Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock by Jesse Jarnow (Gotham Books)


If I made a list of bands in order of how exciting I think their biography would be, Yo La Tengo would probably come in somewhere around #335. There’s no tales of over-the-top tales debauchery, insane personalities or meteoric rise and fall in popularity. Yo La Tengo just aren’t that kind of band. With no standard rock-bio elements to build on, author Jesse Jarnow smartly links the story of Yo La Tengo to the larger story of indie rock as a genre. He does an excellent job of detailing the band’s long history in the margins, while simultaneously showing how they’ve made major ground-level contributions to many of the institutions that dominate today’s indie rock landscape (Pitchfork, Matador Records, indie-comedy…etc.) The book’s only major shortcoming is that it’s the story of Yo La Tengo as a band, and not the band members. So, even though you spend over 300-pages with them, the band’s core trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew remain frustratingly distant as individuals. You can tell they’re self-depricating music geeks with a passion for cinema, food, and baseball, but that’s it. I guess they wanted to make it all about the band, but that’s not necessarily what readers want from a biography. The best band biographies always leave you feeling as though you know the band-members too, even if you’ve never met them, and I don’t get that from Big Day Coming. The author also makes an errant mention of The Feelies’ debut album Crazy Rhythms coming out in 1979 (it came out in April, 1980), which isn’t really that big a deal on its own, but given that the book is about music geeks and going to be read by music obsessives who know this sort of information like the back of their hand, this fact-checking oversight is sloppy. The book also raises a valid question of “Why now?” Yo La Tengo are still going at it and are arguably as popular as ever, so why not wait a while to see where their story goes from here? Even if his execution has some flaws that keep it from being definitive, I give Jarnow a lot of credit for making one of the first books to deal with American indie-rock free of any direct connections to hardcore, SST, grunge or any other genre offshoots.