What happened (according to the video)
On Tuesday evening October 4th, the formerly-reclusive singer Jeff Mangum turned up at Occupy Wall Street to play some songs. The idea of musicians using the protest site as a stage—to entertain the committed who had been living in Zuccotti Park for weeks; as a show of solidarity; perhaps, too, in the eyes of cynics, as a co-branding move—was still a new one. An earlier rumor that Radiohead would perform turned out to be merely that. Or else it was an actual plan scuttled when people realized the chaos, likely counter-revolutionary, that would have ensued.
But Mangum, with a modest but fervent cult following, slipped in under the radar with his acoustic guitar. The performance was broadcast on the web, uploaded in stop-motion, ultra-lo-res video that reminded me of the moonwalk footage I saw as a child in 1969 on the black-and-white TV in my Queens basement. The 40-minute clip begins partway through a cover song by the Minutemen, a post-punk rock group led by D. Boon, a singer-songwriter with Mangum’s kind of charisma (albeit louder) who was killed in a car wreck in 1985.
The song was called “Themselves,” and one section goes like this:
They keep themselves hidden away
They keep themselves hidden away upon the hill
Afraid of the day they’ll have to pay
For all the crimes upon their head
And all those men who’ve learned to hate them
Mangum sang those words surrounded by a light-grid of office windows above him. It was early evening; people in the banks and other businesses surrounding the park were preparing to head home; maybe thinking about take-out for a long work night ahead, or about where the car service could pick them up so as not to get caught up in the protest below.
Mangum recorded only two LPs during his stint as an indie-rock bandleader, both under the group name Neutral Milk Hotel. The second, especially—In An Aeroplane Over The Sea—has taken on a life of its own in the 13 years since its release. Its ramshackle songs and surrealistic heart-on-sleeve poetry struck a chord that continued to resonate. However, it’s still an obscure record in mass-culture terms, so it’s a little startling to hear the collective voices at Zuccotti Park singing along with Mangum’s next song, “Holland 1945,” the song that opens Aeroplane:
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
All that history and burning vision swirled up into the twilight, a history of old people sending young people to war, and young people who—if they survive—inherit the repair job: the clean-up of the bodies, the hatreds, the damaged culture, their own damaged psyches. The crowd sings heartily, and whatever literal sense is missing from their words, the emotional sense is crystal-clear.
The Earth looks better from a star
That’s right above from where you are
He didn’t mean to make you cry
With sparks that ring and bullets fly
On empty rings around your heart
The world just screams and falls apart
Between songs, the guy unsteadily holding the video camera shouts at the singer.
“We have 4000 viewers on our live stream!,” he says. “Could you introduce who you are?”
Mangum, dressed in a patterned sweater and what resembles a Mao cap, pushes his face into camera and says “Hi I’m Jeff of Neutral Milk Hotel and I’m at Occupy Wall Street,” then breaks out in a big grin. The singer made it clear during a few recent shows that he doesn’t like his performances photographed or recorded; he’d prefer they be experienced, unmediated, by those in the room. But for this event, he was game. The video was subsequently pulled from many servers, though you can still find it kicking around the web. One website reported that Mangum began the show by saying “I’m here to serve you. What would you like to hear?”
What happened later (according to memory)
On Thursday evening, October 27, I drove up to see Mangum perform at the Bearsville Theater in upstate New York. It was a benefit for the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, which Mangum, who is a vegan according to Wikipedia, has some affiliation with. Some in the audience speculated that the musician was living somewhere in the area. No one seemed to know for sure.
The show had sold out quickly, and the audience appeared mostly college-aged, young men and women who would have been in elementary school when In An Aeroplane Over The Sea came out in 1998. Some came clutching vinyl copies of the album, which they presumably hoped to get signed. It struck me that its viral popularity was very much like Occupy, its truths incontrovertible, passed around like secrets until they became common knowledge, accepted wisdom.
A woman from the Animal Sanctuary came on stage and gave a short talk about the organization, after which Mangum, with little fanfare, walked on and began to play, seated inside a semi-circle of acoustic guitars. As it was at Zuccotti, the audience sang along with almost every song.
Back in 1998, I met Mangum while reporting a story for Rolling Stone—my first for the magazine—on the Elephant 6 collective, a constellation of bands more-or-less based in Athens, Georgia. The core members were a group of high school friends originally from Ruston, Louisiana: Robert Schneider (whose main band was called Apples in Stereo), Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart (Olivia Tremor Control), and Mangum. The men were obviously inspired by the sonic adventuring of latter-day Beatles and Beach Boys – Schneider, the production whiz, named his studio Pet Sounds. When I went down to Athens to interview the clan (sans Schneider, who was based in Denver), the collective staged a sort of psych-rock fun-house in a rambling old home for my journalistic benefit. In one room was a naked dude in bed with a trombone; tape loops and colored lights spun out in another room; kids and dogs ran around; someone played a Theremin in the kitchen. Mangum, who is quite tall, moved through the chaos like the resident minister, dispensing hugs and kisses to anyone within lip-shot. This part seemed like no act. He summed up his strategy to me that day: “I try hard to make people feel things,” he said. Then he gave me a big hug.
Later that year, Mangum disbanded Neutral Milk Hotel and, with a few exceptions, stopped performing publicly. There were reports he had had a nervous breakdown, that he’d embraced religion, that he was traveling the world recording folk music of different cultures (exhibit A: Orange Twin Field Works: Volume 1, a field recording apparently made by Mangum at music festival in Bulgaria). Now, a decade later, the musician was inching back out, sans band, playing solo acoustic sets at benefits and venues selected for maximum intimacy. Evidently, he is still trying hard to make people feel things.
Mangum’s former band mates have been on their own journeys. A few years back, while writing a story about cross-cultural music, I reached NMH drummer Jeremy Barnes on his cell phone in a remote town outside Budapest, Hungary, where he was living and making semi-traditional songs with local musicians, some of which were released under his band moniker A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster, meanwhile, led a number of bands, and recently released The Singing Saw At Christmastime, a hauntingly pretty set of carols played on a musical saw—basically a common handsaw played by drawing a bow across the toothless side while bending the metal to alter the pitch. Why the collective fascination with saws? Maybe these men like to build.
When Mangum finished his set at the Bearsville Theater and returned for an encore, he was joined by Koster and his saw. Carrying chairs, the two made their way into the center of the standing crowd and placed their chairs down, at which point the crowd rearranged itself in a circle around the musicians, most people taking a seat on the floor. The men played two songs. First was “Engine,” a song originally released as the b-side of “Holland, 1945” that always reminded me of something Syd Barrett might’ve written for one of his wiggy, fragile solo records. Mangum has switched the lyrics around over the years; this time he began:
For I am an engine, and I’m rolling on
Through endless revisions to say what I mean
It made me think about the Occupy movement. It’s a very simple song, a folk song, just strummed G-A-C chords. If you play them barre-style, as Mangum does, you can just slide your hand up and down the neck; you don’t even need to move your fingers.
Mangum ended the evening with “In An Aeroplane Over The Sea.” When the crowd had reconfigured itself, I wound up standing a bit behind him, so I spent the song watching people’s faces as they sang along. One girl in particular had her eyes closed for its duration. She smiled as she sang:
And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing that we see
Then the cryptic bridge, which suddenly didn’t sound cryptic at all:
And how I remember you
How I would push my fingers through
Your mouth to make those muscles move
That made your voice so smooth and sweet
The men said thanks and carried their chairs backstage. The crowd cheered and then milled about after the show, talking, drinking, and sharing hugs. The next day I felt compelled to print out the tablature for “Aeroplane,” take out an old, little-played guitar, and learn it. It’s another a simple song: G – E minor – C – D. I played it for my wife and daughter that evening. I messed up a few times, but got through it, and when I was done, they hooted and clapped. I was glad to help spread the word.