Bright Eyes – The power of myth
Most cities have similar networks of friends, colleagues, clubs and local labels, ready to be discovered if any of their members break through to wider recognition. But they make for better stories if they are in unexpected or hitherto unnoted places: Athens, Georgia; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Seattle, Washington.
Omaha fit this profile with particular timeliness amid the exaggerated talk of Red States and Blue States in the early Bush years. When Oberst turned explicitly political on the album he recorded with Desaparecidos, with songs that took aim at American consumerism and militarism, it was celebrated as a cry of dissent from the heartland. It was the kind of thing a lot of Blue State denizens found reassuring.
The importance of Nebraska to the public idea of Conor Oberst became clear when he decamped in 2004, taking up part-time residence in the East Village. Leaving the Corn Belt for the Big City seemed like a stereotypical rock star move, and prompted speculative articles about how it might affect him and his music.
But Oberst has never fully committed to either the leaving or the arriving. He still has a house in Omaha and divides his time between the two places, when he’s not spending it somewhere else entirely. He was in Omaha recently to finish up Cassadaga at his producer/bandmate Mike Mogis’ studio. “I kind of realized I don’t think I’m necessarily a lifelong New Yorker,” he says. “If financially I can always afford to have a place here, I will, because I love it. But I think some of the initial intoxication has worn off a little bit.”
Cassadaga is named after yet another place, the town of Cassadaga, Florida. It was founded in 1894 as a center for Spiritualists, and remains populated by a small group of practicing psychics. Oberst heard about it from a friend in Gainesville and decided to visit in early 2006. “I flew down there after about a year of really thinking about it, and wanting to go there, and making it a really big deal in my head that I had to get to this place,” he says. “So I went. And whether I tricked myself in my mind or there’s something to it, I did leave with a real sense of peace and calm that I didn’t have before I got there.”
It is a community of about 200 psychics, Oberst says, clustered around a hotel, a bookstore and a school that offers psychic seminars and training. “If you go into the bookstore, they have a board on the wall that has whoever’s working that day, and their phone numbers and a little phone right there,” he says. “You pick it up and call, and they say, ‘OK, come around at 2 o’clock’ or whatever.
“And you walk down these little streets. It’s a really cool town because it’s kind of got the swamp, tropical, Florida feel, but also a little bit of run-down southern Gothic, kind of decrepit. These sort of little houses with the paint peeling off. They’ve all converted the front rooms of their houses into their reading rooms. So you go up, go in their house, get your reading or do whatever you’re going to do with them.”
He has visited twice, but he says it wasn’t until he was well along on the new album that the name occurred to him as a title. He realized it suited the album’s themes of spiritual and physical wandering. Although the town relies on visitors for its trade, Oberst worries a little about bringing too much attention to it. “I feel slightly bad, like I’m outing them or something,” he says. “Hopefully they won’t think ill upon me for it.”
BRIGHT EYES MYTH #4: THE MYTH OF SINCERITY
Of all the adjectives he has attracted over the latter half of his life, the one that might be hardest for Oberst to shake is “sincere.” From early on, he presented himself as almost theatrically serious, a teenage boy in his bedroom writing portentously about love, despair and tragedy. (The satirical newspaper The Onion ran an article a few years ago with the headline, “Nation Planning Surprise Party to Cheer Up Conor Oberst.”)
His gravitas took on a different dimension with the explicit politics of the Desaparecidos album, and with the growing activism that followed. In 2004, he played with R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen at concerts supporting John Kerry’s presidential bid. After Bush’s re-election, Oberst upped the ante during an appearance on “The Tonight Show” in May 2005. In a cowboy hat and rhinestone-studded Nudie-style suit, he sang an unreleased song called “When the President Talks To God” that he had been performing on tour. The lyrics are about what you’d expect from the title: “When the president talks to God/Are the conversations brief or long/Does he ask to rape our women’s rights/Or send poor farm kids off to die?”
“We had the offer to do the show,” Oberst says, “and I had that song, and I really wanted to do it.” The suggestion was met with polite suggestions from the network that maybe something from the album would be better. But when Oberst insisted, the “Tonight” people eventually shrugged and said OK.
“I tip my hat to them for that,” he says. “Before the show, Jay Leno comes in the dressing room and is like, ‘I think it’s really great what you’re doing,’ tells me stories about Vietnam, when comedians had to tour in Canada because of what they were saying. He was pretty into it. Everyone acts like he’s super-conservative or something, but he came across as the most laid-back, ancient California dude to me.
“So anyway, I just did it. And I thought it would be funny to do it in a cowboy outfit. My hope was that, like, somewhere in middle America there’d be someone watching TV, and the sound would be kind of low and then, ‘Oh honey, turn that up, he looks nice.'”