Neutral.Milk.Hotel. In the fading days of alt. rock’s decade-wide summer of love there were a handful of secrets left to us. On the edge of the internet, Napster, and iTunes, we were polishing the umlaut of Nu Metal while frosting the tips of boy band and bubble pop teen consumerism. In the receding high tide, a couple of bands were being revealed in the silt and undertow. From the dying din of one hitters like Semisonic and Marvelous 3 were some true full length wonders. With the exception of Elliott Smith’s XO, there was no finer myth in the making than In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. Sweeping up the best parts of Twentieth Century into a low fi hiss-heavy cacophony of horns, acoustic guitars and southern gothic psychedelia, Jeff Mangum and company tossed the dying blooms of a dead decade’s bouquet into the open grave of college radio, ready to do the undertaker’s dirty work while Fred Durst was on his way to multi-platinum Bro-dom.
In the anxiety of Pitchfork’s MFA justifying revisionist history, record geek bloggers (who previously only had the unsuspecting kids looking for the latest Korn CD at their local record store to bug and pine to) now could Livejournal away about the lost instant classic Aeroplane seemed destined to become. In so many ways, it was the heir apparent to Love’s Forever Changes–full of future shock and decidedly influenced by the geography of home. Replace Arthur Lee’s late 60s Los Angeles with quintessential college town Athens, GA and you can feel the culture and weight of each point on the map rest unevenly on both records’ shoulders. The psychic energy and inertia of both releases color the sound–storm clouds seem to be on the verge of downpour. That darkness on the edge of the city limits seems to gain momentum by the end of both LPs and has allowed both works to be considered later day masterworks by the canonical cool–and for damn good reason.
When Jeff Mangum came back from quiet exile doing Neutral Milk songs acoustically some ten years after he disbanded the group, so began the growing hope that the band would come back to us–the us who quietly spun Aeroplane on Sunday afternoons or in some blurry indifference to Friday nights that have slipped into the empty arms of Saturday’s shot glass. Myth became shellacked on myth but without the ire so many reunions seem to trigger. Maybe because there was something organic about the return of Neutral Milk Hotel–their absence was more felt than spoken of–long enough to be long enough but not long enough to be overly eulogized by a multiple-disc catalog-cash-grab. I’d like to think it’s partly because we had seen what happens to the fragile and tender voices who didn’t wander away from the spotlight but were ultimately consumed by it. We do a horrible job of protecting our heroes–we want too much, ask for it too often, and are too quick to forget them. The big rock pyre is fueled by bodies and we trade their names in polyvinyl carbonate.
And we’re afraid to answer the hard questions–will it be the same? We want to say “yes” but already know it’s “no.” It’s how we feel about no and now–and how we negotiate the mirror art ultimately serves against memory and moment–which matters.
But what does it say about you when you don’t go to the show? I had a chance to see Neutral Milk Hotel in Champaign-Urbana this week, and I didn’t go. I was actually in Exile On Main Street Records when they posted on Facebook that they had additional tickets available–yet I opted to go see a St. Louis Blues game I already had tickets for–a whole ten dollar hit. The worst part is the Blues game was a total bust–San Jose putting up a 4 spot on St. Louis after two periods. The two goals the Blues did score were basically garbage-time points. Don’t get me wrong–live hockey has no peer when it comes to live sports–but really? I saw a regular season Blues game and NOT Neutral Milk Hotel?
If I were more of the High Fidelity me I was a decade ago, I would’ve just ate the ten spot, been in Champaign-Urbana, and had an amazing time. And it isn’t some anti-too-cool-for-school-music geek trip with an ax to grind against bands reuniting (The Replacements). And it wasn’t even the lack of desire to see them–I would’ve loved to have seen Neutral Milk Hotel. So why didn’t I go?
I don’t have a real good reason. I already know the answer to “Will it be the same?” On Tuesday memory and moment didn’t feel like it had to be reconciled in the ledger of days–it might have to do with the fact that I had expended so much of that emotion seeing The Replacements that I don’t feel the overwhelming desire to right all my missed moments musically. You could spend your whole life chasing down those moments, or even worse, waiting for those moments to happen. It’s like sitting by your phone on Friday night, hoping for a text or a call–the anticipation of “maybe” can be a drug all its own. When “maybe” slowly fades to “never,” we aren’t always quick to accept that time has become a casualty to our wants. Sometimes, it’s enough to know that the unexpected happens–that these miracles occur regardless of our first-person witness. Knowing can be as rewarding as being–a different kind of present for a life best spent living not waiting.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He lives in Springfield, IL. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.