Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock
Gotham Books: 362 pp., $18
This is as scintillating as it gets: The opening and closing anecdotes of "Big Day Coming" revolve around typos. Shockingly, promoters and newspapers have had a chronic habit of misspelling the name of Yo La Tengo, the 26-year-old Hoboken, N.J., band whose members are the book's reluctant antiheroes.
"Yo La Tango," "Wo La Tengo," "Yo Lo Tengo" — Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and their multiple bassists have suffered through an endless stream of typos by writers who apparently don't speak Spanish. (The phrase means "I got it" and comes from baseball lore. Yo La Tengo has never had a Latino player.) Since Kaplan and Hubley spent the first part of their band's existence supporting themselves as copy editors, the sloppiness galled, deeply. "They kept a running tally," author Jesse Jarnow writes. God, no — not a tally!
Musician and journalist Jarnow scraped low to find dramatic tension in this oversized book about an undersized subject. That's not entirely his fault. While they have crafted some exquisitely artisanal music that has been considered the defining apotheosis of indie rock, Yo La Tengo's public image and personality have been quietly, purposely, well, dull. As Jarnow writes, Kaplan and Hubley are a couple who enjoy a good night of staying home to watch TV. On the book's cover, they lean against a plain white wall in long-sleeved, loose-fitting clothes that probably have moth holes. It doesn't look like they bothered to comb their hair. This is the indie aesthetic: an image that's anti-image, because the emphasis is on the sound.
There's something refreshing (theoretically at least) about a rock narrative devoid of sex and drugs. "Big Day Coming" is like the anti-"The Dirt" (Motley Crüe's notoriously depraved memoir), the un-"Behind the Music." This is a new kind ofrock 'n' rollbiography, a genre that may have been started by Dean Wareham's 2008 memoir "Black Postcards." In fact, with confessions of a night spent in Hamburg, Germany's fabled red-light district, Wareham's book reads like a modern "Hammer of the Gods" after the viceless "Big Day Coming."
Jarnow does an excellent job of documenting YLT's evolution from tentative folk-rock nerds to an assured, expansive combo equally adept at noise jams, blue-eyed soul, jangly pop and space jazz. He's as encyclopedic in his coverage of their various obscure singles and live shows as YLT is in its tasteful knowledge base. The group started as a cover band, fronted by then-rock critic Kaplan, and, by Jarnow's count, has played more than 1,000 songs by other people — Yo La Tengo are is a virtuoso of repertoire.
But this is strictly insider baseball (if there's one thing the band's members love as much as rare grooves, it's baseball) for serious fans. It's hard to imagine that there's a large audience for "Big Day Coming." After all, the book's title is ironic: YLT never really hit it big. Sure, a few albums sold a couple of hundred thousand copies, and they even had a top 10 single ("Nuclear War"). But in the grand scheme of pop music, they're just a strong, steady vertebrae out on what Chris Anderson calls "the Long Tail."
Digressing into histories of such ancillary topics as the Hoboken music scene, Matador Records, South by Southwest and Pitchfork Media, Jarnow does try to tell a story that's larger than these three reserved individuals (James McNew became the band's permanent bassist in 1991).
But he misses the Big Picture. Questions he doesn't ask: What alternative version of domesticity have Georgia and Ira created by devoting their relationship to making music rather than babies and homes? What's the connection between indie rock and class? Specifically, what role did bands such as Yo La Tengo and the Feelies play in the gentrification of Italian, working-class Hoboken? Are the earmarks of indie-rock aesthetics, such as vintage instruments and vinyl collections, just examples of what the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu has called cultural capital — in other words, status symbols? By connecting with an ever-growing network of like-minded musicians, filmmakers, artists, writers and comedians, have Yo La Tengo truly helped forge an alternative to late capitalism?
Yo La Tengo has made some beautiful music: "Barnaby, Hardly Working" could have been written by Bob Dylan and played by the Beatles. But it's always allowed the music to be its narrative because the members are private people who philosophically and emotionally shun celebrity and because their stories just aren't that interesting. The most fascinating part of "Big Day Coming" recounts how Hubley's late filmmaker parents, Faith and John, battled with Disney and anti-communists, fled Hollywood and crafted an art-driven animation aesthetic in Manhattan. That dedication to principle is what being independent really means.... Forget the collections of out-of-print 45s and old issues of Forced Exposure.
McDonnell is an assistant professor of journalism and new media at Loyola Marymount University.