When you’re young, you assume that just knowing the difference between good and bad is enough: ‘I’ll just do good work, because I prefer it to bad work.’
I am reliably informed by the aggregative intelligence of social media that Depeche Mode’s Violator album was released on this day twenty-five years ago.
Twenty-five years ago I was living in Denver, fifteen years old, shopping at a record store in the Tiffany Plaza mall whose name entirely escapes me. They had all the 12″ remixes and import-only releases, despite the fact that they were in a mall, next to the movie theatre that is still the Platonic theatre which I imagine when I think in an abstract way of the moviegoing experience. I used to browse, obsessively, the Cure, the Depeche Mode, the New Order sections, as the only way to find out about a new release in those primitive times was actually to see it in the bin.
It always felt like there were only a few of us listening to that music, me and a few friends, and (presumably) our misfit counterparts at other schools. But the shops stocked it all without fail. And by the time I got to college I didn’t know anyone who hadn’t grown up a “waver,” so if we were a minority, we were a large one. All the same I think I got my need to be part of one cult or another from that musical experience. My classmates liked Tom Petty and AC/DC, and the Cure felt much more mysterious and substantial.
I remember feeling actually aggrieved when one of the pretty, popular girls showed up to our English class in a Depeche Mode t-shirt. I never doubted the sincerity of her fandom, but it felt like an invasion in some way. Surely, I thought, this meant she would be kicked down to the level of the fringe art geeks who listened to “gay” european music. Or better yet, it might even get us kicked up into her social echelon, invited to keggers or boat races or whatever it was I thought the popular kids were up to in those days.
But no, nothing happened. I didn’t know this at the time, but if you are outgoing and friendly and socially fluent you can be friends with just about anyone, Depeche Mode or no Depeche Mode. Likewise, if you’re a ¾ scale model of an awkward introvert who’s so hypersensitive to every nuance of every social interaction that walking to the dining hall for lunch feels as intense as a whole Wagner opera cycle condensed into seven minutes, you’re going to have a pretty rough go of high school, no matter what music you listen to.
I remember buying Violator on CD at that very same record store. I remember the first time I saw the cover art, which is demonstrably, scientifically perfect. And I remember getting home, putting it on, and the sonic space of my room was filled with those syncopated synth notes, so richly textured you wanted to grab them out of the air and chew on them. Go on, listen to World In My Eyes and tell me you wouldn’t eat that riff.
If you’d asked me ten or fifteen years ago I’d have said Violator changed my life. It definitely changed something in me the first time I heard it. The world was bigger and darker and grander than it had been before, the universe’s backdrop a warm matte black instead of a glossy cold black, if that makes any sense. Seeing Depeche Mode at Red Rocks changed me again, watching Depeche Mode 101 yet again, meeting D.A. Pennebaker in our documentary film class and asking him not about Don’t Look Back or Ziggy Stardust but about 101.
I’d like to say that I knew, upon hearing those notes, that I was being set on a path I’m still on today. It certainly felt that way. Of course the way I think about melody and harmony was shaped by those minimal arrangements, those intersecting geometric lines. Not for Depeche Mode the simple strummed chord progression, with its redundant voicings and smothering rhythms.
But what path? I spent years in a band that was not very much like Depeche Mode at all, by any metric of comparison. But I don’t play music anymore, except once in a while to exercise my hands, or to try to take apart a song I like and see how its pieces function. (I don’t wear watches anymore, I just like repairing them.)
There’s another version of me out there in the multiverse who took Violator as a call to arms and never looked back. He took it in, all at once, and spent the rest of his life reflecting it back out.
Here in this timeline I guess I’m still taking it in.
This has been another episode of “blogging with Ambien.” I’d like to thank my sponsors, Sanofi-Aventis, whose hypnotic sleep aid, now sold in generic form, provides the same disinhibitory effect as a shot or two of whiskey but without the unfortunate side effects of sloppy typing and maudlin sentimentality*.
*all maudlin sentimentality supplied by the author