In 1991, at loose ends and with nothing better to do, I decided to spend the summer visiting a friend in San Francisco. At that point, two things happened (well, more than two, but let’s stick with those): I was offered a full-time job as production editor at the late, lamented Guardian Newsweekly. And I found out that the Mekons would be playing a free show in Central Park, of all places, at the end of June. I hurriedly moved up my return flight to the day before the show.
I, my not-yet-SO Mindy, and our friends Pete and Tara arrived super-early, to be ensured of getting seats up front and center. It was only at this point, if I’m remembering right, that I noticed the name of the opening band. Pete, my guide in all things indie rock, explained them: “They’ve been around for a while, playing around the city. The two main members are married.”
They were odd, that’s were for sure. “Around for a while” or not, they looked super-young, especially the aforementioned couple, who were both short and slim and dressed like they were headed to a high school yearbook meeting. (The third member, a bigger guy who played bass, was harder to pin down in age.) Their first song was a beautiful, quiet song that featured both of the married members playing guitar at the front of the stage. For the second, the woman went behind the drum kit, and the three of them unleashed some of the most cacophonous rock noise I’d ever heard. And so it went like that, through a dozen songs that were by turns folky and abrasive, all of them terrific to my ears. (Mindy and Tara were less enthralled, going for a walk mid-set during one particularly lengthy feedback solo by the little guitarist with the frizzy hair.)
A few months later, Yo La Tengo came out with the record most of the songs at their Central Park set were from, May I Sing With Me, with a cover featuring a black and white photo of Georgia, the drummer/guitarist/singer, holding an umbrella beneath a cascade of painted dots. (There was later an EP of one of my favorite songs from the album, “Upside-Down,” that featured Ira, the guitarist/singer, protecting himself from the same painted rain, but with a cymbal.) I listened to it incessantly, and snapped up their followup Painful as soon as it arrived the next year. It turned out they played around town lots indeed, and I got to see them a couple of times at Tramps, and grew to appreciate not just their dual loud and quiet modes, but their proficiency with coming up with offbeat covers of songs I didn’t always know but knew I should, and the gorgeous vocal interplay between Ira, Georgia, and James (the by-comparison-hulking bass player, who turned out to have a remarkable singing voice high enough that he would later record an entire album of Prince covers). They weren’t my favorite band, but they were definitely in the mix.
Then came their 1997 album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, which won me over completely for several reasons:
- Its second song, “Moby Octopad,” not only had the most unexpected tune I’d heard from them yet, with a funky, loping bassline, but it was about falling asleep on the sofa while watching a Mets game. (Yo La Tengo’s name, I had recognized immediately on hearing it, is a reference to one of the most infamous, if possibly apocryphal, moments in Mets history.)
- Its third song, “Sugarcube,” which kicked in with a crazy drum fill followed by a blast of sweet guitar-and-organ wash, and offered lyrics that were simultaneously cynical and heartfelt about the demands of love, struck me as just about the perfect rock song. (I didn’t yet know it also had just about the perfect rock video.)
- The other 14 songs on the album were equally great, and equally all over the map in terms of style and sound.
I was in awe. As was my stereo, apparently: The second time I blasted “Sugarcube,” one of my speakers promptly exploded.
And then, four years later, came the Maxwell’s shows. I’d already seen YLT at the legendary Hoboken club a couple of times: Once on New Year’s Eve in 1996 when the club was about to close to make way for a brewpub (the band honored the moment by opening with the Stones’ “This Could Be The Last Time,” eventually leading into covers of “What I Like About You” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as cautions of what could be around the corner), once in 1998 for the club’s celebratory reopening under the management of its longtime soundman (in the midst of a run of four shows, the band perversely played all their songs, including rockers like “Sugarcube,” at a whisper, Ira thanking the audience at one point for their indulgence). But this was going to be different, a series of shows on the eight nights of Hanukkah to raise money for charity, and promising unexpected guests: On the first night I saw them, the opening set was by some guy named Clint Conley, followed by none other than Penn Jillette and Gilbert Gottfried performing the “Who’s On First” sketch (kind of).
The Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows, which ended up stretching over nine non-consecutive years before Maxwell’s finally shut down for good in 2013, marked another level in my fandom. It became an annual ritual: lining up at the Manhattan record store Other Music to grab some of the few available tickets, usually half of them for people from out of town who planned to make a holiday visit to New Jersey, then shlepping out to Hoboken on the PATH train and sidling up to the door to peek at the handwritten sign revealing that night’s opening musical and comedy acts (neither of which were ever announced beforehand, by official custom). One night in 2002 (opening band Portastatic, comedy act Soundtrackappella) I cautiously approached a guy with what looked like small microphones clipped to his shoulders to ask if I could get a copy of his recording, and met my friend Brandon, who will be appearing further in these pages shortly. And I received a new education in bands in Yo La Tengo’s orbit (many of which will also be appearing in these pages shortly), and entered at least peripherally into the world of Maxwell’s, all of which my friend Jesse (who I also befriended at a Hanukkah show, after noting that he was carefully compiling setlists on a notepad as the show unfolded) has honored in his outstanding book.
Are Yo La Tengo my favorite band? That’s a really difficult question. I certainly listen to them more consistently than any other band, often delving into the mammoth collection of live fan recordings of their shows that they officially tolerate. I don’t always love them — while I don’t have quite the love/hate relationship with them that Mindy does (she invariably heads for the lobby the minute she hears the opening bassline of their epic drone-fest “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”), there’s plenty that they do that I’m not a fan of. (I am almost as lukewarm about their 2009 CD “Popular Songs” as I am in love with its predecessor, “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.”) Much like WFMU — the famed New Jersey freeform radio station that Yo La Tengo takes on-air requests to raise money for each spring — I know that YLT is going to sometimes enthrall me, sometimes challenge me, sometimes disappoint me, but never, ever be dull or predictable. And really, what more can you ask for in life?