AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's been nearly 15 years since the band Neutral Milk Hotel released its iconic and final album "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," yet the band and its leader, Jeff Mangum, have never fallen off the radar of those in the know. Here's a scene from the NBC sitcom "Parks and Recreation."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")
CHRIS PRATT: (as Andy) Who is Jeff Mangum?
AUBREY PLAZA: (as April) The guy from Neutral Milk Hotel.
: (as Andy) Oh. Oh. Neutral, Milk, Hotel. What is that?
PLAZA: (as April) That's my favorite band. I've told you that like a thousand times.
: (as Andy) I don't remember.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA")
CORNISH: Mangum and his bandmates created rock music that was different in sound and subject.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA")
NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL: (Singing) What a beautiful thing I have found in this place that is circling all around the sun...
CORNISH: Now Jeff Mangum is performing again for the first time in over a decade. NPR's Sam Greenspan reports that the tour is creating a stir, and not just for the music.
SAM GREENSPAN, BYLINE: To really understand the power that Jeff Mangum's music holds over its listeners, you have to start at the Paragon Carousel in the seaside village of Hull, Massachusetts.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN")
DENNIS ZAIA: The Paragon Carousel is a 1928 merry-go-round. There are lights everywhere and it is just beautiful.
GREENSPAN: That's Dennis Zaia with Friends of the Paragon Carousel. In 2009, the Paragon was competing for a grant against other historic attractions in New England. To win, it needed to get the most online votes. The carousel's hand-carved wooden horses were neck and neck with their competitors, until they got an unlikely endorsement.
ZAIA: The, I believe the name was the Neutral Milk Hotel? Am I getting that right? I think I have that right.
GREENSPAN: Indeed, with Neutral Milk Hotel's stamp of approval, the carousel won. Music fans from all over the world voted for a merry-go-round in a town they would likely never visit - even though the band hasn't released a record since 1997.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KING OF THE CARROT FLOWERS, PT. 1")
HOTEL: (Singing) When you were young, you were the king of carrot flowers. And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees, in holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet.
GREENSPAN: "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" earned Neutral Milk Hotel an almost fanatical following. In 2009, Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls directed a high school musical based on the album. And it's even inspired a fan-made video game. But the record would be Neutral Milk Hotel's last. Just when the band started gaining acclaim in the late 90s, it dissolved. Mangum vanished. He's performed only a handful of shows, many of them unannounced, like a recent performance for the Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park in New York. And he's refused all interview requests for years.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
GREENSPAN: Now, Mangum is on his first announced tour in over a decade. And if you ask Joe Kelly, who's waiting in line to see Mangum play in Baltimore, it's almost like the second coming.
JOE KELLY: I guess this is equivalent to hearing that like John Lennon has been resurrected and is performing a concert in Baltimore.
GREENSPAN: The person in charge of coping with Baltimore's demand to see one of Mangum's live shows is music promoter Todd Lessor.
TODD LESSOR. MUSIC PROMOTER: In previous years, they were very almost guerilla performances. You'd go to see one band and then lo and behold, Jeff Mangum would get up on stage and start playing a set, as well.
GREENSPAN: Lessor knew that tickets would go quickly when they went on sale this past June, but the speed surprised even him - the thousand or so tickets for Mangum's two Baltimore dates sold out in 18 minutes. So, reclusive artist, limited tour dates, high demand. Todd Lessor knew that some people would look to purchase tickets just to flip them for exorbitant amounts of money. Rumor had it that tickets for previous shows on the tour had resold for more than 10 times their face value, up to $300 apiece.
PROMOTER: Easily. And I've also heard of the extreme cases where people are paying into the four figures for tickets.
GREENSPAN: There would be no ticket scalping on Todd Lessor's watch. Working with Mangum's booking agency, Lessor instituted a policy that IDs would be checked at the door and they had to match the name of the purchaser. If you bought two - the maximum you could buy - you had to give the name of your guest.
PROMOTER: And people did comment asking how am I supposed to know who I'm going to ask on a date, to see a show three months from now?
GREENSPAN: That didn't bother Baltimore fans like J.P. Marr.
J.P. MARR: These tickets are a like a gift, honestly. Like, I feel like they're a present from Jeff Mangum almost, just because they're clearly under-costed and you want it to be for the actual fans. So I think it's a great system.
GREENSPAN: Though, there were a few hiccups.
MARY SCHWARTZ: I recently got married so my name doesn't match. They put my married name in but I haven't officially changed it on my license.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GREENSPAN: That's Mary Schwartz, nee Rackovan, who was held up at the door.
SCHWARTZ: I can have my husband bring my marriage license. I'm sure that...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good. I'll leave your tickets at the door.
SCHWARTZ: Okay. Thank you.
GREENSPAN: Schwartz did make it in to the show. However, my recorder did not.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, you're going to have to leave the recording stuff in your car. There's no recording in the show tonight.
GREENSPAN: Per Jeff Mangum's request, there'd be no audio, video or even photos of his performance. The venue, an old church converted into a community event space, was aglow with Christmas lights. When Mangum took the stage, an intense quiet fell over the crowd. After playing a few songs, he asked if there was anything people wanted to know. Voices from the crowd asked him if he was happy, why he's touring. We missed you, someone called. Mangum didn't miss a beat, saying, well, we're together now, right?
He was cordial through this whole exchange, but there was this heavy tension in the air, like the wrong question could spur him to get up and leave. He didn't. And before long, the concert had become a giant sing-along, but in a way that was not at all corny or weird. By the end, many audience members were in tears.
MCGREGGOR BURNS: Hey, I'll probably never see him again for the rest of my life.
KATE LEONARD: Yeah.
BURNS: I don't need to ever see him again.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURNS: You know, it's perfect.
GREENSPAN: McGreggor Burns and Kate Leonard left the show with a radiant glow.
LEONARD: No, it was perfect. The crowd made it even more special.
GREENSPAN: Mangum is touring through December. All of the shows have long been sold out, but he's announced on his website that he'll be adding more dates in the U.S. and abroad. And, he'll be self-releasing a vinyl-only boxed set of Neutral Milk Hotel's music, featuring previously unreleased songs; one more present for those who've been listening to hear where he's been.
Sam Greenspan, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)
CORNISH: It's WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
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