Depeche Mode

Back in April 1994, when Kurt Cobain stuck a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, Dave Gahan heard the news only moments before he went onstage to sing at a Depeche Mode concert in Chile. Dave, too, had made a sad mess of his life as a heroin addict, but his first reaction wasn’t sympathy, or even relief that he had avoided this miserable end himself: “I was pissed off that he had beaten me to it.”

The mammoth eighteen-month tour for Depeche Mode’s last studio album, Songs of Faith and Devotion, employed a hundred people, including one guy just to buy drugs and a full-time psychiatrist–who promptly left when he found out what a madhouse he had checked into. Songwriter Martin Gore had a brain seizure due to excessive use of substances, controlled and otherwise. Keyboardist Andy “Fletch” Fletcher had a nervous breakdown; he quit the tour and went back to England four months early.

At the end, in October 1994, Dave returned to Los Angeles to keep the heroin coming like breath mints. Of course, nothing ever goes as planned; as Dave will explain below in living Technicolor, heroin came with some traveling companions, like rank paranoia, talking stuffed animals, and a razor blade with his name on it.

While the rest of the band recuperated in England, Alan Wilder quit. In Depeche Mode’s unique division of labor, Alan had been responsible for playing Martin’s songs on synthesizer; Dave sang them; Fletch tended to business matters and his Italian restaurant. “Alan never did like us as people,” says Fletch. “Well, he doesn’t like anyone as people, really–he hasn’t got friends and things like that.”

In November 1995, Depeche Mode began to record their thirteenth album, Ultra. Longtime producer Flood was replaced by Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass, who also took on many of Alan’s programming duties. The guitar-flavored Songs of Faith and Devotion sold three million copies worldwide: healthy, but half of 1990’s Violator. Depeche Mode have long sold their moody-yet-tuneful electronic music to people who want a soundtrack for their disaffected lives. And like the Deadheads, those fans have often been more interesting than the music they worship; the Mode’s following has stretched from suburban teenage girls to well-dressed Asian-American men to Axl Rose. Now, with the guitars stripped away again, the Mode mean to find out whether that audience will join them one more time.

I visit Depeche Mode at London’s Abbey Road studios, where they are finishing Ultra. The white wall outside has to be repainted frequently to cover up fresh tapestries of Beatles graffiti. Martin is lurking at the back of the studio, watching Tim Simenon’s production team hunker down over their computers like they were landing 747s at Heathrow instead of recording percussion. Wearing all black, from his knit cap to his leather pants, Martin still manages to look like a schoolboy–albeit a somewhat pervy one. He tells Tim, “There’s microchips in our skin. One day they’ll make us walk to the factory and turn us all into biscuits,” and with that cybertastic pronouncement, he walks me upstairs.

In the studio lounge, he plays a tape of Ultra‘s finished tracks, carefully watching my reactions, but never asking my opinion. I’m surprised by the record’s preponderance of ballads, but uptempo songs like “It’s No Good” and “Useless” sound like classic Mode. As usual, Martin’s lyrics are straightforwardly emotional, with a minimum of artifice–or cleverness. But he compensates with sonic appeal and hummability.

Martin is guarded, both as a general philosophy and because he is convinced that anything he tells me will be overwhelmed by Dave’s tales of heroin debauchery. He’s long had a reputation as Depeche Mode’s resident freak–his song “Behind the Wheel,” with its lyrics about letting somebody else drive, was widely seen as a metaphor for S&M–but his sexual proclivities are strictly off-limits, as is most of his personal life. He has two children, who he doesn’t talk about. He writes tortured lyrics (in the middle of the afternoon), and then has Dave sing his personal melodramas for him. In the same way, Martin has seen his fair share of drugs and partying–but Dave is the one who’s gotten to act in the public passion play of arrests and suicide attempts.

How do you imagine the members of your favorite band treating each other? Like eternal best friends, a squabbling-yet-loving family, or maybe the ringmaster and the freaks in a travelling circus? Here is how the members of Depeche Mode behave: like an old, unhappily married couple who never got divorced because of the children. They come together just enough to make music and run the small multinational corporation that is Depeche Mode, and not one step further. When I ask Martin whether it’s a problem for him to drink in front of Dave, he says that it’s Dave’s responsibility to stay away when he’s getting blotto, but “I think he can handle us drinking a couple of beers over a meal.” When I ask Dave the same question, he says, “I find it hard to be around Martin or Fletch when they have a drink–I feel like the odd one out.” I can only marvel at the highly polished silences the group must have if they tell me these things, but never each other.

At age thirty-five, Martin enjoys the same things he did when he was 17: drinking, going out to clubs. “I lead quite a sad existence,” he admits. “I just wonder at what age there’s going to be a change.” Martin will go out every night for a week and then feel shattered, so he stocks up on fruits and vegetables–especially brussels sprouts and broccoli–and eats them all weekend to replenish for the next week. He describes this as a “cycle of destruction and health.”

I ask what he would want if he were granted three wishes.

“It’s hard to imagine what I could wish for that I don’t already have or couldn’t go and get tomorrow. Anyone who’s not in that position would say ‘How can you be so arrogant and blasé?’ but I don’t think I’m particularly extravagant. I have a nice house and a nice flat in London. I don’t own a car because I never learned to drive–”

Wait. So “Behind the Wheel” is actually about not driving?

Martin laughs. “People always thought there was something really deep about that song.”

Few of us can imagine being pampered to such an extent that we can no longer even imagine unsated desires. When society has produced castes of such extreme privilege, like French royalty or the Russian czars, they tend to inspire revolutions amongst the peasants. The late-twentieth-century rock star is one of the few surviving examples, except now this privilege inspires devotion instead. And in such a life of jaded decadence, heroin can seem like a new, glittering pleasure. It introduces a new desire, one that cannot be sated. Of course, it exacts an appropriate price: the addict will find himself unable to care about anything but the needle and the spoon.

Dave shows up at Abbey Road with stubble but no beard, in a glossy green V-neck shirt, with silver bracelets and fingernails painted dark blue. A few minutes after we meet, we sit down with a tape recorder. Rehab has taught Dave to be loose-lipped about his vices, but I’m the first journalist he’s spoken with at length about his years of addiction. (The process of pop promotion being what it is, I suspect I won’t be the last.) Dave knows that being a rock-star heroin addict, in or out of recovery, is to be a cliché that walks on two legs, and he doesn’t want to preach about the evils of narcotics, but he hopes he can serve as a cautionary tale.

Dave had dabbled with heroin as a teen, but started using it in earnest seven years ago, when he moved to Los Angeles. At first the drug was a lot of fun. But by the time he married his second wife, Theresa, in 1992, he spent the whole day obsessing over when a friend would arrive with their wedding gift: a lump of black tar heroin. He got married high. Once the Devotional tour bedlam ended in 1994, Dave went back to L.A. and used more smack than ever–without the support system of a road crew. When he could get Liam Gallagher or Evan Dando to come party at his house, he would; when he couldn’t, he would pull people off the street to hang out with him.

Of course, often he would be too paranoid for company. “Going out to get the mail from my mailbox, it would have to be at 4 A.M. with a loaded .38 down the back of my pants. Maybe it would take me a few times to open the door and get up enough courage to see if there was any mail.” He was a drooling prisoner in his own home–sometimes he would watch the Weather Channel for twenty-four hours straight. Other times, he would paint obsessively: if there was no canvas around, he’d use cardboard, or the walls, or the floor.

Dave owned three-foot-high replicas of the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. Eventually, he decided they would be his friends. Dave would sit and stare at them until they came to life and started talking to him. “They would tell me what a piece of shit I was.” He also owned a five-foot plush doll of Bugs Bunny; the wascally wabbit got chained to the wall. “I was like, Fuck you, Bugs–if I’m trapped in here, you’re going to be trapped in here too.”

Dave sought help more than once, but it never took. On August 17, 1995, he checked out of a rehab center and went home to get a few things so he could stay with a friend. Problem: the house had been completely looted, with everything from the gym equipment to the salad forks gone. Solution: Leave the house, check into the Sunset Marquis (a West Hollywood hotel), obtain and use some heroin, realize you can’t stay clean for even one day, despair, find a razor blade in the bathroom, and make a two-inch-long incision in your left wrist. Dave woke up in a psychiatric ward, where he was told it was a felony in the state of California to try to take your own life. They kept him for observation for a week; Dave says “All I could think about was getting out and getting high.” But the staff did tell him that if he really wanted to kill himself, he’d need to cut lengthwise, not across the wrist.

Like the John Cusack character in Better Off Dead, Dave just couldn’t get the suicide thing to work. “I wasn’t a stupid junkie,” he says. “I was very conscious about the way I was destroying myself. But that can make you so depressed that you can’t see any way out.” Playing the starring role in the Dave Gahan Self-Hatred Revue, he climbed up on a ladder and tied the belt from a bathrobe around a beam and his own neck. Ready to end it all, he jumped off the ladder–and landed on the ground. He had made the rope too long. Dave looked at himself in the mirror, and for the first time in a year he laughed.

On May 27th, 1996, after some overdoses and recording sessions, Dave drove into town for a party. He checked back into the Sunset Marquis, injected a heroin-cocaine speedball, and OD’d. At 1:15 AM on the twenty-eighth, the paramedics showed up with some sheriff’s deputies in tow. Dave remembers everything turning black and hearing a voice say, “I think we’ve lost him.”

When he woke up in the hospital, Dave asked the doctor, “Did I overdose again?”

“No, David. This time you died.” Dave had gone into cardiac arrest and flat-lined. He was taken from the hospital to jail, where he was booked on a felony drug charge. Free on $10,000 bail, Dave got some more heroin and shot it up. But when he got no buzz, he realized even the dope had deserted him and checked into the Exodus rehab program.

Exodus gave Dave roommates and a curfew. He’s on probation and gets his urine tested a couple of times a week. “I haven’t got as much freedom as I want,” he says, “but I’ve got way more than I had when I was using.” Rehab has saved his life and made him a better, more boring person: he talks about weeping at a Lassie film, he quotes the Forrest Gump “box of chocolates” line to me unironically, and he says, “I’d really like to just spend time being David.”

It’s hard to tell somebody that he’s red-lining the trite-o-meter when you suspect his clichés are what keep him alive. Depeche Mode is the fifth band I’ve interviewed in the past few years whose lead singer abused heroin; if I had played my cards right, I could have written about three times as many. All the addicts were remorseful, most were charming, some were clever, two are dead. What I love about rock ’n’ roll is its life and crass passion and decadence; heroin just seems stupid and sad and redundant.

Dave now spends his free time rollerblading and doing yoga. He’s also trying to rebuild his relationship with Jack, his nine-year old son from his first marriage. They talk on the phone once a week, and will be going to see 101 Dalmatians together in a few days. He’s also in the middle of a vicious divorce from his second wife, Theresa. He says that when he first came out of rehab, she was unsupportive of his sobriety and moved out of the house. “She would tell me how pathetic I was in bed,” Dave says with a finely ground bitterness. “She’s suing me now for a ridiculous amount of money for two and a half years of marriage that we were barely together. I hope that every dollar she spends brings her misery.” (Repeated efforts to contact Theresa for comment were unsuccessful.)

Pushing the cuff of his left sleeve back over the scar on his wrist, Dave tells me that you can now take a guided tour of Hollywood’s celebrity death scenes, starring John Belushi and River Phoenix and Dave himself. Once Depeche Mode finish recording and promoting Ultra, Dave plans to leave L.A., his personal valley of darkness, and move to New York, but since he’s still friendly with the manager of the Sunset Marquis, he might return to the hotel, order some room service, swim in the pool. And when Dave leaves this time, he’ll walk out the door. This will be a switch for the front desk, he points out: “I’ve always checked in with my stuff and checked out in an ambulance.”

Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published as “Long and Winding Mode” in the May 1997 issue of Details.