"Our gang was The Cure": Lol Tolhurst opens up about growing up with Robert Smith, addiction and redemption

Salon talks to former Cure drummer-keyboardist Lol Tolhurst about the music, the band and the memoir "Cured"

Published October 5, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)

Lol Tolhurst   (Josh Telles)
Lol Tolhurst (Josh Telles)

Former Cure drummer-keyboardist Lol Tolhurst makes it very clear from the very start of his new book, "Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys," out Oct. 11, that it's a memoir not an autobiography. "You may have heard that some of the events described here happened otherwise or went down a different way," Tolhurst wrote in his author's note. "Well, this is my version — how I remember things, my truth."

Tolhurst's truths are wildly entertaining, to be sure, especially where music is concerned — from his recollection of inadvertently ticking off Generation X's Billy Idol to the hardscrabble vibe of early Cure shows when the band consistently won over disinterested audiences.

The musician is also, however, an unsparing narrator who has been honest about his sometimes-difficult upbringing — which involved growing up in gray, desolate Crawley, West Sussex, with a gruff, alcoholic father — and his own flaws. As the book progresses, Tolhurst outlines how his alcoholism exacerbated band and interpersonal tensions and ultimately led to his ouster from The Cure before the release of 1989's "Disintegration." At times, the line between lighthearted tour high jinks and dangerous situations blurs due to his addictions; this tension and his increased personal incapacitation provides a harrowing counterpart to the Cure's parallel explosion in popularity.

As the title implies, "Cured" is also a story about the enduring friendship between Tolhurst and frontman Robert Smith. The pair first met at the school bus stop when they were 5 years old and started playing music together as teenagers before settling in as The Cure in 1976. As the years progressed, Tolhurst's struggles caused occasional fissures in their relationship (including a contentious early '90s lawsuit over royalties, something Tolhurst wrote he regrets), although the pair long ago patched up any lingering resentment.

In fact, in 2011, Tolhurst even joined his old bandmates — who are more akin to family, he stressed — for the "Reflections" concert, which celebrated The Cure's first three albums. That emotional denouement speaks to the ultimately upbeat ending of "Cured": As Tolhurst explained, the book is ultimately about "redemption and recovery," a tale about someone who finds sobriety, makes amends and has finally found elusive personal equilibrium.

Tolhurst, who recently returned from several book events in the U.K. and is gearing up for an extensive U.S. book tour, fought through jet lag and spoke to Salon from California (where he now lives) about "Cured."

Did you always want to write a book?

I have a tattoo on my right shoulder that I put [there] over 20 years ago and it has a couple of feathers that my son found that had been fashioned into writing quills. I've always wanted to be a writer.

When you were putting together "Cured," what was the research like for you? I know at the end of the book, you mentioned you went over to England to do some. What was your process?

When I say "research," most of the research is internal because it's about remembering stuff. And there's a 40-year period there, so it's a long time to remember. At first, I thought it was going to be kind of crazy because, you know, sometimes you can't remember what you had for lunch yesterday, let alone 40 years ago. What I found was memories are kind of like dominoes. You remember one thing — and I'd wake up at four in the morning and think, Oh my gosh, that's what this is about, and another memory would come. It's all in there somewhere. I did a lot of, I guess, intensive thinking.

The book's divided into three parts. The first part only needed the cerebral research because it was me trying to remember what we did as kids, and how we started — and why we started — The Cure. The second part was the hardest part because there are a lot of Cure fans out there who have very precise correlations with the band and what they remember about the band. There was a very interesting website that had every single show The Cure have ever played, ever, and the set list and everything. I would cross-reference my memories with that because that would help me input things in the correct chronological order.

Generally, you remember memories, and you think, Oh yeah, all that happened back then, but you don't really remember the exact day. The one thing I found that was really wild was — my mother died when I was young, and I thought, Well, she died when I was 21. When I researched it and looked back at where I was — I knew exactly where I was when she died — I realized I was actually 22. Memories are very slippery things, you know.

The rest of it, the research — I went to England. I did that more than anything to find photographs. I got on a plane and I went over to London, and I went to see all my friends and I said, "OK. Show me where all your photo albums are, all your old photo albums from the '80s, the '70s." I had a look through them all, and I picked out the photos I wanted and needed, and they were very kind to let me have them.

As you were rediscovering this stuff, what insights did you glean about the period?

It's funny, it was like reliving it more than remembering it a lot of the time, so it was very emotional. [Laughs.] When I wrote "Cured," I decided the best thing to do was to get myself a little office away from my house and go in there and actually write. I had been reading Stephen King's book "On Writing," and it said, "OK, you have to have a place to write."

I found myself a little place to write, and it was a co-share space, so there were other guys working in there all the time. It must've been funny for them because occasionally I'd be very seriously writing and then maybe a tear would come as I'd remember something, and they'd ask me, "Are you all right?" And I'm like, "No, I'm fine; I'm just writing the stuff out." It was cathartic, in lots of ways. Actually, it was really the most creative thing I felt I've done since The Cure. It was really a wonderful experience.

The part when you finally return to The Cure and do the "Reflections" show, for me, as a reader, that was also an emotional denouement. You could just tell what a powerful thing it was in terms of you reuniting with family and also musically getting back involved. That was a powerful section of the book.

Well, thank you. You correctly identified The Cure's like my family. It's not like my family: It is my family. I have a family outside of that. Obviously, I'm very connected to my wife and son. My larger family — I have [a] brother who lives down in Australia. We're spread out all over the world. And for a long time, really — especially growing up, with the situation with my father — The Cure was ultimately completely my family.

In the same way as you have gangs, our gang was The Cure. To be exiled from that for quite a long time was hard, but it was also very instructive. I guess I grew up and learned how to deal with life and the day-to-day stuff of life, which I hadn't dealt with for a long time. Then coming back and being with everybody was a wonderful experience. It was something that could only have really happened at that point in my life.

After reading the book, the subtitle, "Two Imaginary Boys" — it struck me how poignant that was. It's as much your own personal story as it is the story of you and Robert growing up together — from being age 5, meeting each other and keeping each other safe at school and then finally as adults coming to terms with everything. I really liked that thread throughout the book as well.

When I started to think about writing "Cured," the thing I didn't want it to be was "Behind the Music Part 984," which is always the same story: People form band, band does great, then something goes horribly wrong, and band falls apart. I really didn't want it to be that. I wanted the story of the band to be the framework, but really what I wanted — the guts of the book was about friendship, about love and about redemption and about problems everybody has. Because obviously, a big part of the book is about alcoholism and addiction, but it's also about redemption and recovery. That's the book I wanted to write.

That's why I make the distinction at the beginning of the book about autobiography and memoir because I know a lot of Cure fans — and I know several really intense ones that could probably write a better biography of the band than anybody in the band because they have studied it, whereas we just sort of lived it. I wanted the narrative to hold the story of life that became apparent to me as I get into my late 50s.

At the same time, as a Cure fan, I do feel like I understand the band more after reading it. Especially describing where you guys came from, and how gray and bleak it was, and what you had to go through early in your career, between staving off skinheads at shows. Basically, it was you guys against the world.

And people don't know that stuff. Or the people that do know that stuff are quite [a] small [group] because that's the people that were with you at the beginning. When people look at a successful band or a successful artist, most of the time there's a struggle there because you can't rise above everything else if you haven't had that struggle.

You have to imagine, The Cure's been The Cure since 1976 and is still going and still selling out the Hollywood Bowl for three nights in a row and Madison Square Garden for three nights in a row — and everywhere else in the world for three nights in a row. It's something that doesn't come without some sacrifice, but I wanted people to know. And how we came about with that sound particularly I realized was definitely tied to where we grew up.

You talked about how you had to make amends to people as part of your sobriety journey. Was any part of writing this book part of those amends?

I don't really think writing the book was part of the amends. Let me put it this way: I could not have written "Cured" unless I had made all my amends. I wouldn't have been able to do it because I would have turned out a very different book that was not as free of ego, if you'd like, and resentment. That's the basis of what's wrong with you if you have alcoholism.

Once I had done all the amends — and I outlined what I did in my amends with Robert [Smith] — very shortly after that, the idea came to me that I have to catalog some of this journey. It's my life, but if I talked with people about it, everybody I know said, "You have to write this down." Once I had cleared the decks, as it were, [and] I had been making things OK with everybody, then it became very easy to write the book I wanted to write.

As the book progresses, you pinpoint, "Here's where I was, and here's where I needed to go, and I realized I wasn't there yet." There was a lot of self-awareness throughout.

The thing about the self-awareness is it only comes after you mess things up a lot. [Laughs.] That's life. What is it, one of the Four Noble Truths: "Life is difficult?" Sure, it's difficult, but once you understand that, then you can transcend it, and that's really the whole point of the book: to be able to transcend what were my weaknesses and the things that destroyed me and turn them into my greatest assets.

Were you nervous about anyone from the Cure family reading the book after you had it done? Did you give them a sneak peek or anything?

I wouldn't say nervous. Nervous is not the right word. I was curious to know if anybody would be upset by it. And there's nothing in there that's going to upset anybody, I don't think. The only person I would come at most of the time is myself. I told Robert I was doing it two years ago, and I gave him a copy back about April, May of this year. And I told everybody in the band. I talked to Simon [Gallup] about it, and Simon said to me, "I'm really glad that you're writing the book. That's a great idea." I think it's the right time for everybody concerned not just myself. I'm not really worried about upsetting anybody.

You changed the name of the "Name Producer" from early in your career.

And there's a couple of other names that have been changed as well because I'm a gentleman and I don't want to offend anybody. But it doesn't change the story exactly.

Did Robert have any comments on the book?

The thing about Robert is, we talk and we talk, and then we don't talk for a long time because he has a very, very busy schedule. At the moment, their whole band's on tour. I'll hear from him before the end of the year. I know I'll hear from him. I'll hear his viewpoints about it. The thing that I know is if he didn't like it, I would've heard about it by now, of course.

[Laughs.] No news is good news. Silence is golden.

Yeah, exactly. Or conversations — we don't talk about business. We don't talk about music. We talk about our families because I'm the person that knows his family the most out of all the people he knows. And he knows my family very well. We always talk about things surrounding all of that first, and then eventually we'll come to, like, "Oh, well, what do you think about this? Shall we do this?"

There's still a lot of things we have to deal with over the years. It's much more of a personal thing. And then, you know, I'll get an email from him about three or four months later, saying, "You know what I forgot to tell you this" or "I forgot to say this" or "This is what we should do maybe about this." If I'm busy, I would imagine Robert's about 15 times more busy. We'll talk about it all eventually.

Now that you've written one book, do you have any ideas for a second book?

You know, it's funny. I've been thinking while I've been doing all this promotion. I started to have two or three little threads I'm thinking about. This morning actually in an effort to overcome the jet lag, I went for a long walk. There's a golf course right near me. I really wasn't watching the golfers, but I was thinking about the next book.

I think there could be something fictionalized; there's some ideas percolating. I know how to do that part of it now. That was the part that was a mystery to me: how do you extract the stuff from your brain to put it onto paper? But now I've kind of got ahold of that. Yeah, there will be other books, and it's something I want to do very much.

After all was said and done, what was the biggest challenge for you approaching this book?

The biggest challenge was remembering things, but it actually became easier as it went on. I tried lots of things that I thought were timeworn aids to writing. A friend of mine had a cabin in the woods, so I thought, "Oh good, I'll go out there. It'll be very quiet, and I'll be able to write." And it was actually kind of terrifying. [Laughs.]

I didn't stay there for very long. I stayed there for about three days, and then I realized, "It's springtime; all the bears are coming out. It is probably very dangerous being here by myself, walking around in the woods." So I came home. It's much easier for me to write in an environment I'm used to. I like being out in the countryside, but for writing, it was not the conducive place I thought it might be.

Have you been working on any music?

I have been doing little bits, because I reacquainted myself with [former Cure member] Porl Thompson because he did all the artwork for the book for me. He now lives out here in California. We've been thinking about doing a couple of things together. It's only talk at the moment because the book has really taken over my whole life for the last year and a half. And I think it's going to pretty much take over most of next year as well. I like to do one thing at the time: I can't multitask. I'm a man; we can't multitask very well.

You're also doing an extensive book tour. Is it going to be readings and meet and greets?

I did five events in England already, where I was doing a question-and-answer session and then have questions from the audience. That worked out very well. For the American one, I have a friend of mine, a film director who made the trailer for my book, and I've had him make me a little backdrop I can throw up that has some parts that are in the book done visually. I'm going to use that, but I'm also going to have some readings from the book. I enjoy reading from the book.

Recently, I did an audiobook version of the book. That was a lot of fun. I'm not an actor, but there's parts of it that are kind of emotional, so I could inhabit them a little bit, and I really enjoyed it. I realized one thing that you do when you write that could be a problem in the audiobook: When you're writing something, and you look at it and you read it and it's in your head, you think, "I like that phrase. That's a great phrase. I'll keep that."

And when you come to read it for the audiobook, you realize you've written yourself a tongue twister. You have to practice a little bit to get it right. [Laughs.] Apart from that, that one was one of the most enjoyable parts that I didn't actually expect would be enjoyable.

You've said you wanted the book to help other people. How did writing the book help yourself?

You've got it, absolutely: It's a two-way street. Being in recovery, the thing I discovered was that service, by helping others, is the thing that helps you the most. The book is a part of that, but it's also the reverse: By helping myself — by reliving stuff, going through it and writing it down and really seeing what the truth about all those things in the life was — I've been healed. I've been cured. And hopefully, that's a template that others will be able to use.

I'm at the point in my life where a lot of people I've known in my life — some are thriving, some are barely surviving and some are dropping by the wayside. That accelerates as you get older. I thought, well, I feel quite good. I feel like I'm at a good point in my life, a spiritually sound point. I feel healthy. I spent the first half of my life trying to kill myself and the second half trying to stay alive. This is all part of about staying to try alive and through that trying to help other people stay alive, too. We're all in it together. At the end of the day, none of us is going to get out of here alive.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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