Editor’s Note: Laurence “Lol” Tolhurst is a co-founder of The Cure—as its drummer, he helped write and record the band’s first four albums. In this excerpt from his new book, Mr. Tolhurst provides an insider’s account of the early days of the band and a revealing look at the artistic evolution of his childhood friend, the enigmatic Robert Smith.
We finally got a gig at the Rocket in May 1977. We were now all eighteen, so Fred, the Rocket’s landlord, wouldn’t fall afoul of the child work laws or something. Clever old Fred.
He actually didn’t ask us outright anyway. Rather, our friend’s band Amulet, fronted by ex-Malice guitarist Marc Ceccagno, couldn’t do the gig they had been booked for at the Rocket, so, sensing an opportunity to actually get us out there in front of real people, I called Fred.
“Er, yes… the Rocket public house?”
The phone was answered by Fred himself in the voice I presumed he usually reserved for outstanding creditors.
“Yes, hello, Fred? I heard that Amulet can’t play the pub this week. They all have bad colds, they asked us to fill in for them?”
Fred sounded a little suspicious, “And what are you lot called, then?”
We had literally pulled the new name for the band out of a hat. After our disastrous gig at St. Wilfrid’s it seemed like a wise idea to change the name, but we couldn’t agree on one. Robert [Smith] hit on a solution. He had seen something about Bowie or William Burroughs cutting up phrases from their writings into strips and reassembling them into new prose or song lyrics. So we cut all our own lyrics up and put them into a hat. The first fragment we pulled out would be the name of the band. It seemed both democratic and punky all at the same time.
We sat in the small hallway of the Smith’s house, by the harmonium we sometimes utilized for the triptych songs we were currently making.
“So the first bit of lyric we pull out of the hat will be our new band name, right?” Robert asked.
“Sounds good to me,” I said.
Robert reached in and pulled out a small, white, screwed-up scrap.
“What’s it say?” Michael and I asked.
“Easy Cure,” said Robert, who looked a little crestfallen that one of his word fragments wasn’t the plum pulled from the pudding. “Easy Cure” was from a lyric that I had partially written.
“Anyway, fair’s fair, so Easy Cure it is!” I thought out loud.
However, Robert got his way later on, because we changed it to The Cure, which he thought sounded much more punky and now than Easy Cure, which sounded more hippie-fied.
I couldn’t really argue with that. I wanted us to be more punk anyway.
“So what kind of music does Easy Cure play?” asked Fred.
I panicked slightly. I hadn’t really thought about that one. We just wrote songs from our own experiences and thoughts. I don’t think we thought about labels, although we were certainly influenced by the current rash of punk bands we were now seeing whenever we could. In addition to The Stranglers at the Red Deer and Crawley College we saw Buzzcocks at the Lyceum.
“Um, well, we do some of our own stuff and a few popular covers,” I offered hopefully.
“Yeah, well, they like to hear something they know, so play something they know,” said Fred, hammering his point home. “Be here at 6 p.m., start playing at 6:30–7 p.m. You play two sets and you have to finish before last orders at 10:30 p.m.”
To this day I’ve no idea what they paid us. I probably didn’t take it in, as I was just so happy to get our first proper paying gig! And so it started. Paying our dues in the Rocket at first to the regulars, and gradually, over the next year or so, to increasingly varied audiences from the area as word spread.
Of course, we had to play some covers, as Fred had predicted. “Locomotive Breath” by Jethro Tull, made completely punky by leaving out the long piano intro and flute(!), was one I recall that was particularly liked by the Rocket’s older patrons.
Gradually we honed our set to include more of our own material, crammed together on that tiny stage in the corner of the pub, and learned what every band must learn if they hope to establish themselves as a real band.
We perfected the subtle signals between us all to enable the songs to come out sounding right and keep the show rolling along with intensity and power. We learned our stagecraft on that small stage all through the year, in between seeing some of the best bands of the punk revolution.
We played about thirteen gigs at the Rocket. It felt like we were there so often we were practically the house band. At every gig there were more people, and we grew in confidence as we honed our sound. In the autumn of 1977, Peter left the band. We had played a gig at the Rocket on September 11, and after the gig he told us it was his last.
“Hey, chaps, I think I have a different calling. I’m, um, off to a kibbutz in Israel.”
“Really?” I asked him somewhat incredulously. “That’s what you want to do?”
“Yeah Lol, that’s the plan.”
I was a little stunned. After all, we were just getting properly started. In retrospect it had been obvious the last few months that his heart wasn’t in it anymore. We wished him luck and looked around for another singer to replace him. It was frustrating, to say the least. We were starting to express our own ideas, finding our own raison d’être, and now we were in desperate need of a good front man to convey that to audiences who didn’t know us at all.
Then Robert did something that really changed the whole course of The Cure. Up until then I don’t think Robert had thought about being the guitarist and the singer, but I think he realized right then, when Peter left, that if he was going to make a difference in this world, if he was going to be able to get across what he wanted to say, he would have to be the front man, he would have to take that on.
I have a theory. There comes a day when every single one of us is confronted with the abyss. Sometimes it’s a heart-wrenching breakup. Sometimes it’s the loss of a loved one. Some have it early and some people get it late, but we all have that moment when we look down and there’s nothing fucking there. People want their rock stars to go further out on the edge and hang out there for a bit, take a good long look at that abyss, and then transmit what they find there through their art.
Ian Curtis did it. Kurt Cobain did it. So did Robert Smith, except he didn’t just look at the abyss, he was on intimate terms with it. He had things he had to say about the darkest parts of the human experience, and people were either attracted to that or repulsed by it. He’s been like that for as long as I’ve known him. Even at the very start, he had stuff he needed to say. He tried to fight it. I think that’s why he picked up the guitar, so he’d have something to put between himself and the abyss. In the beginning, he tried to hide behind it. He was just the guitar player. When Peter left and the band wasn’t working right and the music we were playing didn’t match the vision he had for it, he assumed the duties of the vocalist. We were still teenagers, but even then he knew what it meant, what he was getting into. It’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen anyone do.
The Rocket was where Robert taught himself how to front a band, how to be in the center of the storm and love being there.
In that dismal little room in deepest Sussex, a whole new future was started.