WFMU DJ, music journalist and frequent Voice contributor Jesse Jarnow has just released Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock (Gotham), a voluminous tome that dissects Hoboken’s finest Amerindie pioneers’ journey from their childhood beginnings all the way to their current place as ageless innovators.
Big Day Coming isn’t just distinguished from the rest of the rock-bio pack by Jarnow’s bottomless pit of Yo La Tengo expertise; his book also delves into a comprehensive history of the beloved Hoboken rock club/restaurant Maxwell’s. YLT’s husband/wife team, guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, played their very first show there, and the venue plays host to their storied Hanukkah shows.
Sound of the City caught up with Jarnow to talk about how he came to discover his favorite band and, eventually, to write Big Day Coming.
You’ve been known to document Yo La Tengo’s annual Hanukkah shows at Maxwell’s and have covered them for the Voice. Is there a single Hanukkah show you were at that has stuck in your memory as truly unforgettable? What made the show (or shows) totally blow you away?
It’s going to sound like a cop-out to say they’re all unforgettable, but the band really works hard to make sure they are, with pretty radically different set-lists, musical guests, comedians, and even approaches to music every night. Not to mention different dinner specials at Maxwell’s, plus whatever else is going in my personal life that might inform my show-going experience. But a lot of the extra-special ones for me are nights that musicians have sat in for the entirety of a set, improvising new parts. There was a night David Mansfield—who played with Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue—that was just incredible. They played almost all quiet songs, including one of the only times I think they ever did “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and you could literally hear if somebody stepped on an empty beer cup on the floor. Any time the Tortoise guys are around is totally wonderful. Or Dave Schramm, their original lead guitarist.
But the one I’ll pick here is Alex Chilton, in large part because there are some great videos of it on YouTube that really capture how intimate it is there. Chilton and Big Star were super important for all three members of the band, and they’re pretty clearly radiating joy. You could tell how special it was while it was happening, unquestionably, he died not too long after that, which also cast a different light on them for me, and really underscoring how one-of-a-kind the shows are. Though Chilton did come back the next night. I wish there was video of them doing “The Oogum Boogum Song.”
Alex Chilton and Yo La Tengo, “Let Me Get Close To You”
Yo La Tengo, “Yellow Sarong”
YLT has been known for their cover songs, whether live in concert, the ones on their mostly-covers record Fakebook, or at the WFMU Marathon where they play covers at the listeners’ request. I know this is a tough task, but can you name important covers you heard through YLT that then ultimately turned you onto those other bands?
I kept track while I was doing book research, and they’ve played over 1,000 songs over the past 30 years. For starters, the aforementioned “Oogum Boogum Song” by Brenton Wood. Chilton covered it with Big Star, and was (I assume) one of the many songs Yo La Tengo learned from him. They come from a tradition of bands with deep cover repertoires. The original version is one of the greatest singles ever.
“Yellow Sarong” by the Scene Is Now, covered on Fakebook. The Scene Is Now is this totally idiosyncratic/anarchistic semi-folk act that evolved out of the No Wave band Information, and old-time Yo La Tengo buddies from Ira’s days as a journalist at The New York Rocker. They’re still around, too. They just played at Fontana’s on June 30.
I’m almost positive I knew about the Feelies separately from learning about Yo La Tengo, but I definitely fell in love with them via Yo La Tengo and learned about all their off-shoots like The Willies and Yung Wu and The Trypes. I don’t think Yo La Tengo has ever done a proper cover of “Crazy Rhythms,” though it’s come up at one of their WFMU benefits, so it qualifies here. Also, this is a great video of the Feelies playing at CBGB in 1979. Georgia and/or Ira are probably in that crowd somewhere. Probably Thurston Moore, too.
I was a Sun Ra fan before I was a Yo La Tengo fan, but the existence of his pop singles on Saturn Records eluded me, and it took Yo La Tengo’s covers of “Somebody’s In Love” and “Dreaming“—both originally credited to the Cosmic Rays—to get me to discover that pretty amazing nook of the Sun Ra universe.
Yo La Tengo have covered “Cubist Grid,” but I first heard it on one of James’s Hanukkah mixes. The Girls were a Boston art-punk band, early ’80s. Literal art-punk, featuring the painters Mark Dagley and George Condo. So good. It’s maybe a toss-up for me between The Girls and Condo’s paintings. Not a toss up at all between The Girls and that other band Girls and “Cubist Grid” is why.
YLT started with Ira singing the bulk of the songs then Georgia gradually started singing on more and more songs. Do you recall the first song you heard Georgia sing? Which one was it? Do you have a favorite Georgia-sung YLT song?
I became a Yo La Tengo fan long after they resolved that, so probably the first Georgia song I really took notice of would’ve been her songs on And then nothing turned itself inside-out, which I had on a tape in college, though lost, and never quite really learned. Pretty much any time they do a drumless quiet song with her fronting the band, it’s my favorite. My favorite is one that I’m not sure if they’ve ever played live—it wasn’t on any of the recordings I went through—but there’s an amazing version from a BBC session: Bob Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.”
Yo La Tengo, “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” (live on Radio 1, 1999)
Yo La Tengo, “Green Arrow”
What was the first YLT album you bought and/or heard? How did you discover them?
See above re: And then nothing… The first one I bought was The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, which was sold outside their Lincoln Center show [in 2002], which became my gateway album and probably the first one I listened to over and over. But the way I discovered Yo La Tengo, unquestionably, was a few months before that, when my friend Paul and I drove cross-country and he played me “Green Arrow” and then “Night Falls on Hoboken” during a desert dusk. One of those perfect life-soundtrack moments that the song seems to be built for.
When and where was the first YLT show you saw? Do you recall who played with them that show? When was the first time you saw YLT at Maxwells? How many times have you seen them there?
I first saw Yo La Tengo sometime in the spring of 1998, my freshman year of college, visiting some friends in Rochester. They were playing on a sidestage at a spring fling, and I watched them for a song or two and it definitely didn’t take. That night was also my first Sonic Youth show, who I’d been a fan of for five or so years but never gotten to see live, so seeing them do those deep psychedelic SYR jams in a small but thoroughly cavernous college hockey arena was my revelatory musical experience for the day.
The first proper Yo La Tengo show I saw was spring of 2002, not long after I moved to Brooklyn, at Lincoln Center, which was the first time they did their Sounds of Science film scores in New York—kind of abstract instrumentals to go along with French underwater documentaries by Jean Painlevé. Though I liked indie bands, I definitely wasn’t an indie kid, and my entrance point for their music was their artier atmospheric side. After a few months of listening to Sounds of Science on repeat, I doubled back to the more song-based albums, and on and on and on.
My first Yo La Tengo show at Maxwell’s was during the second Hanukkah run in 2002. David Cross was the comedian. My roommate and I made our way up front by the end of the show. Before the encore, my then-roommate tried to whisper very subtly in my ear—though, being in a noisy rock club, utterly failed—”I think David Byrne is standing next to us.” And a second later he stepped on stage and did this amazing six-song set that included Yo La Tengo songs, old Talking Heads songs, a Richard Hell cover, and a number by Lambchop. One of Yo La Tengo’s friends who was helping them do gear that night handed me a camera and asked me to take pictures. I did, shooting pretty much every interesting angle I could from where I was standing. Still having a half a roll of film left, I decided to make the David Byrne-like move and meticulously proceeded to take close-up pictures of all the musicians’ shoes. I hope they still have them. I’ve seen them there maybe 50 times since.
There’s no video of any of Byrne playing there in 2002, so here’s him doing a slowed-down “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” with them at Maxwell’s in March 2011:
Yo La Tengo and David Byrne, “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel”
Yo La Tengo, “The Story Of Jazz”
Is there a YLT record that you weren’t into at first or disappointed by but ultimately grew on you?
Because I discovered them through their later stuff, I was pretty mystified by Ride the Tiger and New Wave Hot Dogs when I first heard them. It’s still far from my favorite Yo La Tengo album, but New Wave Hot Dogs especially has made more sense to me over the years as this incredible burst of creativity for them in the sense that they were clearly trying to do a range of things—jangle-pop and skronk and nothing at all from any kind of boilerplate.
Can you point to a defining moment of the evolution of the YLT aesthetic? They started as a roots-rock-type band with those earlier LPs you just named, then completely reinvented itself, some think between May I Sing with Me and Painful.
That’s exactly where I’d place it. Which, to be clear, is almost 10 years after Ira and Georgia started playing together, but a few months after James joined the band. They’ve cited a specific practice where they pulled out an Acetone organ that belonged to another band they shared their practice space with and did a whole practice just coming up with new arrangements for their repertoire. That, to them, felt like being a band in a way they’d never really been before. Another way of saying that is that it’s when James joined the band. That’s when they really got good live, partially because it was a stable lineup, and partly because James is a motherfucker of a musician and singer and he was just able to instinctually tie together all the threads that Georgia and Ira had been working with—the noisy avant-guitar stuff, the indie-pop, the quiet Fakebook stuff. I don’t think it was a reinvention so much as figuring out how to focus everything they’d been doing. Georgia’s voice gets a lot of credit, but I think James’s is just as stunning a lot of the time. Like, say, his version of “1999.”
Knowing YLT intimately through your book research, how would you connect YLT’s offbeat videos like “Sugarcube” to their personality? Are they goofballs at heart?
I think they all three have very evolved senses of humor, and a really rich sense of what’s funny that’s paradoxically a pretty mature skill to have as a band. But I wouldn’t call them goofballs. I think their particular comedic bag is more as straight men and straight woman. That’s probably more indicative of their personalities. After all, it’s the Mr. Show dudes that do most of the heavy lifting in “Sugarcube.” They’re funny people, unquestionably, but I don’t think that’s their defining characteristic, either. Yo La Tengo have a reputation for being pretty serious people and, no matter how many jokes they’re making, I think that’s mostly what they are.
Ira has been known for his guitar freakouts, as heard on “I Heard You Looking,” “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss,” The Evil that Men Do” and countless others. Do you have a favorite where Ira goes insane?
My favorite Ira frea-out moments are the ones when the band freaks out along with him, so it’s more of a jam and less of a solo and they leave the song form behind. They don’t do it nearly often enough for my taste. Probably the most reliable spot for that is their cover of the Beach Boys’ (or, technically, the Hondells’) “Little Honda.” None of the squalled-out 10-minute live versions are on YouTube, but there’s one on NYCTaper.
What role does sports play in the world of YLT? They named the band after a Mets player’s call for a ball and one of their records is named after a Knicks player’s quote. Are they hardcore sports fans?
Avid more than hardcore. None of them are painting the teams’ colors on their faces/chests, but they definitely keep up with baseball and basketball especially. Right now, Ira is semi-liveblogging his attempt to pinpoint the specific Mets game where the Yo La Tengo moment occurred. I think they just like sports, and I’m not sure there’s a deeper meaning to it other than to maybe signal that they’re not, you know, glass-and-poo-eating G.G. Allin-style shamans who don’t live by the rules of society, maaaaan. Sometimes a Mets fan is just a Mets fan. And sometimes he names a band after them.
Yo La Tengo, “Meet The Mets”