Death has always fascinated me. There’s a certain sacred grotesqueness about it. We romanticize it, debate its finite nature, and craft religion and tradition around it. We must, at all times, respect the dead. Only in death can the bastard in our life be remembered as “a good man.” There’s something about death that scares us and makes us squirm. The uncertainty of what comes after death terrifies me. Not whether I will go to Heaven or Hell—I could give two shits—but what will happen to my body. I can’t imagine not functioning anymore. I can’t imagine not having thoughts, not creating an identity, not stopping nature from doing away with me.
I am always intrigued to hear what others have to say about death. Some of my favorite works of art have been responses to—or making sense of—life’s final moments. I have found great arguments and themes in literature, whether comedic (Faulkner’s As I lay Dying, 1930), historic (Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, 1968), or deviant (Ellis’ American Psycho, 1991, and McCarthy’s Child of God, 1973) but nothing speaks directly to me like music. I believe music has the ability to capture us at our emotional peak. Every crack in a singer’s voice, timbre of each note, and hiss of monitors is recorded and captured in time. It is there for us to examine, dissect, and embrace. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but when such a bond forms, it is a beautiful thing. For me, it required the death of one hero and the resurrection of another.
I remember first listening to Johnny Cash at my Grandparents’ house when I was about then. Country radio was on in the living room while we were eating dinner, and “Folsom Prison Blues” (1968) came on. It blew me away. Here, amidst the honky-tonk, pick-up truck, love my dog bullshit came a man who just didn’t give a shit. Shooting a man just to watch him die? I couldn’t believe it. He mesmerized me. I hadn’t fully begun to explore his music until my high school years, but it was Cash that eventually led me to folk and western music, where I found Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Patsy Cline, Uncle Tupelo, and Billy Hayes.
Like my idols, I soon started to form bands and write songs, albeit unsuccessfully for the most part. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t replicate the stark poetic and fearless nature of my idols. I would never be as cool as Cash. I worried too much about being recognized and what people thought of me.
I remember the last years of Cash’s life. His songs had become darker and more reflective, like he was calling death’s bluff. The end was near – that much was certain. I remember feeling the need to clear my throat when listening to his American Recordings (1994), like doing so would clear his own voice and maybe give him a few more years. It never worked. He was leaving me soon. He broke it to me lightly with “Give My Love to Rose” and bid me farewell with his flawless rendition of “Hurt.”
“This is it,” he told me, “it’s time to move on.”
Coincidentally, right around John’s death, I discovered an influx of folk artists challenging the idea of folk music itself. Artists like Rock Plaza Central, Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, Destroyer, Animal Collective, and Joanna Newsom are so flawed that they are beautiful. They are blunt, unapologetic, and graphic. They showcase various instruments and production strategies. These artists also revived the idea of the concept album. Stevens made an ambitious goal to write an album about each of the fifty United States. Though he so far has failed to complete the task, both Michigan (2003) and Illinoise (2005) are two of the greatest folk albums of the 2000s. Rock Plaza Central branched into the obscure, releasing Are We Not Horses? (2007), an album about mechanical horses wishing to be real ones. These bands challenged the way I thought about music, and the art of the album as a whole.
“This couldn’t get any better,” I would tell myself. I was wrong.
In the summer of 2005, my dear friend and bandmate Kurt stressed to me the importance of listening to a band by the name of Neutral Milk Hotel (NMH). Kurt was usually right on the money in his musical suggestions, and looking back, I was foolish to doubt him. But the name of the band just didn’t do much for me. Weeks went by before I finally caved in. After tiring of him asking, I sighed, “Fine, I’ll give them a listen tonight.” “Good,” replied Kurt. “Listen to ‘Holland, 1945’ and go from there. It’s…I don’t even know how to explain it. Just listen to it.”
Later that night, I went home and found “Holland, 1945” on YouTube. I remember that the song did something to me that no other song had previously done. It made me smile. This song was…perfect. It was a sound that I had never heard before. Acoustic guitars, bass, drums, trumpets, and trombones all fought against each other for my attention, to the point of becoming distorted and redlining in the mix. Somehow it didn’t matter. This explosion of sound was soon split in half by a nasally, unpleasant voice, confessing, “The only girl I’ve ever loved / Was born with roses in her eyes / But then they buried her alive one evening 1945.” This voice went on to describe brothers who won’t be coming back again and bodies that once moved but not anymore. Such jovial music backed this voice and its story of death, grief, and desperation to move on. It was such an incredible contrast. I didn’t know whether to dance or cry or bow my head. In 3 short minutes, it was over. It couldn’t be over. I needed to know more. Who was this girl? What happened to her? What about her family? Why does this story sound so familiar?
I tried learning as much as I could on what I had just experienced. I quickly found it difficult to separate fact from legend. Released in 1998, Aeroplane was written by NMH frontman, Jeff Mangum, and it plays out as a concept album about Anne Frank and Mangum’s love for her. Mangum has been said to have been heavily influenced by The Diary of Anne Frank (1947) during the album’s composition, which is evident throughout the album by playing an obvious role in “Holland, 1945” and referencing “Anna’s ghost” in the album’s title track.
Mangum put all of his creative efforts into Aeroplane, a project he truly loved and believed in. It was his attempt to bring people together through music. Upon its release, Aeroplane was met with mixed reviews. People weren’t sure if Mangum was a genius or absolutely horrible. Shortly after, Mangum left the public eye, only keeping contact with his closest friends. His masterpiece and true love was crushed by many, having the opposite of his intended effect. He would not be spotted on stage or record for almost fifteen years.
I soon illegally downloaded a copy of Aeroplane. I began my journey with the boxy acoustic guitar strumming of “King of Carrot Flowers Pt.1” and for the next forty minutes, I didn’t dare move. Aeroplane is filled with emotional strumming, buzzing instruments, tape loops, horn sections, and raw, honest emotion. Folk music is not supposed to sound like this! Acoustic guitars are not supposed to be distorted, singers should not make listeners feel uncomfortable, the holocaust has no place in music, and Anne Frank has no place in a love song.
I was convinced this music was made just for me. I never recommended NMH to anyone. I wanted to keep them all to myself. I was convinced no one would fully understand them or appreciate them as much as I did. I made a stronger connection with Mangum’s songs than any artist I had ever experienced. Where Johnny Cash was bold, brave, and fearless, Mangum was graphic, awkward, and vulnerable. Aeroplane made the transition between life and death an intimate, if not romantic, experience. “In the dark / We will take off our clothes,” Mangum strains in the Aeroplane masterpiece “Two- Headed Boy,” “and they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine.”
Reading about Mangum’s reclusive nature saddened me because it made me realize that I would not be hearing any new material. Undeterred, I went back into the band’s catalogue, discovering moments somehow more powerful than Aeroplane. Mangum silently and secretly dominated the 1990s from the underground. “Bucket” (Various Artists, Periscope: Another Yoyo Comp, 1994) out-Glycerined Bush’s “Glycerine” (Sixteen Stone, 1994), “Naomi” (NMH, On Avery Island, 1996) blurred the lines between love and infatuation in a way that would make Sting blush, Mangum’s rendition of “I Love How You Love Me” (Live at Jittery Joe’s, 1997) was the first since Cash’s “Hurt” to bring me close to tears.
I was in line at a Gamestop this fall when my fiancée received an email stating that Mangum was scheduled to play in Milwaukee on February 8. I did not know how to react properly at that moment in time without getting thrown out of the store. I was in shock. I had heard rumors that Mangum was back from the dead, finally showing his face on stage for brief moments, but I heard nothing of a solo tour. I couldn’t just go with anyone. I had debated going alone. After all, who else would even go to this show? Who else would know of its significance? I quickly collected myself and made plans to attend the concert with a dear friend. It was after he braved time and the elements to buy the tickets that I fully realized just how much Mangum has meant to not just me but to a vast array of people. I was saddened by that. I didn’t want a sellout show. I knew that there would be people there whom I didn’t want to see – people who didn’t understand. I knew that I had to get over these feelings, or that I would never enjoy the experience, but it was difficult to do. It just didn’t seem fair.
However, on February 8, 2012 at 9:30 PM, none of that mattered. There sat Mangum, a long-limbed and towering man, strumming the old familiar chords to “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2.” Within minutes, he had total control of the room. He followed it up by murmuring, “This is called ‘Holland.’” I couldn’t breathe. Jeff and I had finally come full circle. After years of being absolutely certain that I would never see him perform in person, he had arrived, singing the song that brought me into his world. Shortly after the song ended, he nodded his head and left, most likely never to return.
I processed the title track to Aeroplane during my walk back to my car. Someday, Jeff will die, I will die, the people we love will die, and the songs we sing will not stop that. To spend our time internalizing that is futile. It’s the connections we share that define our time together.
I turned on Aeroplane when I got in my car that night. “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2.” came to a creaking halt as I pulled into my driveway.