Gimme indie rock!

Like indie rock itself, the Matador Records birthday party with Yo La Tengo started beautifully and devolved into a self-reflexive in-joke.

Published October 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

No, it wasn't a celebrity jam, not really. At the end of Yo La Tengo's set at Irving Plaza on Saturday, the last moments of a three-night set of concerts celebrating Matador Records' 10th birthday, Jon Spencer joined the Hoboken trio onstage. With a burst of rock 'n' roll testifyin' and a spat of vocals so over-extended that the words all slurred together into one nearly unidentifiable sonic mess, Spencer helped create what could almost pass for a defining moment. Jolting forward from the edge of the proscenium in one convulsive spasm he squinted his eyes and absolutely screamed: "Slack Motherfuckerrrrr!!!"

It's a bit of a reduction, but that phrase, uttered in that moment, set to those chords and played by those people, said pretty much everything that's great -- and that was great -- about Matador. Yo La Tengo is Matador's finest and most consistent band, a point proved with flawless grace across a set sprinkled with highlights from group's last two albums ("Stockholm Syndrome," "Tom Courtenay"), a few older gems and a couple of jams with three avant-horn types (an extended "Autumn Sweater" that I simultaneously loved and used to contemplate dumping way too many Yo La singles in protest/dismay if the group goes downtown-jazz-experimental like Sonic Youth).

Spencer is still the label's hottest performer -- and one of its only remaining legitimate hopes for a freakish breakout hit since losing Pavement to attrition and Liz Phair to Capitol when Matador and the major split earlier this year. Yes, even still, after a half-dozen good-to-mediocre records and a dirty pedigree from his last band, Pussy Galore, Spencer is just too volatile and sexy, especially live, to completely write off yet. And "Slack Motherfucker," of course, was the song by Superchunk that helped launch Matador and, to an extent the entire self-hating, self-defeating genre of indie rock, which the label supported with equal amounts of spectacularly good taste and snobby insider baseball from that moment until it deflated, sometime between Pavement's MTV hit "Cut Your Hair" and Elliott Smith's performance on the Oscars. (Rest in peace.)

And then the show got all fucked up, and ended with a big ha-ha funny. Yo La took the jam down a notch and Spencer began what I guess you'd call a celebrity roast. He talked about "a lot of lousy business, a lot of bad decisions." He demanded that Matador co-owners Gerard Cosloy and Chris Lombardi come up on stage, which they did. He talked about how those two had gotten rich from deals with two major labels while he had just come from the blood bank. And then he dropped his bomb: Matador had sold out for good. Members of the crowd looked at each other quizzically. Los Angeles punk independent label Epitaph had made an offer and Matador had accepted. This show was a goodbye party, not just an anniversary. Spencer introduced someone who was supposed to be the new owner, Epitaph's Brett Gurewitz, who stumbled onstage with a bottle of liquor and a pair of broken sunglasses. Gurewitz insulted Cosloy and sent him on his way with a gift certificate for Pottery Barn.

Lombardi tried to leave as the insults continued toward him, but Spencer sat him down in a chair. After a few more minutes of rambling, "Gurewitz" introduced "the first new act of Epitaph-Matador." A stripper strutted out from stage right and straddled Lombardi in the chair. She backed up, did a handstand, and wrapped her legs around his neck. Yo La Tengo played on. The audience stood there, gape-mouthed and scratching their heads.

And that incident too, in its own way, became another little metaphor for Matador. The label had not actually sold to Epitaph, the guy introduced as Brett Gurewitz was not actually he and the stripper was probably there to play on Lombardi's reputation as a man-about-town. The whole thing was a big, stupid inside joke played for probably a dozen people watching from the wing. Very few in the audience understood what was really going on. (The days after the show saw a few gullible posts on the label's online bulletin board.) In the end, it was an anticlimactic finish to a lovely set

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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