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Carter claims Mangum hasn't worked a day since Neutral Milk's final concert. In their last phone conversation, she asked Mangum what he was doing. He told her he was going to be a sculptor.
"Really?" Carter asked. "That's great! What medium?"
"I don't know yet," Mangum said. "I'm thinking bronze."
It wouldn't surprise her, she says, if he told her he was blasting off for the moon, but "he's crazy in a beautiful way. When he knows what he wants, he has ambition and drive and focus, and he just goes right there. But when he doesn't know what he wants, he just swims in the ocean with no direction."
Mangum's been gone so long that critics and fans have pronounced Elephant 6 all but dead. There are no reunion rumors, and Aeroplane receives next to zero radio airplay.
Yet sales remain robust. Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Merge Records, which released the album, won't disclose sales figures, but Aeroplane remains among distributor Touch & Go's top 50 sellers every month, says Nathan Cowings, a direct sales representative with the company.
"I don't know how people keep finding out about it," he says.
Eric Levin, the owner of Criminal Records in Little Five Points, echoes Cowings. In the Aeroplane and On Avery Island wiggle into the top sellers every week, just like the Pixies' Doolittle and an anthology from seminal punk band Minor Threat.
"I guess it's just essential listening," Levin says. "I have no idea. It's shocking. It sells every week, and I don't mean one or two."
Beyond receiving periodic royalty checks from Merge, Neutral Milk band members have moved on. Spillane works construction and plays occasional gigs in Athens with a band called the Gerbils. Carter says Koster is collaborating on a project with Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell. Barnes lives in England, where he just put out a new album with the avant spacey group Broadcast.
Other Elephant 6'ers continue to make critically heralded music -- Doss for Sunshine Fix and Hart with Circulatory System. Both are working on new albums. Schneider chugs along with Apples in Stereo and has a new side project, Ulysses, that played Athens last month and plans to record. Carter, who is a central figure in another Elephant 6 band, Elf Power, is helping build a 150-acre eco-development outside Athens.
I finally tracked Mangum down in mid-August. He was, he wrote, in New York City, hopping between friends' apartments. An e-mail I sent earlier in the month, went unanswered until I found his father, who now lives in Baton Rouge. The capitalization and punctuation in Mangum's response have been corrected:
"I am flattered that you want to talk me, but I have to say no. I wish you the very best in everything you do. But please do not contact my family. I think [my dad] was caught off guard by you, and maybe even a little intrigued at first, but now he is left wondering how a perfect stranger could know about his painful past. I don't wish to revisit the past either."
I kept trying, outlining for him my reasons for writing about him. But he didn't budge. "Please," he wrote, "I'm not an idea. I am a person, who obviously wants to be left alone. If my music has meant anything to you, then you'll respect that.
"Since it's my life and my story, I think I should have a little say as to when it's told. I haven't been given that right."
He's wrong, of course. It's not just his story. It's Spillane's and Carter's. It's mine, too. I count it as Todd's postscript to me -- not a line to something so circumscribed and history-plagued as religion, just a few generous strands of the transcendental to grasp.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, like other great works of art -- no matter how obscure -- has grown beyond the grasp of its creator.
When Aeroplane was released, Briana Whyte, a high school student from Edgewater, Md., was just 12. She first heard it in a friend's car. Then she bought it as a Christmas present and kept it for herself.
"No matter how many times I hear it, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is always a deeply personal experience," Whyte says in an e-mail. "It is emotional without putting on airs; it is raw without ruining the melody. I can't really explain why I feel so connected to Neutral Milk Hotel songs. Perhaps they conjure up images from scenes that I've lived in dreams ... or maybe it just speaks to the slightly deranged."
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