Jesse Jarnow wrote the book on Yo La Tengo, and the metro area's early-'80s indie scene
Right in the middle of Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, Jesse Jarnow’s superb new chronicle of the little Hoboken band that could—and did, and will likely continue to do until one or all of them fall over, which Gotham published this week—is a story that exemplifies the band more, perhaps, than any other.
It’s January 1990 at WFMU, the East Orange F.M. station on the Upsala College campus, and an episode of Nick Hill's Music Faucet show is taping. As they frequently are at this time, Yo La Tengo—guitarist-keyboardist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew, who all sing—are in the studio, having just played, when Daniel Johnston—the schizophrenic singer-songwriter whose “Speeding Motorcycle” Yo La Tengo have just recorded—calls in. Over the phone, Johnston starts singing the song and the band, instruments in hand, starts following along. Neither side can really hear the other, but somehow they pull it off.
That’s Big Day Coming in a nutshell—a history not just of a major-league indie rock band’s life and times, but of a group of music fans who get just as much satisfaction from collaborating with their peers and heroes as they do making fans of their own. And that’s just the beginning.
Like Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Will Hermes’ 2011 chronicle of NYC music between 1973 and 1977, Big Day Coming is as much a dizzyingly detailed map of the interrelations between Yo La Tengo’s members and their overall environment—which seem endless even before Jarnow lays his intensive research out. For example, the band’s habit of going way off-path while touring to find good restaurants, guided by Jane and Michael Stern’s book Roadfood, would inspire the bassist of late-’80s New York indie rockers Mofungo, Robert Sietsema, first to start the food zine Down the Hatch, then to pursue food writing full-time—which he’s been doing for more than a decade at the Village Voice.
But the band itself tends toward more modest pleasures, however intense its music can sometimes be. When Yo La Tengo filmed the video for 1997’s “Sugarcube” with a group of regulars from HBO’s “Mr. Show,” including David Cross and Bob Odenkirk—the beginning of the band’s association with the stand-up comedy world—McNew was so psyched that he made sure to hit the hay by 9 p.m. the first night of the two-day shoot.
“That was a perfect day,” he said. “I don’t want anything else to happen today.”
Jarnow’s emphasis on the band’s community-minded aspects comes out of his own background, which shares plenty with Yo La Tengo’s. He’s a WFMU D.J., like Kaplan—who does fill-in slots as “Ira the K,” a nod to New York rock-radio legend Murray the K—and his band, Sloppy Heads, played on a bill with the McNew-led Dump last year in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“The really good food in Charlottesville was Riverside Lunch, a burger joint, which we topped off with some pretty decent hot dogs across the street at Jack & Jill’s,” said Jarnow, reminiscing of his food adventures with Yo La Tengo over the phone. He was walking down Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, and at one point noted his passing by the Matador Records offices. (Matador has been Yo La Tengo’s label since 1993.)
“But definitely the best food I had in the line of Yo La Tengo duty was Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville”—not incidentally, the eatery the band named three songs for, two on 1995’s Electr-O-Pura, the other on 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One.
That coziness is emblematic of both Yo La Tengo’s appeal—as Robert Christgau wrote, the band’s version of “paradise not only has room for error, it revels in the human-scale joys of inexpertise.” As Jarnow’s book also makes plain, that means the usual rock-bio emphasis on albums as mile markers is softened here. Sure, Yo La Tengo’s C.D.s are enumerated and largely celebrated. But there’s plenty of outliers, and not just the band’s: the VHS edition of Mike McGonigal’s zine Chemical Imbalance, or an early privately pressed cassette of proto-and-post-no-wave New York rock, Tape #1. How much of that stuff was in Jarnow’s collection before he began?
“This is a dirty little secret, but I come out of a Deadhead background,” said Jarnow. “So I’ve always been a tape collector. I’ve always been into bootlegs and outtakes and sessions and things like that. I had accumulated as much Yo La Tengo stuff as I possibly could have, just based on BitTorrent sites. A good deal of that stuff also came because there’s this website Sunsquashed that I found myself at frequently, staring googly-eyed at Yo La Tengo tape lists and annotation. One of the very first things I did after the book deal came through was send that guy an email: ‘I’m officially writing this book. I’d really love to hear every single thing you have.’ He was nice enough that I had a hard drive shipped to him, and he sent all that back to me. But I probably had 30, 40 Yo La Tengo shows before that, and I had seen maybe 30 or 40 shows at that point as well, most of them Hanukkah shows. I saw them every chance I could get.”
The Hanukkah shows, of course, are the band’s legendary annual eight-night stands at Maxwell’s, the Hoboken rock club whose history is enumerated at length in “Big Day Coming,” along with those of Matador, WFMU, and Hoboken bands the Feelies and the dB’s. The book’s anthropological bent, Jarnow said, was inspired by one of his favorite books, The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience, by the late Billboard editor Timothy White.
“It uses [the Beach Boys] as a jumping off point to talking about all this other stuff that's going on,” said Jarnow. “The development of southern California culture, car culture, surfing, fast food, and the way the Beach Boys took over pop culture. It's incredibly researched: [White] went deep into the Wilson family history and traced them back to the Midwest. But also it really fascinated me because that story has so much dirt in it—Dennis Wilson marrying Mike Love’s alleged stepdaughter, things like that. That’s not what Timothy White does. He thought that they illustrated something more interesting than digging up dirt, this bigger American narrative. I definitely didn’t put it in terms that grandiose when I was presenting the idea to the band, but that was my reference point.”
Yo La Tengo are highly protective of their privacy, and one of the book’s running motifs (along with the fact that everyone misspells the group’s name) is that Kaplan and Hubley, who are married and who manage the band, tend to cogitate and meditate on every decision, ultimately to their benefit. That was the case when Jarnow (pictured at right) suggested writing a book about them.
“Definitely, absolutely, unquestionably, they took time to warm to the idea,” he said. “I don't know if they ever fully warmed up to it, to be honest. They really love playing music and really love doing what they do, but they're not enthusiastic about going out and selling themselves. It was probably four or five months after I initially asked them before they gave me the OK. And it took a little talking; I don't think it took much convincing, but it definitely took some talking. Somebody had wanted to do a documentary at some point, and they thought that was a little too invasive. They certainly weren't clamoring to have somebody write a book about them—not that there's anything super-salacious in their past.”
Did Jarnow realize immediately upon conceiving the book that it would be, as much as anything, about the group’s many cultural enthusiasms?
“No,” he said. “That definitely came as I started researching. I guess I knew the form of it: I would use their early years to tell the story of Maxwell's and that kind of stuff. The enthusiasms part actually came when I started talking to them. It seemed like that was the real thing that motivated them and got them all individually interested in participating in the music world around them. It was underscored when I started digging into Ira's old columns for the SoHo Weekly News and New York Rocker and reading those. For me, that was one of the most fun parts of the research, because it was reading his singles reviews columns from the middle of 1978. There was stuff I was familiar with on those lists and in those columns, but just as much stuff [I wasn’t].”
It seems like a lot of musicians who used to be journalists play down the journalism part to some degree, but for Kaplan it's not that way.
“My sense is that he remains pretty enthusiastic and proud of the fact that he worked on New York Rocker. I don’t think he’s been in any great hurry to put together anthologies of his writing. He was really enthusiastic and loved music. Writing about music was a way for him to be involved in the music world. It wasn’t like somebody like Byron Coley, who is a contemporary at the Rocker, who really had something to say and was passionate about being a writer. I think Ira’s reason for doing it was because he was a fan and that was a way to manifest that. Ultimately, the band was a way of manifesting his extreme fandom and his extreme passion for music and figuring out how to make that work for him.”
Kaplan’s early writing had been a draw for Jarnow well prior to the conception of Big Day Coming. He’d find stray writings here and there, such as Kaplan’s Top 10 singles of 1981 (scroll down), but it wasn’t until well into writing Big Day Coming that Kaplan’s brother Neil told Jarnow about the three years’ worth of columns Ira had done for the SoHo Weekly News.
“Before I even had thought about writing a book about Yo La Tengo, I was a dorky Yo La Tengo fan, and there would be times when I would fall into Internet wormholes just trying to learn, ‘How the hell did they record this double 7-inch with Other Dimensions in Music? What was that all about?’” he said.
One striking thing about Big Day Coming is that you don't just realize just how many bassists Yo La Tengo had before McNew joined in 1991—the index lists 17 altogether, in alphabetical order (“I’m annoyed about that,” said Jarnow, who’d put them in chronologically; “I’m really hoping that gets corrected in the digital version, or hopefully if it makes it to a second printing, in the second printing”)—but that most of them are still in good standing with the band, a few rejoining them onstage over the years. So, does Yo La Tengo get along with its ex-members better than any band ever, or what?
“I’d probably say yes,” said Jarnow. “Certainly they have that amount of ex-members, a large sample size. But yes.”
Jarnow, who is 33, came to the band in college, falling for 2000’s And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out the year before graduating from Oberlin. Moving to Brooklyn to become a music journalist, he wrote his first Yo La Tengo profile for the avant-garde music magazine Signal to Noise.
“That was leading up to when Summer Sun came out,” he said, referring to the band’s 2003 album. “That was when they became one of my favorite bands. The deeper I went the more I found there was to know and hear. And that was when I was really beginning to start seeing them every single time I possible could, because they would always be different.”