The first CD I played in my car the day I got my license was Desaparecidos’ “Read Music/Speak Spanish.”
Finally having earned freedom, there was nothing I wanted to listen to more than the punk band’s 2002 album. Fronted by Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame, the band was primarily active from 2001-02, recording the album in a single week. The name, while a mouthful, means “disappeared ones” – a reference to the thousands of leftists that were captured by the South American military governments during the Dirty War in Argentina.
As evident in the band’s name, Desaparecidos is an incredibly political band, which is the reason I attached myself to it from the time I got the record at age 14. While other punk bands were singing about girls, beer, girls, weed and girls, I thought – and still think – a band with lyrics regarding financial planning and current events was awesome.
During the pinnacle of my “I hate my hometown” phase, I felt the album, which had themes of commercial development, could have been written about my hometown of Phillipsburg, N.J. To me, the Sonic that was built across the street from, and eventually shut down, my favorite family-owned ice cream shop was exactly what Oberst was screaming about in “Greater Omaha,” a song criticizing his own hometown’s developers.
Aside from a performance at The Concert for Equality in Omaha in 2010, the band was inactive since its first album. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to see the band perform live. So, when news that the band would play at Union Transfer to promote its new music was announced, I had a very justified fan girl freak out.
My older brother, Dan, attended the Feb. 23 show with me. Not only was it cool to see a 27-year-old go shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of teenage punks, it was also a form of sibling bonding like no other. We’d protect one another from rogue members of the audience, fight to stay together and offer each another a hand if we were close to falling from the crowd’s sway.
While special, the night wasn’t without the usual teasing remarks from my brother. When I mentioned that I felt lightheaded from the anticipation of seeing Oberst and company, he accused me of being “borderline retarded.” When I expressed nervousness for seeing Oberst’s new haircut in person that I disapproved of, he deemed me as “marginally obsessed.” And maybe he was right – this was my fifth time seeing Oberst, my fourth time in the past year. But who’s counting?[blockquote]Although I am no rookie to seeing him live, Oberst had a very different air about him from the moment he took the stage.[/blockquote]
Although I was no rookie to seeing him live, Oberst had a very different air about him from the moment he took the stage. His U.S. Army shirt, patched jeans and bandana tied around his knee were a sharp contrast to the sleek suit he wore when I last saw him at The Kimmel Center. The differences didn’t stop at attire – Oberst, who rarely says more than a sentence or two between songs, went on a handful of politically-influenced rants during the course of the night.
“Shut the f— up. I’m saying something important,” Oberst demanded of the crowd as he was trying to spread the word of Army Intel Analyst PFC Bradley Manning. Manning faces life in prison for attempting to spread the word of war crimes by allegedly sharing a video of a U.S. helicopter attack that killed 11 civilians and wounded two children in Baghdad, Iraq, through WikiLeaks. Volunteers handed out informational flyers about the movement to free Manning at the performance.
“He was trying to do the right thing and spread information,” Oberst said. Oberst then turned the conversation to the Internet.
“I’m not good with computers, but if you know how, hack into the government and Bank of America,” Oberst said, after saying what was supposed to be the “great democratizer” only helped large corporations ruin our lives “more efficiently.” I immediately turned to my brother, whose mouth was agape in disbelief. Did one of our favorite musicians just encourage a crowd of a few hundred to illegally access government information? If that’s not punk, I don’t know what is.
Political rants aside, the performance itself was high energy, inspiring and dare I say better than the recordings. It seemed like I never had a chance to catch my breath, and everyone around me was screaming the lyrics the same way I was – like we never expected to be able to do it at a live show. I recall a 30-something rocking out next to my brother, and the look on his face just seemed like he really got what Oberst was singing about in “Hole in One,” a song about selling out for a bigger paycheck and the American Dream of having a huge house and lots of money. If these are issues everyone relates to, why aren’t more bands making music about them?
Other than fulfilling a fantasy, seeing Desaparecidos live made me realize that “Read Music/Speak Spanish” wasn’t just a themed album or some early-20s angst that Oberst and his friends needed to get out – the members really believe in the issues their songs tackle. Or, at least, they are putting on a damn good front.
Jenelle Janci can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.