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The Cure’s Lol Tolhurst: ‘Goth is about being in love with the melancholy beauty of existence’ | The Cure

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It’s a long time since Lol Tolhurst last played drums or keyboards for the Cure, the band he co-founded in the late 1970s with his schoolfriend Robert Smith. But occasionally he still finds himself striving to explain what the songs of those early years were all about. In Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, early Cure classics such as Seventeen Seconds and A Strange Day sounded a note of existential angst in teenage bedrooms across the land. The lyrics to A Forest, released in 1979, communicate the general vibe: “The girl was never there/ It’s always the same/ I’m running towards nothing/ Again and again and again and again…” Sadly, the cathartic power of such virtuoso melancholy has not always been obvious to everyone.

“In conversations I’ve had all around the world,” Tolhurst says, “the thing that’s irked me is when people say: ‘Oh but the music is so depressing and you’re so depressed, and people listening must end up becoming more and more unhappy and even harming themselves.’

“Nothing could be further from the truth. The opposite is the truth! It’s without this way of understanding life, and the expressions it gives rise to, that negative stuff becomes more likely. Listen, I’m not saying the Cure have been some great saviours or anything. But so much correspondence we have had – that I have personally had down the years – has been from people saying: ‘Things were very bad for me and this music was my way out to a better place.’”

When it comes to depression and bad times, Tolhurst knows whereof he speaks. On the eve of the publication of his new book, Goth, he is speaking from Los Angeles, where he has lived for 30 years, after escaping his own spiral of decline. A self-confessed “blackout drunk”, Tolhurst’s chronic alcoholism led Smith to sack him as the Cure’s drummer in 1989, painfully rupturing a friendship that had begun at the age of five at St Francis’s primary school in Crawley, West Sussex. In the bitter aftermath, he sued Smith and the Cure’s record label over royalty payments and lost. By the time he fled to LA in 1994, “seeking to be a stranger in a strange land”, it felt like year zero.

“Things had fallen apart – me and the band, my first marriage. I had the disastrous court case – I owed a lot of money for that. I didn’t have anything much to do. I couch-surfed for a while, living with one set of friends during the week and then with others at the weekend.”

During the economic crisis that put Thatcher into power, the utopian stuff of the late 60s curdled. Punk was a cleansing

After successfully taming his addiction and gradually turning his life around, writing became a form of therapy and a source of renewed self-esteem. “I realised at one point,” he says, “that I had to reclaim some of my artistic past, as part of my recovery from the problems that plagued me at the end of the Cure. When things had been put back together and I had been put back together, I started to reflect on, well, everything that went on.”

After meeting Pamela Des Barres – author of the LA rock groupie classic, I’m With the Band – Tolhurst gave her early drafts of a confessional memoir. Told he had clear literary talent, he produced the well-received Cured, published in 2016. A compelling account of the Cure’s early rise, and an honest narration of his own self-destructive fall, one review described the book as among “the best accounts of alcoholism you will ever come across”.

Goth is an attempt at a broader snapshot of the times that formed him. Observer readers of a certain vintage, brought up on a late-70s diet of the John Peel show, NME and the occasional French existentialist novel, will feel a warm glow of recognition. Via a litany of bands, and literary influences ranging from Rimbaud to Franz Kafka and Albert Camus, Tolhurst explores the alternative mindset that even managed to infiltrate Top of the Pops in the late 70s and early 80s. “People who enjoyed Cured,” he says, “said they wanted to know more about where it all came from, that music and that world. So I’ve tried to locate the meaning, the whys and the wherefores.”

Tolhurst, Robert Smith and Simon Gallup on stage in 1979.
Tolhurst, Robert Smith and Simon Gallup on stage in 1979. Photograph: Gabor Scott/Redferns

Tolhurst is aware that the title may raise eyebrows. “I know there are loads of fans who are going to say: ‘What? No, the Cure were never goth!’ In fact, the original title for the book wasn’t Goth. I wanted to call it The Lesser Saints, but the publishers said: ‘What’s that about?’ I tried ‘Post-Punk’ on my editor but he said that was too broad.”

The aim, though, is not to define categories, but to showcase and explain a sensibility that is fascinated with the bleaker side of life. While more outre corners of goth culture focused on vampires, ruined abbeys and somewhat alarming sadomasochistic practices, Tolhurst is primarily interested in a kind of ethereal pessimism: the mournful yearning and heightened emotional drama expressed in songs such as Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart and I Know It’s Over by the Smiths.

So where did all the doominess come from? “Postwar in the UK,” says Tolhurst, “you had the Beatles and then the idealistic, utopian stuff of the late 60s. During the economic crisis that put Thatcher into power, that all curdled. Punk was a cleansing.” In the book, he draws on the work of Irish author and academic Tracy Fahey, whose work links the gothic in art to periods of acute social disruption. The Industrial Revolution delivered Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. The collapse of the postwar political consensus in the 1970s delivered punk. But Sex Pistols-style nihilism was never going to be enough for Tolhurst and Smith, two Catholic boys from suburban Crawley with a taste for the mystical and mysterious.

“One of the things post-punk liberated,” Tolhurst argues, “was the sense of romantic longing that is inherent in teen lives. It allowed us to jump out of the musical quicksand of the 70s, cross over the bridge of punk, and give a voice to the thousand bedsit poets in love with the melancholy beauty of existence.”

In provincial towns across Britain, one of the byproducts of this transition was a thriving subculture made up of black-clad, pale-faced, hairsprayed gloomsters. In clubs such as the Batcave in London and the Bastille in Bristol, songs devoted to doomed love, transience, decay and death packed dancefloors. Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Damned, Bauhaus and the Cure provided the soundtrack for a new darkly romantic aesthetic. It was, he says, about “far more than spiking your hair up and putting on black clothes”.


That was all more than four decades ago. Today, at the age of 64, Tolhurst’s hair is silver-grey and only mildly ruffled on top. But he has not lost his enthusiasm for the saturnine, or his southern English accent, as he enjoys a flourishing goth afterlife on the west coast.

Married a second time and now an American citizen, Tolhurst is bringing out a new album this autumn with Budgie, the former drummer with Siouxsie and the Banshees, as well as various guest artists. The cover will feature an extract from Noche Oscura, a poem by St John of the Cross that celebrates the religious power of the night over the day. He is also in regular touch with other “elder goths”, including Julianne Regan of All About Eve, and runs a regular podcast on which he recently interviewed Celeste Bell, daughter of the much-loved Poly Styrene, the singer from X-Ray Spex who died in 2011.

“The original goths… are now in their 60s,” he writes towards the end of the book. “By and large they are the same as they ever were: romantic and melancholic nonconformists who have somehow avoided relinquishing their way of being and becoming more conventional. Rather, they have adapted their lives to honour their gothness while ageing gracefully.”

Lol Tolhurst photographed in his home in Los Angeles, September 2023, by Pat Martin for the Observer New Review.
Lol Tolhurst photographed in his home in Los Angeles, September 2023, by Pat Martin for the Observer New Review.

Old graveyard habits die hard. When on the road, Tolhurst and his assistant, Margie, generally make a point of visiting what they call the local “death exhibits”, such as the JFK memorial sites in Dallas. While in Peru attending a book festival, he remembers being captivated by a museum display at the Catholic University of Santa Maria in Arequipa. Freezing temperatures had preserved the body of an Inca girl sacrificed to the gods in the 15th century, and she was on permanent display. “It was like something out of a David Lynch movie,” he says. Latin America was a revelation to Tolhurst. Cured went down notably well there, leading him to do events in Chile and Argentina, as well as Peru. “There’s more reverence for the transcendental,” he comments. “I think growing up Catholic sets you up for it.”

The morbid excesses of Addams Family-style goth can degenerate into a kind of camp black comedy. But Tolhurst’s preoccupation with the passing of time, mutability and human mortality seems genuine and deep, perhaps not surprisingly after the momentous upheavals that have taken place in his life. At the book festival in Arequipa, he befriended Kathryn Mannix, the bestselling author of With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial.

We went to the pub where the Cure started out and the barman said to my wife: ‘You can’t come in here unless you take that hat off’

“She said it’s the one conversation we never have – about how to die. She’s about the same age as me, and over the three days of the festival we had an ongoing debate together. And then I went and read her books. I’m in the third act of life now, whichever way you look at it, so my mind is focused on these themes. A goth sensibility at least opens such things up and allows you to get to grips with them. It doesn’t try to sweep uncomfortable stuff under the carpet.”

In recovery, healthy and looking forward to his next literary project (which is likely to address Mannix-related themes), Tolhurst radiates a rather ungoth-like optimism about the future. But the legacy of the past is never far away. In the three decades since Tolhurst’s departure, the Cure have only got bigger. During the summer, they came to play at the Hollywood Bowl, a few miles down the road from where Tolhurst has constructed his new life.

Robert Smith (left) and Lol Tolhurst in the Cure’s video for The Lovecats, 1983.
Robert Smith (left) and Lol Tolhurst in the Cure’s video for The Lovecats, 1983. Photograph: Steve Rapport/Getty Images

He and Smith are reconciled after the rancorous split of 1989 and Tolhurst’s ill-advised lawsuit: “You can’t know someone for 60 years and not be reconciled,” he says, “but it’s like family, it goes up and down according to the emotional waves of the time. That’s the truth.” In Cured, and now in Goth, Tolhurst takes full responsibility for his alcohol-driven meltdown. In 2011, Smith invited his oldest friend back to play in a series of shows to celebrate the band’s first three albums.

Nevertheless, it still felt like a big moment when Tolhurst went backstage at the Bowl for a reunion. “It was very strange,” he says. “The dressing room was right in the bowels and when I went down there it was like being back in 1977. It was such a weird feeling! I took my niece who is 21 and she’d never experienced so many English people all speaking together in the same place. There were a lot of children of various members of the Cure that I knew about, but had never met.”

Between Smith, Simon Gallup, the Cure’s longtime bassist, and himself, there remain, Tolhurst thinks, things to be talked through and mulled over. “Talking to Simon, he said we have got a lot of history. We need to talk about it. And I got the impression that Robert wants… not necessarily to tie up loose ends but to make sure that everything’s together and helpful and good, because he’s a good person. He actually said that to me – that we’ve got a lot to talk about but backstage at the Hollywood Bowl is not the place!”

The past will also be a brooding presence as Tolhurst comes back to England to promote Goth. He intends to fit in a private visit to Crawley, where an older brother still lives and his parents are buried. Tolhurst’s relationship to his home town could charitably be described as ambivalent. “The only thing I’ve ever agreed with Morrissey about was… what was the song? Everyday Is Like Sunday. Crawley was awful as a teenager, very dismal, very boring.”

One of the themes of Goth is the way the musical scene of the late 70s allowed small-town aesthetes a means of escape from stifling suburban conventions. But home, however frustratingly, is always home. The last time Tolhurst visited Crawley, together with his American wife, Cindy, he was picked up at Gatwick airport by the ex-Cure member Michael Dempsey.

“Michael said: ‘Do you want to see the old haunts?’ We ended up at the Rocket pub, where the Cure started out. Cindy and I went in and it was just as dismal and dire as I’d ever remembered it. Even worse. The first thing the barman said was to my wife: ‘You can’t come in here unless you take that hat off.’

The Cure, 1984 (l-r): Clifford Leon Anderson, Lol Tolhurst, Paul ‘Porl’ Thompson, Robert Smith.
The Cure, 1984 (l-r): Clifford Leon Anderson, Lol Tolhurst, Paul ‘Porl’ Thompson, Robert Smith. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

“I was like, woah, no wonder we left here. The stage where we performed is a little bigger, but there was nothing, nothing at all to say we were ever there. The biggest thing to happen to this pub ever. No trace!”

Hmm. Isn’t that goth perfection in its own way, I suggest? Things come and things go, transience being part of the human condition. Ruins and decay are all we are left with. Or as the 1980 Cure song, Seventeen Seconds, puts it: “Time slips away/ And the light begins to fade/ And everything is quiet now.”

Tolhurst can see the argument of course but – rather endearingly – he can’t embrace it in this instance. He might now be living a fulfilling life nearly 5,500 miles away, in one of the world’s most glamorous cities. But he still wants eternity in Crawley, in the form of a blue plaque. “One of the things about getting to this age,” he says, “is that more and more people you know are in positions of authority. A friend is on Crawley council and every so often we send each other jokey emails. I say: ‘Have you got the plaque up yet? If you do, I’ll jump on a plane and open it for you.’ He’ll reply: ‘It’s a hard sell!’”

With the graciousness of someone deep into the “third act”, Tolhurst does at least acknowledge that the impasse has a certain authenticity to it. “It’s very Crawley. I suppose it wouldn’t be right if it were any other way.”

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