Formed in 1984, Yo La Tengo has become one of indie rock’s most enduring, endearing success stories—if musical success is tallied in terms of survival and integrity rather than hits and ubiquity. Yo La Tengo has always carried itself with a humbler bearing, which has helped the trio weather every sea change in the indie industry since the ’80s, and emerge as one of the genre’s most respected bands, though never one of its biggest. In a way, the history of Yo La Tengo is the history of indie rock. As its subtitle indicates, Jesse Jarnow’s Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo And The Rise Of Indie Rock attempts to tackle both of these compelling storylines at the same time. Jarnow valiantly tries to strike the right balance, but Big Day Coming winds up serving neither Yo La Tengo nor indie rock as well as it should.
That said, the book’s strengths are numerous, even though they’re heavily concentrated in the first half. In particular, Jarnow’s introduction and prologue are breathtaking. Gorgeously written and deeply poignant, these sections together sketch out Yo La Tengo’s backdrop: its hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey, and all the historical and cultural factors that, consciously and unconsciously, helped make the group so hardworking yet dreamily soulful. The analogy Jarnow draws between Yo La Tengo and Hoboken's legendary Elysian Fields, the birthplace of baseball, is especially resonant, even if it is an obvious avenue to travel down; the group’s members are avowed baseball fans, and its name is even taken from a baseball anecdote involving The New York Mets, the favorite team of singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan.
But that resonance falls away as the book moves into more conventional rock-bio territory. The band’s founders, married couple Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, are introduced individually and intriguingly. Then again, they each have backgrounds worth exploring; Kaplan was born in the late ’50s and thus was one of millions of kids turned on to music by seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. But his tastes always ran counter to the mainstream; in one telling incident, a teenage Kaplan in the early ’70s scraped the psychedelic paint job off his first guitar to reveal the dull primer underneath. Hubley’s childhood is equally fascinating. The daughter of Oscar-winning animation team John and Faith Elliott Hubley, she was drawn to art as a way of life at an early age. The two become separately yet similarly involved in the New Jersey and New York post-punk scenes in the late ’70s and early ’80s—Kaplan was a notable rock journalist at the time—before meeting, falling in love, and deciding to start a band of their own.
The glaring omission is the “falling in love” part. The nature of Kaplan and Hubley’s relationship—indeed, their personalities as a whole—is kept at arm’s length. Jarnow provides flashes of insight, but as the other half of Big Day Coming starts to take prominence, it swallows even more of the book’s oxygen. The account of indie rock’s slow growth and then explosive ascendance gets a gripping retelling at first, but it soon devolves into a game of connect-the-dots between record labels, underground zinesters, promoters, Yo La Tengo’s home venue (the legendary Maxwell’s in Hoboken), and contemporaries such as R.E.M., Sonic Youth, The Feelies, and Pavement. That context is valuable, but it also renders the narrative forced and scattered at the same time.
The book doesn’t suffer for access. All the major players involved (and far too many minor ones) are given plenty of room to reminisce, and those tangents are often more informative about the heart and soul of the band than Jarnow’s meager attempt to tackle its subjects head-on. Granted, Kaplan and Hubley have always been as shy and cryptic toward the press as their music sounds, but that diffident charm doesn’t translate well here. Toward the end of Big Day Coming, the band’s elusiveness in interviews is addressed in a way that feels like an apology for the book's own shortcomings: “The less asked about their personal lives,” says Jarnow, “the better.” Sadly, that’s kind of the whole point of writing—or reading—a book about Yo La Tengo.