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Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo & the Rise of Indie Rock

By David M. Goldstein | 3 August 2012

Yo La Tengo is in a tiny way responsible for my marriage. They had always been a band I had admired without ever truly appreciating, and I found both their multi-decade existence and extensive discography daunting. I needed a proper gateway. This was achieved in August of 2004, when my future wife, somewhat appalled at my lack of YLT knowledge, force fed me the entirety of I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997), followed by the six or so other Yo La Tengo records she owned (because nobody owns just one). How was this band, that melded both my love of Grateful Dead-inspired improvisation to Velvets guitar sprawl with judicious genre-hopping under my nose this entire time? Heart was released the summer before my freshman year of college. How could I have wasted so much time listening to the likes of Gay Dad and String Cheese Incident when I should have been at Yo La Tengo shows?

As our relationship progressed, I grew to appreciate several of my wife’s qualities aside from the excellence of her record collection. But I knew deep down that should we ever part, I’d have an impossible time listening to Yo La Tengo ever again, and would fear bumping into her at gigs, so that was that. We walked down the aisle to “Our Way to Fall” off of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000). Truly this is a band that inspires, encourages, geekdom.

And believe me when I tell you that freelance journalist and first-time novelist Jesse Jarnow is that kind of geek. A sprawling, ambitious first effort that could have only been penned by a fellow who takes his vinyl collection far too seriously, what Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo & the Rise of Indie Rock sometimes lacks in narrative cohesion, it more than makes up for in its staggering attention to detail and random minutiae. Jarnow treats the history of ’80s indie with as much reverence as a Civil War Historian would for Gettysburg, interviewing over eighty individuals with ties to the band, and plumbing the archives of both forgotten New York City rock zines and Hoboken, New Jersey. And frankly, this is a 300-level class as far as rock literature goes; Jarnow assumes the reader already has a baseline of both Yo La Tengo and indie-knowledge prior to picking Big Day Coming up. The target audience will not be hearing the name of Matador Records founder Gerard Cosloy for the first time. But they probably didn’t know that he got his start reviewing Mission of Burma’s debut EP for his high school paper (under the headline “Art is a Hammer,” natch), and that the band returned the favor by hiding his underage body behind amplifiers at their gigs, thus avoiding the bouncers.

If this kind of advanced indie trivia sounds appealing, then Big Day Coming will provide numerous reasons to revisit. Jarnow uses Yo La Tengo as a conduit through which to unite three separate narrative threads: a thorough history of the band itself; an overview of the tiny clubs, college radio stations, and record stores comprising the ’80s indie-rock network; and a history of the City of Hoboken, New Jersey. In particular, there’s a huge emphasis on the Hoboken rock club-cum-restaurant Maxwell’s—the site of countless Yo La Tengo shows, home to New Jersey’s best chicken pot pie, and the axis upon which all of Big Day Coming spins. Jarnow would argue (not unconvincingly) it was as culturally significant a launching pad for young bands in the ’80s as CBGB was a few years prior, and the multiple sections of the book in which he details the venue’s evolution from a non-descript watering hole with a Sinatra-only jukebox to its current incarnation (with an unsuccessful pit stop as a brewpub) are amongst Big Day Coming‘s most enjoyable.

Elsewhere, Big Day Coming paints the evolution of Yo La Tengo as a very gradual, casual affair, with frontman Ira Kaplan representing that rarest brand of indie wish fulfillment: the highly opinionated rock critic who graduates to front a cultishly adored rock band. Kaplan and his wife, Tengo drummer Georgia Hubley, began as a shambolic covers act designed to rock friends’ parties, always making sure to hold down a steady stream of copy editing gigs prior to making Yo La Tengo a full time thing in the early ’90s. They would also cycle through fifteen bassists in seven years, until hitting pay dirt with James McNew in 1991. The latter was initially acquired on loan from the Boston-based band Christmas. In addition to a thorough Yo La Tengo history, Big Day Coming is also especially deft in detailing the creation of Matador Records and the impetus behind the early ’90s alt-rock signing blitz where bands like Shudder to Think and the Boredoms somehow landed on major labels. The anecdotes taken from Yo La Tengo’s side stage gigs on the 1995 edition of Lollapalooza are fascinating, if decidedly unglamorous, where the opportunity to reach their largest crowds to date and play ping-pong with Pavement barely outweighs Kaplan’s description of “many long drives and summer heatwaves, [and] gigantic parking lots with no shade.”

Melding the story of a twenty-five-year-old band to the history of both the ’80s underground and a New Jersey city is an ambitious undertaking, and Big Day Coming occasionally threatens to buckle under its own density. The transitions between chapters are often confusing, and even with an interviewee list in the book’s appendix, the sheer amount of names within requires constant backtracking to fully process. Narrative cohesion is sometimes sacrificed in the name of exhaustive minutiae, and again, Jarnow is operating on the assumption that the reader will have heard Yo La Tengo songs before, as there’s minimal insight as to what the band actually sounds like, or their songwriting process.

But so long as one approaches Big Day Coming as a geek-level tome for hardcore fans, it’s generally a delight, containing numerous factoids to enliven your dinner party while that Feelies vinyl spins in the background. One such nugget: not only did the resident food critic for New York’s Village Voice weekly once play bass in a no-wave era band called Mofungo, but he only arrived at his eventual calling when Ira Kaplan piloted the Mofungo tour van for a week in 1987, and purposely went way off the beaten path in the name of finding amazing things to eat. There’s also the tale of a seemingly horrendous early gig in Albuquerque that still resulted in a random “street dweller” proclaiming Yo La Tengo to be “better than Ace Frehley” and “as good as the Eagles.”

Simply put, Jesse Jarnow understands his audience here. Yo La Tengo are a beloved cult band with a generally die hard fanbase that will have probably listened to most of the artists that are touched upon in Big Day Coming, and it also goes a long way towards explaining the various rosters of guest stars that inevitably surface in the band’s legendary “8 Nights of Hannukah” shows at Maxwell’s tradition (fully explained within if you don’t already know). These types of fans will inevitably find something to enjoy here. Jarnow also includes an excellent non-Yo La Tengo discography in the book’s appendix. Irrespective of the merits of his book, if reading Big Day Coming results in ten more people discovering the first dB’s record, than Jarnow’s already performed a public service.