On a London stage in October 1998, the four members of Athens band Neutral Milk Hotel played their last show together. For nearly a year, they'd been on a grueling tour to support In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an album that had become the darling of music critics across the country.
Partly inspired by the story of Anne Frank, the album's lyrics confront death and the unknowable beyond. But it was Aeroplane's music, not just its words, that captivated critics. Option magazine likened the sound to "the Minutemen fronted by John Philip Sousa during the British Invasion." Magnet, for the past 10 years one of the premier chroniclers of the independent music scene, named the album the best in its decade of existence -- a "kick-ass weeper, 40 minutes of musical vision captured on tape."
When the band transferred that vision to live performance, the reviews were similarly glowing. A Canadian music magazine described a performance in Toronto as "musical chaos." "Band members swap instruments like they're hot potatoes, changing from marching band ensemble to noise-punk quartet at the drop of a flugelhorn."
And Aeroplane resonated with fans -- especially fans sick of the Nirvana knockoffs and Lilith Fair alums jamming up "alternative" radio stations in 1998. From city to city, they crowded into smoky clubs with low ceilings, like pilgrims gathering before 19th-century evangelists. Even Rolling Stone caught on, declaring Neutral Milk Hotel the creative pinnacle of a collective of Athens musicians called Elephant 6.
At the center of all this was Jeff Mangum -- Louisiana native, Athens transplant, chief visionary for Neutral Milk Hotel and acknowledged savant of Elephant 6. Although Aeroplane was a Neutral Milk Hotel album, it was Mangum who conceived of it, who wrote the songs, who channeled the sounds in his head onto acetate. Drummer Jeremy Barnes knew this as the band left the stage that night in London. Sure, the tour may have ended, but with Mangum leading the way, the band's march toward coronation as underground rock royalty seemed assured. That night, says Barnes, "we were completely united."
Almost five years after that last concert, the members of Neutral Milk Hotel have scattered, like confetti tossed from the top of the Chrysler Building. The follow-up to Aeroplane was never recorded. There was no reunion tour. But there was no official breakup, either. Just -- nothing.
Jeff Mangum, whose sound had uplifted so many, now put out only silence. He dropped out, crisscrossing the U.S., sleeping on friends' couches, not doing much of anything. For a man whose life had been spent believing in the power of music to heal, and who saw that belief bear fruit, Mangum's artistic vanishing act has confounded his fans.
Says Barnes now: "Do you have any idea how heartbreaking it is to come home from six months on the road, completely unaware of any problems with your best friends, whom you play with, to walk up to the bar in your hometown and have an anonymous bartender say, 'Hey man, too bad about your band breakin' up; you really went for it. I was sorry to hear that it's over. What are you gonna do now?'"
For four years, I've wondered what happened to Jeff Mangum. Not because I knew him but because his collage of sound and memory helped me find some faith against my instincts.
On May 22, 1999, two weeks before his high school graduation, my 18-year-old brother Todd stayed late at the Snellville steakhouse where he worked as a waiter. He was still there at 3 a.m., hours after the restaurant had closed. He must have been sitting alone on the parking lot pavement amid the cooling asphalt scent, that perfume of late-night Southern suburb.
Then he stood up -- hair all cowlick, thin and sandy blond -- pulled his 20-gauge shotgun from the trunk of his 1978 Pontiac, put the neatly sawed-off end to his head and pulled the trigger.
My dad called me the next morning. I sat up in bed, swung my feet to the hardwood, got up and started packing. But it wasn't so much packing as an opium-drunk pacing, a shuffling of fabric, some of which, inexplicably, I first tried to iron.
During my first week home, I attempted to piece together his last few days, calling friends, overturning everything in his room, breaking into his e-mail account, looking for a diary, some piece of art. I wanted a map. There was nothing.
Todd was the fourth of seven children, dead-center middle, and he didn't exactly fit. He didn't play sports. He performed in school plays. His weight fluctuated from svelte to pudgy, which of course made him the butt of hundreds of brotherly barbs.