(The real story behind our hero's coverage of Tuesday night's Yo La Tengo show for Billboard)
I have been afraid of Ira Kaplan for years. I have actively refused opportunities to meet him on several occasions. When I got a chance to interview the band for the Daily Cal, I specifically requested phone time with James McNew, their bass player. James is a huge guy, but he sings in a little tiny falsetto. He posts on the Internet about his favorite "Simpsons" episodes. He is not in the least intimidating.
Ira is SUPER intimidating. If you've ever watched them play, you know he goes nuts on stage, flailing his arms around and thrashing his guitars, but with his back to the audience the entire time. I've seen them several times and I've never once observed Ira making eye contact with anyone. He seems vaguely menacing somehow. In the liner notes to their records, there's often these veiled references to his getting into rows with people in other bands and (frequently) his wife and drummer Georgia Hubley. Georgia is about the most passive human being in the history of indie rock -- she's the only person I know of who can sing lead backing vocals -- and I fear anyone who can get a rise out of her.
Of course, this is all completely ridiculous. Yo La Tengo are beautiful people and everyone loves them. All those scary tour diaries on the Matador web page are just gags.
As I entered the Boulder Theater for the show tonight, I saw Ira and Georgia sitting at the merchandise table. Interestingly, their merch guy, sitting between them, was involved in animated conversation with some fans, but both actual YLT members were conspicuously silent. I stood behind a group of people in line for the bathroom trying to work up the courage to talk to Ira. He's not going to bite, I told myself. He's just an indie rocker. I wanted a drink.
To work up some courage, I tried Georgia first. "Hi, Georgia," I said. She waved back at me. All right! I sucked in my breath. "Hi, Ira," I said. He half-raised his head. I extended my hand towards him, and he shook it. I felt self-conscious about how cold my hand was. "I've seen you guys a bunch of times but I have always been afraid to say hi to you," I said.
"We're USUALLY not mean," Ira said, studiously avoiding eye contact. "Except to SOME people."
I was shaking in my Reeboks at this point. "Um...I interviewed James when I was in college. When...And Nothing...you know, two or three long titles ago, that album came out. It was neat. We talked about 'The Simpsons.'" How did I manage, the first time meeting one of my songwriting idols, to forget the name of his album? If I ever meet Elvis Costello, am I going to blank on All This Useless Beauty and start mumbling incoherently about "Futurama?" I wanted to die. "Which was great, but then I had to write the article...y'know...about 'The Simpsons.'"
Ira almost, not quite, looked directly at me. I could see in his eyes that he dearly wanted me to either buy some merchandise or leave him the hell alone. At least that was my feeling at the moment. Here I was telling this incredibly uninteresting story about an interview I did with not him but his bass player, six years ago, for some college newspaper that there was absolutely no way he gave a toss about. Desperately, I stabbed out for a happy ending. "I'm covering the show tonight for Billboard!"
A glimmer of interest, or possibly contempt, or maybe interested contempt, crossed the great man's face. "That article about 'The Simpsons' must have really impressed people," he said. He returned to carefully examining the floor behind and to the right of the card table supporting Yo La Tengo's merchandise.
"Well, yes, a few people. The right people. Have a good show!"
Amazingly, I was able to steel myself and go watch the opening band instead of locking myself in a bathroom stall and curling into the fetal position.