such as death and darkness. In essence, goth is life-affirming, offering a unique perspective that challenges the norm.
Tolhurst’s musings take us deep into the heart of the goth ethos. It’s a subculture that encourages individuals to embrace their darkest thoughts and emotions, not as a means of indulgence, but as a way of understanding the human condition. By confronting these often-uncomfortable aspects of existence, goths find a sense of empowerment. This subculture, therefore, isn’t about reveling in despair but about acknowledging it as part of the human experience.
The Roots of Goth
Tolhurst traces the origins of goth back to punk, a response to the turmoil and hopelessness of 1970s England. It was a time of social unrest, economic hardship, and discrimination. However, where punk was nihilistic, goth embraced a romantic yet clear-eyed view of the world, making it a unique and compelling subculture.
This was a time when young individuals like Tolhurst, Robert Smith, and Michael Dempsey ventured into a London marked by clashes between police and citizens, racial discrimination, and societal upheaval. In the midst of this chaos, they discovered the cathartic power of music. Goth emerged as a creative response to the darkness of the era, addressing life’s harsh realities with a blend of art, music, and literature.
Inclusivity of Goth
One of the defining aspects of goth that has kept Tolhurst connected to it is its inclusive philosophy. Goth, in its early days, welcomed misfits from all walks of life. It was a haven for those who felt they didn’t belong elsewhere. The Batcave, a legendary London club, embodied this spirit, where anyone, regardless of their appearance, was welcomed.
The Batcave wasn’t just a club; it was a sanctuary for individuals who found solace in the haunting melodies of bands like Bauhaus, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Nick Cave’s early project, the Birthday Party. It was a place of unity, where differences were celebrated rather than shunned. Queer individuals, who were often marginalized in 1970s and ’80s London, found safety and acceptance in this enigmatic space, further underlining the subculture’s inclusivity.
Learning and Evolution
Tolhurst’s journey in the goth scene was marked by encounters with iconic figures like Siouxsie Sioux. Her unapologetic command of the stage, despite facing discrimination within the industry, was a source of inspiration. This section explores the influence of female pioneers in goth music, such as Nico, Julianne Reagan, and Gitane DeMone.
These women were trailblazers who challenged the status quo in the male-dominated music industry. Nico’s collaborations with The Velvet Underground set a dark and influential tone for women in rock. Julianne Reagan approached songwriting with a spiritual depth that added a unique dimension to the goth subculture. Gitane DeMone, who continued to tour with a hardcore group while heavily pregnant, shattered stereotypes and showed the world that women could thrive in unconventional roles.
“They should very much be given credit for changing the way that people looked at women in music,” Tolhurst said. “They were pioneers, absolutely. They taught me how the world could be different in a good way.”
The Cure’s Contribution to Goth
While The Cure’s frontman, Robert Smith, has disputed the “goth” label, their music undeniably embodies the soul of goth. Tolhurst highlights the band’s darkest and most acclaimed albums, such as “Seventeen Seconds,” “Faith,” and “Pornography.” These records serve as a diary of their lives at the time, capturing both the darkness and the resilience.
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-colored 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.”
Goth’s Resilience and Future
According to Tolhurst, goth is very much alive today, albeit with a contemporary twist. The subculture adapts to respond to crises and offers a refuge for those who don’t fit the mainstream mold. As the world faces new challenges, goth continues to self-regenerate, providing solace and a sense of belonging to those who seek it.
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 skeptical 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 honored and proud of that. That’s what keeps (goth) going.”