What if David Lowery had never left Redlands, never moved up to Santa Cruz, and never founded the greatness that is Camper Van Beethoven? Would he have wound up a steroid-juiced bouncer in some IE titty bar? Running a bait-and-tackle shop in Perris? Earning a disreputable biker’s living as the Hi-Desert’s sixth-most-profitable bathtub meth epicurean?
We’ll never know, because the sonic gods had Lowery’s destiny already laid out for him back in the ‘80s. He did leave Redlands, did go to Santa Cruz, did mold Camper into an amazing aural spectacle. They were the first band that the tag “alternative rock” was ever applied to (well, them and R.E.M.)—too geeky to be punk, too country to be new wave, but record shop clerks in university towns across the U.S. had to label them something.
They’d chuck all sorts of weird shit into their songs—klezmer and ska riffs, waltz times, violins, balalaikas—it’s really a wonder how they ever got their records played on anything bigger than 200-watt college radio stations. Not much bigger, though—more people probably know “Take the Skinheads Bowling” from the opening credits to Bowling for Columbine these days, but “Eye of Fatima” certainly deserved to be at least half the hit the Dead Milkmen never had. More truthful injustice: the Camper reunion a few years back—still going on!—warranted twice the attention that the Pixies reunion got. Sometime, somewhere, there’s a Camper Van Beethoven bio waiting to be penned. . . .
But that won’t happen here, not now. Our highly condensed tale instead moves on to the sad splintering of CVB after 1989’s Key Lime Pie, right before alt-rock broke big. We could be snarky here and say “Great timing, David!,” but Lowery just scooped up the corpse of Camper—himself, basically—and started Cracker with an old buddy, San Bernardino boy Johnny Hickman (who played guitar in the Unforgiven, the terrific ‘80s IE band that Shoulda-Woulda-Coulda). In Cracker, Hickman reigned in Lowery’s quirkier tendencies, which was ultimately good for the band—commercial radio and MTV hits like “Low” and “Get Off This” proved it. But some folks missed the old Camper freak streak. Cracker music was poppier, louder, and way more popular than anything Camper had ever done, and it bothered people to see so many getting in on what they thought was a brand-new band (we knew better—we knew the roots).
So we admit enjoying a sweet schadenfreude-laced chuckle back in 1993, on that Cracker tour where Counting Crows opened, but once the Crows’ records started outselling the headliners, the two bands were practically forced to switch spots—cue Nelson Muntz “Haa-ha!” laugh. Turned out that the Cracker peeps liked Counting Crows, so it didn’t really bother them at all, apparently oblivious to Rock Star Rule #38821-B, which states that all marquee bands must forever shit on their support acts. Guess Cracker just don’t have many ego issues. They’re probably even nice guys, too, which we would’ve loved to have found out—can you tell yet that we couldn’t score an interview for this article?
Cracker tramped on through the ‘90s, eventually breaking free from their label, Virgin (dig up their song “It Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself,” off their ’03 album Countrysides, for more on that divorce), and they’re still making new music. The latest, Greenland (released on 6-6-06—kitschy!), is brilliant, more of an alt-country thing than they’ve ever done, filled with place-name-droppings—the Inland Empire gets blurbed, as do several points NoCal; the tune “The Riverside,” though, has nothing to do with the IE Riverside, unless there’s an inside joke there someplace. Thomas Pynchon makes a lyrical cameo, and there’s at least one first-class kiss-off cut—what else would you call a song titled “I’m So Glad She Ain’t Never Coming Back?”
Greenland’s the perfect placesetting for this weekend’s second annual Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Campout up at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown, the same desert locale where Cracker recorded their Kerosene Hat album. It’ll be a celebration of music-making with Lowery’s twin iconic bands as the headliners (they exhaustively tour together a lot of the time anyway, with Cracker sometimes opening for CVB; other nights are reversed, which makes you wonder what fumes Lowery runs on). Friends of theirs will also play over the two-night stretch, like Neko Case, John Doe, P-Town perennials Gram Rabbit, and the fabulous, Victoria Williams-fronted Thriftstore All Stars, who play Pappy’s every weekend anyway. The Campout will also celebrate survival—not just the sort of two great bands that have lasted through seemingly every short-lived music trend and lousy major-record-label idea, but of Pioneertown itself, still standing after the disastrous Sawtooth Complex fire that charred much of the Hi-Desert in July.
So let’s review: great bands, great far-from-the-city location, camping in the desert, perhaps a spot of alcohol somewhere in there—and none of it would’ve happened if David Lowery had stayed in Redlands. Obviously, artists in the IE should get out more often.
THE SECOND ANNUAL CRACKER/CAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN CAMPOUT AT PAPPY & HARRIET’S PIONEERTOWN PALACE, 53688 PIONEERTOWN RD., PIONEERTOWN, (760) 365-5956; WWW.CRACKERSOUL.COM/CAMPOUT. FRI.-SAT., APPROX. 6 P.M.-2 A.M. $25 PER NIGHT ($40 FOR A WEEKEND PASS). ALL AGES.