America Through the Looking Glass 

Camper Van Beethoven

Cigarettes & Carrot Juice: The Santa Cruz Years

(Spinart)

It takes a lot to laugh when you've been trained to cry. Like a bunch of bands in the 80s, California dystopians Camper Van Beethoven tried to find a way out of Reagan-era alienation that went beyond the antiauthoritarian knee-jerking of hardcore's demagogues. Not just because the Santa Cruz slackers had a sunnier worldview than, say, Jello Biafra but also because they kinda dug their homeland in spite of themselves and they held true to the pomo frontiersman's credo that plunging into the empty spaces in life could kick off a voyage of discovery. Like forebears John Fogerty and Captain Beefheart they saw the Golden State as a place where you could remake the world out of the wreckage of someone else's spent tomorrows, and like fellow travelers the Donner Party they assumed existential indecision could be as lyrical as love itself. That revelation informed the goofball ambivalence of their autocritically inclined leftoid politics--"Well, my Cadillac / Is Johnson's Cadillac / Is Stalin's Cadillac / Is Somoza's Cadillac / Is General Pinochet's Cadillac," front man David Lowery sang with characteristic Valley-snot languor on "Joe Stalin's Cadillac" in 1986. But it often led to something more dropout-homespun: "Sat on the porch / Listened to the rain / Smoked another cigarette / And counted to ten," he sang on the band's debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory. "Everything seems to be up in the air at this time," he noted a few tunes later.

There's a ton of places you can go from that realization, and Camper found 'em all. "Border Ska," country, unsentimental roots psych, classic-rock revivalism. A Balkan Van Beethoven folk Black Flag spoof here, a little broke-down roadhouse whimsy there. Covers of Fleetwood Mac, Sonic Youth, "Oh Death," Ringo Starr. Titles as bright eyed as "Ice Cream Everyday" and as grad-school arch as "(We Workers Do Not Understand) Modern Art." With multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segal's violin cultivating miles and miles of windswept noplace and Victor Krummenacher's guitar unspooling a spaghetti-western response to Bob Mould or Greg Ginn, they were as musically all over as American postpunk got.

Yet while they could have settled for being Thomas Pynchon's Lonely Hearts Club Band, CVB decided to embrace the world. In the time between their debut and eventual disintegration after their second major-label record, 1989's Key Lime Pie, they evolved from subcult satirists given to thrash parodies like "Opi Rides Again/Club Med Sucks" into roots rockers who wrote about other people's stupid hopes and dreams with surprising empathy. Lowery progressed from embittered communitarian to embittered liberal humanist, from the still-classic scene flaying of Telephone's "Take the Skinheads Bowling" to Key Lime's "All Her Favorite Fruit," a lushly eidetic, emotionally generous song about erotic longing and fantasies of power that's Foucault refracted through Proust.

But the recent 81-song box set Cigarettes & Carrot Juice: The Santa Cruz Years shows that their most endearing quality is the most obvious. They weren't afraid to laugh at the void, or themselves, or their scene, and they went out on a limb in hopes that you might laugh along--not only on the deathless "Skinheads" (recycled last year in Bowling for Columbine) but also on the loving hippie satire "We Saw Jerry's Daughter," the wandering-hipster quest "Where the Hell Is Bill?," and a passel of goofy psych and surf and country and eastern European instrumentals that have aged better spiritually than they have sonically but still get a pass for their good intentions. Indie rock hasn't been funny like this for a long time; being fucked with for 20 years can do that to a subculture. The impulse is missed.

Long out of print, Camper's three good-to-astounding indie records are included on Cigarettes & Carrot Juice along with the outtakes disc, Camper Vantiquities, and Greatest Hits Played Faster, a live disc of some major-label stuff. (Virgin retains the rights to Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Key Lime Pie.) I love it all, and anyone who remembers Grenada or ever had a visceral response to James Watt will probably find a soft spot for it too. That said, like a lot of "legendary" underground rock of the era, it's hard to imagine how this might sound to a Dismemberment Plan fan. The sound is thin, the jokes dated ("Maybe he went to go mod-ska dancing," Lowery ventures in "Where the Hell Is Bill?"), and the vaunted border crossing to classic rock and ethnic punk won't be too shocking for young people of refined taste raised in the age of laissez-faire eclecticism. It's telling that no Camper album was included on Chicago-based Web zine Pitchfork's list of the "Top 100 Albums of the 1980s," despite Camper's important exploratory work into many of the "college-rock" ideas that would blossom into the indie-rock orthodoxies of the 90s.

College rock--that was always a fatuous term, like you needed a dorm assignment from the University of Georgia to get your head around "Driver 8." But with Camper the sobriquet fit. Their second record, 1986's II and III, included "(Don't You Go to) Goleta," which listed different California state schools Lowery's "baby" ought not attend. According to the band's smart-ass liner notes, Camper Vantiquities' "Processional" was originally titled, ahem, "Why Don't You Challenge the Boundaries of Rock Music by Playing Harsh Furious Dissonant Guitar Noise Music With Lyrics Exclusively About Death and Sex and Pretend Like You Are Making Some Kind of Original Statement About the Relation Between the Two and Therefore Expressing the Pain and Confusion of Modern Society, and Then Become a Rock Critic and Write About Your Own Band Under a Different Name but Not Before You Move to New York or L.A. or Chicago or Some Sufficiently Urban Area and Live in a Bad Part of Town While Still Receiving Checks From Your Parents Who Were Probably Liberals and Didn't Let You Watch Enough Violence on TV and So You Never Got It Out of Your System, and Then Go to Law School Like Everybody Else." Even at their most lysergic (covering Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive," for instance), they were always pretty studently. When indie rock rolled around we'd call it "snarky," but Lowery's mean spirit seemed to come from a real sense of disappointment; he could poke fun at hippies and punks and pseudointellectuals all he wanted, but he was staring in a mirror.

Camper Van Beethoven couldn't escape that received 60s pull toward the communal as an escape from the wide-open claustrophobia of the physical and cultural landscape their generation inherited--subculture just wasn't what it used to be. So what they couldn't find in the world outside their front porch, they made up. "So just get high while the radio's on / Just relax and sing a song / Drive your car up on the lawn / And let me play your guitar," Lowery implored on 1986's "Good Guys & Bad Guys," a song about dashboard escapism for "folks like you and me" in the face of cosmic futility and impending nuclear nihil. The band's connection to the "folks" in question was pretty theoretical, and maybe that was OK. (Reality was a bit harsher: in 1986 the band got booed opening for R.E.M.; one of the Campers shot back, "C'mon, my mom was on the space shuttle.") Yet the impulse toward creating an imaginary utopia where we could all relax and sing along only got stronger, if weirder. And as the band matured, their concept of other people's hell got sweeter even as their outlook moved increasingly toward hell-is-other-people. "How can you believe that everything in this world is going to be fine?" Lowery was asking by 1987, while also declaring, "Life is grand / And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor / From those of you / Who have appointed yourselves to expect me to say something darker." This dialectic has motivated wide-eyed cynics from Mark Twain to Randy Newman, and while it might not win over a Bright Eyes fan as fast as "Take the Skinheads Bowling," it gives the band their forlorn soul.

Consider Key Lime Pie's "Sweethearts," a resigned and wistful country-rock song you're bound to hear if you check out the band's reunion show at the Abbey Pub this weekend. Lowery steps into "the mind of Ronald Reagan" as it meanders from Dixon, Illinois, to a B-movie reality ("In black and white life is so easy") to a colonized China where "The ladies smile / Just like mom." Describing the ways in which the Gipper turned selective memory into exclusive history into horrific politics, Lowery is quite specific--the song is the most beautiful piece of art ever to address railroad deregulation. Yet there's no polemic; it's empathetic and baleful. Lowery explores Reagan's dream of an American community, elegantly dissecting the delusion he needed to construct that dream, and does so with a nuanced understanding of why millions of frightened citizens felt compelled to share in that delusion at the expense of their fellow human beings. I'm not really sure if in the end Lowery himself gave too much of a shit about these people--the callous altsploitation of Cracker never seemed to indicate much respect for their kids. But "Sweethearts" is as honest an evocation of political reality as anything you'll ever hear. It offers no program, ponders no solution. Lowery sees the abyss and stares awestruck, not sure whether to cry or smirk. Then he goes out on the porch. Listens to the rain. Smokes another cigarette. And counts to ten.

Camper Van Beethoven perform at the Abbey Pub, Friday and Saturday, January 17 and 18. See Section Three listings for details.

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