MBV Music
May 7th, 2010 4:00pm

Jeff Mangum Did a Very Cool Thing

Jeff Mangum at the Chris Knox BenefitYvynyl

The consensus among my friends was that we could expect two or three songs tops: Tall Dwarfs’ “Sign the Dotted Line,” maybe another cover, maaaaaaybe “Engine” or another Neutral Milk Hotel b-side. So when Jeff Mangum took the stage at last night’s benefit for Chris Knox and began strumming the chords to “Oh, Comely,” there was an understandable moment of confusion: is this really happening? Is he playing another song that just happens to open with that ringing, funereal open E chord? Or could it be….

And, sure enough, it was – Jeff Mangum playing a set list that would look right at home among the late-’90s Neutral Milk Hotel bootlegs I pored over as a teenager. After all the mystery and speculation, Jeff Mangum simply did a very cool thing – he graciously and beautifully performed five of his most-loved songs.

So why did Mangum, who has repeatedly turned down big-money bookings and declined to even discuss In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in recent years, suddenly decide to grace us with five proper Neutral Milk Hotel songs?

The answer, I think, lies in a comment Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan made later in the evening. To paraphrase, Kaplan spoke about the comfort of knowing that Chris Knox is not a household name – that his music is so potentially life-altering, but most people you ask have never heard of him. That feeling is doubtless familiar to anyone who discovered Neutral Milk Hotel in the late ’90s – or anyone who discovered him last night, for that matter.

To put it another way, Chris Knox is Jeff Mangum’s Jeff Mangum.

These days, we take for granted that there’s a whole world out there of people making bizarre music – bedroom troubadours, lo-fi tweakers, freak folkers and the like. We have the luxury of hand-picking the bizarre music that speaks to us most directly, and of instantly accessing that music in the format Improbably – and maybe as a testament to just how unique and powerful Mangum’s music is – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has retained its intimacy, its sense of personal significance and sanctity.most convenient to us. We can share it with our friends, we can broadcast it online – we can even find a totally serviceable and socially acceptable compromise between the music we do like and the music we should like.

But for the ’90s indie rockers many people my age grew up idolizing, this wasn’t always the case. Imagine being handed a tape by Chris Knox’s band Tall Dwarfs and understanding for the first time not only that this kind of weird, shambling homespun music exists – but that there are other people out there who might actually want to listen to it. The influence of Tall Dwarfs is all over the earliest Neutral Milk Hotel tapes – there are even some moments of Knox-ian humor thrown in for good measure (see the latter verses of “My Dream Girl Don’t Exist,” from the Invent Yourself a Shortcake tape). This is the music that emboldened a young Jeff Mangum to set out on the path that would lead him to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

Waiting on line outside LPR last night, I was struck by the number of gawkish, awkward teenagers who very well could have been me 10 years ago. Sure, “indie rock is the new mainstream” or whatever, but I would be shocked if most of today’s 15-to-18-year olds really know or care who Jeff Mangum is. Improbably – and maybe as a testament to just how unique and powerful Mangum’s music is – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has retained its intimacy, its sense of personal significance and sanctity. I still get a little uncomfortable when Aeroplane comes on at a coffee shop or bar, the same way I used to get uncomfortable when somebody would say the name of the girl I had a crush on in high school.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about last night’s show was watching these personal reactions unfold in unison. The blurry auditory halo emanating from the crowd during “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” The blurry auditory halo emanating from the crowd during “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was not that of a rousing, social sing-along… It was the sound of a hundred or so people singing to themselves…was not that of a rousing, social sing-along, nor was it tainted by I-know-the-words-better-than-you fanboy exhibitionism. It was the sound of a hundred or so people singing to themselves, the way you sing along with your favorite song when you’re alone. For a moment, I was annoyed that any sound was competing with that of Mangum’s voice, but if there was ever a case to be made for the sing-along as involuntary response, it presented itself last night. (In the grainy, ill-gotten video that has surfaced, last night’s crowd merely comes off as loud and annoying — one of many reasons why the “no photos or video” rule was a good idea and probably should have been heeded.)

Unlikely as last night’s performance was in theory, the experience itself was uncannily familiar. Yes, the sight of Mangum performing in the flesh was new to me, but the sound of his voice was anything but. By taking his persona out of the equation for the last ten years, Mangum has given us the chance to internalize his voice, to make it a part of ourselves. We can’t (or, at least, couldn’t) scour the internet for the latest camera phone pictures of Mangum performing, we can’t check Pitchfork or Stereogum for an EXCLUSIVE MP3 from the new Neutral Milk Hotel album, we can’t stand 100 feet from the stage at Terminal 5 clutching a $10 whiskey sour and muttering “eh, he was better last time I saw him.” As our consumption of music grows more fraught and superficial, Mangum has ensured that his records remain special to those who know and love them.

Neutral Milk Hotel is a gift that Jeff Mangum gave to us. It is also, in a sense, a gift that Chris Knox gave to Jeff Mangum. Last night, Mangum chose to share this gift in Knox’s honor. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute.

Subscribe to comments for this post20 Responses.
  1. Andy Weissman says:

    Thank you Matt.

    I was there. This captures it perfectly.

  2. Billy Side says:

    i love this quote, “These days, we take for granted that there’s a whole world out there of people making bizarre music – bedroom troubadours, lo-fi tweakers, freak folkers and the like. We have the luxury of hand-picking the bizarre music that speaks to us most directly”

    Especially since it’s on MBV a hyped blog that features Pitchfork type indie bands. Nothing obscure or “bizarre” as you put it is ever on this blog.

  3. albie cocoa says:

    hey, awesome and intelligent piece of writing. something you don’t see much anymore trying to keep up with modern music. way to go. well, here’s hoping the 700 people at that club last night weren’t the last ones on the planet to ever get to hear old man mangum sing a few songs.

  4. John says:

    I’ve been impulsively sifting through accounts of this show for much of the today, and this is by far the best one I’ve come across.

    Thanks.

  5. Zack Durand says:

    So perfect. Still can’t believe this happened.

  6. Mark says:

    So right on, man. Every word. Thank you.

  7. ostrakos says:

    Did those kids outside or inside really care though? Jeff has become a Holy Grail, his reputation precedes him by far and I’m sure that most there where more interested in being able to say they saw him. They’ve got bragging rights and that’s probably all they really care about. There was enough buzz about him turning up at Merge XX last summer for me to know that’s true, not to mention his appearance at the Olivia Tremor Control reunion.

    And no, I’m not jealous I didn’t get to go. I was lucky enough to catch NMH twice back in the 90s and that’s good enough to last my life.

  8. klk says:

    Just wanted to chime in and agree with everyone else – this is a great bit of writing, Matt.

    Oh, and Jeff Mangum did *not* perform at XX Merge last summer. I don’t even recall him being in attendance, but I could be wrong. He was definitely around for the E6 holiday surprise tour, though! Last night takes the cake for sure.

  9. PACrivellaro says:

    “I still get a little uncomfortable when Aeroplane comes on at a coffee shop or bar, the same way I used to get uncomfortable when somebody would say the name of the girl I had a crush on in high school.”

    How obnoxiously true. A well written article. I hope most of the people who managed to go there appreciated it as much as you did.

  10. Louis says:

    I like the points you bring up in this piece, particularly about modern music having become disposable.. I can’t think of any music since that’s had the “personal significance or sanctity” that NMH has for me, and I wonder why that is. Is it because such music doesn’t get made anymore? I doubt it. Is it that I’m too old for music to have that quality of personal revelation and meaning? I don’t think so, certainly I can still feel that every time I hear Jeff Mangum’s voice (to the point that I’m similarly uncomfortable hearing it in public).

    I wonder how NMH would be received if it were a new band appearing today. Would it be a flavor of the week, instantly unmysterious, with a facebook and a myspace and easily forgotten? Somehow I doubt that either. But the fact that the band appeared both after the Internet became mainstream but before Facebook I think is significant. I searched for them endlessly in the late 90s early 00s like you did, getting just enough information to keep me obsessed but never so much that it felt contained or understood. I wonder if we’ll ever see that kind of thing again.

  11. kevin says:

    ostrakos-

    That’s a far flung kind of statement there. First of all, it’s a benefit show, so regardless of audience intent, I think it’s great that monies went toward a cause, so to speak.

    Jeff has become a holy grail, but perhaps it’s the absolutely tear-jerking catharsis of “Oh Comely” that people went to hear. Maybe the actual music that Mangum produced is what brought the kids out. Call me weird. I’d stand in line for hours to catch that show and not a single ounce of it has to do with bragging rights. Bragging rights? During “Two-Headed Boy” I’d curl up in a little ball all by myself in the venue and enjoy the connection and movement that song has given me throughout the years.

    I don’t think it matters when folks caught onto Aeroplane, and that’s the inherent beauty. I can guarantee you that if a person went to that show for bragging rights, then they don’t fully understand what they were seeing last night. I can’t believe for a second that there were that many of those kinds of people in the audience.

    Your logic is way flawed and misguided, my friend.

  12. Henry Coachella says:

    This single post makes this the only site (or collection of sites) worth my time on the Internet. Thank you.

  13. Languishing Eel says:

    If you don’t like it, don’t read it and go away.

    Thanks for the article, please ignore idiots.

  14. Russell Brown says:

    Matt, Jeff Mangum never had the impact on my life that he’s had on yours, but I’ve known Chris Knox for nearly 30 years, and I completely understand what you’re saying.

    This is a beautiful piece of writing. Thanks.

  15. Logan says:

    So well said. The moment was incredible.

    My only disagreement was that you had to get cynical about the teenagers. It counters your argument about the purity of the show. Plus I didn’t see any teenagers there. And while ID checks aren’t always perfect they did card on the way in.

  16. Tracklist: Welcome to Forever Young | Crib Notes » Atlanta Music Blog says:

    [...] >> Jeff Mangum Did a Very Cool Thing [...]

  17. Chris Knox, Jeff Magnum, and Can Music Heal Us? says:

    [...] a potential Neutral Milk reunion. It was about Knox, and as Matt LeMay pointed out so eloquently on MBV, that’s why Magnum was there, and why this article has to be about Chris [...]

  18. myhearpod.com says:

    Incluso a mi retrógrada mente le suena mal lo de poner al alumno cara a la pared, u obligarle a copiar cien veces una frase, pero, ¿cual sería la alternativa del agrado del Sr. Ministro y de nuestros cofrades de babor?. Podríamos aceptar, por ejemplo, como castigo, que se pusiera a la alumna durante dos recreos a repartir folletos proabortistas en el patio del colegio. O asistir a dos sesiones extra del montaje masturbatorio de la Junta de Extremadura.

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