By Hannah Macauley-Gierhart
Disclaimer: the quotes in this piece of writing contain a healthy dose of explicit language. In case you care about that kind of thing, you’ve officially been given a heads up now.
I think as soon as you become a high school teacher, you feel old and uncool. Even in my early days of teaching, fresh out of uni, the pop culture references I would make to kids not that much younger than me were somehow already outdated. I fought it for a little while, but eventually gave up, leaned into my dorkiness, and came to terms with the fact that books are all I really care about and I (still) have no idea what TikTok actually us. I’m only in my mid-thirties, but my students make me feel older. They’ll roll their eyes at my enthusiastic, nostalgic love of The Famous Five (that boy’s called what, Miss?) or my self-congratulatory chuckle at a Shakespearean reference I’ve managed to sprinkle into a lesson. I love teaching, but I’m not cool. I gave up on that long ago.
So, I’m hesitant to admit that I have a deep love for Gang of Youths. They’re very cool, with lead man David Le’aupepe swaggering across stages with his long rocker hair, black rocker clothes, and snide rocker attitude, like a young Michael Hutchence (is that an uncool reference to make these days?). You can roll your eyes at me if you like, but I stinking love that band, and I love them more this lockdown because I have been listening to them a lot and they have taught me much about faith.
I came across Gang of Youths in their early days when I saw a mini-documentary about the marking of ‘Magnolia’ – a song that I think is my favourite. It recounts a night where Le’aupepe attempted suicide many years ago but somehow, miraculously survived. It’s the beauty and anguish that gets me; the deep existential contemplation of what comes next, the fight to endure:
There’s no way tonight
As far as I know
That heaven will take me
So I’m staggering home
Show me the way
Ah, show me the light
Hey, I’m drunk, but I’m ready
To kick some ass tonight
Le’aupepe grew up in a Baptist church, with parents who took their faith seriously but allowed their son to be who he needed to be, and I see the tension between faith and freedom in his music, the struggle between navigating a challenging world and the seemingly antithetical certainty of religion. This context winds itself through much of his music, and I love it for that. There’s so much struggle and contemplation in his lyrics. Beauty and mess.
‘What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out?’ has been most speaking to me lately. I was driving to work on a recent lockdown day where the unusually quiet roads and the winter morning light cast an eerie, apocalyptic tinge over the world, and I was contemplating the strangeness that is life right now, the odd lethargy I feel, the distance from deep meaning and meaningful productivity I’m experiencing. As I sat at the traffic lights in this weird malaise, Gang of Youths popped up on my Spotify playlist, and this song, with its titular rhetorical question, made me feel something deep and uncomfortable. I came back to earth with the brash chords the song opens with, the frenetic beat that comes next. I resonated with the restless energy of it, the big questions it asks. The panic that I’m losing traction, the questioning of what it would take to find passion and depth again. Most of all, the uncertainty of faith Le’aupepe sings about kicked me in the guts:
What can I do if the fire goes out?
‘Cause I don’t know if I can live without
I want a taste to see if the Lord is good
I want to know if I’m hurt and if I’m understood
See if the selfish desire’s some stupid thing
Or if heaven desires something deep within
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one feeling fire-less at the moment, and I don’t really have any answers about how to get it back, except to say that hanging in there is enough, asking scary questions is enough, not trying to lock down answers is enough. The song speaks to the Lockdown Languish we’re all talking about, but more importantly, it speaks to the discomfort and uncertainty that questioning conventional faith brings. As a spiritual misfit, this song sings for me. I’m not panicky about letting old things go anymore, but I still feel the hugeness of asking big questions I have no real solutions for. It’s liberating and unnerving. ‘What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out?’ feels like my misfit anthem at the moment.
And speaking of misfits, when Bryget Chrisfield interviewed Le’aupepe for The Music back in 2015, one of the questions she asked was where he stood with faith now:
‘Oh, I’ve never really shifted, eh? I don’t fit in at fuckin’ church and that’s cool. I don’t go to church ‘cause I think it’s bullshit and I don’t wanna make nice, polite Christians feel uncomfortable. Um, but I’m still down with Jesus, fuck yeah! I fuckin’ love that bloke. My issue with Christianity and still my hesitance to be considered part of the ilk, even though I totally am, [is] the denial of science, the denial of facts, the association with idiotic, right-wing bullshit fascist separatists, you know? Like, the homophobic fucking garbage of picking and choosing parts of the Bible – I’m not really into it, I think it’s fucking garbage and I’m uncomfortable being associated with that. To me it’s a countercultural movement now, what traditional Christianity is, and I think it’s counterintuitive and it’s anti-intellectual for the most part. But at the same time, yeah! I’m fuckin’ down with Jesus.’
Oh yes to all this. I may also ask what happens when the fire dwindles, but I’m down with Jesus. Le’aupepe is so very cool, and says things so coolly, but we’re on the same page with the questions and the discomfort with a Christianity that often does not represent Christ, whilst still admiring the Jesus that remains true and lovely despite all that nonsense and uncertainty.
When I told Will that I wanted to write about Gang of Youths, he got very excited because Will is also a fan and he is actually cool. He sent me these lyrics from the song ‘Persevere,’ and I think they are the best way to sum up this piece. May this be the truth we meditate on this week and beyond:
So I’m shotgun in the car
And we’re just shooting the shit
And predictably the talking turns to God
So I throw him forty lines
How I don’t think he exists
And he just smiles and
Takes a dignified pause
Says, “it’s ok to feel unbelievably lost”
But God is full of grace
And his faithfulness is vast
There is safety in the moments
When the shit has hit the fan
Not some vindictive motherfucker
Nor is he shitty at his job
What words to hear
What words to hear indeed.