Up to now, Yo La Tengo has never played in Sonoma County, which is only surprising when you realize the band was formed all the way back in 1986. Surely, you think, the enduring indie-before-there-was-“indie” band might have played some regular local stop on the college-rock circuit over the years: the Studio KAFE, the River Theater, or Cafe This. But no.
So it was a pretty special thing that Yo La Tengo played not one but two shows today—one at the Last Record Store and one at the Mystic Theatre. The Last Record Store show was such a rarity, in fact, that I talked to an eighth grader whose parents had written a note to the school saying he had a dentist’s appointment so he could get out of class and come see Yo La Tengo.
There’s a famous Onion headline, “37 Record Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster,” and not until you see the band at a record store do you realize the truth inherent in that joke. Before playing, band members flipped through the dollar bins idly, debated among themselves about the packaging on a Bad Brains CD and made jokes about Johnny Winter. They were made for record stores, and vice-versa; the Last Record Store had a fantastic painted window display for the show, and one amazing fan, Steve Ciaffa, donated to the band copies of Yo La Tengo albums he’d personally recorded and manufactured for them… on 8-Track.
The setup for this tour is semi-acoustic, with only a couple drums and minimally electrified guitars. Opening with “Tom Courtenay,” played with delicate dynamics, the band meandered into “Periodically Double or Triple,” which was interrupted by a spontaneous PSA from Ira on wearing a bike helmets. The band meandered through a pretty version of Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears,” laughed about Jimmy Buffett, made a baby cry by stepping on the distortion pedal, played “Speeding Motorcycle,” beat back repeated requests for “Gates of Steel,” and ultimately ended with “Gates of Steel” anyway—hilariously, after the incessant requester had left!
The sold-out show at the Mystic Theatre later followed the promised “freewheeling” format, with questions taken from the audience. Did you know that Yo La Tengo, for all their sort of lo-fi intellectualism, are a total bunch of funny-ass people? I had no idea. (First Q: “Biggie or Tupac?” A: “Biggie. Sorry—east coast. I’m from Brooklyn, motherfucker!”)
Questions ranged from esoteric technical stuff—the drum sound on their song “Saturday”—to vague inquiries about what they were “into” when they started the band. (“Weed, ceramics, and chips.”) Everyone in the band howled at a question related to Petaluma’s status as the home of competitive arm wrestling, and they even acted out an arm-wrestling contest for their encore. For a complete play-by-play, Andy over at Advantage Sound has the full report on the set, which included their semi-hit “Sugarcube” along with covers of the Monkees, the Beatles, the Gun Club, the Flamin’ Groovies, Neil Young, the Velvet Underground and more.
The fun part, for me, was watching the band suss out thinly veiled song requests. Someone asked “What happens when Night Falls on Hoboken?” and was instantly shot down. Unfortunately, I was dying to hear “We’re an American Band” from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and in a valiant attempt to sort of slyly guide the band to that title, I raised my hand and asked what was probably the dumbest question of the night: “Is it ethical to force a newborn baby to listen to Grand Funk Railroad?”
But Yo La Tengo is way too good at this game. They knew what was up immediately. “We’ll get to that song,” Ira said, consolingly. “It involves a lot of tuning and everything, but we’ll get to it.”
Sure enough, the main set ended with “We’re an American Band” (note: not the actual Grand Funk Railroad song), giving Ira an opportunity to reprise one of the greatest on-record guitar freakouts of all time: halfway through the song, he punched the foot pedal, leaned back to his small amp and turned up the knobs, and let loose on four minutes of loud, distorted, mangled bliss.
Yo La Tengo’s so natural at this “freewheeling” thing that after this tour I can’t imagine them going back to playing “regular” shows. Next year, if someone asks them a question mid-set, what are they gonna do—say “shut up”? They’re clearly having a lot of fun with this setup, and it’s a hell of a hoot for the audience too.
“It’s nice to see so many health food stores in Santa Rosa,” announced Jesse Michaels partway through the set by his band, Classics of Love. “Santa Rosa used to be known for something else.”
That thing, of course, was meth, which propelled an entire generation of thrash bands to play as fast as humanly possible while growling unintelligible, moronic lyrics. Jesse, of course, was affected by the drug in other ways; by writing some of the greatest lyrics of all time with Operation Ivy, and singing them in such a controlled, rapid-fire way that evoked chemical desperation as much as unbridled joy. Who knew Jesse equated Santa Rosa with meth? I mean, except for Capitalist Casualties?
“Let’s dedicate this next one to Victims Family, what the hell,” he continued, launching into “Time Flies,” just one of many actual great songs. Folks can disagree for hours about Big Rig and Common Rider, but let the bickering end—Classics of Love is easily Jesse’s best post-OpIvy band. The singing is in tune, his guitar playing’s right on, and his backing band is great. I’d heard stories about his faltering solo shows, but after their maiden voyage tour coming up, I’d wager to say that Classics of Love will be a well-oiled force to be reckoned with.
Jesse shouted out the Cotati Cabaret, hoping that people might remember. Some did.
There are certain things we say in life that we never thought we’d ever, ever say. Things like, “Let’s go out to sushi,” or “I’ve been kinda into reggae lately.” And today, I find myself saying one of those unthinkable things. After 14 years, I have worked my final day at the Last Record Store.
Maybe “worked” isn’t the right word, since my last day at the store on Monday was full of telephone calls and people stopping in, wishing me well, shaking my hand, reminding me of the first record they bought off me, telling me how much I’d helped them out in different ways—basically flashing 14 years of my life before my eyes. It was an overwhelming display of what I’d meant to the store, which is something I’d never really thought about, because the store always meant so much more to me.
I started coming to the Last Record Store in 1988, when I was 12 years old and used to ride my skateboard all over downtown Santa Rosa. My mom would give me $5 for food, but of course I starved myself and bought hardcore records instead. In fact, I still have the first record I ever bought there—a 7″ compilation called ‘We’ve Got Your Shorts.’
As time went on, I guess I grew to be a familiar face around the store. I was hooked on records, buying everything from DRI to Sinatra, and bridging the styles by recording ‘Punk Piano’—punk rock songs played easy-listening style—to sell in the local demo tapes section. The store also stocked my zine, Positively Fourth Street, and sold records by my band, Ground Round. I still distinctly remember asking a fairly bewildered Scott if it was okay to put up a flyer bearing the phrase “In the Name of God, Fuck You.” Then, in 1993, a miracle happened: I got asked to work there.
I didn’t know, at the time, that everyone in the world wanted to work at the Last Record Store, but at 18, I definitely knew that it was the place for me. I loved the atmosphere, the freedom to be myself, and the fact that Hoyt and Doug really ran the place in their own anti-corporate and unconventional way. I began a crash course in every single section, starting with a heavy jazz infatuation, going through a deep country phase, diving headlong into hip-hop, eating up everything and finding myself surprised at every turn.
Oh, I learned a lot about life, too. Things like how to treat people properly, and how not to be a snob, and how actions and achievements mean more than opinions and ideals. But I dug learning about music most of all; my co-workers, naturally, being founts of information, along with most of the customers. Eventually I was put in charge of the vinyl annex, which opened up whole new possibilities for listening, be it crazy international music, old blues records, new electronica stuff, the standard classical repertoire, any classic rock I might have missed. There was always one threshold, however, that I refused to cross: I never, ever listened to reggae.
It’d be impossible, and would definitely get some people in trouble, to list all of the amazing things that happened at the store while I worked there. Nevertheless, interesting stuff seemed to happen every day, like the time that Doug rigged a huge PA speaker up on the roof and blared Mule Variations at midnight, all over downtown Santa Rosa. The day that Seth walked in and plopped an owl on the counter, very beautiful and very dead. The crazy half-naked stripper who invited me to dinner, or the many other solicitations one gets when they work at a record store, none of which need to be retold here.
The strangers who met in the aisles and would later start coming in together. The beautiful girl who I met in the aisles, fell in love with, and married. The bands that made flyers out of vacuum cleaners and folding chairs, the folks who dropped off their insane flyers and zines and mix CDs, and the people who brought us free things like cake and chocolate and beer and movies and tickets to shows and chicken casserole. Why? Just because.
I’ve also seen the Last Record Store skillfully adapt to a lot of changes over the years. Getting a cash register, for one. Closing the vinyl annex. Moving to Mendocino Avenue. Getting a computer and an email list. Weathering the mp3 storm. Weathering the economy and the changing face of the music industry. Watching Musicland, the Wherehouse, and Tower Records all go under. And yet, through it all, standing strong, because in mine and many other people’s opinions, it’s still the best and most amazing record store in the world.
For the last four years, I wrote the Last Record Store Newsletter every week, which, if you’re interested, can be perused here. But I’ve also for the last four years been writing more and more for the Bohemian, which is where I’m going to be full-time from now on. For those lovable ones among you who are going to miss my dependable presence behind the counter—my misguided recommendations, my unintelligible blathering, and my failed jokes—well, hopefully it’ll translate in print. Between you and me, I’ve actually been kinda into reggae lately. Just a little.
So thanks to Doug and Hoyt for giving me a job and treating me like a son for fourteen years. Thanks to all my awesome co-workers for the camaraderie. Thanks especially to all the wonderful regular customers who I’ve met over the years—you, more than anyone, and more than you know, made it worthwhile. I’m gonna miss the shit, for sure, but another door has opened, and it’s time to move on.