By now, Jeff Mangum must be sick and tired of avoiding people. Since dumping his 1998 meisterwork (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea) on the ears of a grateful populace, the leader of Athens, Georgia's, Neutral Milk Hotel has spent the past few years trying to live it down. By the end of '98, he'd closed the Hotel and pulled a Houdini-like disappearing trick.
Aeroplane, with its Anne Frank imagery and fragmented folk songs, has more than its fair share of adherents. Earlier this month, alt-rock fountainhead Pitchforkmedia.com compiled a list of its 100 favorite albums of the 1990s. In the Aeroplane came in at number four, out-ranking Nirvana's Nevermind, as well as everything ever produced by the Pixies, Yo La Tengo, Guided by Voices, or any other cool band you care to name. "Mangum sings as if possessed, painfully conveying fractured and moving tales with the imagistic skill of a brilliant novelist. He gnashes his teeth at the fabric of time, then wraps himself in it like a blanket, channeling the violence of his personal past through a claustrophobic frustration with his dejected present," the review raves. "The way people have been affected by Aeroplane is ample proof of its power and uniqueness. Like all classic art, it is widely misunderstood."
A writer for Atlanta's alt-weekly Creative Loafing illustrates this all too clearly. While many have wondered why Mangum and his mates never followed up on Aeroplane's success, Kevin Griffis refused to stand for Mangum's vanishing act. Griffis had suffered the suicide of his teenage brother in 1999 and took unnatural solace in the 40-minute epic that is In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel's grand and solitary statement.
For Griffis, In the Aeroplane became a tonic, a salve he applied daily to try to cope with the anguish of losing his sibling. So he penned a 6,000-word article in the September 4 issue called "Have You Seen Jeff Mangum?"
Toward the end of the piece, Griffis' investigation became nearly pathological in its intensity. After the writer hunted down Mangum's dad in Baton Rouge, an understandably pissed-off Jeff Mangum sent this e-mail to Griffis: "I am flattered that you want to talk to me, but I have to say no. I wish you the very best in everything you do. But please do not contact my family... Please, 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."
Unbelievably, Griffis couldn't leave it at that. In his article, he follows Mangum's sincere request for privacy by insisting, "He's wrong, of course. It's not just his story... It's mine, too."
After the article was published, Griffis came in for several well-earned knocks. "It's obvious... the album meant a great deal to him on a personal level," read one letter to the editor. "It's also obvious that Griffis feels Mangum owes him something. This writer could have used some editing and a very short leash, guys."
Another respondent asked Griffis to "admire what [Mangum's] given us, but please stop stalking him."
As comprehensive as it was, Griffis' article missed a few important facts. For example, he failed to interview Colby Katz, staff photographer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach and Mangum's paramour during the formation of In the Aeroplane. At Katz's urging, I reluctantly contacted Mangum myself.
It seemed like the wrong thing to do, at the wrong time, and for all the wrong reasons. I felt sheepish about hitting the send button. He was gracious enough to issue this reply just a few hours later. Spelling, capitalization, and grammar have been preserved for added flavor. There are a few passages that I just can't comprehend. Maybe you, dear reader, can:
"Hello jeff-thank you for licking my records. yes, i was unable to respond to said eggler dew to drippage on his various swelllings, so i am afraid i am unable to speaketh with you at this time. good greebus to you good sir and tell colby i am at least four thousand fronds along the leeches at this time. good greebus to you good sir!
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"Dear Sir-Thank you for your intrest in this person. He is being an ass to everyone, so he isn't talking much, because he is an ass. We hope you won't be bothered by his decomposition in these splatters. Our best-Sir Sash
"Dear Sir or Madame-Thank you for your throating of our recording artist. Unfortunatly, at this time, he is unable to decompose for you due to drippage. Your truly-Mademe Sash.
"hello good sir-thank you for requesting me. unfortunatly i did not respond to the other good fellow who wished to speak with me, so i wooden feel uncertain as to speaking with you. i hopeth you understand. tell colby i am wonderfully wormed in her direction a thousand times! good greebus to you said sir-jeff"
As of this writing, Bandwidth has contracted for a score to complement Mangum's obviously still quite spry imagination. But will the results satisfy Griffis?