Lifted or The Story is in the Soil....
Conor Oberst's answers on a high school exam may not be as polished as the politically charged lyrics that landed his band on an anti-Bush rock tour with Bruce Springsteen.
But they hint at what the Catholic schoolboy would later share onstage.
On a 1997 test asking what a moral survival kit should include, Oberst said a globe, so people realize the far-reaching implications of their decisions.
"Inside the kit there is also a mirror," he wrote. "When making a decision it is necessary to take a good look at yourself and who you are. Do you like what you see?"
At age 13, Oberst started writing self-reflective songs about friends, family and crushes, building a solid career in the underground indie-music industry. Now, as the 24-year-old flirts with mainstream success, his lyrics are taking on politics, U.S. foreign policy and social injustice.
"Choosing to write about relationships is probably one of the most immediate topics to be drawn to because it is something that everyone can easily relate to," said Oberst's longtime friend, Robb Nansel of Omaha. "But I think at some point you sort of feel like you have covered that topic to the fullest extent and you sort of decide to move on and address other issues."
Oberst's acclaimed band Bright Eyes recently played a sold-out concert in New York to help pay legal expenses of protesters arrested during the Republican National Convention.
He contributed a song to a compilation CD for nonprofit organizations such as the environmental group the Sierra Club and the Democratic voter-advocacy group Music for America.
In a statement provided byhis publicist, Oberst said he's looking forward to sharing the stage with Springsteen and R.E.M. at the Vote for Change tour.
"It is obviously amazing to get to play with such great bands, two artists I admire a lot and, more importantly, making sure that John Kerry is the next president," Oberst said.
Onstage, Oberst -- whom Rolling Stone magazine dubbed the "indie-rock Bob Dylan" -- has done more than sing to express his message. He's using the microphone to directly state what he conveys so poetically in his lyrics.
At a concert in Los Angeles last year, Oberst denounced Clear Channel as "horribly greedy" before blasting Bush as "idiotic" and "gun-toting."
At concerts, he also allows People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to pass out stickers and literature on vegetarianism and alternatives to leather.
"It's the rock stars who kids are listening to," said Marci Hansen, PETA's youth marketing manager. "They don't care what I think. They care what Conor thinks."
In a 2003 interview with PETA, Oberst said he chose a vegan lifestyle because it made him uncomfortable to "chew on flesh," adding that the meat and dairy industry are "disgusting."
"When you see the way man manipulates all the other creatures in the world, and the land, it's arrogant and sad," Oberst said in the PETA interview.
In recent months, though, Oberst has added fish to his diet. "And he's looking better because of it," said his cousin Ian McElroy of Omaha. "He has color in his face."
McElroy said the war in Iraq plays a big role in the songs on two Bright Eyes albums set for release on Jan. 25. Over the past few weeks, Oberst has been in Lincoln recording the albums.
Those close to Oberst said weaving political and social commentary into his music is partly his way of connecting to a broader audience, not just indierock kids.
"The political issues being addressed in his songs today are at the forefront of a lot of people's thoughts these days," said Nansel, label chief of internationally renowned Saddle Creek Records, which Oberst and his brother Justin founded as Lumberjack Records in 1993.
Former teachers of Oberst said they're not surprised his music is evolving.
"He was somewhat anti-establishment even back then," said theology teacher Tom Hoover, who taught Oberst at Creighton Prep High School. "He chafed against the reins of conventional religion."
Hoover said Oberst enjoyed challenging classmates and teachers to consider opposing viewpoints.
"The value of having Conor in class was he really forced us to take stock of our answers," Hoover said. "His vision was such that he wasn't afraid to see other ways of thinking. He wasn't content with the company answer."
Oberst's character, Hoover said, reflects well on his upbringing.
"His parents encouraged being involved and finding your own voice," he said.
Oberst is the youngest son of Omahans Matt and Nancy Oberst. Matt is an information services manager, Nancy an inner-city elementary school principal. The couple attend church regularly and are music lovers who enjoy attending local concerts. Conor's dad plays guitar.
Oberst's brother, Matt, a rock musician and teacher in North Carolina, said he, Conor and brother Justin grew up in a family that has "always been interested in politics."
During the first Gulf War in the early '90s, 10-year-old Conor wrote an anti-war rap.
Nate Krenkel of New York, Oberst's friend and manager, said Oberst's interest in political and social issues stems from "being witness to the destruction of the landscape, the violence in the world, the difference between wanting to know what is really happening in the world versus being happy with the glossy everything-is-great version the press and government wants us to believe."
For all the praise, Oberst takes some licks, too.
Oberst was No. 8 on the recent "Ten Most Hated Men in Rock" list by the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis alternative weekly.
Oberst made the list because he's an "over-hyped" musician with "unlistenable" music, said staff writer Mike Seely, who penned the piece.
But no matter how strong Oberst's political beliefs, he doesn't push his values on others, said his friend Stephen Pedersen, an Omaha attorney and musician.
"Conor does not sensationalize or proselytize his values," said Pedersen, lead singer of the band Criteria. "He's not the guy at the party preaching to his friends about how to think or live. That's not his style."
What is Oberst's style, Pedersen said, is being creative, progressive and helping others -- via his music -- to find meaning in, and add to the greater good of, humanity.
Oberst's words from the 1997 essay alluded to his concern for mankind: "A negative outlook on life greatly damages any potential for concern for others, which is the nature of love. We must continue to see beauty and good in the universe and cultivate it within ourselves."
Evolution of a songwriter
Conor Oberst's music has transformed from reflective, diary-page musings on relationships and heartache to politics, religion, war and social injustice: From "Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh," 2000 "I remember everything, the words we spoke on freezing South street/And all those mornings watching you get ready for school/You combed your hair inside that mirror/The one you painted blue and glued with jewelry tears/Something about those bright colors would always make you feel better/But now we speak with ruined tongues and the words we say aren't meant for anyone." From "Sing Sing Sing," 2003 "And in the face of every criminal strapped firmly to a chair/We must stare, we must stare, we must stare/We must take all of the medicines too expensive now to sell/Set fire to the preacher who is promising us hell/And in the ear of every anarchist who sleeps but doesn't dream/We must sing, we must sing, we must sing/While my mother waters plants, my father loads his gun/He says death will give us back to god just like the setting sun/He's returned to the lonesome ocean/We're gonna blend into the choir, singing static with the whole/We must memorize nine numbers and deny we have a soul/And in this endless race for property and privilege to be won/We must run, we must run, we must run/We must hole up in the bunker where the dying soldier laughs/We must stare into a crystal ball and only see the past/And in the caverns of tomorrow with just our flashlights and our love/We must plunge, we must plunge, we must plunge."
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