Mangum Opus

Jeff Mangum – Brooklyn Academy of Music – January 21st

Well, I didn’t think it was going to happen. I walked into BAM with the intention of seeing a movie, but upon hearing the excited chatter emanating from the huddles of pea coat-clad, bespectacled fans, I thought to myself, well maybe I’ll just check. I headed over to the ticket window to make my inquiry:

“Any chance you still have tickets for Jeff Mangum tonight?”

“Got one. In the balcony. Thirty-six dollars.”

I slowly walked away, trying to decide what to do next, and quickly texted a friend who had attended the Friday night show. But, thinking about the tiramisu I had melting in my purse, I decided to stick to my original plan and bought a movie ticket instead.

Fast-forward two hours. As I walked out into the lobby, the doors to the opera house where Mangum was scheduled to play flew open to mark the intermission following the opener, The Music Tapes. I decided to try one last time. After hovering for a few minutes, I asked a guy if he had an extra ticket, and somehow, I got lucky on the first try.

Going into the show last night, my knowledge of Jeff Mangum was built almost entirely on hearsay – testimonies from friends whose adolescence had been shaped by Neutral Milk Hotel. People who had recently seen him play in New Jersey spoke of the experience with the wide eyes and shallow breaths consistent with complete awe. (1) The man is a legend, and he hasn’t even had to OD or commit suicide to get there. So even though I didn’t wear out my copy of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea through repeated plays, I was curious. Curious enough that when I saw that extra ticket for the orchestra section, I coughed up the $40 and took it. Heck, given Mangum’s track record and long hiatus, who knows when I’d have the chance to see him again, let alone in the plush seats at BAM.

I quickly made friends with my fellow ticket holders because, well, that’s just what you do at a Jeff Mangum show. All the normal walls of aloofness and indifference are broken down. People are chatty, candid, kind, and open.

“Ok,” Audrey said to me as we took our seats side-by-side. “I almost didn’t come tonight because I get really emotional. Last time I sobbed a lot. But I’m ok. I promise.” The guy behind us leaned forward. “Oh were you at Asbury Park, too? It was amazing!”

But the chatter quickly subsided when Mangum took his seat surrounded by a cadre of acoustic guitars, and after briefly engaging with a few people in the audience, began the sad, slow strums of “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2.” I looked over at Audrey. As promised, tears were already flowing freely down her cheeks.

Jeff Mangum (photo Phil Dokas)

Though the theatre was large, its size didn’t stifle the dialogue between Mangum and his fans. Throughout the show, Mangum responded to comments, queries, and requests voiced by the audience, going so far as to play “Little Bids,” a song he admitted he rarely plays live due at least in part to the pain it conjures.

What’s special about Mangum’s lyrics is that instead of being rooted in something as fleeting as teenage angst, they convey a deep down, lingering pain that is somehow as vague as it is acute. (2) As the giant frozen metronome on stage suggests, many of his songs are tied to specific years and dates, but none of that matters. His metaphors are enigmatic and abstract enough to loosen their bonds to time and to encompass both the specific memories and emotions of Mangum himself and the ones forged independently by each member of the audience.

Thus, “Holland, 1945” offers more than a chance to sing a long in person to Mangum. It facilitates a unique kind of catharsis – an opportunity to air all those feelings that have been tied to the song since its release in 1998.

Though the encore was relatively brief (just two songs), the finale was a lively one, thanks to Mangum’s quiet invitation to “come closer if you want.” Suddenly plush, assigned seats were left to abruptly swing shut as audience members flooded the foot of the stage. With the help of some of the guys from opening band, The Music Tapes (who also jumped in on a few other songs earlier in the evening), Mangum closed the set with another sing-a-long, this time “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”

Did I, like Audrey, cry at the sound of Mangum’s voice? No, but by the end of the night, I at least began to understand the Mangum phenomenon. Mangum’s voice may not offer me a direct link to my teenage past as it does for many die-hard fans, but it does at least connect me to a moment when all of Brooklyn was united and still.

Jeff Mangum set list
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
Holland, 1945
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Little Birds
April 8th
Oh Comely
Two-Headed Boy
The Fool (instrumental)

Song Against Sex
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

I even have one friend who somehow ended up at one of Mangum’s recent birthday parties. They started playing this drawing game that resembles telephone, and Mangum apparently would draw things like “a girl with a flock of seagulls for a face.”

(2)  Take these lines of “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone:”
Like a walk in the park like a hole in your head
Like the feeling you get when you realize you’re dead
This time we ride roller coasters into the ocean
We feel no emotion as we spiral down to the world
And I guess it’s worth your time
Because there’s some lives you live
And some you leave behind


1 Response to “Mangum Opus”

  1. 1 TheMayor January 24, 2012 at 12:13 am

    I’ve never actually commented on WordPress before, but this was the first blog I’ve read where I just need to tell you that I liked this article a lot. I was at that show, and you wrote it just as magically as he sang it. Good job.

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"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."

- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being


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