Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

They Don't Want to Talk About It

Everything but the Girl formed in Hull, Yorkshire, in 1982, Yo La Tengo in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1984. Both began as resolutely indie male-female duos, and although the British band proved more resolute about the duo part and the Americans about the indie part, both also proved living entities ready to adapt. EBTG toured with hired sidemen in the high-flying '80s and owed most of their considerable '90s success to interventions by dance titans Massive Attack and Todd Terry; YLT signed with Matador immediately after Matador signed with Atlantic in 1991 only to find Atlantic forcing them to ditch a drolly self-mocking video in favor of a lip-synched mediocrity MTV didn't play anyway. But the best evidence of their vitality is that both male-female duos began as couples and remain so three decades later. Two entertaining and informative books, the Tracey Thorn memoir Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star and the Jesse Jarnow biography Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, seemed an excellent excuse to ponder this confluence. What I should have guessed was that I'd end up pondering indie rock U.K.- and U.S.-style just as much.

Big Day Coming's subtitle tells it like it is. Yes, it's a band bio, providing detail aplenty about not just founders Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley but James McNew, the bassist the pair finally got right after 15 tries. But it's also a history. Certain that Jarnow gets random details wrong because he botches some of my own dates, I'm just as certain of how skillfully he sketches in a bunch of characters I've rubbed shoulders with while tracing "the Rise of Indie Rock" and integrates two perilous digressions along the way. Baseball in 19th-century Hoboken, where the national pastime was formalized, and Georgia's filmmaker parents John and Faith Hubley, who led unlike and unlikely lives before plighting their unconventional troth, are the kind of research seams that lead writers astray, but Jarnow turns baseball into a metaphor for both escape-from-Manhattan and the corporatization of "alternative" and the Hubleys' bustling menage into a precedent for Georgia and Ira's own marriage.

What he doesn't do is explore the marriage itself. Without once doubting the depth of their love and commitment, one gathers that it's been slightly more tempestuous than their companionable onstage unpredictability suggests. That's about it for inside dope. Hubley and Kaplan are so private about their relationship that when I wangled my way into their modest Hoboken condo in 2003 it counted as a scoop--which Jarnow quotes, suggesting that he never gained such access himself. And why should he have? As Thorn points out, the "archetypal" Taylor and Burton displayed their passion for all to see, and how'd that work out?

For her part, Thorn reports that she and Ben Watt have "never succeeded in conveying to the media any sense of what we're really like." Although Bedsit Disco Queen was written in fits and starts and ends for no good reason in 2007, it's a gem by the wretched standard of the rock memoir, and also by the stiff-necked standard of theses on Beckett's fiction, another literary genre Thorn has under her belt. Warmly detailed on her girlhood and a sane if tragically outdated guide to how to be a sane pop star, Thorn's book is plainspoken in the manner of the lyrics that dot it and spiky in the manner of a feminist who wrote a thesis on Beckett's fiction. But almost all it has to say about her union with her life partner comes in five pages right after the tale of Watt's near-death from an obscure immune disorder in 1992. As it happens, this ordeal, which left him unable to digest fiber or fat, inspired its own book, the lamentably out-of-print 1996 memoir Patient, which achieves a literary intensity and formal coherence equaled by few rock memoirs ever. Then again, it's not a rock memoir. Agonizing, mordant, dreamlike, and matter-of-fact, suspenseful even though you know its author won't die, it's among other things a love story about Tracey sitting at his bedside and beckoning him from the end of the rainbow--a highly oblique one.

If we end up learning not much about these romantic partnerships, well, even low-wattage celebrity marriages seldom parallel our own, and good marriages are so different from each other that their educational value for anyone else is decidedly hit-or-miss. Thorn's word to the wed is marriage manual stuff: "[P]erhaps the only secret of success in any relationship is to agree to differ." I don't blame her for the banality of this advisory--in marriage advice, banality is coin of the realm. But I would point out that, near as we can tell, it's not the way Georgia and Ira do things. They appear to be dedicated sharers, with walking encyclopedia of musical trifles Kaplan the prime mover. Kaplan often and Hubley occasionally will perform solo or moonlight with other acts, and if they live long enough they'll probably pack the band in; some believe their quiet new Fade does just that, although I'd wager all options are open. But it's hard to imagine them pursuing solo careers, as Thorn and Watt have since EBTG last recorded in 1998, without taking their lives solo too.

Or maybe there is something to learn--from the art, not the memoirs. When you strain to decipher their signature murmur, Yo La Tengo's lyrics hint at connubial shyness and withdrawal, plus related stuff more punitive on Georgia's part and more self-involved on Ira's. But they don't always depict "themselves" as so withdrawn. Jarnow cites lines worth repeating from 2000's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. Georgia: "Although you don't believe me you are strong / Darkness always turns into the dawn / And you won't even remember this for long / When it ends all right." Ira: "You say that all we do is fight and I think to myself, gee, I don't know that that's true." Which aren't so far from such post-ordeal Thorn lyrics as "And I bet you could tell me / How slowly four follows three / And you're most forlorn just before the dawn" and "I know it's hard, yeah, I know it's hard / And, baby, that's something I don't disregard / But with your troubled mind / You're like a goods train running through my life." Though Thorn's lyrics had their intimate passages before Watt's illness and their objective ones after, early on she was more programmatic, often in an explicitly feminist way: "You see, me and Bobby D don't get along that easily / You told the world, 'Skip rules, have fun' / Knocked her from here to kingdom come."

I put "themselves" in quotation marks above because I try, imperfectly, never to assume that a song in the first person is autobiographical. Autobiographically inspired, fine--Thorn wouldn't close her chapters with a lyric otherwise. But songs are built to be knocked off their documentary moorings by formal demands and genre expectations. So if we're sussing these duos' meanings, we need to understand where they're coming from aesthetically--which geographically and culturally is very different places. In 1981 Soho Weekly News columnist Kaplan covered the London debut of Hoboken's jumpy, innocuous Bongos, who were slammed in NME, he reported, for calling themselves "rock 'n' roll": "The term is currently out of vogue in English new wave circles because it conjures up overbearing macho attitudes." This was the first wave of the U.K.'s ridiculous anti-"rockism" campaign, and although Thorn does gently mock her own ideological rigor in retrospect, she was on the front lines. Hence her disdain for Bobby D, who while indeed wide open to sexism charges--I very much like the lyric I quoted--was and remains kind of a humane artist even so. And hence as well her strange, shaky niche in the pop world where she half-accidentally situated herself.

I am an Everything but the Girl agnostic--I've never disliked them or worked up any interest either. Having read their books and listened again I respect them more actively than I used to. But as Thorn says, she has "a voice which inspires reverence in certain listeners, and yet about which I have so many reservations." I'm with her, not her listeners. But I can certainly feel how many women would hear their unpretty principles in her, and many men identify or empathize. I find her more relatable than Sade myself--psychologically, anyway. Aurally's a tougher question, though one might well resent the way Sade gets more love for having more voice and saying less with it. This matters because, Thorn to the contrary, EBTG's "pop" clearly made its way in life as alt-Sade. They're more varied and less smooth than Sade due to questing music man Watt, and more ambitious lyrically because Thorn is a literary feminist who keeps herself to herself--even when she writes as an "I" who endures painful levels of neglect and abuse and occasionally assumes the voice of the mother Thorn wouldn't become until 1998.

Note, however, that although EBTG sold quite a few albums in the '80s, only two of their singles went top 50 until 1988. That's when they scored their big hit cover of Rod Stewart's "I Don't Want to Talk About It," written by Danny Whitten, the Crazy Horse guitarist whose heroin OD helped inspire Neil Young's Tonight's the Night--that is, by an archetypal rockist. Thorn says she likes America--until the 1995 "Missing" remix by New Yorker Todd Terry that became the band's biggest hit, she always knew her fans here had made an effort to get to her. But with an insularity that's all too typical of mid-level British musicians, and that speaks poorly of the sophistication she prizes, she doesn't seem to know much about the place.

The Kinks-worshipping Hoboken stalwarts are more ecumenical. Starting vaguely folk-rocky because that was all they had the chops for, Yo La Tengo--long such a shoestring operation that the founding couple made their nut copyediting until 1992--gained an audience on the Continent well before they dented the mother country, although pop polymath Kaplan (which of course includes "rock 'n' roll" polymath) formed prescient bonds with My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields and Spacemen 3's Sonic Boom. They eventually mastered Neil Young guitar freakouts no more "rockist" than the Bongos' polyrhythms as well as the background music Thorn indignantly and inaccurately claims EBTG had nothing to do with, developed relationships with the Sun Ra Arkestra as well as a country-jazzy Nashville aggregation called Lambchop I personally can't stand.

Everything but the Girl had peaked and subsided three times by the time it began to seem possible that Yo La Tengo were one of the best bands in America--in fact, the world. Never literally pop--Jarnow trumpets Yo La's jokey boast about their version of Sun Ra's "Nuclear War" going top 10 on Billboard's singles sales chart without mentioning that sales are not how singles popularity is measured--they make their pretty good living the way commercially marginal bands do: touring, record sales, film work, licensing, commercials, merch, whatever. Spiritually, however, they are pop--an enormous repertoire of catchy cover tunes you may remember and may not has been a hallmark since the beginning, complemented now by a sizable cache of originals you always remember and probably can't name. Older by a few years than EBTG, though you wouldn't think it to look at them, they have no children where the English couple have three, and as Hubley told a reporter who asked why: "That's none of your business. My mother doesn't even know the answer to that question." No doubt this is part of the reason they maintain such a youthful and even childlike demeanor. But the other is that they're more playful by nature than Thorn and Watt. Their marriage seems like more fun, and probably would even if they'd put in time mastering the stroller mambo.

Two memoirs and a biography later, I'm not floating any theories about the real-life interactions of either couple. Nor am I suggesting that some inside doper or other couldn't help me do so. But these books choose instead to point us toward the music. And the music tells us plenty.

Barnes & Noble Review, February 28, 2013