Drugs almost destroyed Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, but he came out the other side – and has a new release of remixes out next month
November is always a dark month. And it will probably get darker when doomy English electronica godheads Depeche Mode release a box set of 12-inch remixes (plus limited edition single ‘The Darkest Star’) from 2005’s Playing the Angel.
That album was the first time the band’s lead singer Dave Gahan had song-writing credits.
‘Suffer Well’, one of three he wrote, was stark existential electropop – set to Gahan cutting himself down the middle and letting us see inside, whether we wanted to or not. It was a bleak masterpiece of contextualising inner pain.
Born in Epping on May 9, 1962, Dave Gahan is no stranger to suffering. It started when he was nine years of age and the man he had thought was his father, Jack Gahan, died. When he was 10, he came home from school in Basildon, Essex, to see “a stranger” in the house, who had a present of a woolly jumper for him.
He was shocked when his mother Sylvia told him that the man was his biological father. “I remember I said it was impossible, as my father was dead,” he later recalled.
Len Callcott had left the family home when Dave was little more than a baby. Returning ten years later, he visited the family home on and off for a year, before disappearing again. His son never saw him again.
(Years later, he discovered that his natural father used to call a neighbour, who had the only phone on the street, and ask after his son, but the messages were never passed on to him by his mother.)
Around that time, Gahan started taking drugs – barbiturates, which he stole from his mother who was prescribed them for epilepsy, and amphetamines. His father skipping out of his life forever sent him reeling on a course of self-destruction.
“After that,” he said, “I was like: ‘F**k off to everything’ – and I got into a lot of trouble, stealing cars, robbing and thieving.”
He found himself in juvenile court several times. At 15, he ended up in a detention centre in Romford for six weeks.
“It was a kids’ prison. You march down the hall, get your blanket and new clothes, get screamed at and get beaten up. Joining Depeche Mode saved my life,” he said.
Depeche Mode came to life in 1980, when Gahan joined Vince Clarke (who later left to form first Yazoo, then Erasure), Andy Fletcher (who died of an aortic dissection at his home on May 26 of this year) and Martin Gore. He was 18, and by that stage he had already taken heroin.
His band had their first chart hit in 1981 with ‘New Life’ and the hits flooded in – ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, ‘Everything Counts’, ‘People are People’ and ‘Personal Jesus’. By the end of the decade they were international stars.
But happiness was more elusive. During the band’s 1991 Violator tour, he broke up his wife Joanne Fox, with whom he’d had a young son, Jack.
“All that stuff was painful to me,” he said. “In the space of six months, everything just piled on top of me.”
He moved to Los Angeles, and started a relationship with his US press officer Teresa Conway. They both used heroin.
“We made a pact early on that I’d never use intravenously, but of course, being a junkie and a liar, it didn’t take long.”
In their Hollywood mansion, he had a space called the Blue Room – specially reserved for injecting the drug he believed helped him through the pain.
In April 1992, he married Conway in a ceremony at the Graceland wedding chapel in Las Vegas. there was an Elvis impersonator, but none of his bandmates attended.
Drug addiction had become his reality. It was a dark comedy. One morning, he woke up on a drug dealer’s front garden. He was wearing only trousers and socks, with $400 hidden inside for the next drug deal.
Prior to Depeche Mode’s 1993 world tour (to promote the Songs of Faith and Devotion album that topped the charts in 17 countries) the band had meetings “where the question of Dave’s drug usage was addressed,” said Alan Wilder (who had replaced Vince Clarke).
“It was put to Dave that if he didn’t clean up his act, we wouldn’t make it through such a long tour. He agreed.”
He didn’t keep his word.
There is a depressing and sordid story that in 1994 Gahan’s mother and his son Jack walked in on him on the floor of a bathroom with drug paraphernalia around him. He lied though his teeth that he was just injecting steroids – for his voice.
In early 1995, his marriage to Conway, unsurprisingly, ended. “Our marriage was pretty much non-existent anyway.”
As was Gahan’s mental health. In August 1995, in a five-star Hollywood hotel, he took Valium and drank a bottle of wine. He rang his mother in Essex and started a conversation. Midway through it, he asked his mother to hold on – and walked to the bathroom where he cut his wrists.
Bleeding, he picked the phone back up and told his mother that he’d better go.
“It was definitely a suicide attempt, But it was also a cry for help. I made sure there were people who might find me.”
Released, he retreated to his apartment in Santa Monica where he lived with the lights off and the curtains taped shut. He slept in a large, coffin-shaped double bed.“My whole life was Spinal Tap at that time,” he said.
Whenever he went outside, he was so paranoid that he was never without a gun.
“I had lots of guns, a 9mm, a .38 revolver and a 12-gauge shotgun too,” he said. “I just thought they were out to get me. Yeah, it was very much like the bit at the end of Goodfellas with the helicopters. I mean, if there were actually helicopters overhead, or cars going by, I’d freak.”
Life was not good, despite the more than 80m albums sold.
“There wasn’t any conscious effort to destroy myself, but I certainly didn’t want to be here. It had nothing to do with being in the band. In fact, that was the last thing I was worried about.”
In 1996 he overdosed again – but this time he listened to the doctors who told him the shocking facts of the night. “David, you died. You flatlined for a couple of minutes. You were dead.”
“All I saw and all I felt at first was complete darkness,” he later said. “I’ve never been in a space that was blacker, and I remember feeling that whatever it was I was doing, it was really wrong. Then the next thing I remember was seeing myself on the floor, on the steps outside my hotel bathroom, and there was a lot of activity going on around me… Then I came to and a cop was handcuffing me.”
Two months later, to avoid going to jail, he was ordered into an outpatient programme that included counselling and mandatory urine tests for drugs. Gahan has been clean since.
He remains sober and happily married to his third wife.
“I’ve been married three times,” he once joked. “I’m the one that ups and leaves. And Depeche Mode is the only thing that I haven’t left.”
‘Playing the Angel: The 12” Singles’ is out on November 11