I’ve been to a couple of once in a lifetime shows. Last night was one of them.
Jeff Mangum, the lead singer and lyricist of Neutral Milk Hotel, stopped performing publicly over a decade ago. This was attributed to how overwhelmed he was by the attention the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea received and to his shyness. He’s produced some albums and done some collaborations in that time, and he’s occasionally performed a song or two at friends’ shows, but he hasn’t done any solo shows, and Neutral Milk Hotel has been “on hiatus” since 1998.
Last night he played a full set at the 1000-seat Sanders Theatre at Harvard. We managed to buy tickets back in March thanks to a friend’s clever guess of the pre-sale password.
What a beautiful face
I have found in this place
That is circling all round the sun
And when we meet on a cloud
I’ll be laughing out loud
I’ll be laughing with everyone I see
Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all
I don’t even know how to describe the energy in the room — no one thought they’d ever get to hear him perform his music live. People were bouncing, cheering, calling out to him — and he’d respond with a quick smile and sweet comment then play again. He had four guitars set up, and after playing one for a while, he said, “This is my grandfather’s guitar.” Everyone melted. He asked the audience to sing along, and people did at first, softly, and at his encouragement, we got into it. His mic and PA blew out at one point, and he stepped over his monitors to the edge of the stage and kept playing and singing. The venue was small, the acoustics unbelievable, so it worked.
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums
The music and medicine you needed for comforting
So make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving
And pluck all your silly strings
And bend all your notes for me
Soft silly music is meaningful magical
At the end of the show, he returned for one encore, and then the house lights came up. People began to cheer and stomp and clap again. It went on for so long that Andrew and I ran down to the middle to meet up with friends and coordinate where we’d go for drinks afterward. People kept cheering, clapping, and stomping, to the extent that I thought we might witness a very well-behaved riot (his fans are also totally sweet). Several minutes later, he came out again, and we grabbed some vacated seats up front, and others rushed down to sit on the floor and the stairs. Once again, he sat at the edge of the stage with his guitar and sang without a mic. He closed the show with a fan favorite.
All floating in glass
The sun it is past
Now it’s blacker than black
I can hear as you tap on your jar
I am listening to hear where you are
Part of what made this night so special was who was in the audience. Our friends Mike and Sophia are in several bands. One of Mike’s is a Neutral Milk Hotel tribute band, called Neutral Uke Hotel. He loves Neutral Milk Hotel and never thought he’d have the chance to hear Jeff Mangum play, so he and two friends began performing the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea live on ukeleles — their concerts are incredibly cathartic and fun, with audiences who come to sing their hearts out together and share a loved album. I started giggling last night when everyone began to really sing because it felt like a Neutral Uke Hotel show, and it was wonderful.
Amanda Palmer was also there. She said she flew back from Amsterdam that day to attend, and it was the second time in her life she’d hopped on a plane to go to a concert. A little over two years ago, I wrote about the show she did with her high school theatre director and the students of Lexington High School. They used the music from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea to tell the story of Anne Frank. It’s honestly one of the most moving shows I’ve seen — the sincerity of the students carried it.
And I know they buried her body with others
Her sister and mother and 500 families
And will she remember me 50 years later
I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine
We all have personal relationships to music and art, but there’s different meaning for artists who’ve used a work to create something of their own. Anytime we reinterpret a piece or retell a story, we make it our own, and these interpretations affect our understanding of the original. Part of what made last night so incredible was having experienced these other interpretations of his music and knowing the musicians were in the audience with us, also hearing him perform for the first time.
Afterward about 25 of us descended on a bar, took over the back, and enjoyed post-show camaraderie, drinks, and several rounds of food. I love introducing friends to each other, and we got to make a couple of in-person connections between people who had known of each other but had never met. We got to meet a couple of Mike & Sophia’s band mates, and earlier in the night we chatted with Michael Pope, the filmmaker who does Amanda’s videos and an utterly hilarious storyteller.
As we were walking back to our car, we passed through a throng of Wellesley women waiting for the bus to take them home after a night out, and I remembered coming to Boston back in 1996 and exploring it for the first time — intentionally getting lost in different neighborhoods so I’d have to learn my way around — and waiting for that same bus to take me home. I couldn’t have imagined what the next four years would bring or that I’d stay in this city, but I was extremely lucky to make friends that first weekend who remain my friends today. We’ve been blessed that this circle keeps growing with warm and caring people, and as we walked past the girls, I wished them the same happiness.
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 we can see