LOS ANGELES (AP) — What comes to mind when the word “goth” is spoken? Is it Tim Burton films? The popstar Billie Eilish? An adolescent phase marked by black nail polish and nihilism? Or is it a lifestyle? Is it literature such as Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” or the writings of Emily Brontë? Is it a musical genre born out of late-’70s punk and dread?
For Lol Tolhurst, co-founder the influential “goth” band The Cure, it’s all of the above. He explores what he calls “the last true alternative outsider subculture” in a new book titled, “Goth: A History,” published late last month by Hachette.
It follows his first book, the 2016 memoir “Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys.”
Over the phone from the deserts of Southern California, Tolhurst says inspiration for this second book came from a lack of understanding.
“People had (goth) confused. They saw the outward signs, the dark clothing, and they thought that was what it was all about gloom and doom. And it’s actually a lot more subtle than that,” he explained.
Ask for a definition, however, and that misses crucial nuance.
“It’s not really a fashion,” he says. “It’s more of a philosophy in a way of being, a way of approaching the world. And I think that ensures its longevity. It’s malleable, but it’s sort of basic premise is always the same.”
In “Goth: A History,” Tolhurst says he was inspired by the writings of Joan Didion — and so he weaves in first-person accounts while exploring goth music’s origins from punk’s anarchy. The main difference between the two genres, as well as goth’s idiosyncrasies from other rock music, is that goth is about “love and death” in the same song, and “that the ideas are generally about the invisible and internal in life more than the external and visible,” he said.
From there, the book dives into gothic literature and the French existentialists, whom Tolhurst considers formative to the subculture. That leads to an abridged history of the music from the progenitors: musicians such as The Doors, Suicide, Nico, David Bowie. The book then looks at goth icons including Joy Division, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. It also explores the goth scene through famed goth clubs like the Batcave in London, which were also havens for the LGBTQ+ community. That leads to a look at modern goth groups such as Nine Inch Nails, the Belarusian post-punks Molchat Doma and beyond.
Throughout “Goth: A History,” Tolhurst shares charming anecdotes, like a scene where Bauhaus members enter a New York City bar for the first time, find singer Iggy Pop sitting there, and become so excited to see their hero that frontman Peter Murphy starts tickling him. There’s humor in goth, after all — another misconception Tolhurst works to correct.
At the end, Tolhurst returns to the philosophical questions surrounding “goth” — what it means that “goths” tend to stay that way through adulthood and what can be learned from the nonconformist communities it creates.
Certain trends emerge within that exploration — and certain geographies. The musical story largely takes place in England and Los Angeles, the latter of which Tolhurst has called home for a few decades now. LA was also home to the psych rock band the Doors, who were the first group described as “gothic rock” — by critic John Stickney in 1967.
Tolhurst theorizes that England became ground zero for the movement because of many factors, but the gray skies, rainy weather and gothic architecture cannot be discounted.
Elsewhere, he draws connections between goth and Catholicism, a relationship Tolhurst believes goes beyond a shared iconography and morbidity. “Catholicism is brimstone, hell fire,” he says. “Good music tends not to surface when things are going along great and everything’s tickety-boo.”
If there is a single takeaway, it is that Tolhurst views goth as interdisciplinary — an ideology that spans different art forms, mediums and generations, one that shape-shifts with whoever finds interest in it.
“I’m showing people that I’m grateful to something, a way of being, a way of life, and a way of responding to the world,” he said of the book. “Which, in the end, is pretty much the whole point of being alive.”