One for Friday: Yo La Tengo and Daniel Johnston, “Speeding Motorcycle”

This week, I wrote a review of the new album by Yo La Tengo, which naturally got me thinking about my long history with the band. I’m honestly not sure if my college radio station had either of the Hoboken group’s first two albums, but I actually remember putting their 1989 effort, President Yo La Tengo, into rotation. I can’t claim we were some brilliantly forward-thinking predictors of future greatness, embracing the record wholeheartedly. In fact, as I recall, it barely got played at all. For whatever reason (because it’s good, I’d like to think), I did return to it periodically when it moved into the stacks. I suspect that mine was the only handwriting to appear on the sheet of paper we taped to album jackets to track airplay back then. That’s when I started playing Yo La Tengo’s music, but that’s not when I fell in love with them. I can pinpoint that moment to the first time I heard their live, impromptu cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle,” performed with Daniel Johnston.

The band had included a version of the song on the 1990 album Fakebook, which was largely comprised of covers. In February of that year, Yo La Tengo was appearing on legendary New Jersey community radio station WMFU-FM as part of the anniversary edition of a show called “The Live Music Faucet.” The program’s host had taken advantage of recent, unexpected contact with Johnston to organize an on-air collaboration between the somewhat reclusive singer-songwriter and the band that had recently covered him in memorable fashion. With Yo La Tengo in the studio and Johnston on the telephone, and tape thankfully rolling, the performance ensued.

This version of “Speeding Motorcycle” almost immediately inspired the most breathless of praise. I recall reading about it in CMJ, the trade publication serving college radio, the writer gushing about it to such a degree, that I was skeptical as to whether or not it could actually be that good. It is, I’m happy to confirm, that good.

Though it is orchestrated more than it may have seemed when I first read about it and then heard it, what distinguishes the track is the sense of freedom and spontaneity. As pop music was steadily, noticeably moving away from the reckless freedom of earlier years, when it truly seemed that merit could occasionally win the day over of the various prefabricated, plug-and-play idols and voices that have always been part of the recording industry playbook, something as loose and warmly wooly as this already seemed like an elusive pleasure. There’s just something about the charmingly clunky beginning–Johnston cheerfully sidestepping formal introductions by chirping, “Okay, hi band!” and Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan insisting that a countdown wasn’t needed before Johnston jumped into the lyrics–that makes the melding of the distant collaborators all the more wondrous.

When this track arrived at my college radio station, smuggled in on the CD single for “Here Comes My Baby,” it immediately became one of my favorite things to play. It captured an unorthodox collaboration, but it also tapped into what I loved about radio, about broadcasting. With a little ingenuity, terrific things could happen. I can hardly claim this is the best thing Yo La Tengo ever created, not considering that many albums that arrived in the following years were masterful (and that new release is among those that can be described with that lofty term). But it’s probably my favorite thing that’s ever come from the band. Well, this and the Kaplan’s Corner video that provides background on the derivation of the band’s name might be in a tie for that title.

Listen or download –> Yo La Tengo and Daniel Johnston, “Speeding Motorcycle”

(Disclaimer: As far as I can tell, the official releases that housed this particular track are out of print, both the original CD single and the superb 1996 collection Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo. It can be bought online as an MP3 download from the latter, but that’s not going to help the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store, so I’m reluctant to direct you that way. Besides, you can go to that record store and buy any number of amazing Yo La Tengo releases, including the just-released Fade. Really, you can’t go wrong with the band. They’d also probably be cool with it if you took the ninety cents you might have spent to buy this single track, multiple it by a few and send the money to WFMU. That’s idle speculation on my part, though. Regardless, I mean no harm in posting this, and I’m more than glad to remove it from the interweb should I be contacted by someone with due authority to make such a request making such a request.)

3 thoughts on “One for Friday: Yo La Tengo and Daniel Johnston, “Speeding Motorcycle”

  1. I wish the origin story of my Yo La Tengo relationship aligned closer to yours. Mine was like, “Hey mom, can you buy me this Fakebook CD on Columbia House?” This was the year before “Sugarcube” was blowing up on MTV’s 120 Minutes and 12 Angry Viewers. Painful was the album to get, but the 12-CDs-for-1 mail order service didn’t offer Matador selections until 1998. But Fakebook received praise from my main sources of information — outdated editions of Trouser Press Record Guides.

    But as dopplegangers for life, I’m glad it was through the same song (albeit different versions) that cemented our love of Yo La Tengo.

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