By Joe Livernois
Few local bands have had a cooler influence on the world of rock music than Camper Van Beethoven. And their appearance at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz in September 1986 pretty much established what fans could expect from them through their various iterations during the past 33 years: goofy but epic grooves packaged in performances that often venture into edgy rock operas, blending hard punk with ska, pop, klezmer, funk, world music and alt country.
David Lowery, a CVB founder and guitarist/vocalist, said he recalls the band doing an extemporaneous show in a parking lot behind a record store somewhere in Santa Cruz soon after forming as Camper Van Beethoven and the Border Patrol (the Border Patrol got dropped not long after). Lowery isn’t certain when that happened, and there’s no record of it anywhere that I could find. But Lowery does recall what he described as a “mob scene” in the parking lot. He told Voices of Monterey Bay that “It’s the first sign we had ‘broken through.’”
The kernel of the band hailed from Redlands, but Chris Molla and Lowery were going to school at UC Santa Cruz, playing off and on with a locals band called “Box O’Laffs.” Let’s let Lowery take it from there:
“If the Inland Empire was a wonderfully weird and cheap place … Santa Cruz was the land of weirdos and nut jobs from the affluent enclaves of the east and west coast(s),” he writes. “In some ways it was a great place to be in a band. It was full of all kind(s) of counter-cultural types. There were a ton of musicians and other creatives. There were 5 or 6 venues that we could play. And the town was loaded with college kids. This seemed like the perfect place for Camper Van Beethoven.”
The band was dormant for a while until Lowery saw a student named Jonathan Segel walking across campus carrying a violin case. Segel would gave CVB its unique sound. And the boys found Victor Krummenacher, another student who was living in a house on Hubbard Street that, according to Lowery, “only musicians ever lived in. It was really really funky, but you could rehearse there without the neighbors complaining.”
They were certainly a hit with the kids on campus. Somewhere in the wispy airspace of the internet is a rather echoey recording of a live in-studio performance CVB did for KZSC, the UC Santa Cruz radio station, on Feb. 22, 1985.
By 1988, CVB had opened on a tour with R.E.M., had been featured in Rolling Stone and established itself as a staple of college radio stations.
The band’s performance at the record-store parking lot may have propelled them from backyard parties to the stage. But we like their 23-song set at the Catalyst in 1986 because the playlist probably best represents their old repertoire. They thrashed through songs like “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac,” “(I Was So) Wasted,” “ZZ Top Goes to Egypt” and, of course, “Take the Skinheads Bowling.”
The rest is history and CVB eventually outgrew Santa Cruz. Camper Van Beethoven spins and circles from here to there. After a while, members of CVB morphed into Cracker, which released a great collection of Cracker songs called “Kerosene Hat.” And Cracker met up with Leftover Salmon to record a bluegrass-tinged collaboration called “O’ Cracker Where Art Thou.” If you haven’t heard it, imagine a manic banjo accompaniment to the greatest rock ‘n’ roll lyric ever written: What the world needs now is another folk singer / Like I need a hole in my head.
Cracker might be considered the easy-listening version of Camper Van Beethoven, while CVB is the wild ride. CVB’s originals are thrash and crash, but their covers of “Kung Fu Fighting” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” — as in “Tusk,” the entire album — is as weird and other-worldly as it gets.
In his entertaining blog, Lowery notes that Cracker is definitely not a Santa Cruz band, yet Cracker managed to reference Santa Cruz in at least three of its songs, while CVB somehow avoided singing about Santa Cruz when they all lived here. Still, in 2002 the band released a three-record compilation called “Cigarettes and Carrot Juice: The Santa Cruz Years.”
One of my personal Cracker favorites is “Ms. Santa Cruz County.” Through all its wacky references to the Blue Ladies and Anita Bebidas and daddy’s hydroponic farm, Lowery said “Ms. Santa Cruz County” is a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, who was legendarily dubbed California Artichoke Queen during a promotional swing through the state in 1948.
Yes, Lowery says, Castroville is just over the line in Monterey County. “Poetic license at work,” he writes.
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