Looking back on the Depeche Mode singer’s triumphant human spirit
This could have been one of those let’s-remember-good-old-Dave-Gahan-on-the-day-he-woulda-turned-60 stories.
Coulda. But isn’t. Instead, we’re wishing the Depeche Mode singer – a carbon-based life form still – a bonafide happy birthday on May 9.
The end almost came near the end of May in 1996. Gahan, then 34, found himself awakening out of something — a very deep sleep, perhaps? — and he groggily asked the paramedic next to him the painful, and painfully obvious, question: “Did I overdose again?”
“No, David, you died,” said the paramedic. “You flatlined for a couple of minutes. You were actually dead.”
So, he did actually overdose and did die. Technically and temporarily. He’d shot up a speedball at the rock star hotel of choice in L.A., the Sunset Marquis, and his heart had stopped for two minutes.
That’s pretty sobering.
Gahan and I were on the phone, he in London, me in Boston, talking about an upcoming Depeche Mode tour, something that we most certainly wouldn’t have been doing had fate take a different twist. Never having quite been where Gahan had, I figured I’d ask: What was “death” like? Was there a warm and welcoming white light, at least?
There was not.
“All I remember is being really, really scared,” Gahan said. “I can’t even explain how scared I felt and how wrong it felt. I was in this complete blackness and I felt something inside of me . . . I realized this is not what I wanted, death, and it wasn’t the solution and it was for the first [time] — slowly, very very obviously — where I felt I was not going to the right place.”
You can’t bottom out much more than that, although Gahan came close the previous summer when he slit his wrist in a suicide attempt. The 1996 heroin and cocaine overdose was the final straw, the epiphany, the beginning of the one-day-at-a-time trek into recovery.
The OD/near-death experience came after Depeche Mode had recorded songs for its upcoming album, Ultra. The sessions, done in New York, had not gone well for Gahan.
Back in L.A., an arrest and incarceration followed the overdose. Gahan was placed in a “diversion program,” mandated by the court. It was a regimen that included drug tests and counseling for at least a year. When we spoke, Gahan had been clean 10 months. (That’s still the case now in 2022, according to all reports.)
Aiding in his recovery were Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, both of whom had been heading in Gahan’s direction more than a few times, but no longer. Say this about the recovering-rock-star community: While I doubt anyone in Aerosmith had heard a note of Depeche Mode’s music, there’s a lot of outreach and brotherhood. Those who’ve been there know the thrill, the risk, the damage done and the possibility of ultimate nullification.
His prodigious drug intake, Gahan said, was an attempt to counter his sense of self-loathing, to block questions of identity. It was also, he admitted, a cliched situation where he tumbled into the most obvious rock-star tar pit. “I created this person, or this mask and image of myself, this textbook rock star, and not knowing what to do with it,” he said. “I put down the music.”
Aerosmith reference again and the famous Joe Perry quote: “We were drug addicts dabbling in music rather than musicians dabbling in drugs.”
As Gahan nearly died, so did Depeche Mode.
“There were a couple of points where it seemed very improbable that we would carry on,” Martin Gore, the band’s songwriter and guitarist and one of its synthesist, told me around the same time. “I was having to consider the prospect of finishing the record on my own.”
That didn’t happen. Gahan pulled through, the band came together, and between sessions in New York and London, the album was finished in 1996.
And you can’t entirely blame Gahan for the mess Depeche Mode found itself in. Following the ’93- ‘94 world tour, synthesist-programmer Alan Wilder quit.
“Fine,” said Gore. “We shook his hand and said `See you around.’ ” For his part, Gore also dived into the deep end of a few pools of typical rock excess. Synthesist Andy Fletcher underwent his travails. “Depression,” Fletcher said. “Which is not a thing that makes headlines. Putting needles in your arms and getting arrested is the sort of thing that makes headlines.”
“I spent the last year getting my life back together,” said Gahan. “It would not be good to try to go out on the big stage. It’s not even so much the debauchery that goes along with touring. It’s a personal kind of sanity, and the frame of mind you get into — different times and cities every day — is very disorienting. I’m just getting settled again after a couple of years of turmoil. I think all of us are in a similar frame of mind.”
Depeche Mode has had a rather unique trajectory. When they burst out in 1981, the songs were written by synthist-sometime singer Vince Clarke who’d penned the insanely catchy, upbeat synth-pop single, “Just Can’t Get Enough” from the Speak & Spell album.
And, then, that part of it was over. By 1982, Clarke was out of the band to emerge shortly with Alison Moyet in Yazoo and then with Andy Bell in Erasure. In Depeche-land, synthist-guitarist Martin Gore took over the main songwriting duties for subsequent studio albums. Gahan joined slightly after Clarke, so it’s been his Gore’s songwriting and Gahan’s voice – and demonstrative frontman persona – that have largely defined the band.
Not always for the good, mind you.
Consider this bit from a 1993 concert review I wrote for the Boston Globe: “The goofiest part the show came at the end of the set, during their best song, the sad, anti-capitalist ‘Everything Counts’: ‘Grabbing hands grab all they can/All for themselves, after all.’ It was here during a serious indictment of money-grubbing businessmen that the grinning Gahan chose to peel away his shirt, whirl the sweaty garment into the crowd (grabbing hands indeed!) and suggestively stick the mic in his trousers. And tried to turn it into a merry singalong. Huh? Had he listened to the song lately? Ever?
Truly, “Everything Counts” is the most mournful and subliminally angry songs about greed and capitalism you’ll ever encounter. To hear what they’d done to it in concert, was a head-shaker.
When I saw the band next, October of 1998 – Gahan two years sober – they didn’t play it. Which ultimately, I guess, was a good thing.
I’ll take you to the end of the night, first. The stage looked like a disco inferno — all red lights and velvety backdrop, with little white lights bouncing around a big D and a big M at centerstage, the synthesizers percolating, the crowd bopping along and smiling. The song? “Just Can’t Get Enough,” one it seemed certain this long-running version of the band would never play. Go figure. Depeche Mode, at age 18, must be feeling pretty cocky. It was total unexpected glee.
Seventeen of the show’s 19 songs came from the then-current retrospective double-CD, The Singles: ’86-’98. Rather than faulting Depeche Mode for sticking to the singles — a conservative and money-making decision, one could argue – I salute them for creating that body of work. Over the course of their singles, and thus throughout this concert, Depeche Mode showed a wide range of emotion. They demonstrated, once again, how a band need not be limited by instrumental format – loads o’ synths – and how Depeche Mode could cover a vast emotional terrain with its synth-based pop.
Actually, Gore was playing more guitar than ever. Depeche Mode, whose remaining founding member was Fletcher, also was touring with its first live drummer, Christian Eigner. (Also aboard, two sumptuous sounding gospel backup singers, Jordan Baily and Janet Cooke, and keyboardist Peter Gordeno.)
A Depeche Mode show, at its best, makes you feel as if you’re in some strange, wonderful zone between a disco and a cathedral. There was the stately beginning of “A Question of Time” and “World in My Eyes,” a kick upward toward optimism and dance-floor delight with “Never Let Me Down Again,” and then a somber musing on the perils of fame, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” as various DMers, on the backing video, appeared as Elvis, George Michael, Sgt. Pepper, and David Bowie. The new “Only When I Lose Myself” was a deep and soulful ballad, “A Question of Lust” a slinky, yet somber musing. “Condemnation” verged on heavenly; “Barrel of a Gun” was coiled, terse — all tension with no release.
Gore likes allowing opposites to clash, addressing issues of spirituality and carnality. He likes cerebral music with a beat, but he does not like beats for no purpose. Depeche Mode may be techno grandfathers, but they are slaves not to the rhythm but to the melody and the emotion. Gahan, to his credit, cut back on his prancing and showboating. For the first time, at least in my viewing, it seemed grasped the seriousness of the serious songs and let them speak through him without cheerleading. For the lighter songs, his Rod Stewart-like mic stand antics don’t detract.
Depeche Mode live has always seemed somewhat at odds with Depeche Mode in the studio. The two sounds and styles are closer now. They’ve kept the sense of grace and beauty, while turning up the energy and buoyancy a notch. It’s a neat trick and one they’ve not always mastered in the past.
The show hit its peak near end of the regular set with “Enjoy the Silence” and “Personal Jesus,” with the lights-up singalong refrain of “Reach out and touch faith” feeling not in the least hokey, but sincere and right.
I last saw Depeche Mode in concert in 2009, a summer shed show outside of Boston. If the last time, was indeed a “greatest hits live” package – one I fully approved of as you could tell – this one was one where they served up hits like “Enjoy the Silence,” Never Let Me Down” and “Personal Jesus,” but they also played four from their latest CD, their 12th studio effort, Sounds of the Universe. The point? They weren’t relying on nostalgia, that they were evolving and vital, still.
Gahan, the slick, swaggering, swivel-hipped singer, was up on the stage rocking hard, electro style. The backstory: You would not suspect that less than three months ago Gahan was hospitalized for severe gastroenteritis. It turned out he had a low-grade malignant tumor, which was removed.
I thought, perhaps, Gahan’s recovery and perseverance was a metaphor for the band itself. Depeche Mode was at the dawn of England’s synth-pop movement, and they’ve survived and prospered through numerous fads and trends.
They mixed celebration and sadness, a hard, churning rhythmic grind with more ethereal touches. A large orb hung over the stage and images, live and prerecorded, danced on a huge LED screen behind the band. Video embellishments were everywhere, from the text of a 14th century Sufi poem translated by Daniel Lidinsky during “Precious” to a soft-core lipstick lesbian clip during “Strangelove.”
VIDEO: Tour of the Universe Video Blog
Most impressive was the band’s ability to juggle moods and shift emphasis. Gore sang two gorgeous soft ballads, “Little Soul” and “Home,” and played crunching guitar riffs at many points. “I Feel You” was the song where Depeche Mode crossed over the synth divide to the land of metal.
Thematically, Depeche Mode favored troubling tales. Gahan began “Fly on the Windscreen” by singing “Death is everywhere.” Well, it has been. But this Depeche Mode show – none of them are, really – was not doom and gloom. They may have casted dark shadows, but they also exploded with light and sound.
Does Depeche Mode still exist?
I think so, but I’m not certain it’s a working unit or a traveling band. (Covid?) The last album was Spirit in 2017, same year as the last tour. There are no live dates or album releases on the group’s website and they are peddling another eight-disc box set of 12-inch singles from the album Exciter, out June 10.