First off, I am not offended by the message Mr. Justin Bieber left in the guestbook at the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. If you haven’t heard, he wrote, “Anne Frank was a great girl, Hopefully she would have been a Belieber.” Some people took umbrage of his statement, as if he were somehow belittling her whole experience. But I see it, as crazypants as he is, as Justin sincerely wishing that Anne Frank had a different life than the one she had. If anything, Justin has now made several million teenage girls curious about Anne’s life, which is a good thing.
I visited the Anne Frank house myself in 2000. Amsterdam to me at the time seemed like this strange cross between Brooklyn and Venice. I definitely recognized the Dutch influence echoed in New York, but the canals weaving through the streets were new for me. It was quite an emotional day walking through the house at 263 Prinsengracht, but what struck me most of all was how small the space really was. I could not imagine having to live in that cramped attic with seven others, pissing and shitting in a bucket, having to remain motionless for most of the day, even if one had to go to the bathroom, for two years. Anyway, most of you know the story. If you don’t, I suggest you read her diary right now. I promise it will be one of the most moving things you will ever read.
Several years later, while in a coffee shop I frequented in Hoboken, a song came over the speakers. I asked the young barrista, whom I had become friends with, “What’s this?”
“Neutral Milk Hotel,” she said.
Thus began a love affair with a band up till that point I had never listened to. How to describe Neutral Milk Hotel to one who has not heard them before? Jeff Mangum does not have the kind of voice that American Idol judges are looking for. In some ways his is the anti-voice. When I first heard him, it sounded as if he were shouting and not singing. It’s as if there is so much emotion trapped inside him he must cry to let it all out. And still it comes in droves. The music can at times be folky, then it explodes into metallic guitar fuzz, then you might hear a mournful jazz trumpet, accompanied by a New Orleans-style funeral procession. Yeah, it’s complex, a virtuoso.
The first album I listened to of NMH was “In the Airplane, Over the Sea.” Shortly after the album came out, Jeff had this to say:
Right before recording On Avery Island I was walking around in Ruston [La.] waiting to go to Denver to record. I don’t consider myself to be a very educated person, ’cause I’ve spent a lot of my life in dreams….And I was walking around wondering, “If I knew the history of the world, would everything make more sense to me or would I just lose my mind?” And I came to the conclusion that I’d probably just lose my mind. The next day I went into a bookstore and walked to the wall in the back, and there was The Diary of Anne Frank. I’d never given it any thought in my entire life. I spent two days reading it and then completely flipped out.
One thing about “In the Airplane..” is that it’s layered, complex, like any great work of art. As I listened to the lyrics I slowly began to realize that most of the songs on “In the Airplane…” were about Anne Frank, some more veiled than others. I started obsessing over this album, I mean really digging this album to the point of listening to it more than anything else I have ever listened to. I remember one time while listening to the title track while on line art a bank and thinking, “These lyrics are astounding.” The teller looked up at me strangely, because I was somewhere else that day.
I later read that Jeff Mangum had had a kind of nervous breakdown. He had to stop playing. I understood why. How can one sing with such emotion, such outpouring of feeling, day in and day out? But this made me sad. One of the greatest American musicians ever was still alive and not playing anymore.
During this time I was working on my final issue of Sybil’s Garage, issue 7, a speculative fiction and poetry magazine. In previous issues I peppered the pages with marginalia. In issue 6, I had a love story between a woman from the future and her time traveling robot friend, who used the pages of the magazine to communicate. It was loosely based on Gary Numan’s “Replicas.”
I wanted to do something similar for issue 7. And so I thought: what if Anne Frank’s ghost had heard Jeff Magnum’s singing about her through the headphones of some teenager wandering through her attic? What if, like any teenager, Anne herself fell in love with Jeff and his music. And now, hearing that he had a nervous breakdown, she laments his withdrawal from the world, his suffering and more than anyone on the planet, she understands his pain. And so I peppered the pages of issue 7 with messages from Anne to Jeff. She quotes his songs, writes love letters to him, and begs him to continue making his music:
In Sybil’s Garage No. 7, she says to Jeff:
I wanted to keep white roses in their eyes too. I wanted to run and dance and ride my bike down a hill. I wanted to sing at the top of my lungs and I wanted to make love to a boy. Can you make me a promise, Jeff? Keep plucking your silly strings. Keep bending your notes for me. On and on and on and on and on…
Issue 7 came out in the summer of 2010. A few months later, in December, Jeff Mangum played a surprise set in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and revealed to the crowd that he was thinking of playing out again. Since then he’s even released new songs, scheduling live shows, and an album is supposedly in the works.
I would be absurdly presumptuous to think that Sybil’s Garage had anything to do with Jeff’s re-emergence. I doubt very much Jeff has even heard of Sybil’s Garage. Still, I cannot but be astonished by the timing. Maybe Anne’s ghost did reach out to him after all. And maybe, in some small way, she touched Bieber too. After all she was and forever will be a teenager.
If you care to read Sybil’s Garage No. 7, I’ve made it available for free here.
I’ll leave you with “Ghost” from “In the Airplane Over the Sea.” I think the lyrics speak for themselves.
Ghost, ghost I know you live within me
Feel as you fly
In thunderclouds above the city
Into one that I
Loved with all that was left within me
Until we tore in two
Now wings and rings and there’s so many
Waiting here for you
And she was born in a bottle rocket, 1929
With wings that ring around a socket
Right between her spine
All drenched in milk and holy water
Pouring from the sky
I know that she will live for ever
She won’t ever die