FINAL SCORE: (1) NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL 54, (13) The Church 49
(13) The Church, "Under the Milky Way"
(13) The Church, "Under the Milky Way"
Analysis by Juan Diaz
“Fish is flesh, fish is flesh,” he kept yelling, “fish is flesh,” not at anyone in particular (though there were a few butler types scrambling around), but maybe at the occasional assumption that vegetarians are only averse to meat. Being a vegetarian myself, I thought the rest of the spread contained more than enough selections to please even a vegan palate. But Marty wouldn’t have it. The salmon did look pink and lively next to the dead grains and vegetables demanded by The Church’s rider. Everything smelled wonderful to me. Compared to the boiled cabbage we got in Germany, this buffet was luxury.
It was Lausanne, France, if memory serves me right. My band, Nuclear Valdez, opened The Church on a 3 month European tour. They were promoting their Starfish album, which contained the hit, “Under The Milky Way.” My other 3 bandmates usually scurried off after our show, but I stuck around to hear their set almost every night. I’d watch from backstage, from the audience: perspectives are important. But mostly because their music was growing on me. Before this tour, I’d only heard “Unguarded Moment” and a couple of other tunes. They’d add a song one night, remove one on another, maybe to avert boredom, but overall their nightly sets contained certain songs from their repertoire. You know how when you listen to an album, and it’s okay, but the more you listen the more it grows on you and eventually could become a lifetime favorite? I was experiencing this with the Church in a live setting with the added visual.
The Church consisted of three Aussies and one brit, Marty being the latter. Not sure why, but other than Marty, the other three guys kept to themselves, didn’t speak much and lived up to that introverted “college alternative” vibe that Hope Sandoval has perfected.
It was in Spain not long after the French fish is flesh incident that Marty and I had a conversation about who knows what, that lead to Kate Bush and voila, he turned out to be as huge a fan of KT as I was. Not only that, he was a record collector too. We talked about each other’s collectible Kate items, had some drinks, promises of exchanges were made and kept. After the tour, for a while, we traded cassettes of each other’s Kate rarities. He had bootlegs, I had bootlegs, and mix tapes were made. That night in Spain, he told me that there are sparse copies of the Kate Bush, “Hounds of Love” 12” that are double grooved—not all of them—but some, and he owned one. Thing is, if you own one, and you can get the needle into the secondary groove, there is a whole other mix of the song on it. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of this. But on one of the cassettes he mailed, you could hear him patiently laying the needle down on the groove over twenty times before he found the mystery groove, and sure enough, there was another mix of "Hounds of Love."
If anyone is interested, Marty Willson-Piper has a music blog titled In Deep Music Archive. Check it here if you will.
Juan Diaz started in music distribution and later managed a few record stores, both indie and corporate. Moonlighting after work with his band, Nuclear Valdez, they secured a major label deal in 1989, released two album and two videos: it was a fun 3 year run. He's since been selling collectible vinyl online for the past 15 years.
(1) Neutral Milk Hotel, “Two Headed Boy”
Analysis by Lawrence Lenhart
Before coming face-to-face-to-face with Jim and Joe at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum (a physician’s college dedicated to displaying medical oddities), I had never before considered that Neutral Milk Hotel’s eponymous “Two-Headed Boy” might be literal. I had thought the two-headed boy was a metaphorical Janus looking simultaneously to the past and future. Or, as a high school girlfriend suggested: just sexual innuendo, the second head being the character’s glans penis (or “head” of the penis), which at the time, seemed congruous with all the sexual imagery elsewhere on the record (most conspicuously: “semen stains the mountain tops”).
In 2005, John Strausbaugh of the New York Times described the Jim-and-Joe exhibit in the Gretchen Worden Room as a “green-tinged corpse of a two-headed baby, sleeping in a bath of formaldehyde.” When we saw it, I leaned in with a friend, our own skulls momentarily conjoining as she ghouled the lyric: “all floooating in glass.” Staring at Jim and Joe—oh, how Mütter courts the “post-mortem gaze”—I muttered through the lyrics again. In the album’s last moments (during “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2”), the grim leitmotif from the original returns for a few measures until Mangum slides out his chair and sets down his studio guitar indefinitely.
What’s most surprising about this song is the way the two-headed boy deflects the circus audience’s gaze (presumably, they “dance ‘round the room to accordion keys” for a Barnum-like sideshow). The two-headed boy pays the gaze forward to Anne Frank whose diary they mutually pore over in their adolescence. I had at some point projected this gaze onto the famous postcard album art, the defaced (perhaps moon-faced) woman, Anne, implicitly dividing two boys who tread the ocean backdrop with only their heads buoying above water.
I consider my friend Jeevan an aficionado of conjoined twins. An anti-Barnum, he writes poems about these fused bodies without resorting to vulgar fetishizing. When I recommended he listen to Neutral Milk Hotel’s song, he nodded as if he’d endured that suggestion one too many times. “I plan on it,” he said. If Jeevan was indifferent to NMH, then my father was flat-out averse.
He used to drive me to basketball practice in the winters, playing cassettes on the way to the Sewickley gymnasium (Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” Eagles’ “Hotel California,” etc.). He had a whole catalog of songs he was determined to convince me were the best ever written. On the way home, with a basketball between my sneakers, I tried my hand at the reciprocal task. I replaced his cassette with a cassette adapter, a deck with a short 3.5-mm audio cable, which plugged into my Sony Sports Walkman Portable CD Player whose spindle motor spun a CD pressed with the image of a flying Victrola phonograph. The radio-cum-cassette-cum-CD-cum-phonograph is reminiscent of the two-headed boy’s convoluted player: “with pulleys and weights / creating a radio played just for two.”
My dad claimed to hate Mangum’s voice, which disappointed me because I was trying to think of a manly way to tell him that Mangum’s gliding snarl, particularly the non-lexical vocables at the end of “Two-Headed Boy” (“deee da-dee da-dee-da dee-eee”) reminded me of his ancient lullabying to Bing Crosby’s “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral.” The syllables even sounded like “daddy.” Despite his antipathy, I persisted in playing the album all basketball season long, convinced that if he heard it enough times, he’d start to like it (like a jingle on a commercial).
Not long after that basketball season, I quit organized sports and became the lead singer of a punk band. Before one of our shows, the venue organizer offered to give me screaming lessons. I finished putting on my eyeliner, and he told me to scream as he muscled my diaphragm with his thumbs. “Like that,” he said. “Like that.” Minutes later, my band performed a screamo medley of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, including the lyrics: “when all is breaking / and everything that you could keep beside...” This is the moment, perhaps, of the two-headed boy’s lethal separation, paving the way for Pt. 2 in which the remaining twin chronicles his survivor’s guilt. The song itself is surgically separated across the album.
The song ends melancholically on Christmas: “two-headed boy / there is no reason to grieve / the world that you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves / left beneath Christmas trees in the snow.” I think of how my uncle revives his antique trumpet on Christmas Eves and performs “Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire” with comic embouchure, discreet strain. Once, before reinterring the instrument in its velvet-lined case, I asked him to play me the interlude melody of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” I hummed the notes, and he trumpeted them back. In the trumpet’s bell, I could see his head’s reflection. It was a feat of brassy craniopagus. As he played the melody, the image portended the album’s next song, “Two-Headed Boy.” He let me borrow the trumpet to see if I could learn to play it on my own. I failed to replicate the melody, instead sputtering as I depressed the finger buttons asynchronously. I called him twice on the phone for quick lessons on embouchure. I watched instructional YouTube videos. Eventually, I surrendered to the trumpet (“will wait until the point when you let go”). Sick of looking at my own failing reflection achieving nothing but spit in the mouthpiece, two heads not better than one, I gave my lips a rest and bought a kazoo.
Lawrence Lenhart holds an MFA from The University of Arizona. His essay collection, Isolating Transgression, will be published in Fall 2016 (Outpost19). His prose appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He is a professor of fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.