May 2002: I'm riding the J train through Brooklyn and lower Manhattan to the Bowery Ballroom to see Bright Eyes.
The J train isn't as widely ridden as some of the more famous lines that run through better neighborhoods, but it goes straight from my neighborhood to the Bowery. After the show, which was the second of two performances by Bright Eyes in New York City last May, a handful of those who live along the JMZ excitedly paced the subway platform, chatting about silly things the way one does after seeing an amazing show--like they were coming down off a good high. I spend my time pacing along the yellow stripe that tells you how close you can stand to the approaching trains without worrying about losing limbs.
I went to that show alone. I stood in the back, without a beer (one beer in Manhattan equals one hour's wages), watching Conor Oberst and his gaggle of girls, playing all kinds of instruments, glide through song after song, each one more gorgeous and grandiose than the last. And everyone in the packed Bowery Ballroom watched and listened and swayed and sang along and laughed at the right times and gazed meaningfully into their girlfriend or boyfriend's eyes at just the right moment, and when it was all over, I watched the musicians from Omaha, Neb., file off the stage and disappear as I was pushed out toward the exit along with all the other New Yorkers. I slid down the stairs to the JMZ platform to wait for the lonely train that would take me back to nowhere, Queens, all alone in an empty car.
It was like something out of a Bright Eyes song.
As I stood in the back and watched, all I could think about was the night, in 1997, when the band I was in at the time opened for a fairly unknown band from Omaha called Commander Venus at the first Skrappy's location, out on Oracle Road. The lead singer, Conor Oberst, was 17, and I was 18. He was little, with glasses, and he actually liked my band's name. After the show, we all went to the Grill, where we all sat in the big red booth and talked until 3 or 4 in the morning.
It's these kinds of moments that make a music scene: bands hanging out with bands talking about their towns and their friends' bands and their plans. Omaha then was just like Tucson is now: a bunch of musicians making good music and supporting each other, a new local label gaining momentum.
By 1998, Bright Eyes was known on the indie circuit, and by 2000, Omaha was the new "It" town. And so, in early 2002, I found myself at this sold-out Bright Eyes show in New York City, alone in the back, watching a kid a year younger than me with whom I had played a show at Skrappy's, and with whom I hung out at the Grill, onstage in front of hundreds of NYC hipsters. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel the weight of that post-college worthless woe.
On that empty train back home, I watched the Manhattan skyline drift further and further away as I thought about Bright Eyes' rise to fame. Even on the first Bright Eyes record (A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997)--as patchy and, at times, painful to listen to as it is--it was apparent that Oberst was something different; his songs were grounded and honest, pulling old Dylan and folk songwriting styles toward some entirely new thing. This was true innovation. These were songs saturated with adolescent despair and insecurity, delivered with unencumbered emotion through poetic lyrics.
"Meaning is sometimes hard to spot," Oberst sang in "I Watched You Taking Off." "It begins with the flickering of cigarettes, in the darkness of a dorm room, somewhere in the Midwest."
Letting Off the Happiness, also released in 1998, was further proof of Oberst's narrative songwriting ability. His songs are ballads by the old folk definition: songs that tell sad stories, except that instead of Davy Crockett, we get characters like "Padriac, My Prince," a song about a baby who drowned in a bathtub.
2000's Fever and Mirrors catapulted Bright Eyes forward. The vocals were smoother, the instrumentation diversified, the songs denser, the people populating the songs even more enigmatic, like characters in French films.
So when Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil Keep Your Ears to the Ground crept its way onto nearly every knowledgeable Top 10 of 2002 lists, those familiar with the Bright Eyes back catalogue weren't surprised. Lifted is one of those records that flies above and beyond what's expected of a record: Good records are records that you listen to; great records reach into your head, flex their fingers, and turn your brain toward a whole new way to experience music. The booklet is designed like an old storybook, and each song is another chapter; the images are archetypal, mythical; they feel old and cloaked with meaning, but at the same time they are of commuter trains, cars, highways, trees, grass. Songs about singing, about love, about loss. The story is not only in the soil, it's in the songs; the songs are the soil, music the groundwork for everything else. Lifted is illuminating, a great record about making a great record (among other things, of course).
And it's uplifting, knowing that a kid from Omaha along with his friends can get themselves in The New York Times in stories about their town and their music.
A couple years ago, I asked Jacob Thiele of The Faint what it was about Omaha that produced so many great bands: Was it the water? The cornfields? The crisp Midwestern air? His conclusion was that the town wasn't distracting, so they all spent their time working on their music. But this is not a story of just simple hard work; it's a story of hard work combined with that strange other ethereal thing that makes people chatter on subway platforms and sing exaltations after seeing a few musicians play a few songs on a crowded stage on a cold Spring night. It's a story of music as life, songs rooted in a soil familiar and dense, full of stories just waiting to grow and be told.