Monday, January 14, 2013

Nurse the Hate: Jeff Mangum in Cleveland

Last Friday night I went to see Jeff Mangum.  For those of you that don’t know who this admittedly obscure recording artist is, he was the driving force in the band Neutral Milk Hotel.  Even the term “band” isn’t really right, as this was part of the Elephant 6 collective.  “Collective” is a fancy term for a bunch of people with similar music tastes that hung out together making music in shitty college houses.  When I hear “collective”, I usually think of a bunch of thinly talented people trying to legitimize each others’ flimsy artistic endeavors, but in this case there were some really talented people doing some pretty great things.

So these folks are all making records and getting lumped in together.  They are all pretty cool records with a nod to the Beatles 1965-1968 period, which means they are all pretty accessible for “indie” records.  However, these are all still indie records that had a limited audience of record store clerks, clove smoking college students, girls with blocky glasses, and older record collector guys.  Neutral Milk Hotel had put out a record called “On Avery Island” that had its moments but for the most part filled the profile of past Elephant 6 records.  Then along came “On The Aeroplane Over The Sea”… 

“On The Aeroplane Over The Sea” is without question a major artistic triumph and a great record.  I believe that this is probably one of the most significant records over the last three decades.  It is memorable upon first listen but offers greater depth on each subsequent listen.  Like all great art, it is multi faceted and leaves you unable to totally grasp it.  It is like a powerful dream that leaves you thinking for hours afterward, the raw emotion practically oozing out of it.  There are so many ideas all executed perfectly it is really staggering.  It is a series of songs that stand alone powerfully but are all part of a greater sum, flowing seamlessly into each other.  It really is astounding. 

I was late to the party on this record.  I never saw any of these guys play, although I did go to a house party with some of them when we played Athens a million years ago.  I couldn't tell you who though.  They were just some indie rock guys like us that I assumed had no real chance at mainstream success either.  The record was released in 1998.  There was a short tour.  Moderate fame and press notice started to hum and buzz.  Then Mangum pulled the plug and dropped out of sight.  It is the indie rock version of JD Salinger.  I think of “On The Aeroplane Over The Sea” as something similar to a Van Gogh painting.  Imagine Van Gogh painting “Starry Night” and then saying “I think I’m done painting now”.   What?  What do you mean you are done painting?  How do you walk away from that much natural ability and God given talent?

Mangum avoids interviews.  There has never been a real explanation for his decision to stop making music publicly.  It is hard to get a handle on.  People speculate on mental issues, stage fright, writer’s block, and other wild theories.  Frankly, it is a hell of an album to follow up on.  I wouldn’t want to be compared to that for the rest of my life.  Maybe it was a burst of creativity he knew he could never equal again.  Maybe he just lost interest.  I don’t think anyone has a clue except those closest to him.  It appeared that Jeff Mangum would be one of those interesting little footnotes in rock music, someone record geeks could lord over those that dare to have less than all-consuming interest in rock music.  And Skip Spence begot Jeff Mangum.  Amen.   

So there I was at the Cleveland Masonic Hall waiting to see Jeff Mangum with 1500 other incredulous people.  It was like waiting to see Santa Claus.  You figure he didn’t really exist, but you gotta buy a ticket to see Santa if he tours in your city, right?  Two obscure bands opened up to limited polite response.  Let’s not kid each other.  The multi generation gathering of Hipster Nation was there for one thing, and that was not to get turned on to some delicate little nerd rock band.

A foldout chair sat in the middle of the stage in the enormous auditorium surrounded by Mangum's grandfather's acoustic guitars.  Mangum walked out with wild long hair and crazy beard like he had just walked out of the woods after wandering around for a few years.  You remember what Tom Hanks looked like in Forrest Gump when he ran across the country?  He looked like that.  (see above)

What was shocking wasn’t that he sounded great, like he just walked out of the studio after recording “In The Aeroplane”.  It was how relaxed and confident he was in his performance.  He smiled asking the crowd to sing along.  He made sharp witted remarks to the idiots that would scream out in the all acoustic atmosphere.  He looked seasoned and professional.  He looked like a normal guy that just got off work at a microbrewery, and decided to knock out 13 great songs.  What the fuck?  How could this guy just disappear, walk out and deliver the goods like that?  Who the hell is this guy?  What other rabbits can he pull out of that army hat of his? 

The crowd was listening in rapt attention.  When he finished his set with “Two Headed Boy Pt Two” you could hear a pin drop.  The huge applause that followed that moment of silence after the last note was appreciative and real.  While I wish the three dozen or so people that don’t know how to conduct themselves at an acoustic concert would have gone back to the BW-3 that spat them out to the show, it was pretty amazing to see and hear half of the crowd singing along to songs that obviously were very personal and important to each of them.   

It was a memorable night. 


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