By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The house was in the midst of renovations. There were spare fence posts all around the yard. And as midnight approached, the rocker boys began to set them up on blocks so they could break them with their hands and feet — karate-style — one by one and sometimes in stacks. Pretty soon someone found some lighter fluid, and someone else found fire, and eventually Matt Baum, drummer for Oberst’s Desaparecidos side project, was breaking flaming fence posts with his head.
It was hard not to fall in love. My friend became entranced with one boy at the party, and zeroed in. I didn’t think much of it until the boy walked up, military jacket scrunched in his armpit, and gave my friend a fine-boned smile and his number on a slip of paper.
As the hour passed midnight, and the number of joints being passed around outnumbered the number of cigarettes, the scene turned surreal. People began to drink Jim Beam straight from the bottle. A girl dressed in totally ’80s skirt and fishnets twirled a pair of metal nunchucks behind her back. The house’s deck collapsed under the weight of dancing. Chaos.
At 4 a.m. there were two dozen kids left, and somewhere in the background of whatever I was focusing on, three of them were playing catch and, having dispensed with the lighter objects, began to do so with the bocce balls — small as a grapefruit, dense as a bowling ball. A bad idea made worse.
A piercing scream rang out in the night.
When everyone turned, the sensei in the white satin jacket lay sprawled out on the ground in a circle of rocker boys. He lay there with blood streaming down his face, splattered on his jacket and pooling under his head. The totally ’80s girl lazily twirled her nunchucks.
Maybe he’d make it, or maybe he wouldn’t, and we could all say we were there when the scene keeled over and died, right there on the spot.
If this were nothing but a document of a scene that lives mythically then writes songs about it, perhaps I’d end the piece there and quote a lyric to explain it all away. I’d probably choose “Method Acting” by Bright Eyes, for the way it clarifies why a person might choose to live this life, and the peculiar inertia that keeps him going:
All I know is I feel better when I sing.
Burdens are lifted from me, that is my voice rising!
So Michael, please keep the tape rolling.
Boys keep strumming those guitars.
We need a record of our failures.
We must document our love.
But I’m a journalist (sort of) and a fan (mostly) and a friendly sort (kind of), and in the months that followed my visit to Omaha I kept seeing the bands of Saddle Creek in concert, and briefly hung out with Maginn after a triumphant two-night stand by Cursive at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. My friend kept seeing the musician he fell for at the party that night. I had a short liaison, via e-mail, with a girl I’d met during my visit. She sent news that the sensei came away unscathed but for some blood on his clothes and a slow-healing head wound. She worried, though, about the forward march of time. “As I get older,” she wrote, “life seems to be less about yourself and your friendships and more about getting married and having babies. I am okay with people doing that and being happy about it, but it’s when everything becomes so centered on that stuff, it seems like they forget about each other . . .”
As the stories came in, the star of the scene, Conor Oberst, was still absent. I thought, somehow, that he might explain it all, but his publicist told me he was touring, then recording, then finally she admitted he was taking a break from interviews and I didn’t have a chance in hell of getting him to talk. But eventually she relented.
I was to meet Oberst one afternoon at St. Dymphna’s, an Irish pub in New York’s East Village and a home away from home for the Omaha expats who live in the city. St. Dymphna is a funny choice. Virgin, martyr, patron saint of those suffering from nervous disorders, she died at age 15, beheaded by her father when she refused his hand in marriage. Religious engravings depict her with a sword in hand, a shackled devil at her feet. Funny, but appropriate. Oberst is famously medicated — an onstage red-wine drinker, author of odes to anti-depressants. It’s hard to believe he picked this place by accident. St. Dymphna is an icon that represents well what it is fans see in Saddle Creek: triumph in the face of torment, optimism, even idealism, yet also dark undercurrents, the secrets of adulthood, the time of life we’re all headed for but are too scared to see when young and in love with rock & roll.
Oberst arrived a bit late, after 3 p.m., his manager in tow. “Conor doesn’t do mornings,” his publicist had warned me, and indeed he showed up looking boyish and haggard — old sneakers, zip-up sweatshirt and a vintage T frayed washcloth-soft. His manager had news that Conor was starting a new record label, Team Love, to release the records Saddle Creek would not or could not — now that it really was becoming a business.