Have you seen Jeff Mangum? 

Neutral Milk Hotel's bandleader built a faith on the transcendent power of music. Then, when he needed it most, he gave up on it.

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And yet he was probably the most easy-going and agreeable teenager I've ever known. There's even a video of his high school band's final performance of the season taken just a day before he shot himself. When they finished playing -- it was the theme from Star Wars -- he stood up with his French horn and smiled this unstoppable, proud smile that no teenage stoicism could stifle. These are moments you try to reconcile with the end.

A parent, no matter how strong her faith, never fully recovers from this sort of wound. At best, she can hope that she will see her child -- apologetic and untouched -- in some other life.

For me, his oldest brother, I gave up on God, cloud- suspended, long ago. It seemed such a sad, egotistical hoax to play on oneself, to be unwilling to grapple with the end of existence.

Work kept me going. At the time, I covered police and courts for a small newspaper in Maryland. It was my job to show up at murder scenes, to watch district attorneys re-enact death throes, stomping a foot on the chest of an imaginary victim while they tightened an imaginary belt around a strangled neck. It was my job to drive to accident scenes where 16-year-olds couldn't manage to keep their tires on the pavement. I discovered myself particularly drawn to shootings, especially the post-mortem photos of close range blasts that rearranged the facial features like some kind of sadistic makeover.

Among grievers, I found solidarity, almost a perverse happiness. We formed an ad hoc church. It felt ritualistic, as if I followed a pilgrim's footpath of those who death leaves behind.

The difference -- from the Greeks to Southern Baptists -- was that I didn't have any illusions about seeing Todd again or putting out canned tuna for some stray cat whose soul he would come back to inhabit. He was -- this wordless baby I once held -- dead.

But it's so hard to stop searching for solace when you know you'll never even listen to a phone ring the same way again. I discovered, sheepishly, a human need for mythological hope that no amount of intellectual sustenance could satisfy.

Against every conscious instinct, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea gave me some simple, mystic comfort. The album, even as its funereal horns blow, is the sound of transcending death. No, not just transcending it, but finding some underlying joy there. This is what art, at its best moments -- communicating to the individual through time, experience and language -- can do.

Aeroplane is peppered with references to Anne Frank. Her reincarnation or rescue peeks out of the songs. One song imagines her as a little boy playing piano in Spain. Still others work as dada-esque poetry that manages to convey an emotional texture, as if Mangum was working on a principle similar to Ernest Hemingway's theory of omission.

Hemingway would strip his works to the marrow, believing that the reader would intuitively understand what had been omitted and that it would communicate more than the words alone. The difference for Mangum was that he could use his voice as a weapon to cut straight into your chest.

In his music, I found both mythological nourishment and a nudge toward hope that some piece of life doesn't perish with the body and the brain.

So, of course, the one album wasn't enough. I wanted more. I'd check the websites and find postings from other fans, wondering just what happened to Jeff. But the only product Neutral Milk Hotel seemed to be producing was rumor -- of breakups, breakdowns and creative burnout. And as the products multiplied, so did my fascination with Mangum. Early last year an interview appeared in the online music publication Pitchfork. But it produced as many questions as answers.

"I went through a period, after Aeroplane, when a lot of the basic assumptions I held about reality started crumbling," Mangum said. "The songs were what I stood for. It was a representation of the platform of my mind that I stood on. And if the platform of the mind is crumbling ... then the songs go with it."

What more, I wondered, could Jeff Mangum have possibly wanted?

Any search for Mangum should start in Athens, where many of his friends and collaborators still live. But Mangum's story -- and the story of Elephant 6 and Neutral Milk Hotel -- actually begins 500 miles away, in the college town of Ruston, La.


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