The Stigma of Synth

My Secret Life with Depeche Mode

by Aaron Gilbreath

20 January 2011


A few years ago I found a bootleg CD of Depeche Mode’s 1984 Hamburg concert....

A few years ago I found a bootleg CD of Depeche Mode’s 1984 Hamburg concert at a used music store. It’s a concert I once owned on vinyl and liked better than their period studio recordings. Now it’s on my iPod, sandwiched between Dead Moon and Dexter Romweber. While I don’t listen to it or my two other bootlegs with the same teenage obsession, the concert’s version of the song “Photographic” still strikes me as one of the most stirring live songs I’ve ever heard.

First comes the crowd noise. Then, a faint electron twittering etches itself across the roar—a digital mouse’s paws scurrying back and forth be¬tween speakers, left to right, right to left. Then the deep thump of the bass drum—doomp, doomp, doomp, doomp. It strikes hard, beating in sync with my own roused heart before Dave sings: “A white house, a white room, the program of today”. I still don’t know what the hell he’s signing about, but I sing along anyway. Listening to it now at age 33, I hear what I failed to during my youth: It’s not the lyrics that move me so much as the harmonies, the parts where Martin lays his high voice atop Dave’s deep one. “And looking to the day,” they sing, “I mesmerize the light.” The unusual keys, the combination of opposites, two men signing together—it’s a haunting union. Despite their driving rhythms and complex orchestrations, what remains the band’s most enduring draw for me are the harmonies. Two men singing together—it doesn’t sound very macho, but neither do the life stories of some of rock’s biggest badasses.

After drinking 40 measures of vodka during a day of band practice, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died at age 32 from pulmonary edema: fatal water-logging of the lungs caused by inhaling his own vomit. Jimi Hendrix died alone, at age 27, in his girlfriend’s London flat; he asphyxiated on his own vomit, composed mainly of red wine, after possibly ingesting too many sleeping pills. Guns ’N Roses’ old drummer Steven Adler still struggles with drug addiction 18 years after the band fired him for substance abuse. You can watch the tragic drama on VH1’s TV show Celeb¬rity Rehab Presents Sober House. Check out his lip. It sags thanks to a potent speedball injection that caused a stroke in ’96. Before those adrenalin shots revived him, Motley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx was medically dead for two minutes after that heroin overdose. And Crüe lead singer Vince Neil killed his friend and passenger, Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley, in a head-on collision in 1984. They were returning from the liquor store.

Recently, I found video footage of the Hamburg concert on YouTube. While watching other old videos there, I discovered something I’d missed back in high school: Martin kisses a woman in the “Policy of Truth” video. All the band members kiss women in that video. The “Master and Servant” video features images of politicians and laborers, alternating with images of Martin wearing lipstick and, at one point, a large-haired woman lip-syncing, wearing lipstick too. Naturally, this led me to Wikipedia where I discovered the answer to that 18-year-old question. Martin Gore, it said, “is now divorced from his wife of twelve years, lingerie designer and model Suzanne Boisvert-Gore. He has three children.” Biological children, with a lingerie model.

In reviewing the images marking that time, it’s clear that, besides my dad and my granddad, Martin Gore was the most manly man in my life that freshman year. People called him and the band puffs for wearing dresses and nail polish, but that’s what made Martin tough. Crotch straps, chains—if he liked it, he wore it.

I once recreated Martin’s bondage straps in my bedroom. Secretly. Never told anyone. Since I couldn’t find scraps or lengths of leather at home, and I couldn’t gather the courage to purchase some at a belt store, I found a substi¬tute material. I snipped the rough canvas straps from my JanSport backpack. The straps were black, like Martin’s, and a similar width; they just weren’t long enough. With the ends resting on my belt the way Martin’s did in the poster, my straps only came as high as my nipples. So I improvised. I cut more straps from an older, smaller backpack and stapled them together to create two long straps. These fit all the way over my shoulders. I stapled their ends to a belt—black leather this time, one of the few nice ones my parents bought me for formal occasions—to form a strange, art school, rip-rap set of homemade suspenders. With the silver staples showing against the dark canvas, their sections all slanted and clustered together without attention to design, it looked not unlike the Lederhosen a homeless German might make out of garbage.

Staring at my reflection in my tiny Sony TV, I turned side to side to gauge my appearance. To measure my resemblance to Martin. I rotated the way a woman might in front of a Nordstrom’s dressing room mirror. The TV screen was small, my image dim and incomplete. And while it occurred to me to sneak into the nearby bathroom to use the large mirror, I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing myself so clearly; the full image could singe itself into my mind so deeply that it might never wash away. That’d be like studying your face in a mirror on LSD, all the pores and irregularities somehow amplified like Martian craters, your disturbing true nature revealed. Instead, I peeled the gear off and buried it in my bottom dresser drawer, shoving it under clothes I no longer wore with as much of my embarrassment as I could fit in there. The next time my parents were gone, I walked to a dumpster down the alley and tossed the stuff inside.

That day, staring at my blurry reflection in the TV, I wanted to believe my attraction to Martin was strictly artistic: it was about the music, not the man. Wasn’t one side effect of worshiping art the tendency to mimic its creator? The same way you buy concert t-shirts and posters and overpriced import CDs to remain in perpetual contact with the music? But to say I loved his music and not his mind now seems overly simplistic. The line between fandom and affection, admiration and attraction, blurs too much for such clean, easy sum¬maries. If not his appearance, then what was I drawn to? The person. The mystique of creativity, the magnetic charisma of the inspired, soft-spoken mastermind. To birth transcendent music seemed a power of the gods.

This is what fascinates me now: the way such exquisite turbulence can churn inside a seemingly meek individual. And that one year of high school, although it may have felt smothering when I lived it, liberated me from the confines of caveman mainstream culture. Martin Gore showed me that personality matters. I know this is the stuff guys tell women to sound charming and deep in order to sleep with them, but unlike a t-shirt, you can’t hide this fact: personality is everything. Without it, beauty fades, drugs disappoint, the hottest sex still leaves us wanting for love.

I’m not saying anything new to the world here. It’s only new to me.

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