“They Saved Me” – My First Year with Gang of Youths

A year ago today, I got an email that would change my life — a Google News alert for “U2.” It was nothing special on the surface; I get dozens such emails every week as the founder of @U2, a fan site I started in 1995 about my then-favorite band. This email didn’t have U2 news, but the headline still made me curious: How Gang of Youths Are Living Their Dream of Being the Next U2.

“The next U2” is a phrase that you couldn’t avoid from about 1987 through 2005. The music press was always declaring someone the next U2 back then, but not so much lately. U2 still sells out concerts around the world, but it’s been a long time since they’ve had a really popular single or album and few writers are using U2 anymore as a benchmark when profiling new bands.

The headline intrigued me, so I clicked through to RollingStone.com. David Fricke’s byline caught my eye; he’s been around a long time and written lots about U2, so if anyone could make this comparison, he could.

I’d never heard of Gang of Youths, but the first paragraph instantly grabbed my attention — “stormy guitar anthems,” “spiritual-crisis titles” and “persistent, affirmative force.” Sounds right up my alley, I thought.

By the time I finished the article, I wanted to learn more about Gang of Youths. I went to YouTube and Spotify, searched them by name and started playing whatever came up. “Let Me Down Easy,” “The Heart Is A Muscle” and “Magnolia” were some of the first songs I heard. Good stuff. I kept listening.

Then I heard “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane” and it stopped me in my tracks. This felt special — the story in the lyrics. Who writes songs like that?? To find out, I started looking for old interviews and articles. Over the next few weeks, I read as much as I could about Gang of Youths. OMG, what a back story this band — and especially Dave L. — has. I was fascinated.

We’ll come back to this point, but let’s turn left for a moment.

Life Without Mom & Dad

For the past couple decades, I would call my parents every Sunday to check in, get updates on what they were doing and let them know how our family was doing on the other side of the country. The distance between us meant we only saw each other a couple times per year at best. As my parents got older and their health started to decline, those visits became both more difficult and more special. I often regretted that my kids didn’t know their grandparents better.

My dad died in 2015, and it left a hole in me. He was a giant man in my life in so many ways. His death wasn’t a surprise, but there was no warning, so I was home when it happened — 2,700 miles away.

My mom died in 2017, and that shook me even more. This time, we knew it was coming and I was able to fly back to the east coast so I could be there as she took her final breath. She was an amazingly strong woman and it hurt like hell to see her so weak, struggling for every breath and unable to speak.

For the first six months after mom died, I’d still wake up every Sunday morning and get excited for my weekly call home, only to quickly remember there’d be no call. I forgot she had died, or I was in denial — probably both.

I wasn’t ready for the reality of life with both of my parents gone, and I shrunk. I retreated into myself more than ever. (And I was already a championship-level introvert.) I stopped doing all optional public speaking gigs and tried to minimize the appearances I couldn’t avoid. I was saying no to pretty much everything — opportunities to join local/church groups or work on projects with friends. I was also going through turmoil in my career, which ultimately led me to quit a job that I’d loved for nearly 10 years, but could no longer continue doing.

Making matters worse, I was also fighting a mental battle over my fear of dying. It’s something I’d been dealing with for probably 10 years, but it got much worse after my parents were gone. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving this earth and being without my wife and kids. There was one day early last year that I was so overcome with this fear that I couldn’t do anything but think about it. Couldn’t work, couldn’t leave the house, nothing. I was paralyzed by the thought of dying.

Another “D” Word

In June of last year, about six weeks after I’d discovered Gang of Youths, I was sitting at lunch with my wife telling her all of this for the first time. I hesitantly said that I thought I might have some kind of depression. I say “hesitantly” because I know depression is a serious thing and I didn’t want to put my struggles on the same level as what I know many other people try to deal with every day.

But she started nodding in agreement even before I finished my sentence. What I was describing reminded her of the depression she went into 10 years ago when her dad died. (She eventually got counseling and improved.)

I also told her about Gang of Youths and “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane.” I started to cry and said it was the most important song I’d heard in the past 20 years. It felt like a song written specifically for me.

And it’s strange, all the things that I’ve run from
Are the things that completeness could come from

Yep, guilty as charged. And then there was that line near the end of the song:

Get the fuck out of your head if it says / ‘Stay cold and be deathly afraid’

That was it. That was me. I was stuck in my own head. I was cold, and I was deathly afraid.

Telling my wife all this was an enormous relief. Things started improving. I’m sure finally talking about it was the catalyst, but I also know that Gang of Youths played a big role. I couldn’t stop listening to them and it felt like almost every song was speaking right to me.

Flight #2263 To Portland

I committed to a public speaking engagement — my first in about four years. In the weeks leading up to it, I thought about canceling my appearance at least 3-4 times … but something led me to go through with it.

So in early July, off I went. I was on a short flight to Portland at an early hour — good thing I had a row all to myself. I put on Go Farther In Lightness and dozed off with my head leaning against the window. A little while later, I woke up and Mount St. Helens was right outside the window — like so close, it felt like I could touch it. The beauty was stunning. And in that moment, I felt the most amazing sense of peace come over me. I said a quick prayer and knew that I’d get to see my mom again someday in Heaven. I literally felt the weight of her death, and my struggles since she died, leaving my body.

I texted my wife: “I’m the fuck out of my head. I’m so blessed. I love you so much.”

Everything’s changed since that moment. That fear of dying is gone; I almost never think about it anymore. I still my miss parents, but I’m not wandering around lost like I used to. I don’t wake up on Sundays thinking I need to call them. That first public speaking engagement went really well. Work life has stabilized, too — I’m part of my wife’s real estate team and we love working together.

I still love “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane,” but it’s been replaced as my favorite by “The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows.” (Ergo, the name of this site!) And the lyric that I continue to cling to is one that gives me strength and stability no matter what’s going on around me:

I will stand in the darkness and laugh with my heel on its throat.

If it was depression that I had, I feel like it’s gone now. I’m in a much better place mentally, and feel like I’m (getting) back to normal. But it’s a new normal and a new me, with a new band and new songs that I’ve loved discovering over the past year. I feel like April 22 is a birthday of sorts. So thank you, Gang of Youths, for your role in all of this.

This past December, my friend Michelle — prompted at least in part by my endless raving — went to see Gang of Youths in Indianapolis, even though she wasn’t really familiar with the band. She had quite the night! A couple hours before the show, she had a great conversation and took a pic with Dave L. in a nearby restaurant. After the show, she described it as “flippin’ phenomenal.” We must’ve traded 50 texts that night. I sent her some links for further watching/reading and told her she could ask me anything about them at anytime.

“Your enthusiasm is contagious,” she wrote.

“They saved me this year,” I said. “I’m all in.”

(Note: Here’s the RollingStone.com article that started it all. Thanks to David Fricke for writing it.)