Q&A: Big Day Coming Author Jesse Jarnow Gets Personal With Yo La Tengo

Matthew Salacuse
WFMU DJ, music journalist and frequent Voice contributor Jesse Jarnow has just released Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock (Gotham), a voluminous tome that dissects Hoboken's finest Amerindie pioneers' journey from their childhood beginnings all the way to their current place as ageless innovators.

Big Day Coming isn't just distinguished from the rest of the rock-bio pack by Jarnow's bottomless pit of Yo La Tengo expertise; his book also delves into a comprehensive history of the beloved Hoboken rock club/restaurant Maxwell's. YLT's husband/wife team, guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, played their very first show there, and the venue plays host to their storied Hanukkah shows.

Sound of the City caught up with Jarnow to talk about how he came to discover his favorite band and, eventually, to write Big Day Coming.

You've been known to document Yo La Tengo's annual Hanukkah shows at Maxwell's and have covered them for the Voice. Is there a single Hanukkah show you were at that has stuck in your memory as truly unforgettable? What made the show (or shows) totally blow you away?

It's going to sound like a cop-out to say they're all unforgettable, but the band really works hard to make sure they are, with pretty radically different set-lists, musical guests, comedians, and even approaches to music every night. Not to mention different dinner specials at Maxwell's, plus whatever else is going in my personal life that might inform my show-going experience. But a lot of the extra-special ones for me are nights that musicians have sat in for the entirety of a set, improvising new parts. There was a night David Mansfield—who played with Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue—that was just incredible. They played almost all quiet songs, including one of the only times I think they ever did "I'll Keep It With Mine" and you could literally hear if somebody stepped on an empty beer cup on the floor. Any time the Tortoise guys are around is totally wonderful. Or Dave Schramm, their original lead guitarist.

But the one I'll pick here is Alex Chilton, in large part because there are some great videos of it on YouTube that really capture how intimate it is there. Chilton and Big Star were super important for all three members of the band, and they're pretty clearly radiating joy. You could tell how special it was while it was happening, unquestionably, he died not too long after that, which also cast a different light on them for me, and really underscoring how one-of-a-kind the shows are. Though Chilton did come back the next night. I wish there was video of them doing "The Oogum Boogum Song."

Alex Chilton and Yo La Tengo, "Let Me Get Close To You"

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