Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel, or being face-to-face with your heroes

In Listen

There is a note of complacency about the train announcer’s voice: “Despite the fact we’re only a minute late into our final destination of Leeds, I offer my apologies.”

“Don’t know why he’s apologising,” says the man next to me, to the drummer of his band. “We’ll never get that minute back.”

I’ve never really been the star struck type. I don’t tend to worship musicians and sports stars, and never really understood the hype that surrounds what are basically humans that are generally more talented than I am. Maybe I’ve never wanted to dwell on my inferiority. Yet, when I found myself on the same train carriage as Jeff Mangum en route to Leeds to see his band Neutral Milk Hotel live, I found myself at a complete loss for what to do.

I am one of those – like many others, it seems – who was sucked into the mysterious hype that surrounded Mangum when he stopped recording and, more or less, disappeared from the public’s view for several years. Having been introduced to them while at sixth form, I duly did my homework on him – and found nothing. In a way that would be all but impossible these days, the internet essentially drew a blank. It surprised me enough so that his supposed disappearance inspired a (probably terrible) short story that I wrote sometime in my late teenage years, and drew me further into his music – the only thing that linked me to this person who’d stopped making music before I’d really gained an appreciation for the medium.

I know that the myth that surrounded him was nonsense, and that he was just a normal person. Even so, as I stood next to him in the vestibule waiting to get off the train, I found myself drawn to say something to him, to ask him about his life and his inspirations. I didn’t; instead I let him get off the train before me and pretended not to recognise him, for fear of sounding like an idiot.

Later that evening, I wished I’d at least asked him to play ‘Communist Daughter’ at some point during the show. I suspect that was the only chance I’ll get to ask him play the NMH song that I love best, and I passed it up. More fool me. Perhaps it’s for the best. Once you’ve discovered the human side of your heroes, it’s hard to look at them in the same way again.

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