For a few seconds after Jeff Mangum walked out of the wings at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Monday night, there was only one prevailing collective thought. “Holy shit, he’s real,” said almost everybody to themselves. For a certain fraction of the sold-out crowd, that moment could have begun and ended the show. We were, after all, paying to see the most mythical figure in music since, I don’t know—Syd Barrett?
Mangum’s story is so compelling, and his In the Aeroplane Over the Sea filled with such brilliance, that when he disappeared it truly felt like a betrayal. How could he give the world this work of beauty and then retreat? What if he never wrote another song again, ever? Just where is he, anyway?
So in the short time it took Mangum to walk to his chair at the center of the stage, pick up a guitar and start strumming “Two Headed Boy, Pt. II,” the theater was already fully satisfied: There he is, hallelujah. Naturally, it just got better from there. No longtime Neutral Milk Hotel fan could have possibly left the Fox Theater disappointed. Mangum’s voice, penetrating as ever, filled the large theater like xenon, and I was relieved to find that it hasn’t changed one iota in the last 13 years. Still a reedy, forceful instrument unto itself, and still capable of hitting high notes, like the climaxes on “Oh Comely.”
I was also worried that the crowd would be so overcome they’d sing along to every word, and even though it happened, it wasn’t irritating. Mangum himself encouraged it, especially on the iconic “King of Carrot Flowers” and encore “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” He spoke little between songs, and what he said was muttered and hard to hear. It was really, really fantastic to hear Mangum introduce “True Love Will Find You In the End,” by Daniel Johnston, and I heard that the next night, during Tuesday’s show, he dedicated a song to the Thinkin’ Fellers Union Local 282, which, wow.
People hung on his every word, of course, and being revered has its privileges. When, at the start of the set, Mangum asked someone to stop filming, they instantly complied. In fact, in my section of the theater, it seemed like everyone got the memo. Barely anyone had their phones up in the air. And other than singing along, no one made a sound while Mangum unfurled brilliant song after brilliant song: “Holland, 1945,” “Ghost” and “Two-Headed Boy,” which ended right on the beat with a familiar drum-and-tambourine cadence emanating from backstage, and guest horn players Scott Spillane, Laura Carter and Andrew Reiger waltzed out to a perfect reprise arrangement of “The Fool.” The place went nuts.
At the end of the night, when Mangum walked off the stage after his encores, after the house lights came up and music started playing over the P.A., I saw something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in all the shows I’ve seen. The wildly cheering audience would simply not give up. They kept clapping. They kept screaming. It got louder, and louder. This went on for a long time. Come back, Jeff Mangum, come back, the roar said. Don’t go away again. Come back, come back. Louder, and louder, and louder.
And then the lights went back down.
Mangum came out one last time, and played “Engine,” a b-side. A thrilling end to a special evening.
1. Somewhere I still have emails between Mac and Laura and myself about publishing for “Two-Headed Boy.” (It was 2003, and we wanted to release a cover of it.) And in one email Laura says “Is this something we should get in touch with Jeff about?” and I was like NO WAY HE EXISTS.
2. No new original songs were played. Mangum’s been honest about his chances of writing a new record: “Sometimes I kind of doubt it,” he’s said. Without new material, it’s questionable how long he can stay satisfied playing the same old songs, and based on his demeanor I get the impression these shows he’s playing might be rare.
3. We were talking on the way back to the car about Aeroplane and its place. “It’s like the Blonde on Blonde of our day or something,” I theorized, but Hoyt one-upped me: “No, no. Forever Changes. It has horns.”
4. The show helped heal over a decade of regret: I actually had the chance to buy tickets to see Neutral Milk Hotel at the Bottom of the Hill in 1998. I hated the Jesus Christ line. So I didn’t.
5. Here’s the setlist:
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
True Love Will Find You in the End
Song Against Sex
Ferris Wheel on Fire
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Sometimes you just gottta believe.
As expected, the Internet was flooded with sleazy offers for tickets to Green Day’s last-minute show at the Fox Theater in Oakland last night, and unless you’d been quick, the situation looked grim. Luckily, between the irritating online postings asking for either $300 or for Asian girls to “send photos,” there came perpetual signs of hope on Craigslist. “Just bought 2 GA tix on Ticketmaster!” read a typical post. “Don’t pay the scalpers! Keep trying!”
Throughout the day, the faithful were rewarded with sporadic releases of tickets to the third of Green Day’s “secret shows”—all of them announced at the last minute, selling out instantly and premiering the band’s new album 21st Century Breakdown in its entirety.
I scored two quick-release tickets at noon yesterday, and drove frantically through rush-hour traffic with my wife to Fremont to pick up my niece. We got to the theater right at 8pm, bought one of seemingly plenty of extra tickets outside on the sidewalk, and voilá—I was suddenly standing with some people who’d flown in from Massachusetts, six rows away from a band I’ve loved since I first saw them opening for Nuisance, All and MDC in 1989 at the River Theater in Guerneville, CA.
Obviously, much has changed in Green Day’s world since 1989. At that first show in Sonoma County, they made jokes about handing out hundreds of joints to the crowd, sold hand-silkscreened tuxedo shirts stolen from their high school marching band for $3, and had just one record—a fantastic Lookout 7” called 1,000 Hours that my friends and I listened to obsessively. (We weren’t alone—just a month later at the Los Robles Lodge in Santa Rosa, crowds stormed the stage to sing along haphazardly with “Dry Ice.”)
20 years later, bouncers now keep an eye on pot smoking, T-shirts are now sold for $35, and Green Day, of course, now have plenty more than one record out. But the key magic is still there. As evidenced in their two-hour-plus show last night, Green Day is among a small handful of bands who have navigated the waters of success with a clear head and, in spite of the rigors of fame, have only gotten better over the years.
Case in point: the new album premiered last night.
At the doors of the beautifully restored art-deco Fox Theater, patrons were handed a Playbill-like program detailing the three acts of the new record, complete with author credits and libretto, while a large tragedy/comedy curtain hung over the stage. It’s hard to assess an album on only one listen, but 21st Century Breakdown is, as expected, a sister sequel to American Idiot. It loosely follows a story about being disillusioned with modern life in America, with recurring characters and themes. It’s pensive, it’s angry, and it unabashedly swipes snippets from the great catalog of rock ‘n’ roll and parlays them into anthems for the disenfranchised.
Judging from last night’s impassioned performance, at least four songs are utterly dumbfounding in their greatness (“Before the Lobotomy,” “Last of the American Girls,” “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” “Last Night on Earth”), and several, like “¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl),” toy with completely new styles.
There are echoes of Green Day’s past: “Christian’s Inferno” starts with a rant straight out of the bridge to “Holiday,” “East Jesus Nowhere” cribs the chorus from “Welcome to Paradise,” and at one point Green Day stone-cold lifts the outro to “Brain Stew.” At the same time, the album makes musical and lyrical reference to Van Morrison, Gogol Bordello, the Who, Screeching Weasel, Barry McGuire, Wilco, John Lennon, P.I.L., the Ramones, Frank Sinatra, the Replacements, Tom Petty, Rancid, Otis Redding, the Misfits and Francis Scott Key.
One thing the album is missing, sadly, is a sense of fun. American Idiot was written and recorded quickly when the master tapes for their “real” album were stolen, giving it a spontaneous immediacy. 21st Century Breakdown took five years to make, and it shows. It is labored and serious, full of dramatic pauses and piano segues, and it teeters on the pretentious. I wish it didn’t. During a ’70s soft-rock piano ballad complete with falsetto vocals, an audience member held up a homemade sign reading “Play at 924 Gilman,” and it was painfully obvious how far the band has “grown” since their constant presence at said club. (Billie played there last year with Pinhead Gunpowder; read about it here.)
A drastic explosion in the excitement level came after the short intermission, when Green Day played older songs for another hour, and I got blissfully lost in the sweaty fray of people. “American Idiot” turned the stoic crowd into a swarming tornado; “Jesus of Suburbia” was dedicated “to everyone down at Gilman Street,” and “Going to Pasalacqua,” “She,” “Longview” and “Welcome to Paradise” thrilled longtime fans. The band was obviously making the set list up on the spot—during “Minority,” Billie asked, “I don’t know, should this be the last song?”
It wasn’t, of course. The show’s final song, the epic “Homecoming,” came with a warm explanation from Billie about the East Bay. Clearly, the band was happy to play for a hometown crowd (including Jello Biafra!), and at the end, he stood at the front of the stage, repeatedly opened his arms to the audience, and mouthed the words “I love you, I love you, I fucking love you!” over and over.
The feeling was mutual.