musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Growing up in New York in the 1960s, Ira Kaplan was a Mets fan. That’s baseball, for those of you who aren’t enlightened about the world’s greatest sport and its relevance to the meaning of life. In addition to being a diehard Mets fan and a baseball nut, young Ira was also a music junkie. He bought 45 singles, he bought albums, and went to countless concerts. He couldn’t get enough of music, an affliction I can certainly relate to.

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After Ira started a rock band in the early 1980s he was looking for a catchy name, something a bit different from the rock band norm, and perhaps inspired by the sport he loved. The first choice for a band name was: A Worrying Thing. Huh? Well, believe it or not, that name DID have a baseball angle, although a murky one. During an interview with a newspaper reporter many years ago, a Cleveland Indians pitcher named Stanley Covelski was quoted as saying: “Doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. That’s history. It’s tomorrow that counts. So you worry all the time. It never ends. Lord, baseball is a worrying thing.”

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But that name, along with several other attempts, didn’t stick, so Ira Kaplan kept searching, finally settling on: Yo La Tengo. Another big “huh”, right? Well, once again, there is perfectly justifiable baseball origin to the name, although one as equally obscure as “A Worrying Thing.” The new name came from a book about baseball that Kaplan had read, Jimmy Breslin’s Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, an account of Ira’s beloved New York Mets during their first year in existence as an expansion team in 1962. It seems that there was a communication problem between the veteran center fielder, Richie Ashburn, and Elio Chacon, the Spanish-speaking infielder (he played both shortstop and second base). This problem was acerbated when fly balls hovered between the two players, resulting in a few too many collisions. Another teammate advised Ashburn to yell “Yo La Tengo! — Spanish for “I’ve Got It” — when fly balls came into the danger zone. Ashburn did as advised and the problem was solved. Except, that is, for another befuddled outfielder, Frank Howard, who thought his teammates were yelling “Yello Tango,” and ended up bowling over Chacon anyway. Brilliant stuff!

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While Ira Kaplan is indeed a huge fan of baseball you won’t find any baseball themed songs in the Yo La Tengo discography (unlike, for example, The Baseball Project, the band formed by Steve Wynn and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck). But throughout Yo La Tengo’s albums you will note an incredibly diverse arsenal of music, ranging from acoustic folk songs to melodic rockers and feedback-spiced electric guitar jams. Apart from their lovely Fakebook album, which remains my personal favorite, their albums don’t always follow a safe and cohesive pattern, but that’s part of the charm, making them all rewarding listens.

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I just finished reading Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock by Jesse Jarnow, a book that was published in June last year. As expected, there are a lot of baseball references, plus details on the band’s fascination with barbecue, and their long and winding search for the perfect bass player, which happily resulted in a most successful fit. I found the book to be a fascinating read, not only because I’ve been a fan of the band since their very first album, 1986’s Ride the Tiger, but also because I was involved in the same indie music circles (as a record store owner, concert promoter, music journalist) during the 1980s and 90s. Obviously, the baseball and music references struck a chord with me, but I was also impressed with just how well written the book was. It’s one that I think will appeal to readers who don’t know much about Yo La Tengo and could care less about baseball. Jarnow’s writing style is so polished and assured that it could easily lend itself to other biographical subjects. He’s that good, and his tale of Yo La Tengo and the peripheral music scene makes for very engrossing reading.

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Jarnow’s book brought back tons of great memories as I stumbled across references to favorite albums and recording artists of the era, plus mentions of various people in the music business whom I had met during those years. I once sat next to a guy at an Orlando Twins minor league baseball game, who turned out to be Bill Million from the Feelies, one of the truly great bands of the era and one that crossed many musical paths with Yo La Tengo. In Bangkok, when I was working for Tower Records in the mid 1990s, I bumped into Steve Fallon, the owner of the legendary Maxwell’s club in Hoboken, where Yo La Tengo and many other bands (such as The Feelies) cut their musical teeth. Ira Kaplan’s brother Adam was my sales rep at Dutch East for a spell. And so on. The Hoboken scene and ones in Athens, Austin, and Minneapolis, musicians, managers, and label reps; it was all one big supportive community. And reading this book reminded me of what an amazing musical web we all weaved in those heady days before the advent of that thing called the Internet.

I also once had a short chat with Ira before Yo La Tengo took the stage for a set at a club in Orlando. The subject? Baseball, of course! More specifically, we talked about a Minnesota Twins pitching prospect named Willie Banks, a player whom Ira had seen pitch in high school. At the time of the Yo La Tengo show, Banks was pitching for the Orlando Twins, the AA minor league affiliate of the big league club. He ended up pitching in the majors for a few years but never became the top-flight pitcher he was projected to be. But unlike Willie Banks, Yo La Tengo did fulfill their promise. No, they never reached the heady heights of a band like Nirvana or R.E.M., but they did sell a lot of albums over the past two decades, consistently played packed shows in front of adoring fans, and received overwhelmingly favorable critical acclaim from the media.

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In addition to the book, Yo La Tengo just released their new studio album, Fade, earlier this month. I haven’t heard it yet, but my copy has already been ordered and hopefully making its way to me very soon. Please, Mr. Postman, make it on time! Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to listening to this latest installment in the magical story of Yo La Tengo.

 

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