Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock Paperback – Jun 5 2012
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About the Author
Jesse Jarnow is a music journalist and the host of The Frow Show on WFMU, an independent radio station based in Jersey City. His work has appeared in The London Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, where he is in the band Sloppy Heads.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The hour was close to twilight, and the vaguely warm hues of the afternoon were fading to colder blues and purples. Air peppered with swirling, stinging blades of snow whirled high above Coldarra. Other beings would shiver and shield their eyes, fluff their fur or feathers, or wrap themselves more tightly in their cloaks. The great blue dragon whose wings beat a slow rhythm paid no heed to such things as snow or cold. He had taken to the air in search of the crisp bite of the frigid, snow-speckled wind, hoping, perhaps futilely, that it would cleanse his thoughts and soothe his spirit.
Kalecgos, though young as dragons reckoned age, had already borne witness to tremendous change among his people. The blue dragons had endured so very much, it seemed to him. They had twice lost their beloved Aspect, Malygos—once to insanity for millennia, and then finally to death. Ironically, and poignantly, the blues—the intellectuals and the guardians of arcane magic in the world of Azeroth—were the flight most drawn to order and calmness, and the least able to deal with such chaos.
Yet even in the midst of this upheaval, their hearts had stayed true. The spirit of the blue dragonflight had chosen not the hard-line path represented by Malygos’s deceased blood heir, Arygos, but the gentler, more joyful way offered to them by Kalecgos. And that choice had proved to be the right one. Arygos had in actuality been betraying the flight, not striving to be a devoted caretaker. He had promised to deliver his people to the evil—and quite insane—dragon Deathwing, once they had sworn to follow Arygos. Instead, the blues had joined with the reds, greens, and bronzes—and one unique orc—to help bring down that great monster.
But as Kalecgos flew across the darkening sky, the snow below turning lavender, he knew that with that victory, the flights, in a way, had also sacrificed themselves. The Aspects were no more, though the dragons who had once been Aspects lived on. The defeat of Deathwing had demanded all they could give, and at the end of that battle, though Alexstrasza, Nozdormu, Ysera, and Kalecgos still survived, their Aspect abilities were gone—poured into the final moment of the struggle. The Aspects had been made for this single act. With it accomplished, they had fulfilled their destinies.
There was a less direct effect as well. The flights had always had a surety about their roles, a firm understanding of their purpose. But now that the moment for which they had been created had come—and gone—what purpose was left to them? Many blues had already departed. Some had sought his blessing before leaving the Nexus—Kalecgos continued to be their leader, although the powers of an Aspect were no longer his. They had told him that they were restless and wished to see if there was some other place in the world where their skills and abilities would be appreciated. The rest had simply gone—present one day, vanished the next. Those who remained were either becoming increasingly agitated or surrendering to a bleak sense of malaise.
Kalecgos dove and wheeled, letting the cold air caress his scales, then opening his wings and catching an updraft, his thoughts once again brooding and unhappy.
For so long, even during Malygos’s insanity, the blues had had direction. The question of what to do now had been thought and sometimes whispered. Kalecgos could not help but wonder if he had somehow failed his flight. Had they really been better under the leadership of an insane Aspect? The immediate answer was of course not, and yet… and yet.
He closed his eyes, not against the needle-sharp snow, but in pain. Their hearts trusted me to lead them. I believe I did lead them well then, but… now? Where do blue dragons—any dragons—fit in a world where the Hour of Twilight has been prevented but only an endless night looms before us?
He felt utterly alone. He had always deemed himself perhaps the oddest choice possible to lead the blue dragonflight, as he had never really felt like a “typical” blue dragon. As he flew, despondent and increasingly concerned, he realized that there was at least one who understood him better than most. He leaned to the right, angling his great form slightly, and flapped his wings, heading back toward the Nexus.
He knew where he would find her.
• • •
Kirygosa, daughter of Malygos, clutch sister to Arygos, sat in her human form on one of the magical, luminous floating platforms that encircled the Nexus. She wore only a long, loose dress, and her blue-black hair was not braided. Her back was against one of the shining, silver-white trees that dotted a few of the platforms. Above her, blue dragons wheeled as they had for centuries, ceaselessly patrolling, although there seemed to be no threat here, not anymore. Kirygosa appeared to pay them no heed, her gaze soft and unfocused. She appeared lost in thought, though what occupied her mind, Kalecgos did not know.
She did turn to look at him as he drew closer, smiling a little as she realized he was not one of the guardians of the flight’s home. He landed on the platform and assumed his half-elven shape. Kiry’s smile widened and she held out a hand to him. He kissed it affectionately and plopped down beside her, extending his long legs and folding his arms behind his head in an effort at nonchalance.
“Kalec,” she said warmly. “Come to my pondering place?”
“Is that what this is?”
“For me, yes. The Nexus is my home, so I don’t like to go too far, but it can be challenging to be alone inside.” She turned to face him. “So I come here, and I ponder. Just as you seem to want to do.”
Kalec sighed, realizing that his effort at casualness was lost on this perceptive friend he often thought of as a sister. “I was flying,” he said.
“You cannot fly away from your duties, or your thoughts,” Kirygosa replied gently, reaching to squeeze his arm. “You are our leader, Kalec. And you have guided us well. Arygos would have destroyed the flight and the whole world with it.”
Kalec frowned, remembering the dire vision that Ysera, the former green Dragon Aspect, had shared with them all not so long ago. It was the Hour of Twilight—and showed an Azeroth in which all life was wiped out. From the grass and the insects to orcs, elves, humans, creatures of air and sea and land, to the mighty Aspects themselves, who had each been slain by his or her own unique powers. Deathwing had died then, too, along with the rest of Azeroth—impaled like a grotesque trophy on the spire of Wyrmrest Temple itself. Kalecgos shuddered, disturbed even now by the memory of Ysera’s lilting but broken voice relaying the vision.
“He would have done that,” Kalec said, agreeing with part of her statement but not all of it.
Her blue eyes searched his. “Dear Kalec,” she said, “you have always been… different.”
Humor flickered in him despite his dark mood, and he made a silly face, twisting his handsome half-elven features. Kirygosa laughed. “You see?”
“Different is not always a good thing,” he said.
“It is who you are, and it is because you were different that the flight chose you.”
The humor melted away and he regarded her somberly. “But, my dear Kirygosa,” he said sadly, “do you think the flight would choose me again, now?”
Truth had ever been one of Kirygosa’s most cherished ideals. She looked at him, searching for an answer that was both true and comforting, and not finding it. Kalec’s heart sank. If this beloved friend, his sweet sister of the spirit, had no encouragement to offer, then his fears were more real than he had suspected.
“What I do think is—”
He would never know what she thought, for they were interrupted by a sudden terrible sound—the cries of blue dragons in despair and anguish. More than a dozen dragons were emerging from the Nexus, flying and diving about erratically. One of them abruptly swerved from his fellows, heading straight for Kalecgos. Kalec leaped to his feet, blood draining from his face. Kiry stood beside him, hand to her mouth.
“Lord Kalecgos!” Narygos cried. “We are ruined! All is lost!”
“What has happened? Slow down, speak calmly, my friend!” said Kalec, although his own heart lurched within his chest at the sheer panic and terror emanating from Narygos. The other dragon was usually calm and had been one of the more open-minded blues during the tense time when Kalec and Arygos were vying for the role of Aspect. To see him so distraught alarmed Kalecgos.
“The Focusing Iris! It is gone!”
“Gone? What do you mean?”
“It has been stolen!”
Kalec stared at him, sick with horror, his mind reeling. Not only was the Focusing Iris an item of immense arcane power, but it was also deeply precious to the blues. It had belonged to them for as long as anyone could remember. Like many such items, it was neither good nor evil in itself but could be turned to both benevolent and sinister purposes. And it had been used so. In the past, it had diverted the arcane energy of Azeroth and to animate a hideous creature that should never have drawn breath.
To think it was now lost to them, lost and being controlled by those who might use its power—
“This is exactly why we moved it,” Kalecgos murmured. Not two days ago, in an effort to avoid this very circumstance, Kalecgos, along with several others, had recommended moving the Focusing Iris out of the Eye of Eternity and into a secret hiding place. He recalled his argument to the blues: “Many of our secrets are already known, and more of our flight leaves each day. There will be those who will be embo... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
As The Onion summed up their fan base: "37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster." This is one band where the audience mirrors the performers, for nearly thirty years. But, Yo La Tengo benefits by their maturity, growing up involved much more deeply responsible for the indie rock movement as they constructed its formation behind the scenes as well as on stage. Journalists, artists, managers, 'zine writers, sound engineers, roadies, label managers, DJs, promoters: this adds up to only a brief resumé.
In 1964 at seven, Ira Kaplan fell in love with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on the car radio. As Jesse Jarnow phrases it, all of the band "inhaled the spore" as this music consumed them. Kaplan barely graduated from Sarah Lawrence. He wrote for the New York Rocker in the days when CBGB and Patti Smith ruled, and championed local talent around the Hudson against musical Anglophilia, yet his favorite band arguably remains The Kinks.
Still, along with many early-1980s rock musicians, Kaplan admired the punk movement, their alternative heirs, and their common idols, The Velvet Underground. Georgia Hubley, the daughter of avant-garde animators John and Faith Hubley, inherited their quirky, artistic sensibilities and fit with Kaplan's suburban, earnest, yet countercultural sensibility. They began their career, bidding farewell to maybe as many bassists as Spinal Tap had drummers, with a jangle which epitomized their adapted home in a pre-gentrified Hoboken across the river. They hung out at Maxwell's, near the coffee factory of the same name, and, jittery, learned to play better and worry less about nervousness. The modesty of their approach has never left them, and it attests to the quality of their music for so long.
Their chronicler devotes much space and extends earnestly an analogy of the Jersey trio to the roots of the Major Leagues in Hoboken as an alternative predecessor well over a century before. For a band who craves baseball, barbeque, and an intimate relationship with used record stores, roadhouses, and off-beat pop culture which fills their leisure time between gigs, this suits Jarnow's diligent tone. This book will please those already in the know, as with collector-driven pursuits. It crams pages with songs, bands, records, fanzines, comedians, brands, and all the detritus of the past fifty years which nourished the band and its audience. One wonders how David Lee Roth's riposte that all the critics loved Elvis Costello because he looked like them translates for these unassuming three musicians.
Certainly, Jarnow shares their immersion as a record-store habitue. His density of references accumulates; he turns his subject into a symbol of indie rock as it leaves the clubs, courts MTV, faces the demise of vinyl and the rise of Napster, peruses the fine print of lawyers and the connivance of big labels, deals with iTunes, and learns to buy in and not sell out. Yo La Tengo scores movies with original contributions, and you can hear a few seconds of them in a Coke ad for the 1992 Atlanta Olympics and an episode of The Gilmore Girls. Yet, the three manage to keep a low profile and in their rumpled hoodies, jeans, and Converse shoes, they look no different than their audiences, at least from my firsthand experience. This study will please those who seek a comprehensive account of the band, as well as a cultural representation of how Yo La Tengo stands for the very movement they helped form, in far more diverse and dedicated ways than most fans or musicians could ever sustain.
Jarnow's biography blends a fan-oriented account of the band with a survey of how the trio established as individuals first and then as a band the template for indie-rock survival. They emerged among the vanguard of what started out as "college rock" via the free-form New Jersey station WFMU in the aftermath of hardcore and post-punk. Husker Du, R.E.M., and The Replacements sought an international audience, along with hundreds of bands from, well, many college towns.
As Jarnow sums up their debut LP, Ride the Tiger (1986): they surprised with eclectic cover tunes in concert (they never repeated a set list) and on record they captured "the sound of good taste". Gradually, they incorporated noise and feedback over folk, and like the Velvets, veered from pop to assault, high-art to novelty, Tin Pan Alley to thrash, masterfully. The past decade, their albums have edged into be-bop, jazz, and sultrier, more sullen moods. Jarnow skims over the first half of their discography on labels smaller than Matador, and a reader who is not a listener may wonder why they stand out sturdily on record and slyly on stage as a nimble, witty trio, infatuated with their obsession.
While critical acclaim slowly grew, as with many indie rockers, they could not cash in plaudits for a paycheck. Typically and for a long time, music brought in less than half Kaplan and Hubley's income, as they did the odd jobs in the music business and labored as part-time copy editors of often wretched pulp fiction. One song, "Mushroom Cloud of Hiss", typifies the way Kaplan's mind works under whatever circumstances it found inspiration from a series of "bawdy old Western tales". Kaplan's sleepy attempt to correct a mangled manuscript's phrase: "The mushroon cloud of hiss penis." A leading Spin critic sniffed of their first full-length that it was music to copy-edit by, an inside joke, I suppose, for a band whose sense of humor and comedic flair receives welcome attention here.
All the same, despite the origin of their often misspelled and garbled name from a typically hapless Mets Spanish-speaking fielder's call for "I've got it," the mild-mannered, thoughtful, erudite, and wryly funny band's private life gains no sustained exposure. The three keep their distance from even their allies, among their audiences and the critics. Jarnow notes when Kaplan and Hubley were in their forties, finally making a living at music, they "built a public career on the notion of a priori love--an engine hidden from view, its only evidence every record they ever released".
One gains less sense over more than three-hundred pages of narrative how the band comes across in concert with their rotating wheel of fortune to pick songs--or how the loud-soft dynamics the band excels in engage their audiences as much as themselves in unpredictable shifts. Kaplan's ability, as with Lou Reed, to overlap lead and backing lines on guitar, Hubley's mingling of delicacy and bash, and McNew's harmonies and textures receive nods, but these skills merit applause and deeper analysis. Their confident forays into more hushed dynamics and retro-pop sensibilities, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997), And then nothing turned inside-out (2000), and I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (another sports phrase, 2006) receive limited song-by-song notice, but overall, the emphasis on the culture Yo La Tengo thrives in rather than the contexts their own music contributes constitutes the main content.
Fans will not need a reminder of why their music matters, but newcomers may supplement this with the albums themselves. They provide an understanding of why this band not only covered (at their debut Hanukkah charity concert series at Maxwell's in 2001, they played 123 songs over eight nights) "We're An American Band" but epitomizes it in typically good-natured yet encyclopedic fashion. This fits their status as between "tumble" and "logic" on stage and in whatever comprises the rest of their life, if there is one beyond soda pop, TV jingles, comedy reruns, the diamond, or platters of ribs.
The one downside about the book is that there's hardly any insight into the conception, writing, recording, inspiration, etc. of the band's studio albums. If you blink you'll miss "may I sing with me" entirely. YLT are an obsessive record nerd's band, and yet you're not really going to find any behind the scenes info, insight into lyrics or song titles, studio stories, that aren't already known or available. Considering that the band members themselves are listed as primary references, I was surprised to see that almost all of the meagre content in this regard was familiar to me from the Roger Moutenot "Tape Op" interview and a few other sources. There's no talk about gear (considering YLT are a pedal, obscure drum machine and organ and amplifier-fueled band) at all. I was really hoping for a peek behind the curtain of the band's wonderful albums, and there's just basically nothing in this regard on a per-album basis other than "They convened in Nashville to record the new record. They enjoyed barbecue. A few months later, the album was released to mediocre sales."
Still, there's a lot of ground to cover and it's a good biographical overview of the many people involved in the story.
jarnow did his research and you can clearly tell that he put his heart and soul into this publication. he is clearly a fan and made sure to cover all bases without being overwhelming and too wordy. he sheds a nice light on each album and release, their touring and self promotion. the coverage and research that went into Hoboken alone is worth the read!
So, just to add to what others have said here, BIG DAY COMING isn't just for hardcore fans but also a very worthwhile read for anyone with a casual interest in the band and the indie scene. Jarnow does a terrific job at connecting the threads of YLT's career with the larger forces at work in the music world--zines, indie labels, freeform radio, and beyond--and weaving them into a compelling narrative. I'm glad longtime fans appreciate the book, but for me, it provided a terrific entry point and a rich tapestry of context that make it that much more rewarding to dig deep into YLT's back catalog, which I've had on heavy rotation for weeks now. Highly recommended.