A Postcard to Jeff Mangum

An open letter/rant/ramble to and about a musician and idol of mine, Jeff Mangum.

I’m not even sure where to start.

I feel sort of ridiculous for writing this in the first place – it was one of those ideas that felt really right when I came up with it in my head, but I’m realizing it’s kind of silly now that I’m actually taking action and writing it down.

That’s the thing, though. The reason that I’m still writing this despite my reservations is the same thing that draws me to good music – it feels really right. That’s what I go for when I try out a new band or song. I take a second to see if it hits me in the right spot.

That’s what draws me to your music – it hits me in the right spot. No, it’s more than that. It hits me, almost physically, in a way that I can’t really describe. The first song of yours I heard was Holland, 1945, in the spring of my freshman year of high school, when a friend showed it to me. In all honesty, I thought it sounded horrible, a swirling cacophony that just overwhelmed me. The only thing I was able to pick up before I was drowned in color and sound was the first two lines: “The only girl I ever loved/ Was born with roses in her eyes.” But that stuck with me. I listened to the little sound-byte they give you before buying the song over and over, and slowly my feeling of, not repulsion exactly, but of being strongly taken-aback, was replaced by this feeling of complete awe that such a line, and such a sentiment, was allowed to exist.

It was still slow-going, getting into your songs I picked up one or two more songs from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but was hesitant to fully commit to it for several weeks. I remember listening to a bit of “Two-Headed Boy” and being almost horrified at what I was hearing.

That same feeling was the thing that would eventually draw me to the rest of the album, though. I had never had a song make me feel something before. Previously, the little interest I held in music was only as far as it could convey a pretty harmony, which was all I really cared about in the medium. The opening lines to “Holland, 1945,” that I heard that Spring are swirling, loud, cacophonous; exactly the opposite of what I had experienced in music before.

But I’m getting a little off-topic.

What I’m trying to say is that that first exposure to your music, your instrumentals, and especially your lyrics, changed something fundamental in me, I think for the better. That Spring marked a major change in who I became, and how I got there, and your music played no small part. I began to look at things deeper than something I considered pretty and began looking for things that were beautiful, and that shift has affected everywhere I have gone and want to go in life.

It wasn’t until the following Fall that I began to recover from that strange and almost literal impact that the music Aeroplane made on me and began wondering about the people that made Aeroplane in the first place.

That’s when I first learned about you as a person. At first, I had the reaction of lots of people who have heard Neutral Milk Hotel and was hungry for more. I was angry at you for disappearing. I was furious. It wasn’t fair of you to simply vanish, Salinger-like, in the still-natal life of a band that would surely have a tectonic impact on the way people viewed what was good, what was beautiful, what deserved to be put into song.

But I’ve thought. I’ve thought about it a lot, actually, to the point of slightly weirding-out my friends who have never heard of you. What I realized is this: you changed what I thought music meant when I heard Aeroplane, and you changed what I think a musician is when you disappeared.

I was at a show last week, where some friends of mine where doing a piece of modern dance. The song they were moving to had these spots of quick, deep rapports that sounded to me like gunfire. I was thinking about how the sound and the movements didn’t seem to me to fit, and suddenly I was hit with a vision:

It is a dark building in a concentration camp during World War II, where they keep the prisoners. I only have one image of it. A man stands at the door, I can’t tell whether it is an officer or a fellow inmate. Everyone leans their faces out of their bunks into the tiny hall between rows of beds. Then, we are outside of the building, which collapses and disintegrates into nothingness as we leave it, and in come those gunfire noises. The camp is being liberated, but I can see nothing but the dirt and hear nothing but the sound of bullets leaving muzzles. But as I look around, I see something else. There is a woman, or a girl, dancing in the gunfire. She is utterly serene, and wearing a red dress. The strange juxtaposition that is still going on on stage is now in the image in my head – the dancing girl should not be dancing, not now, not to these sounds. Then, I get the feeling that I have to go – we have to escape the camp, and we’re running towards the gates. But I see the girl and she is still dancing, and I absolutely know that she is going to die there, dancing. And I want to stay, but I need to go.

And then it ends. I scribbled down a few notes on a piece of paper, thinking that I can turn it into a poem, but, unusually for such a strong vision, I can create very little out of it. All I can get out is the phrase “The Dancer in the Trench” and one couplet: “She flutters and she arabesques/ as bullets fly between her legs.” But I can extrude nothing else. That is quite a strange experience for me – I’m used to words flowing fairly easily, for better or worse, into poetry or prose. So I let it sit for about a week.

Today, I was listening, for the umpteenth time, to Aeroplane, and I was struck by yet another realization, an image: you are the dancer. I made the connection, and now the words flow like water, and are molding together into this thing, which I’m putting out now into the ether for others, and maybe you, to see. Your being, like that of the dancer, is grossly out of place, out of time, out of sequence. And yet the very fact of the incongruity, the jarring of beautiful existence against dirt-covered reality, and the two mixing, makes it all impossibly, transcendentally beautiful.

Having to leave the dancing girl behind is just the same. Like staying to watch her as the camp crumbles around me, demanding more music without your first wanting to give it is damaging to the music (or dancing) existing in the first place, and cheapens the whole experience. Instead, armed with the memory of the dancer, we must leave the camp and let the memory of it inform our lives in times to come. We can’t stay to watch – we have seen, and now we must act on what we learned.

In short, I understand why you have stayed so silent over the years. For fans to demand that such strange beauty be churned out at our behest makes the whole thing artificial, and destroys the purpose of your creating it in the first place.

But I don’t want this to be your eulogy. I have learned that the cover art from Aeroplane was taken from an old postcard. This, too, is a postcard. I’m writing to say that I miss you and am thinking of you, and I’m somewhere beautiful that I think you should see.

Thank you,
Ben

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