Fear of rocking: Camper Van Beethoven and the limits of absurdism | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Fear of rocking: Camper Van Beethoven and the limits of absurdism

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On the basis of fairly extensive experience with Santa Cruz, California, I report that the students of the University of California there can be divided cleanly into four distinct groups. In steeply descending order of group size, they are: those who like it there and take drugs; those who don't like it and take drugs; those who like it and don't take drugs; and those who neither like it nor take drugs. The first group comprises the vast majority of the student body; the last is almost nonexistent. The groups can be identified with some confidence because of the student body's tendency (which I believe is unique among the nine campuses of UC) to identify themselves in these terms on first meeting. "God, I hate it here but at least I can take drugs" and "Isn't this place fucking great? Do you want some pot?" are among the most common utterances on campus, heard almost as many times as "Did you find a parking place today?" is heard at UCLA.

Why the student body breaks out in this way is likewise easy to understand: The first group knew what to expect when they came to Santa Cruz (the university sits amid a woodsy forest above the city proper) and are overjoyed to be part of it. The second group weren't quite tuned in to the scene (or were possibly attracted by the university's refusal to give letter grades), and turned to drugs out of remorse. The third group is quite small, including mostly back-to-nature types who are generally vegetarians; they are quiet and unobtrusive. The fourth group, as I said, is almost nonexistent; indeed, my only experience of it was a chance encounter with a young sad freshman sitting on a log who burst out, unasked, "I hate it here!"

"Don't you do drugs?" I asked automatically.

"No," he replied heartbrokenly.

I couldn't bring myself to ask why not.

I go into such detail because to understand Camper Van Beethoven you have to understand Santa Cruz, their hometown. Not that the band's five members proportionally represent the makeup of the student body (though there's no reason to think that they don't); it's just that they, like you or me, are a product of their environment. So if it seems sometimes as if they are doing things that don't quite make sense, or are somehow referring to a joke that you've never heard, or maybe forgot, that's probably why.

The Campers' fourth, triumphant album is Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, a sonically stunning, genre-destroying masterpiece of antirock. There's pop in it, and reggae, and country and R & B; there are Turkish two-steps and Ukrainian tangos and psychedelic waltzes; there's a Zeppelin hoedown and a Monkees melody and more than one druggie hallucination. A lot of groups are eclectic, or proudly display myriad musical influences. Camper Van Beethoven, however, uses them destructively, to undercut what we want or expect from rock. Though they are self-professed druggies, they nonetheless question the worth of drug-inspired music, lampooning and satirizing and relegating to the dustbin of history every marshmallow-brained truth-seeker of the past.

"Life Is Grand," for example, the album's closer, starts with a vibrant, bouncy, ultrapop guitar line; it sounds like the beginning of an old Monkees song, or the Turtles doing "You Baby" or "She'd Rather Be With Me." Then things slow down, and singer David Lowery's dry, conversational voice enters, perfectly mimicking the syntax of a hippie-era pronouncement:

And life is grand

And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor

With those of you

Who have appointed yourselves to expect us to say

Something darker.

On the group's second LP, II & III, they recorded "Baby Don't You Go (to Goleta)," a funny but pretty obvious song about vacuous college kids who hang out in tony shopping districts like Goleta (near UC Santa Barbara) and Westwood (UCLA). On the new record they tone it down a bit, proffering "Tania," the beloved revolutionary sweetheart of the album's title, who (the song implies) nearly gave her life merely to feed the romantic fantasies of and ward off boredom for a nation of TV watchers. Elsewhere on Our Beloved we have the Zeppelin ripoff ("Waka," which sounds like a hysterical, mazurka'ed "When the Levee Breaks"); an absurdist rocker with a screaming slide guitar ("The Eye of Fatima"); and a profoundly ambivalent love song, done country style with the addition of a sweet, plaintive trombone ("Change Your Mind"). Also, paradoxically, Camper does one quite respectful cover, "Oh Death," from Kaleidoscope's first (1967) album, Side Trips. (Kaleidoscope, a once-fashionable and now-forgotten San Francisco group, was among the first to bring Middle Eastern instruments like the oud to a relatively normal rock context. David Lindley was in it.)

I think this is the Campers' best album because it dramatically delineates the limits of the absurdism in which the band has trafficked since its earliest days. To many, the quintessential Camper Van Beethoven song is "Take the Skinheads Bowling," a single from their first (1984) album. It's both jaunty and disturbing; with its rollicking beat, call-and-response vocals, and not-quite-nonsensical lyrics, it represents, after a fashion, the outer limits of Top 40 in our time. (Not that it ever made the Top 40; but it referred directly to the aesthetic of disposable pop, and it did make it into heavy rotation on about every college station in the land.) But songs like "Skinheads," whatever their pleasures, are a dead end; do too many of them and you start to become a novelty band, which is what the Campers nearly became as they moved through II & III and 1986's Camper Van Beethoven. Although each of these records represented a major step forward, to me the group's rationale was coming into question. Is a cover of "Interstellar Overdrive" (an early Pink Floyd fave) really funny? Isn't heavy-handed absurdist social commentary ("Joe Stalin's Cadillac") still heavy handed? Weren't the records starting to sound rinky-dink?

Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart starts out with a bang--the opening chord of "The Eye of Fatima"--and proceeds to resolve each of these issues. It's one of the best sounding records of the year. Drummer Chris Pederson sounds great without being "crisp" or "clean," and Greg Lisher's guitar work, while it would still be ridiculously out of place in any other group (as I hope it will be forevermore), is strikingly inventive and surprising: the dramatic slide on "Fatima," the trills on "One of These Days," the Peter Buck-like riffing on "Devils Song." The Campers seem to have rethought themselves (maybe the fact that this was their major-label debut gave them the incentive, or an excuse) and come to the conclusion that parodies and novelty numbers, while they might be the road to everlasting indie-band heroism, lead to not much else. I think they've tried to demonstrate that their tendency toward satire isn't a limitation, or a manifestation of a refusal to get serious. For the first time in the group's career, they've put out a great rock album, and if, as I said above, the intent of it seems to be antirock, so much the better.

The Campers came to town recently, playing the Metro with Walter Salas-Humara and the Royal Crescent Mob. The Mob is a mostly-white funk aggregation with a hot bassist. Salas-Humara, on leave from his group, the Silos, appeared almost solo, with only his brother, Ignacio, playing a couple of drums next to him. He played with feeling most of the better stuff on his first solo album, La Gartija, and closed with a good cover of the Stones' "Sweet Virginia," which went right over the heads of most of the kids present.

Camper Van Beethoven did well--earning three encores--but not quite as well as one might have expected from hearing Our Beloved. (I thought the third encore was too much.) The Campers live have always toyed with the tension between "funny" numbers and the ones with serious rock underpinnings. That's OK, but sometimes I sense a reluctance to throw off the absurdism, which is an intellectual stance that, particularly in a concert situation, might profitably be jettisoned in favor of some real emotion. Still, the band has matured enormously. Lowery is a fine, deferential frontman; onstage, he's flanked by bassist Victor Krummenacher and guitarist Usher, along with multiinstrumentalist Jonathan Segel, who mostly plays violin and keyboards in concert. Pederson drummed swimmingly.

They played most of the new album, and gems from the first three, like II & III's "Sad Lover's Waltz," which is less about sad lovers than it is about waltzing. "Fatima" had a terrific segue into "Fatima Pt. 2"; "Take the Skinheads Bowling" was exciting and got the crowd--which had packed the Metro--going. As befitting children of the 70s, the Campers tipped their hat to Floyd and the Zep, and did encore salutes to Paul Simon ("Kodachrome") and Ringo Starr ("Photograph"), the latter off the Campers' rareties EP, Vampire Can Mating Oven.

The shows major disappointment for me--and this goes back to the emotion-injection I talked about--came on "She Divines Water," the high point of Our Beloved, played at the Metro for the first encore. Lisher's guitar was too loud, drowning out the others, and no one did anything about it. OK, that's just sloppiness. But the whole song was a run-through: they seemed to be playing by rote. When the climax came, in the last few lines, it called for the four front men to sing together, as they do on other numbers. Lowery just sang it alone, perhaps because the others were getting ready to do a live approximation of the backward-tape tomfoolery that ends the album version. To hear it at the Metro, you wouldn't have known it's Camper's best song. On the record it starts out quiet, with a classic three-chord progression. "How can I believe that everything in this world is going to be fine?" asks Lowery. The question doesn't seem rhetorical, nor, for once, absurdist. "When I lay down to sleep I shiver and shake / Tell me you love me," he begs. Then, in a beautiful, soaring buildup, with Segel playing one of the great rock violin lines, dissonant and gorgeous all at once, Lowery describes an elaborate dream about "a world-famous actress in a pink limousine." Things get obscure after this, until the climax, where Lowery and (on the record) what sounds like an electronically treated chorus sing the title line: "She divines water." I can't discern any more of the words, but it sounds respectful and awestruck; it sounds, that is, like a love song--a first for Camper Van Beethoven. I think the group stiffed this song live because they were awed by the implications: if they rocked out to a great song, would they risk cracking their cool intellectual reserve? But to refrain from kicking out the jams when you do your best song live is not absurdist or clever or anything of the sort; it's just dumb. When the Campers learn that, they'll become the world-class group live that they are now on record.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Melanie Nissen.

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