The Stigma of Synth: My Secret Life with Depeche Mode

Aaron Gilbreath

With no girls to flirt with or ask out, how was an all-male prep school boy going to step outside the shadow of his favorite leather-bearing, lipstick-wearing band and establish his heterosexuality? Easy. Take his fandom into the closet and deny, deny, deny.

Like all good art, the lyrics to Depeche Mode songs like “Master and Servant” and “Strangelove” leave room for interpretation. In the small minds of young homophobes, most interpretations erred on the side of man-on-man dungeon sex sessions filled with drugs, oils, and punishment. In “Strangelove”, lead vocalist Dave Gahan sang: “Strange highs and strange lows / Strangelove, that’s how our love goes / … Pain / Will you return it?” In “Master and Servant”, he sang about a new game that’s a lot like life, a “play between the sheets / With you on top and me underneath / Forget all about equality”. The latter song only fed rumors that the band was gay by featuring a cracking whip sound as part of the beat.

Depeche Mode played these songs on Casio keyboards, not Gibson Flying-Vs, and used a drum track, not a live, stick-wielding drummer. They were essentially pasty computer geeks programming music instead of video games for a living, nerds who’d ended up on the concert stage rather than behind it working the lights. And, like me, they had no reputation as heartbreakers to defend them. Where I went to high school, this presented a problem.

1989: Better known as the year of the Exxon Valdez spill, the year the Iron Curtain first cracked, the year Emperor Hirohito died, it was also the year I became a huge Depeche Mode fan, in the eighth grade. I mail-ordered concert tees from tours I was too young to attend. I coated my bedroom with posters. Rare European vinyl bootlegs sat stacked beside my record player. I even painted the letters “DM” on the wall beside my bed, later adding the rose from the cover of Violator when that album came out in 1990.

Violator -- that wasn’t just a reference to a double-crossing woman?

Judging from the huge crowds at their 1988 US Music for the Masses tour, the gay rap didn’t much diminish the band’s increasing popular appeal, but it did threaten to curtail mine. I entered an all-boys Catholic high school in 1989 at the height of my fandom. No matter the city, most all-boys’ schools get the same reputation: they’re where students are trained to become America’s future choir teachers, bath house patrons, and Crate & Barrel franchise own¬ers. As Phoenix, Arizona’s only all-boys high school, we at Brophy College Preparatory earned the same reputation

As ludicrous as the “gay prep school” rep was, it didn’t change the facts: wearing a Depeche Mode shirt at Brophy was as socially damning a move as holding your buddy’s hand. Single-sex high school fosters a climate of fear and mutual suspicion. To be labeled gay in this environment is to potentially be ostracized from the entire student body: some 1029 students, around 243 in my class. With no girls to flirt with or ask out, how was a Brophy boy going to step outside the shadow of his favorite leather-bearing, lipstick-wearing band and establish his heterosexuality? Easy. Take his fandom into the closet and deny, deny, deny.

Brophy dress code required students wear collared shirts, so I concealed my DM tees beneath regulation button-ups. I invited only my closest friends into my embarrassing shrine of a bedroom. I spoke of the bootleg collection to local record store clerks as a cigar connoisseur might speak of his pre-embargo Cubans. Recollections of the Phoenix Violator tour concert were strictly reserved for my female friends. I liked girls, thought about them constantly, imagined one day I’d fall in love with one, if only any might let me take them to a movie. In lieu of an impressive romantic résumé to flaunt, I concealed my fandom to preserve my image as a standard-issue 14-year-old, but that tact wouldn’t alter people’s perception of Depeche Mode.

Many in the upper echelons of Brophy’s ranks -- the football players, the kids who drove Ford Broncos because the school’s mascot was a bronco -- worshipped Van Halen. Hard-rocking, hard-living, best played at high volume, Halen seemed to power my classmates’ budding masculinity like sunlight to a sapling pine. Eddie Van Halen churned out blazing guitar solos shirtless and scored a hot actress wife. Michael Anthony played a bass shaped like a Jack Daniels bottle. David Lee Roth sang about how bad he had it (“so bad”) for a foxy teacher. In addition to the licks and high head-banging quotient, “Jamie’s Cryin’”, “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love”, and numerous other songs oozed sexuality, offering such tawdry, sing-along lines as “He wanted her tonight, and it was now or never” and “My love is rotten to the core”. Even though the bulge in Roth’s tights loomed a bit large for my taste, guys at school were picking up what Halen was laying down. The message, in adolescent terms: machismo is in your face, so get used to it. So they passed tins of Copenhagen in class and left spent brown wads in the drinking fountains. Others, like class alpha male Darren, fanned their farts to nearby students. I once watched Darren unbend a paper clip in history and use its length to pick his nose. There, in the front row of a U-shaped seating arrangement, he studied the contraption and the excavated junk on its tip, proud of his ingenuity. He stared at his tool as if he’d invented the nasal equivalent of one of those Reach toothbrushes with the curved necks. Why did I care what these people thought?

Looking back on some of rock’s most iconic stories, albums, and images, it’s clear that, like a shrimp, I had been absorbing the toxins that pollute America’s cultural waters: the idea that debauchery and sexual excess were the same as manliness.

Neal Preston’s 1975 photo of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page swilling from a bottle of Jack Daniels backstage in Indianapolis captures the proud hedonism many non-musicians envy about the rock and roll lifestyle. Then there was the time Zeppelin road manager Richard Cole stuck the nose of a red snapper inside a redheaded fan’s vagina in a hotel room, confirming the popular fantasy of the touring musician’s nightly sexual indulgences.

Motley Crüe were as famous for their backstage womanizing and drug consumption as for their music, and the lyrics on their 1987 album Girls, Girls, Girls celebrate the band’s passions and experiences: whiskey, sex, motorcycles, strip clubs, drugs, and general rowdiness. Girls, Girls, Girls is one of the Crüe’s two most popular albums, its namesake song one of metal’s celebrated anthems. As if to legitimize such recklessness, their 1989 song “Kickstart My Heart” -- inspired by the two adrenalin shots that revived bassist Nikki Sixx after his near-fatal heroin overdose -- was nominated for a Grammy.

And Guns ’N Roses’ lead guitarist Slash bears all the habits and accou¬trements of what has to come to embody the so-called true rock and roller: leather pants, long hair, dark sunglasses, soloing on stage with a lit cigarette in his mouth. The name of GNR’s first and best album, Appetite for Destruction, so precisely sums up rock culture’s macho value system it could have been titled Appetite for Self-Destruction.

The idea that these guys are supposedly “real men” is laughable to me now. But as a kid, it made me check my pants to clarify what I was.

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