28 Sep Yo La Memorias
It’s hard for me to fathom that it’s been almost 30 years since my friend Gene took me to Hoboken to see Yo La Tengo at Maxwells. Last night my wife Suki and I went to the Carolina Theater in Durham to see them on their current acoustic tour. As we walked up the box office I was struck by the memory of the first public screening of our first film “Half-Cocked”. My good friend Juan who was a projectionist at the theater had arranged to have it screened the Friday after Thanksgiving when I was home visiting my family. The audience was a mash up of old friends from high school, new friends from local bands, and a few people who’d read about it in the paper. Memories from that night set off a chain reaction of odd connections and forgotten events from the different eras of my life. From the late 80’s to the late 90’s I played in a band called sleepyhead. About halfway through that run I started to make films with my wife Suki. By 2000 I had stopped playing music, and was so burnt out that I almost stopped going to see bands. That’s when I started to put all of my energy into film.
I was just starting to take pictures of bands when I got to New York and one of the first bands I shot was Yo La Tengo. These are some shots from CBGB’s in the late 80’s. They asked me to do a promo photo at one point. I hadn’t really done band photos yet and I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t know what it was for or if they even used it. I found the negatives today and just scanned this with my phone.
Back in 1994 Suki and I sat in the balcony and watched the crowd down below as much as we watched the film. This was my first film project and it was an overwhelming experience to see the silver dance on the screen. My father had not been totally supportive of my decision to concentrate on being in a rock band after college (every weekend he signed off of our weekly phone call by saying “write when you get work” which pissed me off to no end). As a lover of film he was more supportive of our film efforts. However he had not been a big fan of our initial script for “Half-Cocked”. The impulse for making the film had less to do with storytelling than it did for celebrating a community we were a part of. I had spent the previous five years documenting the underground music scene with my photos, and in some ways the film was an extension of that effort. Part of the reason we hadn’t simply made a documentary was because I felt like I was too much of a part of the scene to have the “critical distance” necessary to “document” it. I’d taken a couple too many anthropology classes in college and internalized the colonial ethos of “documentary”.
When we sent the script to my father he simply scrawled “where the fuck’s the conflict?” across the title page before sending it back. That was his only remark. He was right. We got back to work and made it much stronger. We are still making movies, and still think of him as an advisor even though he died nearly 10 years ago. The night before the Yo La Tengo show we had a rough cut screening of our current project at our house. It was a mash up of friends from high school, new friends connected to via old friends, and a friend from New York who I met . One of the high school friends was Chad.
As I sat down to see the band I remembered how Chad had been at the “Half-Cocked” screening 20 years earlier. He and my father were the prime “laugh leaders” at that event. My father didn’t hold back when something struck him as funny, and he was the kind of person you might pay to come to the premiere of your movie or your play, because that kind of laughter is infectious. Chad sat in another section of the theater he was a laugher like my father. As we sat in the balcony we could see how their laughter sparked small chain reactions around them. I had not been back to the theater since that night but I had a visceral memory of that experience.
A few songs into the set the singer Ira gave a shout out to Hypnolovewheel, my college roommate’s band. Dave, One of the guitar players from the band lives in North Carlona too and he had been at our screening the night before as well, so I texted him and asked him to join us as our row was almost empty. When the lights came up for intermission he found us in row P. Just then the person behind me tapped me on the back. It was my friend Melissa from New York. She’d moved to North Carolina in 1997. I knew her because her band practiced next door to my band in Hoboken. At the time we shared a practice space with Yo La Tengo.
We talked about friends and the past until the lights went down. Yo la started out with a couple of noisy electric albums but in 1990 they put out an album of acoustic covers called “Fakebook”. 25 years later they put out a follow up to that acoustic record that they are on tour with. Yo La Tengo were one of the big inspirations for my friends and I to start a band in 1989. We spent the summer of 1990 living together in Providence RI so that we could take it seriously. That fall when I got back to school I took a position as intern at their label Bar None when they released “Fakebook”. I sent out a lot of press kits (pre-internet) and I took photos at some of their shows. I worked under a guy named Steve Joerg who eventually put out several of our records when he started to work at Homestead.
Shortly after shooting “Half-Cocked” Yo La Tengo took our band tour for about a week in the midwest. As we drove towards Champaign (I think) we heard on the radio that Kurt Cobain had died. Suki was back in New York cutting the film on a flatbed editing machine in her closet. A few months later when the film was completed things were already different. We had captured something that was already gone. When we showed the film in Durham our friend Ron Liberti who was doing production design on it brought out a bunch of people who were working on a similiar film called “Bandwagon“. Kevin Corrigan startred in the film and came to that screening. I recently met him when he tweeted about the film. “Bandwagon” was a more Hollywood film than ours and it went to Sundance and got bought. When we finished ours it got rejected by Sundance and 37 other festivals before it finally got invited to the 2nd annual New York Underground Film Festival. I still haven’t seen “Bandwagon”, but I plan to.
After the show I was still kind of overwhelmed by nostalgia- and the passage of time. Fred Brockman, who also got a shout out from the band, and recorded several singles for us in our shared practice space was there, as was our former booking agent Jim. It had been a while since I thought of my time in the band and the memories came out me hard and fast. As we rushed out to get home to our kids, I stopped to talk to Joe Puleo. He was on tour with Yo La back in 95 when we went out with them, and he’s still at it, running the show. Some things change and some things don’t.