The Stigma of Synth: My Secret Life with Depeche Mode
Like all good art, the lyrics to Depeche Mode songs such as “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.
DM 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 school, this presented a problem.
1989: Better known as the year of the Exxon Valdez spill, the year the Iron Curtain first cracked, it was also the year I became a huge Depeche Mode fan in 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 – wasn’t that 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 popular appeal, but it did threaten 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 owners. As Phoenix’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 DM 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 1,029 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.
There might not have been definitive proof that Depeche Mode was Depeche ‘Mo, but there was no evidence to the contrary either. And if the inference people drew from the circumstantial evidence was a stretch, it was also, admittedly, an understandable one. Watch any video. Check out old interviews. Band members Martin, Dave, Alan and Andrew were slight, articulate, British men. DM wore whole cow herds’ worth of leather and used to sport bondage gear straight out of a West Village S&M shop. When they debuted in 1980, they looked as if they’d just returned from Gay Pride Week in Washington, D.C.: leather pants, leather shirts, leather biker captain caps, aviator glasses. Chains draped across nearly every article; everything was buckles and straps. They made Rob Halford of Judas Priest look as huggable as a beagle, and that was just their first album.Brophy dress code required that 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 DM.
After the early-’80s “leather daddy” fad diminished, DM developed a sharper, more chic urban image: leather jackets with zip-up wrists, Army-Navy flak jackets, thick motorcycle boots, black turtle necks with a zipper up the front. Everything from this period seemed webbed with zippers. DM in ‘89 were the clean urban males, which in many peoples’ minds meant gay urban males, metrosexual long before the term. Ours is a culture that equates debauchery with manliness and godliness, and these guys had no Zeppelin-grade drunken rock star antics to precede them and left no trail of sullied groupies behind them. Somehow in my teenage brain, not wearing the shirts wasn’t an option, so I defended the band and myself as best I could.