Non-fiction by Sarah Nichols
The Real Thing, Not Tokens: Depeche Mode’s Violator
Can the whole of a life be held in nine songs ? I think it can. When Violator was released in March 1990, I had just turned sixteen. I’m forty-six now, and I’ve never let it go. In a box in my bedroom closet, there are two cassettes of it. Both have wound to the end. I’ll start there, and press rewind.
“An end to the tears / And the in-between years.”
When I saw Depeche Mode live for the first time in September 2013, I had been clean for nine months, almost ten. My yellow Narcotics Anonymous key tag, the one that said, “Clean and Serene for Nine Months,” was indented with bite marks, from all the frustration of living without pills, of living without the escape. I had had fantasies of being close enough to the stage and throwing it to Dave Gahan, one recovering addict to another. Instead, I wept when Martin Gore sang “But Not Tonight.” The key tag was rough in my hand, a talisman I hadn’t planned on. I’m still clean, seven years later.
8. “Blue Dress.”
“Put it on / Please don’t question why.”
It was an anonymous Sunday in the winter of 2008-09. I pulled a black dress from H&M over my head, adjusting it, smoothing it out; thinking that the cleavage was too low. I was preparing to meet my married lover at a motel in a neighboring town. I lied to my mother, saying something about a “coffee date.” The motel was next to a bowling alley and across from an ice cream parlor, promising air conditioning and HBO in its rooms. My lover always paid for the hours we spent there. It was a routine: he would go to the office, and I’d wait in the car. A man coming out of a room saw me sitting there once and gestured to me with his mouth. The dress was flimsy; too thin for winter in Connecticut. I had too much lipstick on. Once we were in the room, my lover appraised me. “You dress nice,” he said.
7. “Policy of Truth.”
“Never again / is what you swore / the time before.”
The first time I experienced withdrawal sickness, I told myself that it was stress brought on from trying to sell copies of my first book. Or it was a twenty-four hour virus; a fluke of summer. But another voice whispered to me. The prescription ran out before it was supposed to. You know what this is. I shivered in an apartment with no air conditioning at the end of June. Dramamine helped me sleep but didn’t keep the nausea away. I wondered if my intestines would last. But then, it passed. I could file the experience away, making the promise that it wouldn’t happen again. I’d be more careful. But I wasn’t. I was never careful with pills. When I saw that the count was low, I would start gathering my supplies: chicken soup, ginger ale, Imodium. The voice that whispered to me had a smirk in it: You’ve got this all under control, don’t you.
6. “Enjoy the Silence.”
“Pleasures remain / so does the pain.”
In September of 2009, I met a man that I wanted to talk to all night. And frequently, that’s what we did. We quoted Woody Allen’s Love and Death to each other. I turned him on to John Cheever and Richard Yates. We both loved Violator. “It’s ear porn,” he said. After he left, about five months later, I couldn’t listen to it. The lyrics had been written and burned into our bodies. I drowned out his absence in other ways, wondering if the album would mean something different when I listened to it again. In the silent space that he inhabits, it does.
5. “Waiting for the Night.”
“When everything’s dark / Keeps us from the stark reality.”
I guess I’ve never cared for reality that much. When I was sixteen, and listening to Violator repeatedly, I would rewind “Waiting for the Night,” so that Side One wouldn’t have to end. I would turn off the lights in my bedroom, sinking into the voices. I could imagine I was someone other than a suburban Connecticut teenager who had already spent time in psychiatric hospitals. I could imagine that one day, I’d write something that would make me famous. It was there, in the journal I kept, bound in black fabric with tiny pink roses. In the summer of 2012, I waited for the night for different reasons. I would sit on my couch, waiting for the painkiller to make its slow way through my bloodstream. I would try to fight the nod out, but I couldn’t. I’d wake up at three in the morning, still on the couch, shoulders and neck aching from having been in the same position for so long. I’d shuffle out to the kitchen, promising it would be one pill less that day; that there would be fewer false nights to wait for. It never worked out that way.
“You wear guilt / like shackles on your feet / like a halo in reverse.”
Dave Gahan can make guilt sound like something you’d want: a secret to be shared with a lover, or the small thrill of a lie gotten away with. In a former life, not so long ago, I was a thief; a taker of all things. Sex, drugs, money. As a teenager, listening to this, guilt almost sounded romantic. As an adult, I realized that guilt is jealous; it doesn’t want to let you go, whether you’ve got anything to be guilty about or not.
3. “Personal Jesus.”
“Feeling unknown / and you’re all alone.”
I love the way that Johnny Cash’s cover of this song takes it away from the pounding synths and the dark smoothness of Gahan’s voice. I’d be fine if I never had to listen to the original again, but Cash wins me over with his way of speaking/singing; rough-hewn and sort of pleading. It seems more intimate, somehow.
2. “Sweetest Perfection.”
“I want the real thing/not tokens.”
I sat on the edge of my bed, unfastening the two buttons at the neck on the back of my dress. I wanted my former lover to do it, but he just sat there, maybe watching the action. I wondered if we were just using each other to assuage that real thing, loneliness. It felt like it. This was a token, a transaction. After we were done, I told him that I went somewhere else during sex. It was neither good nor bad, just away, separate from myself. My body was a token, no longer real.
1. “World in My Eyes.”
“Nothing more than you can feel now / That’s all there is.”
I remember how I felt when this music first caught me. It became an obsession; a mystery that I wanted to be initiated into. To listen to it was to drown, and to not mind it, a death to be repeated, again and again.
It’s a rare day, now, that I don’t hear at least one song from Violator. Depending on my mood, I’ll whisper its words like a mantra, or I’ll think of it as background music, the spell it had on me broken. In the CD liner notes there is a picture of a rose, almost an x-ray of the rose that adorns the cover. The stem on the cover is broken in a few places. The flower inside is whole.