In the car, my friend Jonathan and I talked about my kids, and his job, and how we feel old all the time. He’d come up that morning from North Carolina, where we once lived together, to come to the concert with me; now we were driving together from Arlington to Baltimore in a CRV whose backseat was dense with child-safety seats and princess books.
Jonathan recalled how he’d once received a mixtape from a girl he thought might be interested in him, only to discover that it featured “Song Against Sex,” which he took as a poor omen. Our friend Ehren gave me a song by the band on a tape as well, helping me seem much cooler than I was when the band moved from everyday obscurity to cult object, following its singer’s withdrawal from the world. We laughed to remember how Ehren, a cheerful contrarian, once vigorously argued that there was no good reason Neutral Milk Hotel couldn’t have a radio hit. “Sure, the instrumentation might be a little unfamiliar for some listeners,” I said, imitating him, “but underneath that it’s really very tuneful.”
We found a parking spot a block away from the theater. The concert started at the older-person-friendly hour of 7:30, and IDs were checked at the door. Not for beer sales; no alcohol is allowed at Baltimore’s 2640, a co-op run jointly by a Methodist church and a bookstore located in the church’s dilapidated former sanctuary. IDs were checked to ensure that every attendee was the original ticket purchaser—to eliminate scalping.
I bought a ginger ale and Jonathan and I listened to the last few songs by the opening act, a gangly, effusive young man who played the musical saw and the banjo. The stage lights kept dimming and flashing as the guys at the boards tried to figure out which switch was malfunctioning. The room was full but not crowded; fire codes, or the singer’s preference, kept the crowd manageable even though the concert had sold out in minutes. (Failing to buy a ticket, I cadged a pair from a saintly publicist.)
During the break Jonathan told me that he hadn’t really known the whole story of the singer’s disappearance from public life. “When you asked me if I wanted to come up for this, I just thought, well, that’s a band I’ve always loved, and it would be fun to see them in concert. I didn’t know about all…” He paused and waved toward the crowd, the stained-glass window at the back of the theater, the dude checking IDs. “All this. I told some guys at work, twentysomething guys, that I was coming up, and they said, ‘Oh, I love him,’ and I thought, oh good, he’s still a going concern.”
A representative of the venue stepped on stage and thanked us for coming, saying, “We don’t usually host concerts this big and exciting, but we do have other events that are small and exciting. On Friday we have a screening of The Holy Mountain.” Several audience members cheered loudly at this.
Mangum sat down and held a guitar on his lap. His newsboy cap and pageboy hair made him look a bit like Emo Phillips. He was dimly lit in an amber glow. He spoke to a few audience members, away from his microphone, so that we couldn’t hear him at all. He said “Thank you” into the mike. Then he began playing “Oh Comely,” a long, beautiful suite of loss and ache.
I hadn’t been sure what to expect from this show. I’d long had the sense that we would be seeing something special—that these appearances from Mangum, culminating in the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in New Jersey this weekend, might be like the once-in-a-generation appearance of some endangered bird. We’d need to treat it gently if it was to survive.
Even as Mangum announced more tour dates and launched an honest-to-God website, it was still hard to imagine him as an actual, everyday performer—a singer just playing songs and selling records and whatnot. Even before his disappearance, his music seemed too odd for that, like songs beamed from some other planet; now, after a decade-plus absence, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" still seemed a most unlikely, personal album to have inspired such intense audience identification. Plenty were drawn to him by word of mouth and post-dated Pitchfork raves. But the music spoke to people in some forceful personal way that I couldn’t quite understand, even as I felt its pull as well.
He sang “Oh Comely” to an audience who listened in complete silence. (We’d been asked to turn our phones off before the show.) He stumbled over a lyric and my breath caught for a moment. During the song’s climax, the light grid went a little bonkers and Mangum was suddenly awash in brightness, and back wall red and blue and green. After a moment the guys on the board fixed it and the lights returned to their amber glow. In between lines, Mangum said, “Good, you turned those off.”
Then he sang “Two-Headed Boy Part 2.” There was still no sound but for his guitar, his voice, the tap of his foot. The last song on the album, “Two-Headed,” ends in its recorded version with the squeak of Mangum getting up from his chair in the recording studio and walking away. For years and years that was the last sound we’d heard from him, and was as familiar to us as the lyrics we knew by heart. At the concert, though, the song ended with a quick “Thank you.” He remained sitting. His chair was silent.
“Does anyone have any questions?” he asked the crowd. Someone wondered how he was feeling. “I feel good,” he said. “I’m glad to be here.”
After the Le Poisson Rouge show last year, I’d sympathized with people who complained about their neighbors singing along. Because really: if Jeff Mangum was only going to play one concert ever, for fuck’s sake you want to hear Jeff Mangum, not some dickbag next to you. Here in Baltimore, I’d been pleased to note, no one had made a peep. But now, Mangum sat up straight and looked into the microphone. “You guys can sing along if you like,” he said. Then he began part one of “Two-Headed Boy.”
“Sing it,” he insisted after the first verse. Behind me, my friend Jonathan joined in, so I sang along too. Everyone knew the words, of course. (Later in the concert, on faster songs, we’d sing the brass parts to accompany Mangum’s solo guitar, and stomp our feet to supply him drums.) He smiled as he sang his weird, lovely music about radio plays and pulleys and weights and the notches in your spine, and a church full of people in full throat sang too.
We’d thought Jeff Mangum was a hothouse flower, requiring special care; in a way, we thought he wanted to be. He’d been gone so long, and his return was orchestrated under such careful laboratory settings that they seemed unlikely to be replicated in real life. Surely he’d play this show, our show, and a few other shows, and then disappear back off into space or wherever he’d been. But maybe Mangum exercised all this control over these shows—the churches and charities these tickets benefit, the anti-scalper measures, the bans on photography—not because he was too sensitive to perform otherwise but because this was how he created an environment in which he didn’t have to be sensitive anymore.
Suddenly Mangum wasn’t a fragile creature behind glass. He was a singer playing a show for people who liked his music. He seemed pretty happy. He was a going concern.