Going to state college has an inevitability to it that feels inescapable, fated. Lincoln, Nebraska is a classic Midwestern town. Small. Bad weather. A row of college bars with better bars behind them. The restaurants aren’t that good, but the cost of living is low. Not a lot of pretense in the people. The city becomes culturally significant on the days the football team plays at home.
That year I wore a yellow t-shirt and white Asic Tigers with red and blue stripes every chance I had. America hadn’t gone to war yet, Conor Oberst was still in Omaha, and at times my phone would ring telling me there was a show that night at the Sokol Underground.
It was the year the New York Times named “Lifted” as its album of the year. A good friend took me to the show at the Rococo Theater on 13th and P in Lincoln and we sat two tables away from Conor’s family (everyone that talked about Bright Eyes then just called him Conor.)
Conor stood there in that beautiful old theater, 21 or 22, with 13 other people on instruments behind him, trying hard not to turn away from the crowd as he sang. You could see the fear in him, but he wanted to make it through. He fought it hard, and well. During those early shows when I first started to see him play, every word rang out clear and true.
He had a way of creating drama around himself, an awareness of the theater of performing. It was never as apparent as in “Something Vague,” when he sang:
And I’m standing on a bridge in the town where I lived
As a kid with my mom and my brothers.
And then the bridge disappears and I’m standing on air
With nothing holding me.
And I hang like a star, fucking glow in the dark,
For all those starving eyes to see.
The lyrics lifted him up off the stage. He might as well have been suspended from invisible wires.
People have strong opinions about Bright Eyes. The band has plenty of detractors. But I’m not going to defend Conor or Mike Mogis or any of the other people that were involved. If you go back and listen to that song, or “Make War,” or “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now,” and don’t get it, or any of the other Saddle Creek bands, then we should just talk about something else.
We should talk about how it felt to be part of something that seemed culturally relevant, to be the same age as the musicians and to watch it growing in front of you. To be one of only a few people you knew that took an interest in what was happening. I would try to talk to my other friends about what was going on in our cities and few of them cared. That only made me like it more.
I had these friends who I would come back to after a night seeing a young Rilo Kiley joined on a version of “With Arms Outstretched” by the Saddle Creek all-stars on stage at Sokol. I’d find them at a party and try to tell them about it, but it didn’t take me long to realize that the fewer people I told the more it was mine, that this music and these people were all on to something good. We didn’t need to sell it to everyone. Then I stopped telling people.
I didn’t tell them about the show where Arab Strap opened and we could see the spit from the Scottish lead singer spraying the first row of kids. And no one could tell what they were singing, just that they meant it. How I was sitting cross-legged in a yellow shirt in the gymnasium of Sokol, before the band went on, and an A&E reporter from Saint Joseph, Missouri interviewed me about the scene. How he wrote me up in the article praising the purity of the music.
That night Conor came out sick, could barely sing, but he tried to play anyway. His already warbly voice broke even more than usual. He tried until he knew he couldn’t make it to the end, so he offered to give everyone their money back at the sold-out show. He went through five songs, screamed the ending of “A Perfect Sonnett” and then he had no voice left at all, so instead he smashed his acoustic/electric all over the stage. He said he was sorry multiple times and I believed him. No one asked for their money back.
At the time some of us thought the bands out of Omaha might start a movement. Obviously, we were wrong—either the culture didn’t want it enough to make Conor into the next Bob Dylan, or Conor didn’t want it, but Bright Eyes has since fallen out of fashion. People don’t really bring them up anymore unless they want to be derisive. We didn’t know what would happen; we just wanted to give it as much support as we could. We believed in the music from those kids singing about cities we knew, about weather we felt, about all the emotions that places bring out in people.
Still, I’m glad I left Nebraska at the end of that year. What I keep with me is that, for a little while, there were some of us kids out there in the corn and soybean fields that had something to unite us, to believe in. A lot of people look their whole lives for that and never find it.