The Year We Fought The Landlocked Blues With Bright Eyes

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. TC mark

image – Bright Eyes

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  • Alison Greenberg

    a perfect encapsulation of the perfectly personal music of conor’s, which all of us claim as “mine” because he truly sings to us.

  • http://www.oneyearintexas.com Perfect Circles

    love love love love love this.  

  • guest

    i certainly wouldn’t say bright eyes has “fallen out of fashion.”  have you even listened to ‘the people’s key’ ? 

  • Cw

    “Bright Eyes has since fallen out of fashion.”
    I would argue the exact opposite.

  • http://twitter.com/BenTweetsWords Ben Conner

    this is fucking wonderful, Bart.

  • Constant Gardner

    This was so fucking awesome.  As a long time Conor fan it is rings so true.

  • http://twitter.com/jessicapippin Jessica Pippin

    This is great. I got to see Conor this summer in Missouri. It wasn’t the same as when I first saw him 6 years ago, but it was still fantastic. Very nostalgic. 

  • Azred93

    Saw Bright Eyes in August here in Boulder. It was an incredible experience, I was about 4 from the stage and Conor. Almost cried when he sang Landlocked Blues.

    • Nelson Muntz

      HaW HaW!

  • http://twitter.com/MissKimball misskimball

    we went to the arches, took some Es, they were shite
    (what arab strap were singing)

    • Vee

      The Arches is a venue in Glasgow, if anyone was curious.

  • sara

    this is a perfect article. thank you, it’s beautiful 

  • Banjoparty

    This is beautiful and nearly had me in tears i relate on so many different levels. A bright eyes fan since my preteen years i have seen bright eyes every time he was remotely close to my city of residence at the time. I remember bright eyes at the Ryman and conor answering a fans screaming request to hear the calendar that hung itself by saying, “we played that already… You missed it.” and I remembered seeing him sing that song for the time years before the current show and it was perfect, sad and true. That.. Yeah I was there and everything was perfect then feeling. Now when someone mentions conor or bright eyes i usually just listen because although I may or may not like his current sound, he will always be one of the bands that helped me through the hell of adolescence. We grew up listening and relating to his lyrics.. There is nothing more perfect than bright eyes when you need it.. Perfect perfect perfect. Makes me nostalgic for the basement shows in my own cornfield filled hometown. Thank you.

    • http://www.nicholeexplainsitall.com EarthToNichole

      The Nashville Ryman? A few years ago? I still hate myself for missing that show.

  • http://www.twitter.com/kvte Katy

    Okay, I will admit to crying at the first Bright Eyes concert I attended (I was in 8th grade, it was 2002 and I had bright pink Adidas shelltops), but I have since learned to keep my emotions on lockdown. Particularly in public, and definitely not while someone is singing about wanting to kill themselves. 

  • Guest

    Well put.  Perfectly put.  I got goosebumps reading this.  Thanks, that made my day.

  • Catt

    I don’t know about South Korea, but Bright Eyes is still intensely popular in New England. It’s the people who don’t listen to him who are the “different” ones.

  • Socere14

    This is by far the best post on here.

  • http://twitter.com/SophiiieCooke Sophie Cooke

    Bright Eyes headlined one of the smaller stages at Oxegen summer past, I love Conor :) and am gutted, because I didn’t get to see him!! Schedule clashes :(

  • Bobdylan

    Bright Eyes has not fallen out of fashion at all.  They are one of the biggest indie bands in the world.  Conor is probably the voice of this generation and certainly one of, if not the best modern songwriter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christopher-Fischer/100002422942546 Christopher Fischer

    love this article…

    “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.”

    so true…i come from germany and there wasn’t nor will there ever be artists like bright eyes or other saddle creek bands here because everything german bands do is just copy american stuff and it just doesn’t sound like it comes from their heart…

    sometimes i really hate germany for it’s artificial, always-trying-to-do-it-like-america culture and i feel so lost here because none of my friends can even remotely relate to that…often i wish i was born in the u.s.a…

    sorry for incorrect grammar and stuff…no native speaker and all…

  • Katrina

    Beautifully written!!  In the 70’s i had the same sort of experience with the bands in houston.  We felt like we had something special–something to believe in… (it was the beginning of the ‘punk’ era there).  I first heard conor/bright eyes 10 years ago,  when i was 50….i have been in love with his music ever since.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mexifrida Frida

    First saw Bright Eyes when I was 13 in 2007. Hate myself for not being able to go to his show in Chicago last year, but at least had Lollapalooza to enjoy the songs that helped push me through both happy and sad times.
    I’m about to be 18 now, and the connection is probably stronger. Everything still hits the heart. Not to idealize, but Conor and Elliott Smith have such beautiful words. I wonder what happens in Omaha to make them so special.

  • yelena

    This makes me smile. I’m not from Nebraska but I started following the Omaha scene at some point in high school and fell in love with it. It’s the kind of music that sticks with you forever. 

  • Björn

    Am I the only one who really dislikes this article?

    • alice

      y?

      • Björn

        To me, this is just some boring fanboy talk. Not relevant enough for this website.

  • Guest

    um something vague is on fevers and mirrors…

  • http://www.facebook.com/TheDaveJuliano David Andrew Juliano

    This was spot-on to me until I got to the “movement” part.  I don’t know, though.

  • tarynnjanine

    I saw Bright Eyes play two nights, both of which sold out, at First Avenue in Minneapolis in May of 2011, and it was the first time I’d seen him. Having lived 2 hours away from Omaha in a town that only hosted really small metal shows on occasion, Omaha was a 2nd home to me; in particular, the Sokol Underground. All of Conor’s shows always either sold out too quickly or they were 18+ (I’m 19 now) so I wasn’t able to go. Making the impulse decision to go to both nights instead of just one was the one of the best I’ve made; he played every song I’d ever wanted to hear from him was incredible. He’s an amazing songwriter.

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