Beating as One

Yo La Tengo Make Their Love Album

Somehow I felt that before I could write about Yo La Tengo's terrific new Summer Sun I needed an at-home with Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. After all, I almost knew them, and not only as friend-of-friends like everybody else in the general vicinity of indie-rock. I'd edited a Soft Boys piece by Ira for this newspaper, and, well, had melted to Georgia's toddler drawl in her parents' Oscar-winning Moonbirds when I was just 16. Or so I thought till I learned that Georgia was John and Faith's post-Moonbirds kid. She's 43 now, Ira's 46. Married 15 years and together 22, they're an iconic couple who get better press than Mother Teresa. Yet they're reticent about private things, which makes me one of the few reporters ever to see their pad. I'm honored.

It's a modest third-floor condo in Hoboken, theirs for 10 years now: big L-shaped living-dining-cooking area, big bedroom with big TV and the bed made for my visit, and smaller, well, junk room. If these lifers haven't solved the storage problem, there's no hope for the rest of us, but facts are facts. What should have been the dining-room table was covered with piles of CDs that Georgia says were even higher before the couple got back from a European trip. For Georgia's birthday, Ira had arranged to have new hardwood flooring installed while they were gone. All their stuff had to be removed and put back, and though some of the vinyl is now out of order, sparing Georgia (and himself) that domestic ordeal was genius.

That's the only kind of genius Ira pretends to. Congeniality is more his thing. Yet he can be a cantankerous interview. Over the 10 years since he or Georgia worked for anyone else (as freelance copy editors, mostly), he's come to dislike the term "day job." After all, Georgia goes so far as to keep the books for the band-owned corporation that pays their salaries, so as he puts it: "We have a day job right now—we manage our band." Although he made his living writing about music in the early '80s, Ira also resists the tendency to slot Yo La as a critic's band—he believes he uses his encyclopedic knowledge of pop history like a fan. So when I brought up bohemia, he naturally thought the concept sounded too self-congratulatory: "I don't feel very bohemian. I feel we're more middle-class," he said. "We watch too much TV to be bohemian," Georgia chimed in.

Citizens of Alternia, making intimacy signify
photo: Matthew Salacuse
Citizens of Alternia, making intimacy signify

The day job and rock critic points Ira can have, but marginality is too central to brush aside like that—especially since it's the rare bohemian who identifies with or even knows much about the bohemian tradition, which like any other social construct has evolved plenty over two centuries. For instance, just as there have always been bohemians who held jobs (not every non-rentier is willing to starve), there have always been bohemians who ran their own businesses, usually in and around the arts—going back to Henri Murger's Scenès de la Vie Bohème, often the popular and/or performing arts. What's changed is how the market for their products shifted as elements of an expanding middle class rejected conformism—today's freelance impresarios depend less on épater-le-bourgeois and more on fellow spirits in related lines of work. The viability of an alt-rock subculture that picks up young recruits as it retains a modicum of old-timers is a perfect example. Many of them watch too much TV.

Similarly, there have always been married bohemians. These can be more or less conventional, more or less ardent, and also more or less stable—in rock, certainly, often less. From X and the Human Switchboard breaking up in public to Quasi and the White Stripes raking over their passions, there seem to be as many divorces in Alternia as in Hollywood, or Darien. But New York has long been home to alt-rock's two most conspicuous conjugal success stories: Kim and Thurston, Georgia and Ira. So with Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, the relationships inevitably become part of the artistic creation. Like teenpoppers parsing Justin and Britney, the habitués of gossip-prone, human-scale Alternia can't and shouldn't resist conflating music and biography. Which means the warm Summer Sun can be fairly construed as an answer record to Sonic Youth's distinctly autumnal A Thousand Leaves. Anyone naive enough to believe happy marriages are all alike should ponder how different these two are—or more precisely, this being art, seem to be.

Kim and Thurston long ago set themselves up in loco parentis. They're scene-shaping guardians of new talent, role models from above—sexy-cool, nice but also fierce—and musically, even their lyrical late albums are edged with coldness and intellection. Though only a few years their junior, Georgia and Ira are shy kids by comparison—friendly, fuzzy, cuddly, affectionate. They sound like they want to be your pals, with Ira always gabbing—on the new album, he offers "to take questions for you"—and Georgia laid back. Their use of postpunk noise, which goes back to mid-'80s beginnings that also just barely postdate Sonic Youth's, verges on decorative; for them it's a way to fend off ineptitude, not to naturalize highbrow tuning ideas. Their lyricism too is simpler, prettier, easier—my selection from Ira's pop encyclopedia is a lovely Gary Lewis & the Playboys title I didn't know I owned till he did it solo acoustic at an Alan Betrock memorial. All of which finds a correlative in the vocal style Georgia and Ira share, a style nobody else gets right: over on the spoken side of singing, they murmur rather than whisper, betraying not the slightest exertion as they follow the gentle contours of the tunes they pull out of their asses.

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