Jeff Mangum Serenades Occupy Wall Street

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 5 2011 4:42 PM

Jeff Mangum at Occupy Wall Street: The Unlikely Protest Singer

Jeff Mangum
Jeff Mangum, 2008.

Photograph by Flickr user Hughshows/Wikipedia.

Last night, Jeff Mangum, the man behind Neutral Milk Hotel, performed at Occupy Wall Street. Whatever his performance may mean for the ongoing Wall Street protest, it was perhaps the most remarkable moment so far in Mangum’s reemergence this year as a public performer—and even redefined one of his signature songs.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

As Taylor Clark wrote for Slate in 2008, Mangum all but disappeared after recording the indie classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea:

At the end of Aeroplane’s final song, you can hear Jeff Mangum—the band's singer, songwriter, and all-around mastermind—set down his guitar and walk off, and, minus a few months of under-the-radar touring, that's exactly what Mangum did in real life.

Clark describes how Mangum “wandered the globe to find spiritual balance,” spending time in a monstery, releasing a disc of “field recordings of Bulgarian folk music,” and even briefly hosting a late-night radio show before being found out.

Then word arrived earlier this year that Mangum would perform at the festival All Tomorrow’s Parties (it was held this past weekend). A small tour was announced (it began in August, and is ongoing). And then, last night, Mangum became an unlikely protest singer.

The most striking moment from the roughly half-hour set came when Mangum sang “Oh Comely,” one of the stand-out tracks on Aeroplane. (As Clark points out, Mangum recorded his part on that song “in one scratch take, at the end of which you can hear a stunned band member yell ‘Holy shit!’ in the background.”) Late in the song, Mangum repeats the lines, “Know all your enemies / We know who our enemies are.”

The crowd around him sang along to those lines, seemingly savoring their new resonance. Given that some critics have charged Occupy Wall Street with not having a clear target, the second line, in particular, took on a defiant cast.

After Mangum finished singing, he waved to the crowd, accepted their thanks, and said, “You guys have done a beautiful fucking thing.”

Watch the whole performance below. (“Oh Comely” begins about 26 minutes in.)

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