Conor Oberst Part II: A Concert & a Kiss

The short hipster guy in a button-down shirt seemed disappointed when I turned down his invitation to come back to the hotel where he and his friends were staying. I told him I had people I was with but it had been nice talking to him. If only he'd known what a real fan's after-party consists of. Me, I know the secret:

If the venue is small and the crowd is fervent, there is a possibility that after the show is over, the artist will come 'round the back or side to mingle for a few minutes. This trick I learned from the same ex-boyfriend who, incidentally, introduced me to this artist's music originally. (Our lives have diverged for good, now, but I will be grateful to him for several things, this among the more frivolous ones.)

I will admit, there was no way to be sure that Conor Oberst would do that. He has a reputation for being surly and detached from fans. He hates it when people sing along at shows, so to be contrary he alters the words a bit for live performances. He shuns the laud and hullabaloo of being an icon, so he only releases albums under the name "Bright Eyes". And he never smiles onstage.

Well, this was 2008, and he'd done the first thing, releasing a "solo" and eponymous album that I really really liked, earlier that year, so put one tally under "Never Say Never". This was a warm night in Tucson, AZ, at a pretty venue called The Joint, and he had not only smiled, he'd been so stumbling drunk, he looked like he was having fun. He didn't even seem to mind when those of us who didn't know better (like me) unfolded our arms to sing along with whatever songs we knew. So now all bets were off.

The show was rock-solid. Conor Oberst, who I'd never really cottoned to until I heard this album made with "The Mystic Valley Band", delivered. He passionately bellowed into the microphone and strummed away on his guitar like the chords could bring world peace if he just hit them hard enough. He tried a few times to stand up on an amplifier, alarming us a little with the way he wobbled and swayed in his alcohol-fueled exuberance. But what should have been a slightly disturbing spectacle starring an artist who sometimes gives too much fuel to his inner demons, was instead almost transcendent. It was beautiful. With his eyes closed and a hint of a blissful smile as he sang "Danny Callahan", he was beautiful, and it moved me deeply.

So I, the undeserving fan-initiate, stood pressed against the ropes under the watchful eye of a few security guards after the show, eyes trained on the back door of the venue with absolute precision. Sure enough, he came stumbling out and the crowd (mostly female) of superfans around me erupted in a cooing euphony like so many happy pigeons. "Connor, Connor, Connor" they murmured, and sure enough again, he moved toward us. Hands thrust in his direction and he took them and shook them and muttered generally good-natured responses. It was pretty clear he was still very disoriented. It may have been my idea but I pulled out my ticket stub (thank goodness I found a pen, after fishing around in my purse for a moment longer) and held it toward him.

He moved toward me, as if nothing would please him more than to sign my scrap of paper. The pen nearly didn't work but after a moment of confusion it did and he handed back the ticket. I touched his hand and leaned close over the rising swell of fangirl voices, and told him the only thing I really felt like I had of value. The only thing any of us, really, have the right to say to a stranger who has impressed us.

"Conor, you did really great tonight. I mean it, you were great. That was a wonderful show."

Our proximity turned into a hug at that moment. I felt his cheek, bizarrely soft and smooth, brush mine as he told me, "Thank you, thank you. You're a sweet, sweet lady." And then he kissed me on the cheek, as his bodyguards pulled him away from me.

I think for a moment I blacked out. But I was taking up space now that I'd had my turn, and I didn't want to get jumped and have my cheek torn from my face as the girls near me took up the incredulous cry of "He kissed her!" So I fled, to the car where my sister, mother, sister's then-boyfriend, etc, were waiting. I was dizzied with the impact of being starstruck. "He kissed me!" I said breathlessly, grinning, and flashing my signed ticket.

My sister's face broke like I'd dropped something made of porcelain and dreams. She'd been toward the back of the throng and hadn't even gotten close enough to look into his face. The triumphant feeling drained from me instantly, and I gave her my lasting prize, the ticket I didn't deserve to have signed. If I could have transferred the kiss from his lips to her face too, I would have done that, because no matter what, I love my sister more.

We saw Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band again in the spring, in Tempe, but things were different this time. He looked healthier, to his credit, (much more sober and characteristically grim) and performed a good set, but the magic was comparatively absent. I felt torn, glad for his sake that he was in better physical form and mental state, and favorably impressed with the new material performed that night, but sad that something had to be missing.

Conor Oberst, wherever you are, and in whatever incarnation you are right now (Bright Eyes, Mystic Valley Boy, Monster of Folk, or Desaparacido), hi. I hope you are well. You don't remember me but I remember you. I didn't deserve to be the one you kissed, like Arizona doesn't deserve to be a state you shun (most of the people who rabidly adore you are on your side about the whole immigration business- why are you punishing them?). But I'm really glad it happened, like I'm glad you brought the magic to the stage that night. I still listen to the Mystic Valley Albums when it's springtime and when it's autumn, especially, and my friend Rob called the MoF album the best one he'd heard in 2010. And with the sincerity of someone who you only managed to win over by being yourself, rather than Bright Eyes, I'll stand by what I said then: you do a great job doing what you do. "I don't wanna dream if it won't come true."

"Nikorette" by Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band

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