A Cosmic, Moonlit Evening with Bright Eyes

SXSW diary part 4, a sort of tone poem written after an electric show…

The amount of press and the number of folks out at the auditorium shores to see the seemingly abrasive Bright Eyes happened because its nucleus Conor Oberst is really one of the last traveling serious people we have left. Take a look at the next crop of indie rock. The bright colors, the oblique lyrics (much in need of some journalism school or something). The fun-party vibes in very strange times. And God, all the Djs…. Bright Eyes, however, sounds like what the young music might sound like it if we were a little more alive. Not just alive, but possessed with passion, as Conor looks when he twirls rapidly around the axis of his guitar to the syncopations of “Arc of Time.” The thing is that no public poets in this era of cloistered academic hamlets have the charisma, youth or magnetism to command our attention so it falls on the rock stars (or avid skinny kids from Nebraska) to turn to poetry. I stand in a temperate to paradisiacal night and hear the skittering Oberst say…

“This wind that blows is older than your sorrow…”

There’s at least 13 people I’d like to tell that to, including myself. I come to Bright Eyes for that kind of perspective. There’s a dash of the eternal. One is reminded of the Dylan who turned to an “Italian poet of the 17th century” in “Tangled Up in Blue.” Oberst writes about life from the center of himself, but who can do anything other than that anymore? On his albums and Saturday night it’s clear to see he has traveled and lived, drank deeply, screamed and bonded with enough people to figure out elements of song that will be around after he’s finished kicking and screaming. I am personally impressed, thrilled and reassured by his new record.



“One for the tyrant one for the slaughtered lamb/ One for the struggle, one for the lasting piece/One for you, and one for me…”

It’s a philosophical stance as impressive to see in pop art as the joker telling Batman that he needs him. Oberst rages, but he knows that that damn tyrant fuels him. Or we could talk about his audacity in a belittled to death culture to wax wise and light.

“If you love something, give it away…”

There are the things uttered (consistently at that), uttered not by perfect or wholly virtuous men, but by searching men. From the moment Bright Eyes wrote that first comic booky song for a nice girl at 13 or met the Old Bull Lee of Nebraska with the subscription to the socialist review, he was a searcher. And he still is. I can’t imagine him sleeping. He’s reading the newspaper with his coffee and being his own best friend, he’s changing guitars, he’s telling Mike Mogis to take him to a country past that still looks pretty to him, he’s criss-crossing genres (digital-country) with a full band of musicians at his back. He hears the cemetery grass hum. And he keeps singing, no matter what they say about his voice. He moves fast and travels often. He’s not afraid of being poignant, he’s not afraid of getting on people’s nerves. He’s not afraid to know there’s a life to find.

There’s one life he has found in his always interesting and melodically engaging songs (sometimes dissonantly and in aggressively blown shambles– “let’s fuck it up boys, let’s make some noise!”). It has, like the work of any aspiring poet, opened me up to a quality of feeling inside myself. Or a few rather. This Bright Eyes of the soul is not always desirable. The impulsive speaking, long-verse rambling Bright Eyes has sometimes encouraged me to spit out word vomit, unprocessed, emotive thought. The conviction that my fire is the only fire will impel me to write things like “we (as a young people) are not very alive right now.” Though I still suspect it, it’s not academically wise thing to say. A beginning artist will look at Bright Eyes and think that’s a pardon to spill, spill, spill. But it’s not. Better to use him as a catalyst, and then explore from there…

In my record collection I can find mood music for different occasions and thoughts from a fellow worrier who I would probably have a few cups of coffee with. I go to Lifted for blind deaf dumb loud inspiration, for the boy James Agee before I could read, my senior year in high school. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning reminds me to grow up and with this rolling landscape as it pulls me along. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn in a car on the way somewhere beery is the subtle moonlight manipulated mutations of the heart. “Four Winds” we heard Saturday retains its tricky mix of poignancy and righteous indignation and faithful twang under Texas skies. “Shell Games” is saccharine new wave distilled into some kind of mission , so quick, but still with a sweetness. Oberst has combed his books, searched in eyes, puzzled over laptops and thrown amateur and quite good little poems out into the land. And he’s managed to stay something of the boy, I notice as he stalks the stage in a hoodie for “Gold Mine Gutted” (before this song it was button-up purple). He’s the kid who blurts out uncomfortable shit, but also the kid that hasn’t learned how to be fooled–a kid harder for us to stay in touch with than we sometimes think. It takes preserving that kid to naively scale the energetic heights Bright Eyes reached Saturday, as fireworks went off behind the band. Dylan had that naivete. It made him dweeby and a puzzle–and it gave him the weapon of surprise. I’m constantly surprised by Oberst’s behavior. Saturday he went from hushing the crowd by telling them that we were killing babies in Libya. The same guy shepherded in the buddah calm balance of “One for You, One for Me.” When the punk wanted to go folk, he found a harmony in the woman Gram Parsons discovered (Emmy Lou). That history reader used the resources of a poet and assembled his surroundings in Austin Saturday. He played “Lua” to a full, yellow-tinged moon with a lonely trumpet for company. His fret board seemed to begin carving the vanishing point from the expansive audience to the moon. The iceberg building and the others stood tall. A river rolled past in the distance. It was more than a painting. It was a moment.

These surprises are genuine. He sings loud but he can talk and act in grace strokes. John Darnielle, for example, in his suit jacket, metal tees and way-too-well-read librarian’s stare is blunt and ostensibly from real-life, but his vision will never see the outlandish things we sometimes see in Oberst’s fevered eyes. We follow Mountain Goats’s raw stories and just feel raw. Oberst’s particular stare can still catch the spires that the young will sometimes miss when they walk the great cities. There’s also something in Oberst that crashes outward more, like comedians over plush couches. Its makes him more sloppily American and available to the kids–and aren‘t they the ones who need it the most.

He’s the guy who’s really digging around in it. Always on the clock, always tender. To the mannered, Oberst’s style could look grossly empirical. For me, it’s a needed urgency for a culture tickled to death by zombies and slowed down by info overload. It’s a finger in a cold clear stream, a poetic curiosity, and a rolling caravan of guitars waiting to plug in and ring for sweaty listening people who know the words–and they did Saturday. The van can only be as smooth as the cratered roads of America will let it.

He’s the guy and the boy at the wheel, and he’s not going to stop driving.

(c) Danny Marroquin All rights reserved. Contact Danny through the email.

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