Magnum Opus

the idea of jeff mangum

On the Saturday of Halloween weekend, with the first hints of an impending snowstorm cooling the air, a close friend and I boarded the train south to New York City. From the time of our arrival at Penn Station until long after dark, we huddled inside our coats, moving from restaurant to coffee shop as it sleeted around us.

Around seven that evening we reached our destination—the Town Hall, a massive concert venue in the center of the city. A line had already formed outside. It was still an hour until the doors opened, and by that point the two of us had gotten about as cold as humanly possible, but neither we nor the others in line felt it. We were going to see Jeff.

None had actually met him. But to almost every one who came in from the cold to the Town Hall that night, Jeff Mangum, the hermitic frontman of Neutral Milk Hotel, was just “Jeff.” The room seemed filled not with the usual pre-show anticipation, but with the excitement that comes with seeing an old friend for the first time in years. So the atmosphere in the room was not one whose description fits into words when he ambled onstage. I had read stories of people bursting into tears the previous year, at his first public performance in a decade, but until I saw him myself I didn’t fully understand why.

Aside from his guitar and his beautiful, painful voice, there was absolute silence in the hall; 500 people were struggling to process the fact that this man, with whom each had built an intensely intimate and personal bond, was standing, or rather sitting, with them. By the middle of the set, every word Jeff sang seemed to pulse in the air a moment longer than it should have, as though 500 people were quietly moving their lips in sync with his. Or maybe it was just the reverb from the microphone.

The story of Jeff Mangum’s appearance and disappearance is as important as his music. In some groups it has picked up the gravity of a creation myth. Based in Athens, Georgia, during the mid- to late-90s, Neutral Milk Hotel produced a sound that at every level married the gorgeous and the bizarre. Arguably the most important moment for Neutral Milk Hotel was the release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an ode to the life and death of Anne Frank. Aeroplane’s lyrics ache both with the tragedy of death and with the joy of transcending the mortal world, and contain the pieces most strongly associated with the band. On top of manic horn sections, oversaturated guitar distortion and the whine of the singing saw, Jeff’s voice wails out surreal images that are horrifying in their beauty—in the climax of the eight-minute song “Oh Comely,” a pair of Siamese twins lie freezing to death in the wilderness. One consoles the other, saying, “Far away from here, there is sun and spring and green forever/but now we move to feel for ourselves inside some stranger’s stomach/place your body here/let your skin begin to blend itself with mine.”

With Aeroplane’s release, Neutral Milk Hotel’s work began to gain recognition. But success was not all good for the band. Media attention proved stressful for Mangum, who became increasingly withdrawn. As the band’s reputation improved, Jeff’s mental state worsened. He became disillusioned, paranoid, and physically infirm, at one point turning down a potentially career-making shot to open for R.E.M. at a show in Athens. Things deteriorated until, after a 1998 show in London promoting Aeroplane’s release, Jeff walked off the stage and seemingly off the face of the earth.

But his influence didn’t follow. Though it wasn’t recognized for years afterward, Neutral Milk Hotel had a tremendous and almost immediate impact. The band’s effect on the music industry is undeniable: Neutral Milk Hotel redefined “cool,” saving it from the put-on moodiness of the grunge era and reminding audiences of the power of the sincere. It revitalized the DIY ethic of the golden age of punk with shows that were so chaotic, unprofessional, and fundamentally genuine they made more put-together bands look ridiculous by comparison. And it played no small part in the creation of the modern indie scene—it catapulted Merge Records, the label behind Arcade Fire and Dinosaur, Jr., to national acclaim, proving definitively that the Universals and Sonys of the world did not have the last say in music.

And all of these changes happened in Mangum’s absence. For the better part of a decade, nothing was seen or heard from the frontman. He released no new music, took no interview requests, and played no shows as part of Neutral Milk Hotel. But his absence from the music scene did not blunt his impact on it. Aeroplane began to pick up the highest of accolades left and right, and instead of evaporating, Neutral Milk Hotel’s fan base became a community.

It was from this community that the Town Hall gathered its audience the night of the concert. At this show as with all the others, there was no predominant age or gender demographic. There were those who were far too young to have been aware of Neutral Milk Hotel before its hiatus and those who were old enough to have been Jeff’s father. It wasn’t even a desire to experience Aeroplane live that drew them—for these shows, the songs had been pared down to nothing but Mangum’s voice and a guitar.

There is a story about the origin of the bizarrely titled song “Pree Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye,” the last song on Neutral Milk Hotel’s first album. Reportedly, Mangum ran up to his band mates one morning after having had a particularly vivid dream and declared that he wanted to write a song like that dream felt. The people at the show were there for the same reason Mangum wrote “Pree Sisters.” They wanted not just to listen to the music, but to remember what made those songs resonate for them. They came not for the performance but for the shared experience, audience member with audience member and fan with idol.

This is the impact that keeps listeners coming back, that generated two consecutive sold-out tours, and that packed 500 people into a theater during a freak snowstorm in New York. It is also why fans rushed to order a box set of released and previously unreleased Neutral Milk Hotel songs though most were aware that every song in it had been available online for years. Interest in Jeff Mangum has transcended his music, and has even transcended his story—love for Neutral Milk Hotel is no longer about the music itself, but about each personal memory of what the music made each fan feel.

Jeff’s story is a consolation to the restless soul. It’s a story of exploration and salvation, one where not all happy stories have a happy ending or sad stories a sad one. Aeroplane is a tale of pain so unspeakable it must be sung, but ultimately it is one of rebirth and immortality, whatever that immortality implies. It is a complex journey of love and suffering and struggle and hope, and those are four words the people drawn to the music know by heart. It reminds them they’re not alone. Like the story of Anne Frank that permeates Aeroplane, the story of Neutral Milk Hotel reminds listeners that though something that is loved may be gone, its death has made it immortal.