Santa Cruz sure is a fun spot! It’s really the vacation destination it’s all cracked up to be. Yeah.
Well… you know, I moved there in 1981 to go to college. I graduated in 1985, the same week in fact that the first Camper Van Beethoven record came out. I worked dumb jobs (I mean really dumb: I was a handyman for Kresge College at UCSC, that was maybe more relevant than when I worked at the trophy shop engraving plaques. “Most Inspirational Player”. That means he breathed the most?) until 1987 or 88 when Camper actually earned enough money to be a full time musician. For me that lasted until the beginning of 1989, when I was out of the band, so I left Santa Cruz, finally, and moved up to San Francisco.
They say that it has an Indian curse on it, the town. It’s a whirlpool. Once you go in, it’s tough to get out. In truth, it was a great place to come home to after tour, but after a few weeks, you’d wonder what happened to the rest of the world. And the curse kept many people there, being their weird selves, and many homeless people, and many societal deviants of all sorts. Which can be good, definitely. But of course it also means a lot of weirdness, drugs, violence, unpleasantness of all sorts, mixed in with the alternative lifestyles and devotees of them.
Now, Camper really exudes all of that as well. We started as a band there… well, actually, David, Victor, Chris Molla, they started playing together in Redlands, CA, during summer breaks from school, but when Camper really started as a band was during the 1983-84 school year at UCSC. I started playing with them then, I came from Davis and not Redlands and met them due to Chris being in some of my music classes and noticing that I was carrying a violin around (I had stopped playing it for most of high school in favor of electric guitar, so I was keen to try to learn it again.) And we all lived there after college, as “townies”. Needless to say, we all had a lot of weird experiences of one sort or another there.
The title of the Camper Van Beethoven 2003 box set, the line “cigarettes and carrot juice” from the Cracker song “Big Dipper” is essentially a descriptive rhyming slang for Santa Cruz. That sums it up, alright, the healthiness of carrot juice subverted by the lingering death of cigarettes.
The Boardwalk is a major feature of the vacation destination status that Santa Cruz is. It’s a huge boardwalk with roller coasters and rides, some over a hundred years old… the Giant Dipper was built in 1924, for me that was always the best (only) ride… as townies, we knew about quarter night, tuesday nights in the summer when tickets were 25cents. But like every boardwalk or carnival, the surface of family entertainment is a thin veneer over a much creepier substrate. Camper Van Beethoven has become part of the Santa Cruz mythology so it only seemed fitting for us to play one of the beach boardwalk summer night shows there on our 30th anniversary tour…!
Well, we continued to scratch at that thin veneer of family entertainment. It was a sunny afternoon last friday when Victor and I drove down from San Francisco. We drove down the coast, a beautiful route. Must have driven this route a thousand times by now, we both know every twist and turn. And getting into the boardwalk area proved a bit crowded, tons of tourists in their bathing suits wandering around and driving around. When we lived here, we mostly avoided this area, especially on weekends. We mostly tried to avoid tourists in general. They yelled at us and crowded the streets! These were the valley people, (in Southern California, the surfers always fight with the kids who come over from San Fernando Valley to surf, hence “Valley go home”! In Santa Cruz, the valley really meant over the hill that Highway 17 winds through, i.e. San Jose and beyond. Nowadays, Santa Cruz is becoming more and more a suburb of silicon valley as more rich tech people move over.)
So we parked right across the street from Neptune’s Arcade and pushed an amp and carried some guitars and stuff right through the boardwalk and out on to the giant stage set up on the beach. I can’t remember what bands I saw here back in the 1980s. Victor says he was last there to see Bo Diddley or James Brown. I think more like Foghat or something. It’s a classic summer rock venue for the high tourists. Now the stage was huge, high up on the beach, the crowd on the rides can watch and then a big swath of sun bathers can sit there and leer at you as well. Or you could leer at them, as many pedophiles were apparently doing to all the children in bikinis and such.
We set up in the bright sunlight, and the crew set up the lines. The backstage was sort of like a trailer attached to the stage, but it appeared permanent. After setup, we actually got wristbands that gave us free rides, so I damn well went for a ride on the Giant Dipper roller coaster.
They got us food from some diner, which was weird because, well, why? Trucked over from some random diner in Santa Cruz? And they opened the area in front of us as soon as we started the soundcheck, as if that was a show. Those poor people were gonna have to sit there for another couple hours, roasting in the sun.
Of course the weather changed when we started to play. The wanted two sets, one at 6:30 and one at 8:30, hits in both. We split the sets between Camper and Cracker, so Camper began. The fog was starting to come in, so it began to get cold. We opened with Pictures of Matchstick Men, a hit, after all, though a cover tune on our part. While we were playing this, I noticed that off to the side of the stage next to me was a sign language interpreter! He was interpreting the lyrics to all the songs! Amazing, like having a weird gogo dancer.
The sound was great on stage, it was like playing an arena show with top gear. Here we were, coming back to our hometown, local boys made good, to play for the families! We made the big time, kids! The audience were all spread out on beach towels and sun chairs, many people up on the boardwalk, many watching from the chair rides going past. Crazy!
We played some more upbeat songs, and Take the Skinheads Bowling (in both sets, which inspired the crowds to adopt the sign language interpreter’s movements for new dance moves for this song) and then switched over to Cracker. By this time it was getting foggy and cold. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but California beaches get damn cold when the fog come in, and by this time you’ve generally been sunburned and maybe are drunk, so you don’t notice at first until you’re shivering or delirious. Especially if you’ve maybe taken psychedelic drugs. As many of the fans here seemed to have done. A perfect day for it! CVB on the beach at the creepy ass boardwalk, man, what could be a better trip!
You can listen to the entire show here on Archive.org!
So between sets, we all lined up beside the stage where they sold CDs and T-Shirts and a huge line of people bought things and had them signed. I have to say that this was one of the weirdest signings I have ever experienced. Partially because of the line being so slow that people lingered and needed to tell us stories of something or other as we wrote on their cds, but also, there were constantly people directly in front of us on the other side of a crowd barricade staring at us or saying absurd things. Absurd as in surreal, I think the element of mind altering substance was present in a big way here. So as people slowly got weirder and weirder and came by us in family units, we became more and more frightened of them. When the line was done, we all fled, freezing cold, back to the dressing room and then began the second set.
It was freezing out now, and I had left the violin onstage, it was sopping wet and way out of tune. So after I tuned, we all got on stage and looked at the set list, which was wrong. David had texted it to Bobby, who got the texts in the wrong order and printed it out that way… Regardless, we began a little punk rock section, starting with a cover of the Clash’ White Riot. Now, as we began to sing “white riot, I want a riot, white riot, riot on my own”, I looked out over the audience of families and trippers and thought, what the hell are you making of this right now?
The veneer of this show as wholesome family entertainment, a rock band at the boardwalk on a friday night, it tore away in great shreds. The kids watched us and then looked for answers from their parents. The audience was almost entirely white. Or white-haired! The we proceeded with “I was so Wasted” by Black Flag, substituting some ‘bad words’. We went on with our own rocking numbers to keep warm.
Cracker followed, opening with Euro Trash Girl. They had played “Big Dipper”, the song that takes place here, and on the roller coaster in the first set, so this set had some other hits (Low, in both sets) and then they played “Loser” at the end, the Jerry Garcia song. Strangely, the weather changed again, and it started to warm up, though remaining foggy.
We had time for an encore, so I joined Cracker to play “One Fine Day” on guitar, big dueling leads for the classic rock scene. In the middle of the song, I’m playing some guitar solo and suddenly it hits me: I’m one of those dudes, those dudes playing lead guitar in the band that plays on the beach boardwalk rock shows in the summer evening. I became classic rock.
So, Camper and Cracker playing Santa Cruz on the beach in front of thousands of people was probably some item on the checklist of rock history that exists as a rite of passage. The previous week, Blue Oyster Cult played there, for example. Many people there seemed to think of us playing as a harbinger of potential good things for the area, maybe better quality music for the public venues. Who knows. We’ll see.