Big Day Coming:
Yo La Tengo
and the Rise
of Indie Rock
by Jesse Jarnow
Gotham, $18, 368 pp.
Ira Kaplan closes his eyes tightly when singing — one faint strand remaining of Yo La Tengo's tentative early history. The tale of polite Hoboken folk rockers becoming the indieverse's beloved godparents is really about a pathologically music-obsessed couple, Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, overcoming shyness to embrace their creative impulses in a manner befitting their mild eccentricity, helped along by the recruitment of soul mate James McNew.
That's the story Jesse Jarnow attempts to tell in Big Day Coming. But despite extensive research (bringing a new clarity to our picture of the band's murky early years), something has stunted him. No one picks up a book about Yo La Tengo expecting sordid tales of trashed hotel rooms — their ordinary-bohemia ethos is iconic — but neither does one expect lengthy tangents regarding the broader histories of baseball, Hoboken and indie, in the obsessively contextual manner of Timothy White with less passionate prose. Perhaps this is a consequence of Yo La Tengo's guardedness. Despite their good humor, they remain a deliberately mysterious institution, and Jarnow never gives us more than fleeting glimpses of the band's inner world. The love he documents is that of the outsider: the sense of community at the annual Hanukkah shows; awe at the band's effortless maturity. The book has spark in such unrushed, observant moments.
At a show last year in North Carolina, Kaplan described his memory of hearing Hubley first sing "Nowhere Near" in 1993 and his voice cracked warmly; we seldom hear anything so earnest at a rock club, much as we seldom hear songs as candid and fearless as "My Heart's Reflection" on rock records. Though Jarnow's book is a highly readable primer, it stops short of providing the sense of catharsis that will finally define Yo La Tengo.