“Now I’m Just Turning Tricks….”

conor oberstI have been a fan of Bright Eyes, and of their lead singer/songwriter Conor Oberst, for a little over a decade. Despite his being a bit off his game when I saw the band live (drunk), and despite his not having the best voice out there (understatement), his powers with a pen are admirable to say the least. And as a writer myself, I’m a sucker for a good turn of phrase.

One of my favorite Bright Eyes songs is “Soul Singer in a Session Band” (see the link below). I know, I know: The title is a bit clumsy. But it paints an evocative picture, one of a vocalist-for-hire who has so much more emotional depth to offer than the standard fare at the weddings and other gigs he plays: “I was a hopeless romantic, but now I’m just turning tricks.”

The song opens with the chorus:

See the soul-singer in a session band,

Shredded to ribbons beneath the microphone stand;

Felt the quickness of pity, like a flash in the pan,

For the soul-singer in a session band.

(A later chorus changes the last two lines to “Saw the conflict of interest, slipping cash in the hand of the soul singer in a session band.”)

There’s something tragic about an artist (and perhaps quote-unquote is appropriate here) who utterly spends himself for nothing, for an inglorious purpose. There’s something embarrassing and foolish about being emotionally “shredded to ribbons” for what is, at the end of the day, a mere wage. Such a man is in danger and in need of saving:

Just like the soul singer in a session band
Wailed like an infant atop a white baby grand;
We’ll need every sand bag, and every man
To save the soul singer in the session band.

The longer he spends himself emotionally but continues to be mere background noise for those he is supposed to be entertaining, the more destructive and numb he becomes:

His room is on fire since he painted it red,
There’s a stranger’s silk sequins at the foot of the bed;
He’s been to weddings and funerals, but he still never wept;
Now sorrow is pleasure, when you want it instead.

What is most arresting is that in the final verse, Oberst switches from the third person to the first:

Headlights or taillights, it’s a flip of a coin,
I’ve been coming and going since the day I was born;
And I followed the breadcrumbs but I never got home,
I grew old in an instant, now I’m all on my own.

It’s as if the line between the proverbial singer and the real one is being blurred. Does Oberst lament seeing his eventual self in that pathetic portrait of the singer-whore whose life has been spent in the meandering and fruitless pursuit of artistic meaning? Another way to ask it is, Is life really all about the journey as opposed to the destination?

 For my part, I would have answered in the affirmative at one point, but now I’m not so sure. As I get older I find it increasingly difficult to view my own failures with nonchalance, or a shrug, or appreciation at having swung despite missing. Perhaps it’s better to retreat, to play it safe, to self-preserve if for no other reason than that you’ll be less likely to be disappointed in the end?

In a word, maybe soul-singers should just sing in the shower, but keep quiet elsewhere?



  1. ChristianMarch 11, 2015

    Wouldn’t attempting to avoid moments of disappointment or failure simply for fear of not succeeding take you on a detour away from the moments of your life where you’re most likely to grow and mature?

  2. JasonMarch 11, 2015

    Probably. But growth is overrated. . . .

  3. ChristianMarch 11, 2015

    Ha! Fair enough.

  4. JasonMarch 11, 2015

    (I’ll offer a more serious reply later, I’m running out the door for a job interview.)

  5. HeatherMarch 11, 2015

    Maybe I am missing something, but isn’t it our responsibility to find a way to survive (make money) AND also find fulfillment. Not that the two must be mutually exclusive, but they can’t always be derived from the same act.

  6. JasonMarch 11, 2015


    I agree that growth is important, and that often it comes through disappointment. No question. But at the same time not all disappointment is created equal. So while disappointment in one area could be welcome fuel for personal growth, there are other areas where personal growth just isn’t worth it. To me, anyway. Just some off-the-cuff thoughts.

  7. JasonMarch 11, 2015


    Maybe I am missing something, but isn’t it our responsibility to find a way to survive (make money) AND also find fulfillment. Not that the two must be mutually exclusive, but they can’t always be derived from the same act.

    I would suggest that there’s a difference between, say, an athlete doing a Diet Coke commercial and a musician doing one. The former is a guy who plays a game, and cashing in on his ability to run fast is hardly to be frowned upon. But in the case of a musician, using his art to sell a soft drink is much more questionable.

    Unless, of course, art is no different from anything else, in which case it can be sold like any other commodity.

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