(Indie) Rock School
For a while, the most interesting people in Jesse Jarnow’s new book, Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock (Gotham, 2012), are drummer Georgia Hubley’s parents. Successful independent film animators with progressive politics, John and Faith Hubley clashed with the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950s Hollywood, stood up to corporate power (i.e., Walt Disney Studios) when it threatened artistic freedom, and maintained a laudable blend of artistic commitment and commercial savvy/achievement—John Hubley created Mr. Magoo, for cripe’s sake. By contrast, two kids growing up in the ’70s, loving music, and eventually starting to play it, seem like small beer. By sheer force of their historical associations, the elder Hubleys’ narrative dwarfs any rumblings of a new rock scene in Hoboken.
But eventually, that scene grows to similarly fascinating dimensions, featuring as it does some parallel issues concerning the tug of war between commercial popularity and artistic experimentation and focusing on a couple—Yo La Tengo founders Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley—who mirror Faith and John Hubley’s lasting partnership in the face of turbulent cultural shifts. Jarnow’s book, ostensibly a YLT bio, also encompasses many of the related arms of the American indie rock explosion of the 1980s and ’90s, managing to link a slew of disparate fragments to make an affectionate and entertaining narrative.
The indie rock movement grew out of post-punk (or maybe it was post-punk, always a slippery genre to define). It was a creative explosion in response to what had been the tight strictures of punk and hardcore—that you were angry, that you played fast and loud—and the attitude-heavy new wave. Post-punk reached for a different kind of authenticity, one that reflected the realities of post-’60s upbringings. What if you grew up in a comfortable, enlightened household, had a decent relationship with your parents, and received plenty of encouragement to explore your creativity? How angry could you really be? Punk’s political edge also could obscure more tender personal expression, which Yo La Tengo enjoyed exploring, though they funneled it through artistic innovation.
If post-punk indie rockers were angry about anything, it was commercialization—the hyper-capitalism of the Reagan years, the emptiness of mid-’80s mainstream culture. Rather than channel this anger into their music, though, they just sidestepped commercial approaches, rejected organized fashion, and drew on a grab bag of musical influences to create their own sounds. And they did it so well that a whole cultural ecosystem (what critic Michael Azerrad called “a shadow economy”) sprang up to deal with them.
Jarnow paints a detailed picture of this culturally fertile period, switching back and forth from Ira and Georgia’s musical beginnings to the scenes they were part of—like the newspaper New York Rocker, which Ira wrote for and through which he made many of his early contacts. (Ira also helped run a “new music” evening at Folk City in Greenwich Village, a series he called “Music for Dozens” that featured youthful incarnations of Sonic Youth and the Replacements.) When Ira moved to Hoboken in search of cheap rent, it was following the lead of Rocker co-worker Glenn Morrow, recently befriended by Steve Fallon, whose family had just bought Maxwell’s, the bar associated with the Maxwell House coffee factory in Hoboken. Fallon was committed to bringing new live music to his bar, stocking the jukebox with Patti Smith and Television, and ditching the Frank Sinatra. The rest is indie rock history: Maxwell’s nurtured a thriving new creative scene and became an important venue for bands on the underground circuit.
Georgia, who studied art in college, was painting in New York when she had a life-changing encounter watching Keith Moon in the Who documentary The Kids Are Alright and bought a drum set. She and Ira followed the same kinds of local bands, including the New Jersey–based Feelies, and got together at a gig in London featuring New York bands. Soon afterwards, Georgia moved to Hoboken. But the couple didn’t immediately form a group. Ira started doing sound at Maxwell’s, which ensured that he got to hear an endless succession of new bands, but he still wasn’t playing much guitar. Georgia gigged with other musicians.
Jarnow does a good job of charting YLT’s dilatory progress toward band-dom: They become part of an enviable scene in Hoboken involving weekend softball games, barbecues, and lots of music at Maxwell’s; in Massachusetts they meet Gerard Cosloy, who along with Georgia starts contributing to New York Rocker. Cosloy is an intense teenager with a zine called Conflict that covers hardcore andchampions American punk and hardcore over British acts—a general theme as the American indie scene gathers steam. Finally, at a Rocker party in 1982, Georgia and Ira perform some covers together—and they’re immediately hooked.
One of the pleasures of reading Big Day Coming is observing the way the stars slowly align—how people nursing their own enthusiasms gradually meet and collaborate with people whose work they’re in sympathy with. So Cosloy’s frustrations during his stint at Homestead Records, the label that signed Sonic Youth, form a delicious run-up to his decision to start his own label, Matador. Part of the reason he leaves Homestead is that as Yo La Tengo solidifies as a band, Homestead refuses to take the interest in them that Cosloy thinks is warranted. So what does he do? Breaks off and starts his own label to release records by bands like them. It’s this kind of improvisatory enthusiasm and gutsiness, well conveyed by Jarnow, that gives the book its energy.
Also fun to observe from today’s perspective is YLT’s long search for the right bass player. By the time the band finds James McNew, they’ve been through around six earlier bassists, and while none were especially troublesome, you know it wasn’t the kismet that it is with McNew, who joins the band in 1991. Temperamentally and musically, he’s a perfect fit.
It’s equally fascinating to follow the development of YLT’s sound. Initially mostly a cover band calling themselves A Worrying Thing, Georgia and Ira did songs by heavy-rotation favorites the Kinks and NRBQ, but as music fans they also loved more experimental noise bands like Mission of Burma. Eventually, of course, they opted to include elements of all these sounds in their own music, rather than choose between them, leading to their refreshing mix of melodic prettiness, stunning harmonies, and speaker-crunching noise jams.
As Jarnow reveals in an entertaining anecdote, Ira’s guitar technique was created almost accidentally. Initially Ira played rhythm guitar, but the band found themselves one night without a lead guitarist for a gig in Albany, so he stepped reluctantly into the role of soloist himself. Overcompensating for the missing sound, Ira tried to cover both guitar parts—a good description of his frenetic, wild solos, which manage to alternate between high, melodic squealing and lower churning rhythms.
Soon after McNew joined the band, YLT released 1993’s Painful, their sixth album, and began to make a significant mark on the indie scene, which had already gone far beyond its underground beginnings. (R.E.M. had signed to a major label in 1988, and Sonic Youth had followed in 1990. Nirvana’s Nevermind had blown the lid off the underground in 1991, making overnight superstars of its members.) But YLT themselves remained a modest presence in the indie rock firmament, by choice as much as by popular selection. Jarnow notes that the band was asked to contribute music to the pilot episode of the TV hit the Gilmore Girls—and they said no. In the clamor of commercial cross-pollination, this stands out, though the band later changed its mind and did contribute. (McNew was a big Gilmore Girls fan.) Throughout the story, Yo La Tengo maintains its identity as an unassuming group with its attention trained on quality—in music, food, and art—and tuning out the trappings of fame.
There are some flaws in Jarnow’s book. One is occasionally sloppy editing, with dangling modifiers that would have former copy editors Georgia and Ira reaching for the red pen. The other is a dearth of information about who Georgia and Ira are as people, rather than musicians. The only real insight we get into their personalities comes in quotes from friends and colleagues, and from those we gather that they can be exacting, sometimes testy. “They were both hot-heads,” Jamie Kitman, their onetime manager, observes at one point; a former bandmate comments that things were never easy with them. But Jarnow himself remains mum, which feels strange. When YLT play Lollapalooza in 1995 and encounter former riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna, Jarnow comments that Georgia feels no kinship with that movement: Though she was a female drummer who sang and played an equal part in the band’s creative process, not to mention guitar and keyboards—and would soon manage the band’s books—Georgia Hubley’s role in Yo La Tengo was simply to be part of Yo La Tengo. She was as far from a riot girrl hero as she could get.
Here, I wished Jarnow had explored Georgia’s attitude more deeply. Did she consciously reject riot grrrl feminist politics in the same way that writer Margaret Drabble objects to being segregated in a “women’s writing” section of a bookstore or library, or was she unmoved by the issue itself? The question seems crucial—it’s hard to imagine a female rock drummer growing up in the late 20th century who didn’t give any thought to the matter.
Ira’s sarcastic humor and intelligence are present throughout the book, but we get no insight into the way his family, for instance, might have contributed to the development of his personality. Jarnow seems oddly diffident on personal subjects. The result can feel distanced—a view of the famously shy couple as though from across the Hudson.
Where the book succeeds is in creating a detailed portrait of a large-scale musical community in an era of transformative eruptions. Late in the book, Jarnow writes the Through the Looking Glass–esque line: “‘Independent’ was beginning to take on new connotations, and it described nearly everybody.” He charts the shifts in music production: from DIY philosophies of record releasing to major-label backing and global stardom, and from the introduction of CDs (which many purist record stores resisted at first) and fanzines printed on paper via photocopying to the advent of Napster, Pitchfork, and MP3s. This is a story of dizzying, large-scale change, and Jarnow is equal to the task, also including a portrait of the radio station WFMU, which has had a long, symbiotic relationship with YLT (and where Jarnow is a DJ), from its college-campus roots to its current independence.
Yo La Tengo enjoys solid popularity and consistent critical respect, but their record sales have never approached the big-selling indie acts. “We’ll be on the outside, we won’t care,” Ira sings on the song “Big Day Coming” from Painful, and that seems to sum up the band’s attitude. In any case, the band has never modulated their tastes to be more palatable; of early YLT, former manager Kitman says: “They could do shows that your grandmother would love and do other shows that would scare eighty percent of the people out of the room.” The band continues to be a beacon of uncompromising vision, while their Hanukkah residencies at Maxwell’s (eight nights of shows featuring friends from both the comedy and music worlds) express their ongoing commitment to the community that nurtured them. Jarnow’s book is a valuable portrait of what Yo La Tengo represents: American vision, individualism, community, entrepreneurialism, cussedness, and creativity.