On Thanksgiving, when I was 17, my big brother changed my life when he handed me a brand new copy of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. At the time, I only listened to bands who had reached the height of their popularity in the late 1960’s or early [to mid -] 1970’s. My favorite movie was The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus. I still felt buzzed from the David Bowie concert I had seen months earlier. I had written my 11th grade research paper on the cultural influence of Punk Rock, for which I received — and didn’t care that I received! — a good ol’ mediocre 75%. Why, dear God, did my brother hand me a copy of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? All he said was, “I think you’ll like it.”
I’m positive the only reason I listened to the album was because my big brother told me to. We weren’t little kids anymore, but that didn’t matter; handing me that album incited the same sense of urgency and fear I felt when I was seven-years-old and he handed me a copy of Soundgarden’s Superunknown. I was given a task, and if I followed through that would mean I was Cool. I took my copy of Raw Power out of my CD player, and replaced it with the CD my brother had just given me. What I heard was all at once everything I loved about my classic stuff, as well as unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It was dark in a Jim Morrison way, but not at all Bohemian. Could Bob Dylan have written this? Leonard Cohen? Patti Smith? Maybe, yeah, in another world…but that’s not how things panned out, was it?
Somehow, the rest of my family got turned on to that album. Perhaps it was because my big brother also gave a copy to my little brother — or was it me who did that? — and then it was eventually played for my parents. Regardless of the real explanation, it eventually got to the point where all five of us were singing, “What a beautiful face I have found in this place…”.
(My family’s love for this song gives my love for this cover a bit of extra umph).
A few weeks later, when my big brother was home for Christmas, he handed me a copy of On Avery Island. Similar to the Aeroplane phenomenon, the remaining family members fell in love. I distinctly remember listening to “3 Peaches” as a family on our way back home from a car trip somewhere. Was it Vegas? How…appropriate?
As I became a bigger fan, I learned that the band was formed in the 1990’s and that the lead singer’s name was Jeff Mangum. When I learned about the band’s indefinite hiatus, I really, truly felt sad. Bowie Buzz be damned, I wanted to hear “Oh Comely” live!
My prayers were answered, in a way, a year later. I was a freshman in college, and my mom came to Santa Cruz to drive me home for Thanksgiving. To keep us entertained during the six-hour-long trip, she brought a copy of Live at Jittery Joe’s. She was especially excited for me to hear, “I Love How You Love Me” because it was “nothing like the original version!” She also loved how the crying baby in the background punctuated Mangum’s performance. “Isn’t it just so good and weird?” she said.
As a result of all this, Thanksgiving makes me think of Neutral Milk Hotel. When Halloween is over and it finally starts to get a little bit cold (here in Southern California, that is) and people start thinking about ordering turkeys and learning how the Hell to make cranberry sauce, all I can think about is trumpets and Anne Frank. Every morning, afternoon and night, regardless of where I am, I am either listening to, or thinking about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
On Thursday night, after all of our esteemed guests had left the building, the five of us sat down in the family room to decompress and digest. I was on the couch between my dad and my big brother. My Big Brother. My Big Brother who wanted me to stop listening to my Ren & Stimpy CD and start listening to grunge. My Big Brother who changed my life when he handed me a brand new copy of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea…
I turned to him and said, “Thanksgiving makes me think of Neutral Milk Hotel.” “Oh yeah?” he said. I then told him that he had given me that album on Thanksgiving years before, and what an impression that album had made on me. He said, “I loved that band so much in college and I was so upset that I would never be able to see them live. I once had a dream I did. It was very…emotional.” As someone who knows all about emotional concerts and emotional dreams, I felt very close to My Big Brother in that moment. “Brother see, we are one in the same…”.
My dad and I mentioned that Jeff Mangum played at Occupy Wall Street. “No way!” My Big Brother said. “He did a show?” He wanted to know when, where, and how we knew. We explained that we had seen a segment on Democracy Now! where Amy Goodman talked about Occupy, and that during the segment she showed a few seconds of Jeff Mangum singing “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” for a crowd of people. This really blew My Big Brother’s mind. He didn’t seem to believe what we were telling him. “I’m sure it’s on YouTube,” I said.
My Big Brother found a forty minute and fifty-nine-second long video of Jeff Mangum’s Occupy Wall Street set, and, as a family, we listened to all of it. We sang along to every song: “Holland 1945,” “Song Against Sex,” “Two Headed Boy Part 2,” “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1,” and “Oh Comely.” During “Two Headed Boy Part 2,” when all of us took a break from singing to just listen, my younger brother — who is awesome — couldn’t help but repeat after Jeff Mangum when he sang, “God is a place where some holy spectacle lies.” “Wow,” my little brother said. “God is a PLACE.” At the risk of sounding like a sentimental nut, I have to agree; and maybe, just maybe, it’s a place I’ve been to. All I know is that I spent the night of Thanksgiving sitting on my couch singing about “how strange it is to be anything at all” with the two people who brought me into this world and the two people who I will always be inextricably linked to. Does it get much better? You tell me.
It is now the evening of Sunday, November 27th. Thanksgiving of 2011 has come and gone. While I’ve had a great time eating mashed potatoes and pie and stuffing for the last three days (curse you, delicious leftovers!), I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when I plan on ingesting some green vegetables and going to the gym. The food binge may have reached its end, but the feeling of thankfulness will continue. For as long as I have my Neutral Milk Hotel CDs, what ISN’T there to be thankful for?
Thanks mom and dad, for the obvious. Thanks, little brother, for the awesomeness. Thanks, Big Brother for more than you know…
And thanks, YouTube, for the sweet covers.