Monday, September 18, 2023

Review: Lol Tolhurst's 'Goth: A History'

If you'd asked one of the original punk groups in the seventies--say, the Clash or the Sex Pistols--if they were punks, they would have sneered at you and damned the very idea of being labeled. Same goes for the original Goths--say, Siouxsie and the Banshees or The Cure. Lol Tolhurst, drummer of the latter group, says as much in Goth: A History. But with time comes a certain perspective, and today Tolhurst obviously embraces that old label, hence his new book celebrating some fifty years of pallor, gloomy songs, wiry hairstyles, black garb, and black moods. 

All that sums up Goth at its most cartoonishly superficial. But Tolhurst does not embrace labels in Goth, he embraces a community. The music can be a bit hard to define (I never understood how the funereal sounds of Procol Harum were not widely acknowledged as Goth but "The Love Cats" is), but once you're in the family, you are recognized and embraced. Despite a reputation for deviance and darkness, Goths actually tend more toward the emotionally open, fragile, and creative. This is the side of Goth that interests Tolhurst most, though he does name-check all of the scene's obvious deviant and dark building blocks, from The Monk to Nosferatu

Tolhurst is also clear that he's no historian, and though he provide adequate background for his preferred genre, it's not long before he abandons any sense of conventional history. Goth wanders into brief biographies of essential artists (The Banshees, Nico, Sisters of Mercy, Suicide, The Damned, etc.), occasional track-by-track looks at albums by Joy Division or his own ex-group, and very personal memories the likes of which you're not going to find in any history text on the syllabus. But he always manages to wind the storytelling back to his main topic, so Goth very rarely feels self-indulgent. Tolhurst's florid, romantic tone also complements the topic, which is indeed much more florid and romantic than Goth's detractors tend to realize.

Although Goth style and culture has wended its way into such mainstream entertainments as Tim Burton movies and The Matrix (as the author acknowledges), Tolhurst mostly seems to lovingly pitch Goth: A History at his fellow Goths as a means to help them understand their own roots and make them feel good about following the crookedly unconventional paths they've chosen. Nothing gloomy about that, is there?

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