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Yo La Tengo is my favorite band.   If you’ve never heard them, I suggest you start with “I can hear the heart beating as one” or “And then nothing turned itself inside out.”   Though, as a side note, I cannot make any guarantee that you’ll care for them – I’m always surprised to find that many of my friends who otherwise love great music just can’t get into YLT.  While this discourages me at times, it’s also kind of cool because when I meet someone who loves YLT I know we’re going to be on the same page on a lot of fronts.

But the point of my post is not to extol the virtues of Yo La Tengo as much as to talk about the music they have covered.  Their covers aren’t necessarily groundbreaking, but they choose great music to cover, which makes them a great band to follow because they are constantly turning me on to music I otherwise would not have discovered.  So, with that, I present six great Yo La Tengo covers (or great songs Yo La Tengo has covered anyways) and the bands they helped me discover.

1) “A House is not a Motel” by Love

love

As mentioned in a previous post, Love is one of my all time favorites.  To be fair, I discovered Love independently of this song, but when I realized this cover was buried in YLT’s first album (“Ride the Tiger”) my already bloated estimations of both bands shot up measurably.  YLT’s version is actually pretty pedestrian – I much prefer Love’s version – but if you’d never heard the original then you’d love the cover, which was probably YLT’s intent at the time.

2) “I’m set free” by Velvet Underground

vu

I knew, as I was getting into Yo La Tengo, that they were enormously inspired by the velvets, so I was eager to hear this cover when I first bought YLT’s “Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo.”  I must say that this cover, however, did little to stir up my interest in Velvet Underground- it basically sounded a bit underwhelming given everything I’d heard about the Velvets.  I eventually did dig into the Velvets, however, and learned to love them, and eventually learned to really love this cover.  In fact, as much as I love the Velvet Underground version, I think I might like the YLT version better (in full disclosure I should tell you however that I like YLT better than VU so take me with a grain of salt).

3) “Big Sky,” “Oklahoma, USA” and “Top of the Pops” by The Kinks

kinks

I loved “Big Sky” without realizing, for at least a few years, that it was a cover.  The first time I saw YLT in concert they covered “Top of the Pops,” partly in jest.  Still, it caused me to purchase an album that I did not begin to appreciate until many years later – “Lola vs. the Powerman & the Money-Go-Round, Pt. 1.”   Basically, it took me a long time to understand how good The Kinks became after their early mod stuff, which kept me captivated for a good long while.   When I finally did come around on “Lola” I really began to understand why YLT loves The Kinks so much.  When I bought “The Village Green Preservation Society” and realized that Big Sky was a Kinks song I felt mixed emotions – on the one hand I thought ‘damn YLT is cool’ and on the other hand ‘wait a minute, has YLT written any good songs of their own?’ (The answer is yes).  As for “Oklahoma, USA” I always knew it was a cover but didn’t think much of it until I finally bought “Muswell Hillbillies” and realized that it’s an incredible song, but that The Kinks version is way better

4) “Take Care” by Big Star

big star

I was already a Big Star fan when I heard this song, but I had never heard the album it’s from – “Sister Lovers”- nor had I heard this song.  This song is so gorgeous (both versions) that I knew I had to track it down as soon as I heard this cover.  The Big Star version is probably my favorite just for the crazy, drunken drumming, though Georgia Hubley’s voice addition to YLT’s version is pretty nectar.

5) “Too Late” by Wire

wire

This cover did not cause me to investigate Wire nor did I realize, once again, that it was a cover tune.  When I did start to really get into Wire, I knew there was something super familiar about this tune, but I could not put my finger on what it was.   Finally, I came back around to listening to “Genius + Love” for the first time in a long time and made the connection.  Now I understand why YLT covered it, even if there’s nothing especially striking about their version.

6) “You Tore Me Down” by the Flaming Groovies

flaming groovies

This song did directly cause me to buy a couple Flaming Groovies records, and I like them quite a bit.  When Jana and I saw YLT in San Francisco a few years ago one of the guys from the Flaming Groovies came on to the stage to perform this tune with the band and it was a pretty cool scene.  Still, this one kind of sneaks in the list because the Flaming Groovies hardly shoot to the top of my mental list of favorite bands.

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I love band biographies. My interest in a band generally starts with an album purchase, usually whatever album is recommended to me as the best starting place for that band. If I really dig the album, I’ll research a little further and buy one to two more albums. If my interest with the band is still not fully indulged, I go completest- buying up every album and single and ep I can find. A handful of bands stir up my affections past this point even still, until there is only one means of fan devotion left at my disposal: the band biography. I present here a list of 10 band biographies that I have read, with thoughts on each, roughly in order of most to least recommended.

1) Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad
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This one is actually a super biography covering 13 different bands in 13 chapters. Initially purchased to indulge my infatuation with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and the Minute Men, it also served as a primer for bands that I later came to love such as the Meat Puppets and Fugazi, as well as providing some fascinating reading on bands that I don’t think I’ll ever learn to love such as the Butthole Surfers, Big Black, and Beat Happening. Although the book reads as 13 short biographies, it also holds together as a loosely cohesive story of underground music in the 1980s. The writing is not great, and at times is actually a bit painful, but the content is worth the suffering.

2) Last Gang in Town: The Story and Myth of the Clash by Marcus Gray

As implied in the title, this biography is mostly uninterested in perpetuating mythical estimations of the Clash’s awesomeness, and instead seeks to tell their actual story, independent of legend. It’s comprehensive and massive and thoroughly satisfying to the devoted Clash enthusiast.

3) The Smiths – The Complete Story by Mick Middles

This was probably the first band biography I read (we’re talking high school here), and as such served as an introduction for me to the band subculture- something I was to learn much more about in my near, rocking future. Unlike the aforementioned Clash biography, this one doesn’t mind fanning the flames of Smiths worship, or at least it did nothing to slow my accelerating adulation of all things Smiths at the time. I don’t know if I could stomach this now.

4) Unforgettable Fire : The Story of U2 by Eamon Dunphy

Essential reading for U2 fans, especially those like myself who consider the early years to be U2’s best and who might find themselves riveted by details of the Boy and October albums- details, in other words, that 95% of modern U2 fans would have no interest in.

5) U2: At the End of the World by Bill Flanagan

A de facto sequel to the aforementioned Unforgettable Fire, Bill Flanagan picks up where Eamon Dunphy left off, and delves into personal dynamics within the band that provide intriguing insight into the direction of post-Joshua Tree U2. This one was slightly less rewarding for me since my love for U2 wanes with the albums covered here, but Flanagan’s writing makes up the difference.

6) Behind the Scenes on the Pegasus Carousel with the Legendary Rock Group Love by Michael Stuart-Ware

Love’s story as told by it’s second drummer, Michael Stuart-Ware, will mostly only interest dedicated Love fans, but Love’s story does occasionally overlap with broader narratives, such as the story of drugs in music, the story of racial integration in rock, and the rise and fall of the Doors. But for those seeking the intimate details of Love’s story, like myself, this is the best and only (as far as I know) place to turn, which is sort of too bad. It’s not that the book is uninspired, just a little under whelming. For one, Stuart-Ware didn’t join the band until the second album, so question marks about the earliest days of the band remain. Plus, Stuart-Ware’s role as the drummer, and a replacement drummer at that, narrows his scope of Love’s story quite a bit- I would love to read the Love biography as written by Arthur Lee, or better yet Bryan MacLean (both of whom have died, so that’s not going to happen). Still, if you love Love, then this is a solid, if breezy read.

7) Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance by Johnny Rogan
morrissey
I don’t really remember this one that well, but I remember thinking it was probably a bit of an unnecessary expenditure of time on my part. I realized in reading this that my thirst for Smiths knowledge could in fact be satiated.

8) Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored by Richard Cole

This book was written by Led Zep’s tour manager, and it was obvious to me from the start that he had a two-part agenda in writing the book: 1) make lots of money by exposing the most stomach-turning, depraved aspects of Zeppelin’s story and 2) get his own name included in Led Zeppelin’s story as much as possible. I read an interview with Jimmy Page some time after reading this book where he basically said that everything in the book is untrue. All the same, it kept me reading.

9) No Compromise: The Life Story of Keith Green by David Hazard, Melody Green

I don’t know if this one should count or not, because my decision to read this book was in no way born from a love of Kieth Green’s music (which is not to say that I hate his music, just that it does not inspire me to pursue further, as described in the first paragraph). I read this because someone told me it was inspiring and a great story, and he was basically right. I was surprised to find out though how musically relevant K.G. was in his time- at one point in the book, it described how a recently converted Bob Dylan was in the studio while K.G. was recording and said something to the effect of ‘yeah, that’s the sound I want to start going for.’ It’s humorous to think about, but it actually makes sense when you listen to Dylan’s music from that time.

10) Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock’s Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock by Richie Unterberger

I bought this book because I wanted to read a biography about the Byrds, and this was the closest thing I could find. Turns out, for every page about the Byrds, you’ve got to read 5 others about the Mamas and Papas or Jefferson Airplane or Buffalo Springfield. That wouldn’t be so bad (I like all of those bands to various degrees) but the aim of the book is way too academic and technical, focusing on the subtle distinctions of folk, country, folk-rock, country-rock, folk-country, etc. I lost interest less than half way through.

Other bands/artists that I would most like to read biographies on at the moment:
The Kinks
James Brown
Black Sabbath
Wire

What band biographies have you all read? Which do you recommend?

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Today I was eating lunch at a friend’s house and the television was on.  The Fellowship of the Ring happened to be playing and if you know me slightly well you probably know that I adore J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films.  So while we cooked and ate our meal we watched along between the Fellowship’s arrival at Lothlórien and the breaking of the Fellowship.  If you’re familiar with the story from the film you know about a significant event that took place within that time period (which in the book actually took place at the beginning of The Two Towers, after the breaking of the Fellowship).

If you haven’t seen the films and you don’t know what happened this will be a spoiler: Boromir is killed.  Casting Sean Bean to play Boromir probably automatically gave American audiences a negative prejudice against the character (he being the antagonist in many films including but not limited to: The Island, The Hitcher, GoldenEye, and National Treasure [the only one I’ve actually seen]), which is further fueled by a general lack of Boromir’s strong positive qualities presented in the film (unless you watch the Extended Edition, which I highly recommend).  But if you’ve read the books you probably have a much higher view of Boromir, and his glorious final scene can be very emotional when you consider the honor and valor that Boromir demonstrated in his short lifetime.  I remembered that this scene really got to me emotionally, especially Boromir’s final utterance toward Aragorn, “My king.”  My eyes welled up with tears, like in The Two Towers film when Gandalf, Éomer, and the Riders of the Rohan appear at sunrise to defeat Saruman’s Uruk-hai army at Helm’s Deep.

I got to thinking about the subject and I made a short list of films that similarly moved me to tears, after which I asked myself, “Why?”  I discovered some interesting patterns that linked various films on the list:

Many of these categories can carry over into others (i.e. LOVE is tied to KINSHIP and TRIUMPH, etc.), but in general I see that these distinct themes appeal to what makes me human, or at least human in a broken yet hopeful state.  While looking at the list above I see the Gospel calling out to me, and the same can be said of a list of books, music, or visual art that has appealed to our emotions.

From tearful heartbreak to tearful elation the Gospel has radically given us a schema with which we can understand the universe and our place in it, and it is not simply a cold, purely logical grid to look at the world (which probably kept me from crying when Mr. Spock died in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).  Through Christ we’ve the opportunity to come to God with our brokenness and to be able to experience true kinship and love as we inhabit a broken yet redeemed world.  Because of what God has accomplished throughout history we also have a hope for the undoing of this brokenness and a time when injustice is eliminated.  Tears of joy will most assuredly follow.

What films have made you cry and what is the underlying meaning of your tears?

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