01.19.2012 Jeff Mangum at Brooklyn Academy of Music

What is it about Jeff Mangum that has made so many seemingly normal, middle class white people go absolute ape-shit? To the vast majority of people, Mr. Mangum, his magnum opus, or this review won’t make two licks of difference, but to a ribbon thin slice of the population, the 38 minutes and 34 seconds of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has created hysteria. In due order, I will supply a short history for the uninitiated.
In early 1998, homely, august Athens native, Jeff Mangum designs a concept album focused on Ann Frank. The mythology begins here: some say he locked himself in a closet with only a plastic gallon jug of water and a copy of the Ann Frank diary, emerging a week later with a masterpiece. Others say he disappeared into the woods of Colorado with a lethal supply of amphetamines and hallucinatory substances (and a copy of the diary) appearing out of the frontier and into the studio several weeks later to record the album in a handful of takes. The exact process is unknown, and neither will Mr. Mangum clarify. What is known, is that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has become one of the most intensely loved records to ever be produced, anywhere, ever.
Although the album did not initially sell well, within a couple years of its release, the few who originally did celebrate the album thankfully disseminated the crushing weight of Neutral Milk Hotel to their friends, who in turn to their friends, etc, etc, until it seemed the time was ripe for Mr. Mangum and his revolving door of band-mates to punch through into the mainstream. So what was the response from Mr. Mangum? He quietly withdrew from public eye and quit playing music!
The myths propagate themselves for years. Everyone said he was crazy, he’d been committed, everyone said he couldn’t handle the pressure of fame, everyone said he was dead. Thing is, no one knew anything. There was nothing to be said on the internet, and so word of mouth, the way you found out about the album anyway, was your direct source of information. The rationale alone was frustrating, how does a person compose an album of such magnitude without responding to the acclaim it generated? These tactics inspired something of indignation in fans, because, you see, there are no casual fans. There are those who’ve never heard of Neutral Milk Hotel and then there are those who have spent an appreciable amount of time obsessed.
If you wanted to find out anything, there was only one way do it. You had to make a pilgrimage down to Georgia and seek for yourself. So the years passed until, for no discernible reason at all, Mr. Mangum appears at an impromptu Occupy concert. But that’s not all, after a decade of pure unbroken silence, he declares he’s going to start touring again.
You can only imagine the response. Tickets sell out in record time, like 12 minutes record time, and this humble reporter had to charm, harass, and ultimately coerce venue reps in three different cities to finally score tickets at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for an add on show in response to over-whelming demand. (And an inside scoop to those of you who are despairing over not being able to get tickets in your city, I imagine these add on shows will be par for the course, so keep your ears to the ground.)
BAM is a venue not to be taken lightly. It’s essentially an opera house, and demands the respect of elevated art. In the Louvre I once made the mistake of physically touching a three thousand year old fresco and received the harshest open faced, spittle flying scream from a curator. I experienced something similar at BAM trying to exit the will-call line in the wrong direction. From there I got lost in the museum quality architecture of the ante room. Speaking with other concert goers I met a wonderful couple who had flown from Australia expressly for the show, and a trio of Bohemian artists from Fond-de-Lac Wisconsin who had hitch-hiked in winter just to get there.
As you may now grasp the gravity of the event, I feel no shame in telling you I don’t go to whorehouses for the piano playing, or a Mangum show for the opening act. Somebody played, I’m not sure who, but it isn’t important and I will waste no time covering it.
When I finally did enter the theatre, it felt like something out of a dream. It contained arched balconies, terra cotta minutia, and a dripping opulence as if Gaudi had designed the interior to an onion domed Russian Orthodox Church. The pin point acoustics allowed you to over-hear the very whispers of the balcony seats, and as the lights dimmed a portly poet appeared onstage to beg for a place to spend the night before reading a poem to introduce Mr. Mangum.
He enters stage left to a standing ovation. The excitement becomes so thick it could be cut from the air as he sits down on a simple wooden chair flanked by several guitars. He strikes a single strum and the audience can no longer contain themselves, they applaud to shake the foundation as Mr. Mangum enters quixotically, “Two Headed Boy, part II,” the last song of the album, a track which tellingly ends with the scratch of a similar chair being pushed back, and the musician walking out of the room, leaving us to the sound of a door closing.
There was a split in the audience, there was those who didn’t want to ruin the experience and so sat silently, almost hypnotically through the song, and then there were those like me who sang every goddamn word right back at Mr. Mangum as if it were a duet.
In the silence between songs I overheard someone ask, “He’s not going to leave is he?” But that question was answered without word or introduction when he careened head-long into “Holland 1945,” perhaps the most violent and striking, if not the most intense of his works. Nonsense lyrics are nonsense lyrics, but Jeff Mangum has the unique ability to melt the world around his, something akin to a burning cube of sugar dropped into a tippler of Absinthe when he sings,
“The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes
But then they buried her alive
One evening 1945
With just her sister at her side
And only weeks before the guns
All came and rained on everyone
Now she’s a little boy in Spain
Playing pianos filled with flames
On empty rings around the sun
All sing to say my dream has come”
And he was as ugly as I ever imagined him to be, dressed in Joe Everyman clothes, Andy Cap cap, a face hidden behind stringy dark hair, nervous compulsive foot taping, his sleeves rolled up to better attack the droning, predictable down strum over which he built himself an empire. The audience, we couldn’t help but love it, love to have seen it, to sink into a moment that affirmed all those years we wasted on an almost religious conviction to listening to Aeroplane Over the Sea. And when he arrived at “Oh Comely,” accompanied by a saw player and a bronze cast of horn character, French and trumpet, he encouraged us to sing along, openly calling for a chorus over which to carry this psychedelic tragedy,
“Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies,
While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park.
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums,
The music and medicine you needed for comforting.
So make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving,
And pluck all your silly strings, bend all your notes for me.
Soft silly music is meaningful magical,
The movements were beautiful, all in your ovaries.
All of them milking with green fleshy flowers,
While powerful pistons were sugary sweet machines.
Smelling of semen all under the garden
Was all you were needing when you still believed in me.”
A young man several rows down from me began weeping openly during the crescendo, and when the song tapered off into Magnum’s familiar self-conscious off pitch cackle, the audience couldn’t bear but jump from their seats in magnanimous applause.
When they had calmed Mangum worked his way through most of Aeroplane, touching on the better known tracks from “On Avery Island.” In typical fashion Mr. Mangum finished his set with “Two Headed Boy part I.” The twisting of parallels here is something that needs to be addressed, because he opened the show with the second portion, in fact the last song on the album, and then closed the show with the first portion of the song. Like all good mysteries, there are no answers here, just a whole lot of questions, and I think at the end of the day it was just another attempt by Jeff Mangum to shade in a little more the feverish hallucination that is his music.
The applause dies, and he pushes the chair out and walks off the stage, but it contained none of the finality of the album. Everyone knew there was a song left unsung, the title track, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” And so as the applause built, a stadium like clamor for an encore, he reappeared smiling sheepishly and delivered. Further comment about crowd reaction is unnecessary.
Writing to you at the distance of a day and several hundred miles from the show, I can’t help but feel a twinge of shame at how silly it all seems, the lengths we all went, Jeff Mangum and his refusal to play along to the demi-god musician status, the couple who literally crossed oceans for forty minutes of music, the young man weeping in public to some song that was likely written when he was in grade school about a young woman none of us will ever know who herself has been dead for seventy years… It’s too much, somewhere hidden deep within me I know it doesn’t mean anything and it makes me feel a little ashamed of myself, for buying in, for allowing myself to be seduced, but in the same moment I can’t help but chuckle to myself and think, “Fuck you, I sang a duet with Jeff Mangum!”
MP3: Neutral Milk Hotel “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”