A couple of weeks ago, we went to see Jeff Mangum play at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. It is a beautiful venue, ornate and very old. We had terrible seats, but it didn’t matter. I’d been waiting for over a decade to see him play. After the 1998 release of his album In the Aeroplane over the Sea, Mangum basically had a nervous breakdown and withdrew from society. A 2008 Slate article called him “the Salinger of indie rock.”
This is about where we were sitting:
I have been obsessed with this album for so many years, which probably means that there is something wrong with me. The above-referenced article succinctly describes it–the album is “about Anne Frank in which vocals about lost Siamese twins and semen-stained mountaintops mingle with the sounds of musical saws, fuzzy tape loops, and an amateur psychedelic brass band.” Now do you think something is wrong with me?
So I was unsure of what to expect from a reportedly fragile man singing for an hour or so about a little girl who died a horrible death. I did, however, know what to expect from the audience. Oh, there were handlebar mustaches. And very tall men in high-water skinny jeans. Beards and glasses and blazers and broaches and lensless glasses and suspenders. There is nothing like a crowd of aging hipsters. (I fully implicate myself.)
The show was scheduled to begin at 7pm on a Monday night. The very fact that I was in downtown L.A. on a work/school night speaks to how much I wanted to see the show. When we got there, a line wrapped around the building and the marquee announced that the show would now begin at 8:30pm. I began calculating how much babysitting money this would cost. He probably didn’t have an opening band. We’d be home by 11, at the latest. I could still get 6 hours of sleep.
But, no. There was indeed an opening band and they did not begin until 9 and their music, like the music of most opening bands, was tedious. I was getting impatient. I was falling asleep. I was too old for a show on a Monday night.
After a brief intermission during which several acoustic guitars were propped on stands, Mangum took the stage around 10pm. He wore a button-up shirt and brown corduroys and a newsie hat. He sat down and began playing and while I do not remember which song he sang first, I remember thinking how beautiful his voice is even though in many ways it is not what many would consider beautiful. I guess beautiful isn’t the correct word. The right word would be emotive. It’s kind of how I appreciate John Lennon’s voice (and pretty much everything else) so much more than Paul McCartney’s. It’s thinner and rougher, but it is more honest.
Mangum repeatedly asked the audience to sing along, and at first people were hesitant. First, his lyrics can be complicated. Second, they can be morbid. An example:
And here's where your mother sleeps And here is the room where your brothers were born Indentions in the sheets Where their bodies once moved but don't move anymore And it's so sad to see the world agree That they'd rather see their faces fill with flies All when I'd want to keep white roses in their eyes
So about a third of the crowd hesitatingly made their way through singing a long with this. About 15 minutes of the way into the show, Mangum said, “I’ll be back in a minute” and just walked off stage. Ryan and I looked at each other, wondering if Mangum was okay. But he came back and continued without explanation. After a little banter with the crowd and some obnoxious people yelling song titles at him, he told us that he would sing us the song he “lost his mind to.” A handful of people nervously laughed. I froze. “You’re laughing at that?” he asked. But there was humor in his tone. Then he played a song I had never heard, “Little Birds.” It is not about the Holocaust, but it is about dead baby birds (literally, at least), and it is very disturbing.
At first it felt strange to sing along to songs about death and mental illness. By the end of the evening, a little crowd of about 20 dancing hipsters had formed behind the final row of seats. And by the time Mangum sang “On the Aeroplane over the Sea,” we were all standing together fervently singing. Mangum told us that he wrote these songs for one person, and he never expected them to reach anyone. He seemed truly grateful and humbled by the crowd’s response.
Thomas Kinkade died about a month ago, and I hadn’t thought about him for years. But when a friend posted on Facebook about his death, calling his haters elitist, I got really mad, not at the post, but at Kinkade himself. He made paintings of scenes of grasses and cottages and waterfalls and light beams and flowers. How could that make a person unreasonably angry? It’s not about Kinkade himself; and it’s not even about art. It’s about ignoring the wide range of human experience, about only focusing on what is happy, pretty, and comfortable, to the exclusion of everything else. I find that audacious, offensive even.
I’ve always loved this poem by A.R. Ammons, which, like Mangum’s music, does quite the opposite:
When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold itself but pours its abundance without selection into every nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider that birds' bones make no awful noise against the light but lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them, not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen, each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.
If you are able to read the Diary of Anne Frank and still only see rainbows and sunshine, then that is 1000 times more disturbing to me than any of Jeff Mangum’s lyrics. You can read about her and not face any sort of mental or emotional or spiritual crisis, you can look at all of the tragedy in the world and ignore it and tell yourself stories to make yourself feel better. You can cover your walls in paintings of colorful cottages and listen exclusively to Celine Dion songs. If you are willfully ignorant, it is a lot easier to avoid the inconvenience of sadness, depression, mental breakdowns.
But I didn’t find Mangum’s performance to be depressing at all. In fact, it was almost celebratory. As much as his lyrics examine the depths of human experience, they also explore the heights.
What a beautiful face I have found in this place That is circling all round the sun What a beautiful dream That could flash on the screen In a blink of an eye and be gone from me Soft and sweet Let me hold it close and keep it here with me 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
It reminds me of Nathanial Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark.” It’s about this creepy “man of science” who is married to a woman of exceptional beauty. Her only flaw? A red birthmark in the shape of a hand that is splotched across her cheek. Her husband works to eradicate her defect and, in doing so, kills her, both spiritually and physically. The mark was what made her human. Mangum examines the wide range of human experience, including the most horrible, and still manages to find beauty and hope. To ignore or even explain all of the ugliness away is a a form of mental illness that makes far less sense to me.
We returned home late that night and we paid the babysitter more than we expected and I got very few hours of sleep. Without question, it was worth it.