Neutral Milk Hotel is one of those bands that’s usually the answer to the demand – Gimme one band that you’ll never forget the first time you heard them.
In the summer of 2000 I was living in a genre specific world where I maniacally and unabashedly consumed music that carried around a complex – jam rock or whatever term you use to poke fun at it. While some of the best jambands of that era were exploratory and improvisational in form, blending many genres to create a musical melting pot – my shallow focus was managing to confine and partition me off from music of other varieties. I was unknowingly blind to music that was smart and more … thought provoking.
But … some might say that being consumed by bliss and (in some cases) lyrical nonsense was a bonus – it saved me from Limp Bizkit and Korn – shit rock bands that over dominated Milwaukee’s local rock station. I managed to narrowly escape doing it all for the nookie and I believe I owe an incredible debt to Phish for that assist. Their existence prevented me from ever owning a red Yankees cap or frosting my tips. Consider me forever grateful.
The musical discovery that is the focus of this post happened in the middle of Indiana, at a makeshift campground in Noblesville, while traveling the midwest to see the above mentioned. After returning to the campsite with my arms full of new cds – the only 2 that come to memory are String Cheese Incident’s Carnival ’99 and Grisman, Rice, and Garcia’s The Pizza Tapes – I remember being proud to show off my purchases to anyone milling in our group. After showing them off and passing them around, me and everyone hanging around appeared to be pretty stoked. Everyone except …
this fella that quickly had intrigue turn to disappointment which then resolved to disapproval of my entire existence. “DUDE. There is so much better music to be listening to. I mean, the jam scene is cool but … there’s so much more. Are you listening to Neutral Milk Hotel, Sunny Day Real Estate? PAVEMENT? Tell me you dig Pavement?”
Now I wasn’t offended. Maybe I hadn’t heard of any of those bands but I wasn’t a rook when it came to music. I was coming off of a Bob Dylan hangover and I had gotten cavities from over indulging in Elliott Smith and Matthew Sweet. Ben Folds Five was cool and … I had just that past year fell in love with Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True. I had just gotten a little off track. I had just gotten over a bad break up that allowed me to replace my relationship by focusing on traveling and seeing a band that to this day never fails to make me smile.
But on that day – it was if someone had turned the light on. Pressing play on a mixtape that led off with Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 & 3” I sat motionless as Jeff Mangum whined an undying love for Jesus Christ. And even though the boomnbox was shitty and the tape was worn out, that voice – full of power, emotion and energy, transformed me. It was 98 degrees, as humid as a Florida August and my feet felt like they had just been pulled from a kiln. [lame alert ->] But the only thing I could feel were the goosebumps the music created.
And as the tape rolled on and I gave mere handshakes to bands that I couldn’t live without now (Built to Spill, Guided By Voices, Pavement) I remember nodding my head and ignoring merely every word not coming through those speakers. I can’t quite recall the way that I felt the rest of the trip … but with 3 shows left on the tour schedule and one more city to hit – I do slightly remember being briefly underwhelmed by Phish those next few nights. We actually ended up (stupid. regret.) selling our tickets for the summer tour closer in Columbus.
Now it might have been the heat of that summer. It might have been the fact that we did 9 shows in a few weeks or it might have been that I wanted to get home to hear more from the bands that would end up becoming part of my life after that day at the campground.
And that’s why I’ll never forget the first time I heard Neutral Milk Hotel.