Saturday, April 10, 2010

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Oh Sister

These are the lyrics to Jeff Mangum's unreleased song, written during the Aeroplane era, and available (as far as I know) only on a recording of his solo appearance at Aquarius Records in San Francisco, on July 4th, 1996. That recording is not listed on either the Wikipedia entry for Neutral Milk Hotel's discography (, nor is it on the normally very reliable Discogs page for Jeff Mangum himself (, so I'm not sure if it was ever formally released as anything more than just a fan-distributed bootleg, unlike the more common Live At Jittery Joe's, which was put out by Orange Twin in 2001. I've had the mp3s of these songs for a long time, probably 8 or 9 years now, so I no longer remember how I got them. That being said, I am 99% sure that I didn't buy a copy of the recording in a store. Each of the songs are available now, though, on the Los Angeles-based Aquarium Drunkard blog, at

I am posting the lyrics here because like most song lyrics available on the internet, they are only posted elsewhere on ugly, pop-up ridden sites, posted and re-posted with all previous mistakes unfixed. This transcription is my own, and isn't necessarily perfect, so if there's a question about particular words or phrases I chose, I have annotated them below (along with explanations, where appropriate). Here goes:

Oh Sister

"Oh, sister
Don’t be afraid of me
I won’t be nailing you down in the nursery
Just like the rest of them did with those watery,
Wandering fingers
With spit that was supposed to be (1)
Glorious and fine

And oh, sister,
Won’t you believe in me?
I only wanted to be hard on your family
Here with you now in Brazilian infirmary (2)
Your mother makes friends who get drunk calls from Germany
All of the time

And oh, sister,
Sweet brown in coloring (3)
I will be milking
With you making fun of me
Now that my moods are
Not what they used to be
There was no one alive laying next to me
For such a long time (4)

And oh, sister
Sweet brown and Beulah-ry (5)
Milk from your blisters on your grandmother’s jewelry
There in the parlor
All naked in front of me
Watching the lights from the cracks making archery
Animal designs

Rose Wallace Goldaline just moves her mouth over anything and
Fleshy free and flowering with oranges out in the open
But don’t you wake your sins again
She don’t need you or won’t fuck your friends,
And you, you’re American,
So important, boiling over
It proves she must still exist
She moves herself about her fist
And could never ever give a shit
Bout all those words your wasting
Again some pretty, bright and bubbly
Wondrous dream you learned to kill and clean and claim her as your own
But don’t you worry
All those dainty and dirty
Emotions just go away, fade out on their own

Sister, now that we’re grieving
Our fingers’ll falter, our lungs will be leaking
All over each other
Without even speaking, we’ll know that it’s over, and smile and go greeting
Whatever comes next

And oh, sister
You’re getting married
With some angry twister that you’ll have to carry home
Drunk every evening from
The cemetery,
If he makes it back
Half alive you can bury him
Under your sheets

Oh sister,
Now that we’re leaving
I cannot imagine
There is any meaning
Forgetting you ever could
Once have the feeling that
Made you keep on and continue your breathing
All over this world
And in an age of empty ring
I don’t want to feel a thing,
I don’t even want to know
Rose Wallace Goldaline, don’t you ever die on me,
All the way it goes and flows..." (6)

1 – This line is transcribed elsewhere as “fingers that slipped,” but I think that is incorrect. I base this not just on my repeated listens, but also the context of the song. “Slipped,” sort of makes sense, but “with spit” recalls the earlier description of the fingers as “watery,” and also more clearly—and chillingly—evokes the root of the sister’s fear, which is apparently a history of sexual abuse. The “rest of them” she fears aren’t explicitly named as family members, but I believe we can take them as such, because only family members would likely have had access to the child’s nursery to commit an assault in the first place.

2 – This line is transcribed elsewhere as “zillionth infirmary,” which is plausible, and makes sense if the sister has been subject to multiple sexual assaults, but the line that follows, which explicitly places the drunk phone calls from Germany, makes me believe Mangum is actually singing “Brazilian infirmary.”

Many Neutral Milk Hotel songs written in this era are inspired by Anne Frank and the Holocaust. Historically, aside from other countries across Europe, a large number of Nazis who survived the war and managed to evade capture frequently chose locations in South America to hide out, particularly Argentina and Brazil. I believe the mother in this song sits by her injured daughter’s side in a Brazilian hospital, where she befriends fellow Germans who also left Europe and still get calls from their homeland.

3 – The last word in this line is sometimes transcribed as “comely,” but the word Mangum sings pretty clearly has three syllables. “Coloring” fits, rhythmically, and also obviously within the context of the “sweet brown” description that precedes it.

4 – The six lines that start here with “I will be milking” and end with “such a long time,” are sung quickly and are difficult to clearly understand. Furthermore, the surrounding context provides several possible variants, instead of clear answers. In the rest of the band’s oeuvre, and more importantly, in this song’s companion piece “Oh Comely,” the image of milk is used to connote fertility and pregnancy. In “Ghost,” the song immediately following “Oh Comely” on the actual album, milk is mixed with holy water and blesses the birth of a child with a miraculous shower. Here, though, the usage is not as clear. If the sister is making fun of the speaker, we are lead to believe he’s ejaculating, but the next lines complicate that interpretation. If we take them to mean that the speaker is no longer the way he used to be, his “moods” changed because he lays in a pit surrounded by corpses, masturbation and ejaculation seem very unlikely. The actual meaning, then, in my opinion, is that the song is being sung after the deaths of the speaker and his sister, taken from the perspective of spirits in the afterlife.

The siblings have suffered deeply. The girl has been molested and killed. The brother lost his life in a mass-murder and was buried unceremoniously in a large grave with the bodies of many other victims. This interpretation not only fits here, but also helps explain the opening of the song, when the speaker tries to comfort his sister and ease her fear. The beginning portrays the moment the little girl’s spirit arrives in Heaven, and is reunited with her dead brother. The speaker has been there for a while and knows that the pain of the world is gone, but the girl has just gotten there and doesn’t yet realize that she has escaped from the crimes committed unto her in her life on Earth. If you accept this interpretation, the triumphant exclamation from “Ghost” really comes into focus: “And now she knows she’ll never be afraid…”

5 – I think this is the noun “Beulah” turned into an adjective, but these words are pretty hard to hear clearly. The female name Beulah comes from the Hebrew word for “married,” though, which fits the other parts of the song really well.

6 – Wow. Undeniably a masterpiece.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Neighbor

My neighbor was in Vietnam, and about two weeks ago, we heard this throbbing outside our door. It was a little after midnight, so at first I thought it was a car passing. After two minutes, I realized it was right by us, so it wasn’t passing by. It was audible, but faint, so about three minutes after that, I thought it might be my brother falling asleep with the TV a little loud. Maybe two minutes after that, I got up and went to the kitchen and looked through the blinds and tried to see what was out there, because there was no way my brother’s TV was that loud and he was still asleep, and there was no way he was listening to country music, either.

I looked outside and didn’t see anything, so I went and laid back down and thought about it and forgot about it. One of our neighbors, Steve, is a legendary drinker. He lives with his elderly mother, and is independently wealthy because he slipped on a patch of ice outside a hotel, and got hurt, and sued the corporation. He apparently got a ton of money. It wasn’t just a superfluous suit, either, apparently. My Mom told me that he had to have a colostomy bag for awhile after the accident. So I’m not sure exactly what organs or appendages were ruptured, but Jesus Christ, if it was serious enough to warrant a bag, we all thought, than he deserves that Mercedes wagon. The Mercedes wagon was missing a hubcap, also, which seemed sort of right.

Maybe two or three minutes later, I heard one of our inner doors opening and I knew my mom was awake and was coming out. She looked at me, half sleepy, and like me, half expected the noise to be coming from here, from within the house. It was instantly obvious that it wasn’t me, so she also parted the blinds and looked out and said, is that coming from Paul and Joanne’s? She opened the garage door and looked out the window that faces Paul and Joanne’s house, and sure enough, Paul’s truck was sitting in the driveway, its headlights were on, the engine was running, his driver door was open, country music was blasting out of the speakers, his leg was draped out over the door opening, and he was smoking a cigarette, even though he quit for Joanne maybe three years ago.

Probably only two days before this, we had a robbery on our street. A car had been broken into a couple years ago, but nothing appeared to be stolen. This time, though, Paul’s truck had been opened, and he lost something. Papers between the front two seats had been rifled through, and two of Paul’s handguns had been taken. My mom knew from Joanne that the guns were not registered. I said, this is how criminals get guns that are used in murders.

My mom looked out through our garage window, and said, I think it’s Paul. He’s sitting in his truck listening to music. The temperature at this time was maybe 19 or 20 degrees. My mom started putting on her slippers. I said, what are you doing? She said, it’s Paul out there, I think he’s been drinking, and she laughed. He’s sitting out there in his car. I said, Mom, do not go out there. Joanne is going to deal with it. If we can hear it in here, she can hear it from in their house, and she’ll be out in a second. Don’t go out there. She looked at me with her fleece pullover halfway over her arms and said, Danny, what if he had a heart attack? I need to go out there. I said, he didn’t have a heart attack, do not go out there. What if he just got robbed and that’s why he’s sitting there, maybe knocked out? Joanne will go outside in a second. My Mom said, I’m gonna go talk to him. My Mom secretly had a minor heart attack maybe two years ago. My brother was really upset. She told me the week it happened, and I was in Chicago, so what could I do? But I said, well, you know that you need to start eating healthier. I don’t know why she didn’t tell my brother then, but she didn’t. She eventually did. He was upset, I think even angry. My Mom went outside because she thought about heart attacks.

I un-paused the TV episode on my computer, and listened to our garage door open. The inner house door closed, and my Mom walked out.

Probably six or seven minutes went by. I watched TV, and I once got up to look outside, to check on my Mom. I didn’t see anything through the garage window, except the two beams from the headlights of Paul’s truck. My Mom came in after about nine minutes, shivering. I thought she was going to laugh about Paul blasting music outside while his damn wife was inside, not coming out, and not doing anything. Instead, she toed off her slippers and said, I forgot that Paul was in the war. He was in Vietnam. I didn’t say anything. She said, He said, Anne, sometimes when I listen to these tapes, and I think about the guys I knew over there, I get emotional. I get a little emotional. So he was listening to cassettes. My Mom went out there.