The Salinger of Indie Rock
What happened to Jeff Mangum?
As Aeroplane's legend began to build, Mangum kept himself busy by having a total nervous breakdown. Laura Carter, his then-girlfriend, told the Atlanta alt-weekly Creative Loafing that he spent entire days sitting in his house in a state of near panic, wearing a pair of old slippers and doing absolutely nothing. He became paranoid, hoarding rice for the inevitable post-Y2K apocalypse. Since 1998, Mangum has rejected every interview request save one 2002 conversation with Pitchfork in which he explained his meltdown. "I went through a period, after Aeroplane, when a lot of the basic assumptions I held about reality started crumbling," he said. One of those assumptions was that music would somehow erase his problems. "I guess I had this idea that if we all created our dream we could live happily ever after," he continued. "So when so many of our dreams had come true and yet I still saw that so many of my friends were in a lot of pain … I saw their pain from a different perspective and realized that I can't just sing my way out of all this suffering."
It took Mangum years to rebuild himself after this spiritual crisis—and since part of that crisis was his recognition that music would never save him from his demons, he couldn't very well embark on another record. So he wandered the globe to find spiritual balance, even spending time in a monastery. (Aeroplane's steady sales helped finance the quest; the album still moves a reported 25,000 copies a year.) Occasionally, Mangum flitted ever so briefly into the public eye. He released a disc of field recordings of Bulgarian folk music, then disappeared. Calling himself "Jefferson," he hosted a late-night radio show on New Jersey's WFMU a few times until he was discovered, then vanished once again. Sometimes he'll appear onstage at friends' rock shows for a song, sending the crowd into paroxysms—but when those friends suggest he record his own music, they say he becomes evasive.
Mangum's continued silence has angered some fans, who accuse him of being selfish or "indifferent to his talent," as if musical ability comes with some sort of obligation to society. At least once a year, someone writes a hoax message from Mangum and posts it online—generally throwing in some fanciful verbal junk to bilk fans into believing it's the genius himself wielding the keyboard. Some have announced forthcoming records or tours, while others have revealed the long-hidden sources of Mangum's misanthropy; they've all been debunked. All we really know for sure is this: According to his record label, Mangum now lives in New York City. He recently married filmmaker Astra Taylor. Friends say he still creates art and that he seems "very happy." If he has plans to record more music, he hasn't told anyone.
And if Aeroplane really is Jeff Mangum's final statement to the universe, maybe we should be happy with that—not because of some tired line about going out at your peak (which he likely didn't reach), but because his story is a kind of modern fable. Many fans see his disappearance only in selfish terms: They've been deprived of more great music for no good reason. They can't understand why Mangum would shun success just to shuffle through his days, and, indeed, when musicians abandon this much promise, the culprit is usually drugs or debilitating accidents or people named Yoko. So he must have gone nuts, right? Well, no. After all, what if Mangum is just being honest? What if he poured his life into achieving musical success only to discover that it wasn't going to make him happy, so he elected to make a clean break and move on? We should all be so crazy.
As always, though, hope for Mangum's return still glimmers. Last month brought news that he may play a guy in a lobster suit in a soon-to-be-released conceptual film. But who knows? You can't see inside the suit.
Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. His most recent book is Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.
Photograph of Jeff Mangum by Will Westbrook.