|Neutral Milk Hotel|
You cannot make fun of this. It makes fun of itself.
The fundamental mystery of Jeff Mangum himself, both of what kind of guy he must’ve been to make the album and where he’s gone in the 15 or so years since, has never been separate from my identification with and custodianship of his artifact.
Over the years, I’ve conjured him as both an ever-present astral guide and a total nonentity, some archaic force that was never a real person. He is not, simply put, someone I thought I’d ever see live. Indeed, he’s someone I’d understood precisely in terms of never seeing live, of existing only in sound, as much so as Nick Drake, if not for quite the same reasons.
So seeing him at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, surrounded by a ragtag cohort of devoted sidemen and -women, ranging in age from what looked like 16 to about 75, amounted to the reverse of the “Santa isn’t real” trauma. It was beyond weird; it was grotesque to see this man embodied in a room with all of us, subject to the same conditions we were. I imagined him eating dinner and taking a shit backstage, or someone shooting him or a light falling on his head.
He came out in a baggy multicolor sweater, green military cap and long grey hair and beard, wearing the aura of his absence and sudden reappearance well, somewhere between a sage and a lunatic. When he launched into “Two-Headed Boy,” with no opening remarks, thousands of rapt voices sang along, announcing the fruition of some hipster birthright. I doubt there was anyone in that crowd – a magnified version of the crowd dancing on the table at those college parties – who didn’t know every song by heart. Our voices became both a celebratory chant and a sad wail, the sound of us freeing a ghost we’d cherished all through our teens and twenties.
As one song followed another, each as masterfully performed as the last and no piece of the canon left out, the concert became the ritual of us ceding back to Jeff what we’d allowed ourselves to believe was ours. I left feeling lightened, like part of my personality was gone, and I wondered how much was left.