Monday, August 20, 2012

Book review: "Big Day Coming. Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock"

My own personal relationship with the music of Hoboken's own Yo La Tengo began, er, inauspiciously.

I thought they sucked.

It was 1987 (I think) in Philadelphia (I am sure about that part). I also think it was October, but don't hold me to that, and it was a two-gig (for me) day. I definitely remember that part.

First, I went to the Chestnut Cabaret to see Sonic Youth with Live Skull opening. SY were in a Sister/EVOL state of mind and Live Skull were (I believe) sporting *both* Thalia Zedek and Marnie Greenholz at the time. Yeah.... *intense* is a good word to describe it all.

Then, minds blown by distortion, we wandered over to JC Dobbs to see Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliff of the Windbreakers -- an '80s janglepop indie band that I was all revved up about at the time. Opening were Yo La Tengo. I actually had heard of YLT, but I thought at the time that they were one of those bands that writers start when they are bored at the moment of the life of a scribe, but fully intending to get back to the main writing gig relatively soon. You know.... a "fun" thing. I think I knew of Ira Kaplan from his days at New York Rocker. I certainly, as a Trouser Press devotee who was still reeling from the 1984 demise of *that* fine mag, knew the difference between the only two Iras I had ever heard of (give me a break... I grew up in an Irish Catholic family near Philly.... we didn't have Iras. We had Joeys and Billys and Mikes) -- Robbins and Kaplan.

Anyway, perhaps it was a little unfair to try to watch anything as quiet as 1987 YLT right after the sheer shrieking scrungosity of the SY/LS dynamo.

But I hated them. OK, "hate" is a strong word. I was bored. Yeah, bored. I wondered why the drummer appeared to be just tapping along and singing backups but I couldn't hear her vocals at all. I wondered why the bass player looked like he wanted to be somewhere else. I wondered why the writer dude up front was mumbly. I dubbed them the "Velvet Mumbleground." I could hear a pretty obvious VU influence, but they didn't seem to be wielding that particular talisman very deftly. Their dynamics were not very dynamic, at least in comparison to what I had just witnessed, and I just kinda wanted the Windbreakers to get onstage in their various configurations of the time. (As I recall, Bobby Sutliff and Tim Lee were playing separately, but then a little together and then Tim and the rest of the band were taking it from there. True story: I liked 'em plenty that night, as I recall, but I haven't played a Windbreakers record in twenty years).

So, yeah, my take on YLT that night was just sort of meh. I just assumed they were a one-album band, and I wasn't going to be quick to buy the album.

Not surprisingly, their second record passed me by. I remember reading a review of the third one -- President Yo La Tengo -- and there was a bit of a buzz that, at least for part of the record, they had turned up the amps and begun to rock more. I want to say that NC writer Fred Mills wrote that review, but it may have been someone else with whom I tended to agree at the time. In any event, not being the sort to hold a grudge, and liking the reviewer, I refiled YLT in my brain as "maybe worth checking out again."

The boredom had changed to, uh, an uncommitted "maybe?"

But, honestly, I was really slow to get back to them.

I think it all changed via a Fred Mills review again, in 1995. He called Electr-O-Pura the best album of the year.

Really? Yo La Tengo? I didn't really believe the *degree* of the praise, but I respected Fred Mills a lot so I figured there was something going on there worth checking out.

I bought it. I liked it. I did *not* think it was the best album of the year, but I genuinely liked it. I found cheap, possibly used, copies of May I Sing With Me? and Painful. I liked them better, particularly parts of them. I thought "From a Motel 6" was one of the coolest damn things ever. I think I even bought, and liked a lot of, President Yo La Tengo.

But true love takes time.

I bought I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One in 1998 (yes, the year *after* it was released; I wasn't in a hurry) and there was, once again, much, um, like. I remember thinking, at the time, two thoughts: (1) "I am really starting to dig this band," and (2) "Despite the remembered horrors of eleven years earlier, I might need to go see them live sometime."

Then, I remember reading a review of the band's New Year's Eve ('98 into '99) show in Philly. They opened it with "New Day Rising" by Husker Du.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" I remember thinking. Apparently all the mumblyjumblies from 1987 were gone, because no one -- no one-- would dare do New Day Rising as a gig opener unless it were a full-throttle onslaught of awesome.

Added to my feeling of despair from having missed this performance was that, at the time, I had been across town seeing a New Year's Eve show by Son Volt.

Son Volt.

A New Year's Eve show by Son Volt is like every other show by Son Volt.
Sorry if they are your thing. They were actually still sort of *my* thing at the time, although entirely based upon the then-fading hope that Uncle Tupelo would someday get back together, but let's be serious: I missed awesome for A Confederacy of Dullsville.

And yes.... Oh the irony: the band that delivered awesome that night (YLT) were the ones I had thought were dull in 1987. A karmic fuckstick, I tell ya.

My position had morphed into: "The next chance I have to see Yo La Tengo live, I am *on* it. I am on it if I have to go see them myself. I will go to New York or Hoboken if necessary. I need to see this band."

Apparently true love just required a Husker Du cover.

Then Matador Records threw a 10th-anniversary party in NYC featuring: Yo La Tengo, among others. Indeed, to stretch the karmic fuckstick to the nearly unbreakable point, the same night that YLT headlined that show, Thalia Zedek's band Come was on the bill.

Digest *that* one.

(Apparently, for me, all entries (or exits) from the YLT universe-o-sphere must be made with an earlier appearance by Ms. Zedek).

Anyway, YLT were wonderful. The set featured some NYC horn players who made it all jazzy and jammy at times, and it was a perfect re-entry into the zone from which I had made so nonplussed a retreat so many years earlier.

I was hooked.

And, so off I went: a Philly gig a short time later at a crazy round theatre at UPenn that my memory banks swear included a "(Straight Down to the) Bitter End" as an opener (but a certain book that, I swear, I am going to begin reviewing soon, seems to imply that the band didn't play that song live until much later) and that I *know* included an "I Heard You Looking" that made me think: "Oh, they have *so* nailed that VU thing"; a NYE ('99 into '00) gig at Maxwell's that was, I believe, the first show my now-wife Jamie and I ever attended as a couple, and which began -- I shit you not-- with the band wearing gorilla suits, playing T.Rex's "20th Century Boy," and got even *better* from there. And those gigs were relatively "normal" in the grand scheme of what followed.

Over the ensuing years, I saw them at Hannukah shows at Maxwell's, with the likes of Ray Davies and David Johansen jumping onstage to do, respectively, Kinks and New York Dolls songs that had me grinning ear to ear ("Who Are the Mystery Girls" particularly stands out as a double-grinner). And there were Philly shows that not only involved various cats from Sun Ra's Arkestra joining the band to turn already amazing versions of things like "Little Honda" into skronkified wonderfests, and there was even the time I still can't believe Georgia didn't punch me, or tell me to fuck off.

Jamie and I were eating dinner in a Thai restaurant near the Trocadero, the site of the gig that night, and I saw Georgia waiting for a table. And I was polite. I am always polite when approaching a band, but still.... This was dinner, and I had a lot of fucking nerve interrupting her.

Me: "Hey, I don't wanna be The Guy Who Bothers Bands in Restaurants, but is there any chance you guys could do 'Borstal Breakout?'"

Georgia (laughing....*Laughing*, not punching, mind you): "Yeah, sure, we can probably fit that in."

I thanked her.

In case you are not hip to what I was requesting. Sham 69's punk-shouter anthem is not what you would expect from YLT, but I had read somewhere that they did it previously. I really love that song. Cut to one of the encores.... Ira says, "Someone asked for this one," and, after an instrument switch, they did a ridiculous, thrashy, goofball, joyous version of BB that had me laughing and shouting along.

Double true love may require a Sham 69 cover.

I was double-true-love hooked forever.

I was even *still* double-true-love hooked when I wrote to the band in 2004 when the Swing State Tour was coming through Philly, and I requested "Shake Some Action" by the Flamin' Groovies and Ira said they would play it, and I stood outside the venue pre-show and *heard* them rehearsing it at soundcheck, and then they.... forgot to play it. Ira at the merch table afterwards when I asked him: "Oh SHIT!!! I don't know what to say. We forgot."

And so I kept going to a YLT Hannukah show most years, and catching them when I could otherwise, and being dazzled by the Random Awesomeness of It All.

And, let me be clear, the post-Heart-Beating albums have been a little hit and miss for me. There is always something that lives in that loud/soft world -- that I love oh-so much -- for me to latch onto on those ones, whether it is "Cherry Chapstick" or the loud alternate version of "Today is the Day," or the hilariously titled (if you know how often their name has been misspelled) "Story of Yo La Tango" or the smoking noise-groove of "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind." But I haven't *always* dug every bit of The Quiet(er) Years and I would be lying if I said that everything YLT touches is gold for me even now.

But, really, what other band brings the sheer level of genius/encyclopedic knowledge of the awesome portions of The Canon of Rock (and their own catalog, for that matter) to the table with the possibility of such extreme levels of payoff at a gig? Whether it is the aforementioned Special Guest Appearances or the chance that they will let loose on, say, "Mushroom Cloud of Hiss," a YLT gig can make you laugh and cry and rock and wonder like, well, maybe no other band at this point.

Which brings us -- after thousands of words of babble -- to the point of all this blahblahblah. Jesse Jarnow has a book -- a wonderful book -- called, "Big Day Coming. Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock."

It is encyclopedic, like the band it covers. It is thorough, addressing with as much details the "lean" years -- even, apparently, referencing that 1987 Philly gig that made me not much a fan early on (spoiler: the band liked the crowd as little as I liked the band that night) -- as the "potent" ones. Even the pre-lean years are in here, when Ira was a critic more than a musician.

Best of all, it perfectly captures the singular combination of joy and workmanship with which this talented band approaches its craft.

And it all makes me love this band even more. You learn how jealously YLT guard their privacy, yet how open they are with their fans and their art, inviting friends to join them on tour playing instruments that said friends don't even really play all that often, and, always, hitting the hidden gems of restaurants along the way for high-quality Road Food.

Hell, it even makes me commit myself to re-exploring every note of the albums that make up The Quiet(er) Years, because I have learned from YLT and Jesse Jarnow that sometimes pushing the musical envelope is a virtue unto itself.

This is a hell of a book. I just devoured it on a trip to California in between hiking among majestic peaks and shimmering lakes. It was perfect. And, really, you should buy it if you are a YLT fan like me, or just a Hardcore Music Dork Devoted to All Things Rock. Oh, and, speaking of things to love for us Hardcore Music Dorks, at least the Philly ones like me, YLT are playing Philly in less than three weeks.

Maybe they'll even do "Shake Some Action."

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

1 comment:

  1. What a brilliant love story.

    I've loved them awhile too, and count one of their gigs in my Top Five Top Gigs of All Time. It was at the Barbican in London about fifteen years ago, when they played their magnificent score for Painlevé's 1920s natural history film, 'The Sounds of Science'. The film is mesmerising, other-worldly and utterly beautiful, so YLT were more than up to the job. I've tried to recreate the night at home with a DVD and a CD, but it just wasn't the same. I just visit in my memory now and again, which is fine.

    And I'm so impressed by that Borstal Breakout anecdote...