May 7th, 2010 4:00pm
Jeff Mangum Did a Very Cool Thing
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.