Depeche Mode, Healing, and the Life of a Music Lover
by Jason Lamoreaux
As it usually is said, and, perhaps, is a cliche, but music has been a part of saving my life for some time. I was not as self-aware of my disabilities when I was young, but I had them. They were operating, and I had no idea they were “abnormal” or even there. I just thought I was a small kid who never really believed in himself. I gravitated toward music that was seen as “underground” or perhaps “dodgy”, as the Brits in most of those bands would say. KROQ and MTV were my informers as well as friends who introduced me to the likes of The Cure and Gene Loves Jezebel. I’m now 48 years old and, well, struggling with those very same disabilities but without the fortitude of a young and energetic body. I know now that I have suicidal ideation, sensory disorder, deep depression, and PTSD. Looking back on my life, all of these things, minus the PTSD, have haunted me in one form or another. I don’t say this for pity. Rather, people need to say these things out loud and be open because it tells others like me that we aren’t alone. Anyway, this really is not going to be a chronological piece on my life as a Depeche Mode fan. I will jump back and forth throughout my life but DM will certainly be at the center of those points.
Another caveat. This is a piece that began as a book proposal with all the trappings of my scholarly background attached. I am going to ditch that and simply talk about my experiences.
My first memory of Depeche Mode was at a funeral. Adults were swirling about outside, chatting and eating hors d’oeuvres while I was, as was typical for me at the time, glued to the television in the house watching MTV. I was about 10 or 11. It is the only video or real memory I have from that day. I do not even remember who had passed. But “People are People” came on the screen and I was mesmerized. Not having fully built an identity yet in terms of music or really knowing what I would eventually enjoy at such a young age, I moved on and heard the band here and there, through KROQ in Los Angeles and MTV, but I had no money of my own or what one might call a record collection quite yet.
That changed in 1987. As a 15-year-old, I had bought my first bass and cabinet and was headlong into music fandom. Richard Blade, a DJ at the radio station KROQ in Los Angeles, had played many of their singles and even b-sides as I grew up. They became one of my favorite bands on the station. I remember paying for my first album with my own money, and I chose Music for the Masses. I was drawn to the cover, horns ready to blare Depeche Mode’s decadent and, for many, unclassifiable sound to the world against a dark blue sky. I was at a now out of business store called Wherehouse near the corner of Corbin and Nordhoff in Northridge in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. It was a purchase that changed the way I heard music for the rest of my life. It was like hearing Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, Slowdive’s Souvlaki, or My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless for the first time.
Music for the Masses, eclipsed by the now favored Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion, is the soundtrack of my youth. From the very first note of “Never Let Me Down Again”, I was drawn into the orbit of the band. I began to consume all their prior material and I concluded that they were sound masters. They took non-traditional sounds and turned them into something magical. It would be much later in life that I would realize this is how I actually thought about music. A series of sounds matched or mismatched together to create this ethereal beautiful thing out of thin air. Brian Eno’s Music for Airports would be the key that unlocked that door for me many, many years later. Black Celebration worked its way into my musical vocabulary and I couldn’t then articulate how or why it meant so much, but it did. Field recordings, what an amazing concept I would love using in my own work later.
Yet, it was clear that Music for the Masses was something altogether new. It was a record that saw the band turn a corner, with Martin Gore progressing in his writing and there being a freer, more open band to traditional instruments while never abandoning their love of noises or building new sounds for their synthesizers. And this may be due to Alan Wilder taking the reins of producer and Dave Bascombe stepping in as engineer. It was, and still is, in my mind, a masterpiece. This moment in the history of the band saw Daniel Miller step down as co-producer to concentrate more fully on Mute Records. Miller had been working with the band in the studio since its early inception, and his influence was and is a priceless part of their growth as a unit. Miller, consequently, has become a sort of ghostly mentor in terms of my record label. I know, times have changed. I’ve been doing it for over four years now and, quite frankly, Miller was right to start Mute the way he did, treating his artists like equals. I’m currently sitting in a pit of fear, however, with the label stepping into the vinyl age (what a silly thing to say in (2021) and watching as great artists’ work sit on my shelves, still not bought.
Back to Music for the Masses: famously, Andrew Fletcher would remark: “The title’s Music for the Masses. It is a bit tongue-in-cheek, really. Everyone is telling us we should make more commercial music, so that’s the reason we chose that title” (Miller, 242). Unknowingly at the time, and if Martin Gore did find the album title to be ironic, the band would be proven wrong as the masses showed up by the tens of thousands to hear their new favorite band as they crossed the world to sold out arenas and ended on a 101st concert to cement their mark as a music giant. The tour began on October 22, 1987 in Madrid, Spain and ended at the famous sold out Rose Bowl concert in Pasadena on June 18, 1988. They played fifty-five dates in Europe, forty-two in North America, and four in Japan. While this excludes the southern hemisphere, the 60,453 people that bought tickets to their 101st concert at the Rose Bowl proved that a group, built mainly around synthesizers, could become not only highly influential in music but, looking back, mainstays that have turned out another eight albums since. Fletcher, in his remarks about the album’s title, was more a prophet rather than a jokester.
Music for the Masses also impacted me in other ways. The religious content of the album challenged my own experience within my own religious circles. While a teenager, my understanding of the deeper meanings surrounding religious language was likely superficial, but my favorite track of all time, from any band to this very day, is “Strangelove”. As someone who grew up in a right wing, evangelical environment, Gore’s lines “I give in to sin/Because you have to make this life livable” stuck out to me. It was contrary to everything I had been taught and yet was consistent. I think that was why it stuck out to me. It is why I bought every single remix version I could get my hands on at the time. It was the flip side of my religious experience, but, coming from David Gahan’s incredible expression, spoke to a certain integrity I found valuable. Gore, despite the barriers in my cultural experience, had encouraged me to think outside my own, very small box.
Fast forward about 30 years and I am still obsessed with Depeche Mode’s output. However, I hear much of their catalog with newly educated ears and see their visuals in similar ways. Since I was 15, as with many fans of the band, I have grown up, experienced life, but more importantly, I have earned three degrees in religion, particularly Early Christianity, with interest in religion and sexuality and religion and pop culture. On a personal note, during this period of learning, I became unattached to my religious life and, with the detachment came new ears to listen with when engaging Gore’s brilliant compositions. In the summer of 2018, I had a major mental breakdown. It was a long time coming and should have surprised no one. I was holding up a bolder on my shoulder for over a decade desperately trying not to be crushed and, well, I was losing that battle. My partner and I began a new life that year in Kentucky hoping it would take some of the issues I struggled with away. It did, but not all. I taught at Bellarmine University in Louisville and was as disposable there as anywhere else.
In the fall semester of 2019, I taught a section of my class on theology and Songs of Faith and Devotion. It will be, in my memory, the best time I have ever had as a professor. The students began to see Gore’s deep dive in topics such as religious hypocrisy (“Walking in My Shoes”, particularly with Anton Corbijn’s images in the video for the track), abuse of power in religion (“Condemnation”, again with Corbijn’s fantastic visual interpretation), and, perhaps, the idea of ecstasy in the guise of religious language (“I Feel You”). As I combed through Gore’s output prior to Music for the Masses, I noticed an interesting turn. Besides the obvious track “Blasphemous Rumours”, which is the finale of their fourth studio album Some Great Reward released in 1984, there are only sprinkles of religious references in Gore’s lyrics. For example, in 1982’s “The Meaning of Love”, the line “My Lord high above” appears, asking a deity to, well, tell him what the meaning of love actually is. “Told You So”, from 1983, mocks people obsessed with end times with the lines “Everybody’s waiting for Judgement day/So they can go told you so”. Here is a track, early on, that points toward religious themes that would be far more present in Gore’s later compositions. Needless to say, 1984’s “Blasphemous Rumours” brings a rather concrete example of Gore’s later, more intimate way in which he would ingrain religion in the band’s musical psyche. It’s odd how music can be so formative, even in a passive sense. These religious metaphors, critiques, and openly honest pieces of art were exactly the sort of music I needed for my 48 year old self. Oddly, it was the preparation from my music tastes that would do far more for me than any ethic or moral dished out by a religious tradition.
I had another rather catastrophic breakdown in August of 2019. I knew that, in December of that year, the thing I loved, pursued, would die. You see, I wanted so badly to be a professor from the age of 19. I mean, I loved music and the arts but everyone around me said you couldn’t do that. That such a path leads to starvation and poverty (little did they know). So, I found that I loved the interaction in a classroom or finishing a research paper. It was stressful but very meaningful. It was also abusive. The system crushed me because it used my expertise for pennies on the dollar. That said, my wife had to start coming to classes with me to make sure I could make it through my one last semester. You see, she was blacklisted by a principle in Shelbyville, KY and didn’t have work for the first time in her 22 years. Teaching had pushed us off the cliff and I figured we weren’t going to land but simply splat, crumbled into the bloody mess that these systems enact upon people.
So, what does this have to do with Depeche Mode? Well, during this period they became an anchor. When my wife didn’t come to school with me, I had to listen to Depeche Mode on repeat or I would never make it to the university parking lot. I’m not sure why, but their music anchored me in a way other music couldn’t. About mid-semester, a person I considered a friend drove a knife in my very soft frail back and, if I had made any progress before that, I lost it once again. Again, while my partner and my doctors certainly kept me alive, the Depeche Mode catalog kept me from slitting my wrists, literally. As I read about them, listened over and over again, I started identifying with David Gahan. No, I’m not a drug addict nor am I a rich pop star. I did realize he lived through a long darkness and I had been in mine for over a decade, hiding it from my family, being alone, not knowing if there was ever going to be relief.
I began listening to their albums in “messed up Gahan”, “recovering Gahan”, and “reborn Gahan” sort of thinking. No, I’ve not sat down with David Gahan and discussed this, and, frankly, I’m not sure it would matter because his journey was deeper and darker than mine. I got close to the razor’s edge, to use a metaphor, but I never picked it up. Included in the book I was prepping was supposed to be commentary on Anton Corbin’s material as well because he is a master at interpreting their music with live images. One day, in the middle of my recovery (which I’m far from healed from), I turned on YouTube and a live version of “Enjoy the Silence” came on the screen. There was a post Exciter David Gahan having the time of his life, smiling, being the front man he has always been, and looking like a man in the prime of his life. He had died three times, had cancer, and was a massively stubborn survivor and that smile on his face in that video gave me hope. No, he’s not my savior. He’s ultimately faulty and that comforts me when some would find it problematic.
In 2016, I lost the best job I ever had in my life. It paid a person with four academic degrees $30,000 a year with no benefits. Because the dean fired us all in August, there were no jobs to scoop up for the next year. My family’s checking account hit $0 for the first time since we had gotten married, and I was in a deep, deep suicidal depression. White knuckling it is an understatement. I turned to music. I made Symphony of a Radical during that period and I think you can feel it. Brian Eno: Music for Airports, God is an Astronaut: All is Violet, All is Bright, and so many more albums allowed me to escape into a world of my own expression but none like Depeche Mode.
If it’s true that music can saved lives, then I am a demonstration of that idea. Music must be honored, the artists maintained and taken care of, and, if anything Covid has taught us, life, without art, is no life at all.
If you have suicidal thoughts, please call the suicide hotline at 800-273-8255.