Checking Back in with Neutral Milk Hotel: Jeff Mangum at the Town Hall
No one spoke loudly, no one really drank, and though it was Halloween, no one was in costume. It was church, and it made me nervous.
I didn't fly across the country to write a concert review. If I'm honest, I was looking for what I'm always looking for: the transcendent experience. And I wasn't alone. I probably travelled further than most, but it seemed everyone was on a pilgrimage that night. The oracle had come down from the misty mountain and we were there to sit at his knee. No one spoke loudly, no one really drank, and though it was Halloween, no one was in costume. It was church, and it made me nervous.
If you knew the backstory -- the 1998 masterpiece, the tour that followed, the breakdown, the monastery, the alleged reclusiveness--then you suspected that it was just this reverent attitude that drove him away in the first place. Still, I was as quiet as anyone else, sitting in the back row orchestra, waiting.
Opening with "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2" and "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" -- two of his most gut-twisting and adored songs -- you could see that he aimed to dim the fever in our eyes, as if to say, "Okay, now that we have those out of the way, let's just have a rock show, shall we?"
During one of the early songs, two women leaning against the back wall 20 feet from me harmonized with a chorus, not mimicking it, but naturally accompanying it. Their addition was very soft and ended even more quickly than it began, like a subconscious slip caught moments too late. A half dozen people around me snapped their necks in the direction of this offense and let fly their most wounding hipster glares.
Before the show, however, someone had told me that those dozen folks in the back corner may have been Elephant 6 friends from Athens. I looked more closely at the two women and thought that the one may have been his girlfriend from back then, that she may have just accidentally sung aloud the part that she had sung on the record or on every night of that '98 tour. How winsome, how sweet. And as my attention wandered back stageward, I felt the tangible awe that sometimes manifests at reunion shows for artists I was too young to see the first time around, like standing 50 feet from the Pixies or Pavement and having that instant moment of realization: Oh my god, YOU (the human up there, casually bantering) actually WROTE these songs. It's a giddy, vertiginous experience.
After a few songs he asked us to sing along, and though we wanted to please him, our selfishness held fast--we murmured the first verse tentatively and then faded out altogether. We came to hear him, not ourselves. A couple songs later he repeated his request, saying, I used to just sing these songs to my friends, so, you know... A guy in front of me yelled, "We're your friends!" It was a wholesome thing to shout, obviously coming from a warm place, but even so it hung hollow in the air, an unwelcome reminder of the true distances dividing that room.
A gap, as it turned out, that I could not bridge. I was never really there in the moment because I kept drifting off into other ones. He would start strumming a song and I would think, "Oh this one, how nice, I love this one." Then I would recall that hike in college, some good friends and some strangers they had vouched for, walking up a mountain when the group slipped into an a cappella "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea". It was 2001, he was not yet a cult figure, and still all nine of us knew every word. Who were these people? I wondered. They know this music, these words? A year later one of them became a good friend and as we sat in that quiet bar and played "Communist Daughter" on the jukebox I would complain about how I never quite understood the song or the 8-minute "Oh Comely" that followed. "Semen stains the mountaintops? That's nonsense," I said. "What? No!" she protested. "It's beautiful, like wanting the whole world to participate in your sex. It's like the mountains and the whole earth can be part of it, like witnessing or somehow contributing, enlarging it--it's amazing!"
Then he would start strumming a new song and I would think, "Oh this one, how nice, I love this one." And then I would recall that walk through Sacre Coeur, listening to the album on headphones, and the guard who told me in English to take them off. Mais non, monsieur…this is my religion. Which is a crazy thing to say, let alone think, but my conversion had been instantaneous: Junior year of high school in Ohio, picking up some free weekly mag somewhere and chancing on some writer's comically long Best of '98 list, descriptions of maybe 100 albums organized by genre, scanning it for any names I recognized, when a particularly foreign one stopped me short, and the first sentence was enough: "If I had to pick just one album from the entire list, this would be it." I called the little record shop that took special orders and asked them to get it for me. A few days later I unwrapped the CD in the store lot and snapped it into the Discman that was connected to a cassette adapter in my pickup truck. Those first warm chords of "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1" and I think I was shivering before the initial words were even sung.
He closed the show with "Engine", a fragile B-side. It was lovely. But not transcendent. What I missed most, it seems, was the band, the mad, exuberant cacophony that they once surrounded him with, their intimations of joy. I was jealous of the old accounts, the people who saw that original tour and later anointed them best live band ever. Still, it felt right to be in the audience and see him unbroken, to make my offering and say thank you for creating my favorite recording in the history of sound.