And all I really want is to be an honest-to-goodness teenager! (Anne Frank)
On Thursday night I revisited my youth. My friend Chloe and I joined hundreds of teenaged and twenty-something hipsters at the Corn Exchange to see Neutral Milk Hotel, with opening act Owl John. It’s been years since I’ve been to a gig. Yo La Tengo at Queens Hall in 2011. And around the same time I splurged on tickets to see the Dickies in Newcastle, but then mislaid them and didn’t go to the show. That was just as well: it would’ve required the added expense of train tickets and possibly even a night at a hostel. All that fuss, just for a show? What was I thinking?
Neutral Milk Hotel are a curiosity. They recorded two albums back in the 90’s and met with critical acclaim but limited success. After the second album they split up and stopped performing. But their music gradually gained traction among the indie underground and developed a cult following. One might say they’re the Big Star of this generation.
Strictly speaking, they’re not a band from my own youth. I only know of them via my brother, who sent me their second album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, circa 2000. At that point I was the lone mother of a young toddler. I had neither money nor inclination to buy or explore new music other than nursery rhyme compilations and the Singing Kettle, and I certainly didn’t get out to gigs. But I loved the album and it became one of my favourite pieces of music. It really is a beautiful creation, with surreal lyrics full of imagery based loosely on The Diary of Anne Frank, and with music and voice together evoking grief and longing and frustration and affection and a sort of dazed joy.
They’re not a band from my own youth, but the show took me right back and set me to communing with my teenaged self. It touched the same nerves, standing there in the crowd: the clashing impulses of attitude and insecurity, togetherness and separation, belonging and isolation. Only this time around, the clash doesn’t distress me. I hold the impulses together, in a paradoxical balance of positive and negative charge.
We scan the crowd, Chloe and I, people-watching and remarking on outfits and hairstyles. We must be the oldest ones here. We’ve been standing a long time and find ourselves bending our limbs and shifting our weight, to relieve the fatigue. Money on it that no one else in our vicinity has clocked the danger of deep vein thrombosis. At nine p.m. the main act still hasn’t started, and we marvel together that we’re out in a club at the hour we’re usually getting into bed. Later, during the performance, I fret that Julian Koster is wearing too many layers under the stage lights; he’s dripping sweat onto his synth equipment and risking electrocution. My teenaged self is no match for the mother-of-a-teenager in me.
So really: add to the heady mix of my evening the paradox of youth and age. Why else is Anne Frank’s life story so stingingly poignant? She desired so much yet lived so briefly. She dwelled in hiding yet lived so wholeheartedly. She wrote about her own tragic circumstances, in her own unique voice, yet reflected hopes and fears and wishes shared by everyone, young and old. She died a teenager and missed out on all the following chapters of her life.
I love the entire album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, but I have a special place in my heart for the penultimate track, an unnamed instrumental to which I always imagine the same: Anne Frank hiding among a crowd of modern-day teenagers in the mosh pit of some dark club. She’s wearing black tights and DM’s, and thrashing herself back and forth with utter abandon among the sweaty and throbbing kids crammed together in front of the stage.
Did they play this unnamed song the other night? They did. I stood only a few feet from the edge of the thrashers, and I watched out for her. Yes, yes her ghost was there among them: I saw her fleetingly among the different faces. I felt her stirring in my own heart – in the undertow of longing and the upsurge of joy. Deeply satisfying, and very much alive.