BIG DAY COMING: Yo La Tengo & the Rise of Indie Rock

by Jesse Jarnow (Gotham Books)

When music journalist Jesse Jarnow pitched the idea of a biography about the long-lived Hoboken indie-rock trio Yo La Tengo, you have to wonder if his editors really saw a book there. True, the band’s been around since the mid-Eighties, released over a dozen albums, traveled the world, and has lots of interesting friends. But was there a story? All the usual juicy parts of a rock bio – The drugs! The sex! The meteoric rise up the charts! The ruinous major-label doublecross! The subsequent plunge to ignominy and rehab! None of those things happened to Yo La Tengo.

So what Jarnow does is tell the story of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, a pair of diehard rock fans who met, fell in love, went to a lot of their friends’ shows, and then decided one day to join in on the fun and start a band of their own. There’s very little drama in any of it, but oh so much history. It’s the second half of the book’s title – “…and the rise of indie rock” – that makes Big Day Coming so compelling. This isn’t just the story of what happened in the lives of Ira and Georgia, but all that happened around them, as their little pop dream somehow navigated its way through the music industry of the halcyon Eighties, the booming Nineties, and the-party’s-over 00’s. Yes, Big Day Coming is the story of Yo La Tengo, from the revolving-door who’s who cast of indie musicians who played with Ira and Georgia in the band’s early years to the saga of how they eventually recruited bassist-for-life James McNew.

Jarnow goes into fastidious detail about how each album, EP, and single was written and recorded, how the release of each was negotiated with all the different labels involved. And through it all, you get a sense of how the music changed over the years, as Ira’s increasing musical prowess and Georgia’s growing confidence as both a drummer and vocalist allowed Yo La Tengo to perpetually tweak, expand, and experiment with its songwriting and performances. Really, though, the best parts of the book are Jarnow’s historical asides; as, for instance, when Jarnow details life in 19th Century Hoboken and the port city’s role in the birth of baseball. Or how a clique of editors at New York Rocker magazine helped birth the Mile Square City’s nascent music scene. You’ll also meet fanzine editors, booking agents, record store owners, and dozens of musicians who played a role in Yo La Tengo’s career, and learn a little something about all of them. Ironically, the most impenetrable subjects in the biography remain Ira, Georgia, and James. Yes, Jesse Jarnow will tell you the names of Georgia’s cats or the address of the parking lot where James earned his first paycheck. But those are only details. You’ve probably already forgotten more juicy stuff about the private lives of any five or six Kardashians than anyone will ever really know about Yo La Tengo.

– Jim Testa