Jesse Jarnow has a favorite rock band. Its name is Yo La Tengo. Jarnow has seen the Hoboken, N.J., trio perform 70 or 80 times and, as if it needs to be said, owns all its records — more than 20 — often in both digital and vinyl form. It's a deep admiration traced to Jarnow's early days as a New York City music writer, when he was assigned a feature on the band for the magazine Signal to Noise. While studying Yo La Tengo's brand of layered rock, which veers from lilting beauty to chaotic squall, often in the same album, he found a deep, personal appreciation.
"It just seemed very real," Jarnow said. "It had an atmospheric quality that drew me in and an emotional part that kept me there."
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In the New York rock circles both he and the band frequent, Jarnow struck up a friendly relationship with Yo La Tengo, mostly small talk at shows.
So when Jarnow persuaded his favorite band to let him write their biography and connect the dots behind some of his favorite songs, it would amount to being the kid in the candy store who drove himself after getting the keys to the hot rod. Right?
Not quite. "Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock" is a narrative crammed with minutiae, and it would delight any fan of the 30-year-old band. But Jarnow's opportunity to tell his heroes' story was equal parts joy and frustration.
The joy is obvious: Jarnow spent more than a year interviewing the band, including about 15 go-rounds with singer and guitarist Ira Kaplan. He hung out during practice sessions. He listened to 500 hours of live Yo La Tengo recordings, interviewed the band's friends, family and fellow musicians, and read virtually every word Kaplan wrote during a brief career as a rock journalist in the late '70s and early '80s.
"There was definitely the thought, 'Wow, I have this window to ask all this dorky stuff,'" Jarnow said. "I frequently thought of the Saturday Night Live episode where William Shatner was at a Star Trek convention and someone would ask, 'In this one episode, what was the combination on the safe?'"
But writing about some of his musical heroes — and people he likes, admires and respects — presented challenges tangled up in music writing.
As Bruce Springsteen said in a July profile in The New Yorker, "For an adult, the world is constantly trying to clamp down on itself. Routine, responsibility, decay of institutions, corruption: this is all the world closing in. Music, when it's really great, pries that shit back open and lets people back in, it lets light in, and air in, and energy in, and sends people home with that and sends me back to the hotel with it. People carry that with them sometimes for a very long period of time."
Try putting that into book form.
And so it was, to a degree, with Jarnow and Yo La Tengo. His first mission wasn't reporting — it was protecting his own fandom.
"I wanted to seal it off in a vault," he said. "I didn't want to dig into the band so deeply that it affected how I felt about the music."
Most biography subjects are scrubbed to uncomfortable degrees, no historical sliver left untouched. In a much ballyhooed reporting coup for a biography of President Barack Obama, David Maraniss tracked down the journal entries of the president's former girlfriend. Though Kaplan and his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, are not quite worth the scrutiny of a sitting president, they are known to be reticent with the press, and, in many ways, they were with Jarnow, too. For instance, they weren't interested in discussing their college years.
"I had heard a story about Ira being in a band in college, and he didn't want to talk about it," Jarnow said. "He was elusive about it, and it didn't seem that important. I'm not writing 'The Power Broker' or an expose about Ira to prove anything awful. I kind of let it go."
In a Wall Street Journal review, music journalist Michael Azerrad wrote that Yo La Tengo's history is "hardly the stuff of ripping yarns: There is no antagonist to speak of, no drama, no outrageous personalities, no sex, no drugs and not even any rock 'n' roll in its swaggering sense."
More active participation from the band could have been key to balancing the lack of those classic rock tropes, but Azerrad, in his review, noted that it wasn't there. He wrote:
"One way around the eternal conundrum of writing about music is to paint the players so vividly that the music they make is almost palpable. Apparently, that wasn't an option here — Ms. Hubley and Mr. Kaplan, a married couple, are famously reserved, 'protecting something too rare and precious to share on command,' says Mr. Jarnow. And so all Mr. Jarnow can say about the love songs on 2000's 'And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out' is that they were 'perhaps literally autobiographical, perhaps not.' But this is a biography; we expect an answer. What is it like to be a married couple in a band, which is part creative enterprise and part business? What is it like to be the third band member (bassist James McNew) when the other two are husband and wife? We don't really find out."
Instead, Jarnow fleshes out the book with the growth of the modern independent rock that grew up along side Yo La Tengo: legendary Jersey City, N.J. radio station WFMU, independent record label Matador Records and Hoboken, N.J., rock club Maxwell's. There is also ample name dropping of the bands whose careers grew up around Yo La Tengo's (McNew went to college with members of Pavement — who knew?). That broader scope helped convince the band to participate with Jarnow's project. But it also frustrated the music journalist in Jarnow, who ideally would have answered the questions Azerrad raises.
"There were certainly things I wanted to know that I wished they would have gone into more detail about," Jarnow said. "It's not that they were intentionally withholding information, but sometimes I would have to learn something (elsewhere) and ask specifically about it before they would open up."
An example: Before the band started, Kaplan and Hubley knew each other from the New York rock scene. But it wasn't until a trip to London to see friends playing a concert that they became romantically involved. It's a notable passage for one of indie rock's most famous couples, and it raises obvious opportunity for rich detail and narrative. Yet Jarnow didn't get at it. Maraniss might have gone to any lengths, but out of respect for a band he knows and likes, Jarnow stood down.
"It was an odd place for me," he said. "As a journalist, I want to know. As a fan I'm interested. As someone who has the responsibility of writing this book, if it was something they didn't want to talk about, I could nudge a little bit, but I didn't want to push. They're people who I think are extremely nice and lovely, and I didn't want to put them out. It was always a balance. Maybe I should have gone more bulldog on that."
Longtime music writer Jim DeRogatis, who has written biographies of rock critic Lester Bangs and rock band The Flaming Lips, said he was "lucky" that Bangs, whom he deeply admired, was dead when DeRogatis wrote "Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic."
"I could write elements of him without worrying about a relationship souring," DeRogatis said. "It's hard to write a biography of a living person. Invariably there will be a sentence that they're going to hate."
As for The Flaming Lips biography, "Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma's Fabulous Flaming Lips," he was also lucky because singer Wayne Coyne "is an incredibly perverse and twisted individual who likes to see negative things written about him and get in arguments with people."
It empowered DeRogatis to write freely about the Lips, a band he clearly admired more than most people he covered. It even led to an occasional blurring of reporting lines.
"They're a magical band, and anyone in their orbit is invited to participate," DeRogatis said. "We were in the studio while they were recording 'Clouds Taste Metallic,' and Wayne decided they needed hand claps on the song, 'Brainville.' Suddenly I'm standing there with the four guys clapping my hands."
A drummer, DeRogatis also spent an hour jamming with the Lips on Frank Zappa tunes. The reporter-musician relationship becomes intense, but it is "an artificial intensity," he said.
"You wind up caring what they think about you, but you have to check that," he said.
DeRogatis said he has remained objective about the Lips and written some critical things in recent years. As a result, he said, "We're not as friendly as we once maybe were."
"You can like and admire someone and push as hard as any journalist would push," he said. "I honestly think you cannot write a book or magazine or newspaper article of any depth and care what that person thinks about it."
It's a trick doubly difficult in the world of music writing, and Jarnow has learned as much.
"If I write another music biography," he said, "I don't want it to be on people I know."
It would probably be easier still if the book was about a band he didn't much like, either.
Josh Noel writes about travel and beer for the Chicago Tribune and thinks Yo La Tengo's best album is "I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One."
'Big Day Coming'
By Jesse Jarnow, Gotham, 362 pages, $18Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun