Archive for the Camper Van Beethoven Category

#83 Dockweiler Beach & Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out-Surfing Under the Runway at LAX

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven on June 8, 2014 by davidclowery


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Flying out of LAX you almost always takeoff out over the Pacific Ocean. Even if you’re not going west.   The aircraft climbs to a few thousand feet and then banks north east or south.   I’ve often looked down and noticed the beach below us as you climb into the air.   Although it doesn’t seem like there are ever many people on the beach, it clearly has it’s devotees.  Most surprising is that there are a series of  state park RV campgrounds along this stretch of beach.

When Camper Van Beethoven was filming the video to  Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out (from last years La Costa Perdida).   We ran out of time to film in Northern Californian and had to finish up in Southern California.  We were staying at the lovely (?) Hacienda Hotel in El Segundo. This happens to be across the street from our Tour Manager and Video Director’s apartment.   So he know this funky little stretch of the south LA coast pretty well and suggested that we go down to this beach and film some of the video there.  The idea was that the aircraft taking off would make a nice backdrop to the song.

When we got down to this beach we also discovered that there are these two natural gas fired power plants on the beach.  These power plants made impressive and contrasting backdrops for the video for Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out.

I assume  the power plants are here because there is this enormous petrochemical processing complex in El Segundo that runs from Sepulveda all the way down to the pacific ocean. (The plants must burn the natural gas byproducts?)  The petrochemical plant is impressive in it’s own right.  Especially when you’re sitting on the patio of one of the down-home restaurant/cantinas in tiny downtown El Segundo and Chevron designed to burn “flare” off some excess flammable gasses.  The night sky turns this eerie orange color.  It frightened me the first time I saw it.  I thought we were in for a toxic airborne event. The locals didn’t even bat an eye.  Continued their small talk and ordered more drinks.

There is also a huge cluster of defense and aerospace companies between El Sepulveda and Aviation.   Northrop Grumman,  Rayethon, Boeing, SAIC and numerous smaller companies.   Direct TV is also in with this lot.   So if you think you are in your typical Southern California beach community  you are wrong.   This is a serious redoubt of the military petrochemical industrial defense complex.  This is a serious component of our nations imperial might.

That said there are also three pleasant old school surfer hangouts right next door. Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach.   So here you have the makings of a camper van beethoven song.   The bucolic surfer lifestyle literally in the shadows of some of the most toxic elements of our national imperial might: petrochemicals, armaments and the deafening and relentless global air traffic at LAX.     This became the inspiration for the lyrics to Dockweiler Beach-which is the name of the state park under the runway.

So the character in song has lost his wife or girlfriend to a “rogue wave”  which sucked her into an undertow.  He’s descended into madness and is basically living in a trailer in the Dockweiler Beach RV camp weighting for her body to reappear.

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Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out.

In June 2011 Camper Van Beethoven was supposed to play a show at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur.  The performance is not in the library but always outside on the grounds.  It rained and they postponed our show for a week.  So instead of flying home to Virginia we decided that I should stay in Northern California and Camper Van Beethoven should use the time to write a new album.  That week of songwriting produced 17 songs that make up the bulk of both La Costa Perdida and El Camino Real. 

Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out is a track off the Camper Van Beethoven Album  La Costa Perdida.   This song is about an illicit love affair between two military intelligence officers who meet at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey California just up Highway  1 from Big Sur.  Even after they are deployed to Afghanistan they continue their affair.  This song tells their story.

There is also this super cool Acoustic Demo of the song.  It’s simply us sitting around in jonathan’s living room in oakland when we made up the music. That’s why you can hear us giving each other instructions.   Later I overdubbed the vocals onto this.

 Dockweiler Beach

I am waiting in the water

I am waiting at El Segundo

I am waiting for that rogue wave

 bring your body back

I saw you go into the water

I saw Neptune’s Trident Shine

Took you by the hand my darlin

Took you in the Undertow

I will wait ten thousand years

I will wait ten thousand years

Eternity

Ten thousand years

Montgomery Atoll

I am living in a trailer

Dockweiler Beach at LAX

Planes take off for Tokyo

They are never coming back

Oceans filled with submariners

Dark secrets and chemicals

Night time lit by gas flares

bring my baby’s body back

I will wait ten thousand years

I will wait ten thousand years

Eternity

ten thousand years

Montgomery Atoll

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 Someday Our Love Will Sell Us Out

Someday our love will sell us out

Someday they’ll come stone us to death

Someday the sun will burn our flesh

The crows will come they’ll eat what’s left

Someday our love will sell us out

Someday my love forever now

Eternity is you my love

Someday our love will sell us out

The drone is perched high up above

Black winged bird don’t give us up

Just one more night I can’t explain

Just one more night I can’t explain

Someday our love will sell us out

Someday my love forever now

Eternity is you my love

Someday our love will sell us out

Someday our love will sell us out

Someday my love forever now

Eternity is you my love

Someday our love will sell us out

Lyrics for La Costa Perdida by Camper Van Beethoven

Copyright 2012 Camper Van Beethoven Music.

Published by Camper Van Beethoven Music Company BMI

#77 Exile in Beach Flats–Lulu Land, Wasted and Surf City 1985

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker on August 1, 2011 by davidclowery

Ted Kaczynski’s Santa Cruz vacation shack.

04 Lulu Land

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In 1982 I lived in the tiniest house imaginable.  It was at most 400 square feet yet it boasted a kitchen, bathroom, living room and two bedrooms.  My bedroom was 6 x 10 feet.  big enough for for a single mattress on a small platform. The small closet could hold about a ½ a dozen shirts,  a couple of jackets and a sweater or two.  I rolled up four or five pairs of jeans and stuffed them onto the shelf at the top of the closet.  The rest of my clothes I kept in a suitcase that I slid out from under my bed when I needed it.  This is where I also kept my guitars.  I had two plastic beer crates.  I stacked these on the floor one on top of each other.  I kept a few books, a couple of writing journals and my supply of cassettes for my cassette recorder.  The cassette recorder was on the top of the stack. In the corner I kept a small fender amp. A Fender super champ  that somebody with excellent cabinetry skills had reworked into a separated “head” and speaker cabinet.  This was my songwriting workstation.

I can’t remember if the living room had any furniture in it.  I know we had my roommate’s stereo in there and one wall was filled with our vinyl collections.  The other side of the living room had a couple of guitar amplifiers, my full size SVT and some miscellaneous drum kit parts.   I can’t imagine there was any room for any furniture.  Plus I can not recall ever once sitting in that room.

The house was part of a collection of a dozen beach cottages crammed into the parking lot of the Santa Cruz beach amusement park.  These were originally meant to be summer rentals.  But this was during Santa Cruz’s deep nadir in popularity. Air travel had rendered Santa Cruz’s oceanfront irrelevant to the Bay Area’s middle class.  Yes there were tourists on the weekend but they were a decidedly working class and rowdy lot.

This area was called Beach Flats.  It was really just a sand bar barely above sea level. It was protected from the San Lorenzo river by a 12 foot levee.  Aside from a few students living here the area was populated by Spanish speaking immigrants. Most worked in the local restaurants.  Everything about the place suggested impermanence and transience.

In the summer it was occupied land.  A foreign army of daytrippers from San Jose, Milpitas, Watsonville and Fremont encamped upon these shores.  Their River’s Edge Baja Bugs, Low Riders and tricked out pickup trucks were like the chariot armies of Carthaginians to our Roman sensibilities.  Thus we avoided their beachhead.

But most of the time, especially in the winter, it was a lonely outpost from the rest of the city.  The city bus neglected the area and it always required a lonely and dark walk  along the top of the river levee.  Alternately you could walk across a small pedestrian bridge attached to the railroad trestle that spanned the San Lorenzo just as it emptied into the ocean.

During heavy rains directly below the bridge there was a  violent mixing of river current and storm driven waves.  If you fell into this you would surely drown.  I’d often encounter neighborhood youth smoking pot or drinking beer on this bridge late in the evening.   They stared at me warily.  Their alliances were uncertain.  I never knew if we were friend or foe.  On many occasion I imagined they might throw me off  the bridge just for their own amusement.  For this reason I often carried my all aluminum Ultraflex skateboard.  I rarely rode it, but both tail and nose were worn down into a sharp edge. It was like a 30” Celtic sword with urethane wheels.

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Corry Arnold defines a music scene as a neighborhood or city that is a “net exporter of concerts”.  In other words

 

Let  A = the number of concerts performed by the bands in a scene outside their neighborhood or city X. 

 

Let B = the number of concerts performed by outsiders within that neighborhood or city. 

 

City or neighborhood X is a music scene If and only if  A> B.

By this definition I’d say that Santa Cruz (barely) qualified as a music scene in 1982.

Arnold also notes music scenes rely on low property values in particular transitional neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods that had once had another purpose but now had fallen out of primary use.  Cheap space and a tolerance for noise are important commodities for bands.

You could argue that the old beach rentals along the lower end of Ocean street and the neighborhoods clustered around the old harbor qualified as in transition.  Too seedy and rundown for beach rentals these houses were subsequently occupied by the more adventurous.  Arty students, musicians and other slackers now occupied many of these cottages.

But our cottage was effectively cut off from these neighborhoods by the river levee.  In retrospect I now see it was very Dungeons and Dragonsish of the locals to refer to the homeless population that slept in hideaways along the river as “trolls”.  Indeed walking to my house at night I learned to steer clear of these trolls as many were quite aggressive or totally insane.   You definitely felt penalized after unexpectedly making contact with these folks.

But the isolation was very good for a couple young mathematicians and songwriters. I was able to really dive into the most difficult proofs and songs in that cottage.  Later when I moved to a better part of town I found that I had to go to the science library to get any deep thinking done.

My roommate was also a mathematician and songwriter.   His name was Paul MacKinney.  Recognize that name?  We covered one of his songs on the 3rd Camper Van Beethoven Album.   The song is LuLu Land.   We also  named our CVB fan club  after him. The Paul MacKinney Fan Club.  People were completely mystified as to why the Camper Van Beethoven fan club was named The Paul MacKinney Fan Club.  Paul was also mystified. As always CVB was Inscrutable.

I’m not really sure what Paul had in mind when he wrote Lulu Land but in my mind I always associated it with that walk along the river levee.   An unplanned conversation with one of the sad crazies was surely the root of this song!  But who knows.

Also it should be noted that Paul, Joe Sloan (of Spot 1019) and I had a short lived band about this time called The Jaws of Life.  It was actually during this time that I began performing the Black Flag song “wasted”.  This was later carried over into Camper Van Beethoven’s repertoire.

Paul would often finish his math homework well before me.  He’d come into my room and hover.  Or he’d try to help me with whatever proof or problem I was working on.  Once I was finished he’d celebrate by handing me a PBR (or joint). and dropping the needle on his well worn copy of Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown EP.  Wasted was one of the songs on the B side.   We became fixated on the simple genius of the 40 second song.  How could we not cover it?

03 Wasted

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Beach Flats makes another small appearance in a Cracker song.  Once I moved to the eastside of Santa Cruz  I rarely went back to this neighborhood.  Except to go bowling.  Go figure.

Boardwalk Bowl (I remember it as Surf Bowl-anyone else?)  was on the western edge of Beach Flats.  Right where the land began to slope up and become Beach Hills.  To be accurate it should be noted that the cheap beer was more of an attraction than the actual bowling.  This and the two old dive bars The Asti Café and the Avenue  were for a long time my usual hangouts in Santa Cruz.

But one day my girlfriend Jennifer  (see fear and loathing in Las Vegas #….)  ruined it for all of us.  She had become fixated on the bowling shoes at the Surf Bowl.  She wanted her own pair but the ones that were available commercially were nothing like surf bowls cool retro beauties.  So one day she just walks out with a pair on.

When I discovered this I was quite mad.  Because we were regulars and she was quite the beauty.  There was no way the middle aged men who worked in the bowling alley would not remember us. No more Surf Bowl.  All for a pair of shoes.

So in Surf City 85 I sing.

Surf City

Then you stole some bowling shoes

What a pathetic criminal you.

What a pathetic criminal

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Lulu Land- (Paul MacKinney)


[Am]
 Pictures of [C] movie stars [D] fade and grow old
[Am] The hot dogs and [C] pretzels are [D] always served cold
[Am] Take nothing [C] with you when you [D] leave but your soul
In [E] Lulu Land

How can you lose when you choose what you feel?
The scab will fall off when the wound starts to heal
Luck’s on your side and it’s your turn to deal
In Lulu Land

In [F#m] Lulu land, the [G] walls are soft and [F#m] dark
In Lulu [G] land, the secret [F#m] heart
is in com-[G]-mand in Lulu [E] Land

How can you lose when you live in the past?
Nothing can happen that happens too fast
Live is a furnace and love is the blast
In Lulu Land

Where innocent promises turn into bad debts
Where things that you do you live to regret
Your life is a movie and the world is a set
In Lulu Land

In Lulu land, the wall are soft and dark
In Lulu land, the secret heart
is in command in Lulu Land

[C#dim]-[Cdim]-[C#dim]-[Cdim]-[B]-[A#m]-[Am]-[G]

[Am]-[C]-[D]
[Am]-[C]-[D]
[Am]-[C]-[D] [E]
[F#m]-[G]
[F#m]-[G]
[F#m]-[G]
[E]

Surf City 85
[INTRO x2 (also: chords for verses):]
[Am] [Dm] [F] [G] [Am]

Schoolgirls walking down the street
In schoolgirl uniforms
There’s a sadness at
The centre of the world

Well days they seem to drift away
I don’t know where they go
There’s a sadness at
The centre of the world

[CHORUS:]
So [G] come pick me up
At the tea cup
We’ll go [Am] down the seaside lanes [F]
We’ll watch the [C] girls
[F] We’ll bowl a few [C] games

Nothing to do
But there’s the red room
Then you stole some bowling shoes
What a pathetic criminal you
What a pathetic criminal

Blair and goldie on the sand
It’s raining in the surf
Well that’s nothing lost
And nothing gained today

They tried to go their separate ways
But all roads circle back
Well that’s nothing lost
And nothing gained today

[CHORUS:]
So come pick me up
At the tea cup
We’ll go down the Asti Café
We’ll watch the girls
Just like every Saturday

Nothing to do
Ride out to Bonnie Doon
We thought she had it made
But you crashed your bike on ice-cream grade
And then you were dead

[KEYBOARD SOLO then GUITAR SOLO (chords as INTRO)]

#74 Hits are Black Swans-Take the Skinheads Bowling

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven on July 15, 2011 by davidclowery

The Black Swan Theory or Theory of Black Swan Events is a metaphor that encapsulates the concept that The event is a surprise (to the observer) and has a major impact. After the fact, the event is rationalized by hindsight.- wikipedia.

12 Take The Skinheads Bowling  (click to play)

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I’ve mentioned this before.  Success in the music business is completely unpredictable.  No one can really predict which artists will end up being successful. No one can really predict which song or album will be a hit.  And a lot of times the songs, albums or artists that become the really big smash hits seem to just come out of the blue.  They are often surprises to the record labels and artists themselves. The smaller hits and the minor hits seem almost predictable by comparison.  The really big hits are truly outliers.

In technical terms these  smash hits are Black Swans. Further there appears to be a distinct lack of causality.  By this I mean,  spending money on radio promotion, publicity,  advertising,  production, videos etc etc  seems to be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Sure it’s unlikely that a band with no budget or promotional push behind them is gonna be a massive hit.  But having a million dollar promotional budget and the full might of Warner Music Group behind a band doesn’t guarantee success. Money might sometimes be a necessary condition but it is not sufficient.In fact it leads to success in perhaps 1 in 10 cases.*

Sadly talent is overrated. Yes there are very talented artists and songwriters. While talent is a subjective quality there are clearly artists that we all seem to agree have talent. We can be objective and say they have talent.    And to be sure these talented artists always have a much better chance of becoming stars.  They have a much better chance of having hit songs, multi-platinum albums and large crowds at the their shows. But it is not guaranteed. In fact most “talented” artists do not become stars. T They toil in obscurity until they finally give up or become too old to be marketable.  Its just a lucky few that make it.  And it is luck.

And the opposite is also true.  Sometimes fairly untalented artists have big hits.  Sometimes it’s the strange one hit wonders like Right Said Fred.   Other times fairly untalented artists can have long and successful careers.  Take for instance Kid Rock. This is not a jab.  I believe there exists a scientific proof that can establish that Kid Rock is fairly untalented. I’m just stating facts. I have a feeling that Kid Rock might admit that he is fairly untalented and extremely lucky.

Talent is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for success.

ab

It’s not that there really is no rhyme or reason to an artist’s success.  It’s not really random.  It’s just that the process of making a hit or a star is  irreducibly complex,unpredictable and impossible to model. It can never be duplicated.  What worked for one artist doesn’t work for the next artist.  All we can say is that empirically the secret alchemist formula for success has little to do with money, clout or talent.  These seem to lead to only marginal improvements in total sales. And this is usually only once an act or a song has already generated some success on it’s own.

Yet everyone in the music business seems to think otherwise.  Artists, managers, agents and record executives will argue otherwise.  They will cite their own personal narratives that show how  their actions and decisions led to some spectacular success.  But there are always a few strange logical fallacies at work.

“Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan”- arab proverb.

What this means is not that a successful project has many fathers helping to guide it on it’s way to success.  No, this means that many people claim to be associated or responsible for a project’s success no matter how tenuous.  People play up their role in a successful project but downplay their role or completely disavow involvement in failures and disasters.  It’s a genetically encoded survival feature of Homo Corporaticus.  By doing this people artificially increase their win/loss ratio.  Equity traders would say they fraudulently increase their alpha or skill quotient.

This also helps create an illusion of causality.  It helps us tell ourselves and others the lie that our actions decisions and theories usually result in great success. There’s also something called the narrative fallacy whereby an individual will look back on events and select a cause and effect narrative that brings order to what were really chaotic and random events and decisions.

For instance Quincy Jones might naturally and understandably think that his production of Thriller was the most important and consequential narrative in the unprecedented success of this album (100 million worldwide best selling album of all time).  When in actuality totally unrelated seemingly random developments and events were likely greater factors:

1. A burgeoning middle class in the developing world that identified with american Soul and R & B.

2. satellite television that distributed american music videos worldwide

3. the guest guitar solo by Edie Van Halen onBeat it suddenly made it okay for white suburban kids to listen to Michael Jackson  etc etc.

I’m skipping a few things here but in short we lie to ourselves not because we are bad or evil, it’s just seems we can not function comfortably with a universe that is chaotic and unpredictable.  We need to make sense of the world in a way that comforts and soothes us.

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I teach a class at University of Georgia about the music business. As part of the class I like to give the students a sort of proof by contradiction that outcomes in the music business can not be reliably duplicated and are highly unpredictable.   Here’s how it goes:

Suppose that the music business is perfectly rational and predictable.  If that’s the case you could design a Hit Machine that models the music business.  For example if you put inputs X Y and Z into the machine you get a predictable volume of sales or revenue out of the other end of  the Hit Machine.  Every time.  No Variation.

For example suppose for each album

we spend exactly the same amount on advertising.

We use exactly the same radio promoters.

We use exactly the same publicity firm.

We give the band the same amount of tour support.

They play the same number of shows in exactly the same venues.

The recording and video budgets are exactly the same.

We even use the same creatives:   record producer, engineer, video director,  songwriting team and studio musicians.

We spend the same amount on Black Ops: strippers, hookers, drugs and payola.

The list goes on and on.

If there were a hit machine we would get the same result each time.  The exact same sales.  Each album generates the same revenue. 

For each album,  the exact same inputs (left) produce the exact same number of sales (right).

Of course we know this is absurd.  No one would really expect this to happen. We reasonably expect there to be variation in sales for each successive albums. No matter how firmly we control the inputs to the machine. There are just too many other variables.  The songwriter is off his/her game on one song.  Global cultural tastes change.  Current events make a song’s subject less  or more engaging… etc etc.

So let’s redesign our Hit machine.  We introduce some variation.  A little randomness or pseudo randomness.  Now we get something that seems more reasonable.   If we put exactly the same “inputs” into the machine for each album you get varying sales out of the machine.  In this case you get what mathematicians and statisticians call a “normal” or “gaussian” distribution. 

The Exact same inputs (left) produce a normal variation in sales (right).

But as it turns out we know a lot about the variation in album sales.  Album sales do not vary in this “normal” or “gaussian” way.   They vary “wildly”.***

And here wild is actually a real mathematical term. So if there is a hit machine it would have to generate wild variation in sales with the same inputs.****

Like this: 

I’m skipping a few logical steps here but basically the conclusion is that the “inputs” to the hit machine – those things that the artists, managers, record labels, agents and songwriters have control over – have only a marginal effect on the end result.  So marginal they are pretty much irrelevant.  And if the cumulative actions of managers, labels, agents, artists, songwriters, producers and video directors have only a marginal influence on the outcome then it’s fair to say  success in the music business is due to luck. or success in the music business is random or unpredictable. Q.E.D.  sort of…

To use Michael Jackson as an example again off the wall had pretty much the same inputs as Thriller.  Yet the results were wildly dfferent.  2 million vs 100 million.  Or in gross revenue terms 16 million versus 800 million.  You could plausibly argue with a straight face that $16 million dollars of Thriller was due to skill and $784 million dollars was the result of luck.  I know this is an oversimplification but it still illustrates my point that  most of the profit in the music business is not due to skill, talent or expertise.

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This fractal design is “self similar”  Each smaller piece is exactly the same shape as the whole.

While similar to fractals this is something mathematicians call a “Dork”. 

Another important fact. This “wild” variation in sales of albums or songs is also Self-Similar. By this I mean that no matter how you slice and dice the sales data,  no matter which subset of albums or songs you might create you still get a wild distribution.

For example if you look at the subset of just Camper Van Beethoven songs.  And you look at the revenue generated by each song,  you get what appears to be a wild distribution.  It doesn’t matter whether you look at one quarter’s income or the lifetime cumulative income the distribution appears to be wild.

But I doubt that it is just Camper Van Beethoven.  I don’t know for sure but I suspect that in the sub-genre of black metal,  that if you looked at income for every album in the genre you would get a wild distribution.  I suspect the same for the Narco-corridos sub genre.

This is Self-Similarity. Without going into it in detail- I don’t want to make your brain explode- everywhere that you have wild distributions you usually find Black Swans Events.  And in the music business these Black Swan Events  are the Hits. Camper Van Beethoven’s Black Swan Event was Take the Skinheads Bowling.

********************************************

CVB writing a smash hit in 1984. The guy in the hat was not visible to the naked eye.  He was only visible using certain film and special cameras (Usually KODAK EKTACHROME 160T). He is a minor demon of the Santa Catalina class. We would often accidentally conjure him during moments of intense creativity.  He told us his name was “doobie”.  

Honestly in 1984 I  never thought that much about the song Take The Skinheads Bowling. It was part of our repertoire but it wasn’t like people talked about this song much after the show. If they did talk about it they didn’t talk about it anymore than the other songs.

I don’t think it was until after we recorded our demos or the first Camper Van Beethoven album (and before it was released)  that people began to notice this song.  Usually  because we had given them a demo tape.  Our friends were also dubbing and passing around our cassette.  It started to become one of our popular songs.  At least within our circle of friends.

But it was not the only song that people liked.   Lassie, Where the Hell is Bill and Club Med Sucks  were also popular with our friends. In fact Where The Hell is Bill and Lassie were much more popular with our friends.

So it should not surprise you that I never thought  that Take the Skinheads Bowling would become a Hit.  If someone had traveled from the future and told me we would have a hit on our first album I would not have picked this song as being the hit.  Not in a million years.  I would have more likely picked Where the Hell is Bill.

Why?  we regarded Take The Skinheads Bowling as just a weird non-sensical song.  The lyrics were purposely structured so that it would be devoid of meaning.  Each subsequent line would undermine any sort of meaning established by the last line.  It was the early 80’s and all our peers were writing songs that were full of meaning.  It was our way of rebelling.  BTW this is the most important fact about this song.  We wanted the words to lack any coherent meaning.  There is no story or deeper insight that I can give you about this song.

Lassie and Where the Hell is Bill  were silly but there was at least a point to the songs.  Plus both songs were pretty jokey.  Something that seemed popular at the time.

When we first put out the Telephone-Free-Landslide-Victory  we mailed out a fairly limited amount of albums to radio and press.   We got a few good reviews and a handful of college radio stations began to play a couple of the tracks.  Where the Hell is Bill was one.  Club Med Sucks was another  and then of course Take the Skinheads Bowling.    We were pretty excited.  There were probably 20 college radio stations in the country summer of 1985 that were playing our record.

In September we decided that we should mail out another round of promo copies of our album. We expanded our list of college radio stations we added a few commercial stations like KROQ in LA  and WLBS in detroit.  Someone also suggested we send copies to two or three BBC DJs in london.

Sometime later that fall something unexpected occurred.  We began getting reports that BBC 2 was playing Take The Skinheads Bowling.  Simultaneously it began getting regular airplay in Detroit on WLBS .

Up until this point College Radio had been mildly supportive of Camper Van Beethoven.  But somehow word began to get out that we were being played on the BBC and suddenly our cool factor went way up with college radio.  I had been calling various West Coast college radio stations for some time.  I was always trying to find gigs for Camper through the college stations.  I was also aware that this also helped to promote airplay.

I was always treated decently by these college station program directors  but I could tell that some were just humoring me.  So it was very apparent when the sea change came. Suddenly everyone would take my call.  And everyone wanted to talk about the fact we were getting played in the UK.  Shortly after this we began to see our record charting on nearly every college radio station in the US (as well as a number of commercial stations.)

I have no proof that the BBC playing Take The Skinheads Bowling led to more US airplay.  It is just a strong hunch.  And I think I am probably right.  But what I know to be true is that Camper Van Beethoven acquired Gravitas when the BBC began to play us.

For a band like Camper Van Beethoven gravitas was an important property.  Without it we would have been regarded as  novelty or joke band.  We would have been regarded in the way our friends (and fellow travelers) The Dead Milkman were regarded: A cute band, an interesting and clever novelty.  (BTW I do not agree with this characterization of the Dead Milkman).

The Dead Milkman were a punk band from Philadelphia.  They put out their first album almost the same week Camper Van Beethoven released their first album. They were funny and irreverent like Camper Van Beethoven.  Like CVB they mixed serious songs with silly punk rock anthems like “bitchin’ camaro”.

Camper Van Beethoven was definitely a weirder ensemble but the bands were very very similar in many other ways.  Our fanbase overlapped a good deal.  They were also on a very small independent label.  The same college radio stations played us.  And they also were completely self directed.

For the early part of our career the two bands were traveling in parallel.  With the Dead Milkman being perhaps a little more popular than Camper Van Beethoven. But after the BBC airplay Camper Van Beethoven began to be to be regarded as more serious.  Serious mainstream journalists began writing favorable stories about us.  Spin magazine  and The Village Voice featured us.  We also began to garner interest from major record labels.  IRS records which was on a hot streak came a-callin’.  We turned them down but we were able to parlay our newfound gravitas into a distribution deal with Rough Trade Records.  More importantly  Rough Trade functioned as our label in the rest of the world bringing greater sales, publicity and radio play across Europe and Australia.   Camper Van Beethoven quickly surpassed The Dead Milkman critically and commercially.  It wasn’t until long after Camper Van Beethoven had disbanded that The Dead Milkman  had their big commercial success with the MTV hit Punk Rock Girl  and sadly they never acquired the gravitas that they deserved.

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So I don’t really know what made Take the Skinheads Bowling a hit.  I’m sure it was a lot of different things.   But I’m gonna drill down, and focus on one tiny element.  I know it’s not likely correct to attribute the success of this song to this one small event.  It’s simply an exercise to show how a tiny accidental decision can make a huge difference in the success of a song, album or artist.

Assume that the BBC playing Take the Skinheads Bowling was the primary engine of success for this song.  Then one little handwritten note on the beautifully designed Independent Project stationary made all the difference in the world for this song.

See someone told me that many of the BBC DJ’s did not accept unsolicited submissions unless  they were accompanied by a personalized handwritten note.  But this was not common knowledge .  Somehow this little factoid filtered down to us and when our album(s) were mailed they included a personal note to the DJ from one of us or Bruce Licher .  I don’t recall who wrote the notes just that they were included.   I like to think the handwritten note on Bruce’s  beautiful Independent Project stationary caught someone’s eye.  This made our album stand out from the stacks of albums that the BBC would receive each week.  And this small detail,  this tiny flap of a butterfly wing  made Take the Skinheads Bowling a  hit.

*  “throw ten records against the wall and see which one sticks”  This is often attributed to Atlantic records founder Ahmet Etegun.  I’ve googled it and find no evidence he ever said it.   Still the modern 1950-2000 music business was based on a success ratio of something like 1 in 10.  1 success for 9 failures.

*** It is know that there is “wild” variation in book sales and other cultural products. Since YouTube views of music videos seem to vary wildly and using YouTube views as a good proxy for album/single sales I’m not going out on a limb by stating album/single sales also vary wildly.

**** Actually this last statement does not really follow.  I know many of my readers are smart and will quickly point this out. For the sake of readability I am completely fudging here. I believe my conclusion is true but it’s a much longer argument and involves some induction.

“If a hit machine existed it would have to output wild variation in sales because in actuality the variation in sales of albums are wild”  No that doesn’t follow. Previously we were assuming that the inputs were exactly the same.  The only way this follows is if all albums in the known universe have the same inputs. Clearly they don’t.

Instead the logic is much more complex. It first involves the fact that there are known pairs or even triplets of albums that have substantially the same inputs.  The variation of sales in these pairs or triplets of albums is so great (thriller vs off the wall) that this inductively suggests the hit machine will produce a wild variation in sales.

Or another way of looking at it.  If there were a hit machine the market would eventually nudge the labels into using only the best inputs, those that produce the greatest sales.  These would all be virtually the same inputs. But the market doesn’t do this because  it “knows” the inputs don’t matter all that much.

(And the market may know this because at times in Nashville and Hollywood the record labels have come very close to using exactly the same inputs over and over again and they still got “wild” variation.  For instance in the late 1990’s at any time the top 10 modern rock tracks were usually mixed by just 3 or 4 mix engineers!)

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[INTRO:]
[C]-[Fmaj7]-[C]-[Fmaj7]-[C]-[Fmaj7]-[C]-[Fmaj7]

[C] Every day, [Fmaj7] I get up and pray to [C] Jah [Fmaj7]
[C] And he increases the number of [Fmaj7] clocks by exactly one [C] [Fmaj7]
[C] Everybody’s comin’ [Fmaj7] home for lunch these [C] days [Fmaj7]
[C] Last night there were [Fmaj7] skinheads on my [C] lawn [Fmaj7]

CHORUS:
[G] Take the skinheads [F] bowling
Take them [C] bowling [F]-[C] [F]-[C] [F]-[C]
[G] Take the skinheads [F] bowling
Take them [C] bowling [F]-[C] [F]-[C] [F]-[C]

Some people say that bowling alleys got big lanes (got big lanes, got big lanes)
Some people say that bowling alleys all look the same (look the same, look the same)
There’s not a line that goes here that rhymes with anything (anything, anything)
I has a dream last night, but I forget what it was (what it was, what it was)

REPEAT CHORUS

I had a dream last night about you, my friend
I had a dream, I wanted to sleep next to plastic
I had a dream, I wanted to lick your knees
I had a dream, it was about nothing

REPEAT CHORUS x2

# 68 The Long Plastic Hallway-Playing on a Flying Saucer with The Talking Heads.

Posted in Box O Laffs, Camper Van Beethoven with tags , , on January 10, 2011 by davidclowery

 


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12 The Long Plastic Hallway

“The music business is cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway, where thieves and pimps run free, where good men die like dogs.  And then there is a negative side.”-attributed to Hunter S. Thompson

There is actually a debate as to whether Hunter S. Thompson said this or not.  I suppose because there are variants that are similar attributed to other people.  Really? It sounds so much like the guy it has to be Hunter S. Thompson.

Part of this post is a story you may have heard.  I like to tell part of this story at shows. usually as an introduction to the song The Long Plastic Hallway.  But it definitely needs to be written down for posterity. So here goes.  It also allows me to get into the history of Box O’ Laffs one of the bands that preceded Camper Van Beethoven. Like the Estonian Gauchos and Sitting Duck there are a number of Box O’ Laffs songs that ended up being Camper Van Beethoven songs as well.  Most notably Ice Cream Everyday and Flowers. So Box O’ Laffs’ story is integral to the history of CVB.

14 Ice Cream Everyday

11 Flowers

Box O’ Laffs consisted of Eric Curkendall on vocals, Chris Hart on Guitar, sometimes Chris Molla on guitar, keyboards and drums, and then a host of different drummers, Anthony Guess, Chris Pedersen and Richie West.  All of which played with Camper Van Beethoven at some point.  I’m also quite sure i’m forgetting a drummer or two. But you’ll forgive me if I just move along with the story?

And yes that is how we spelled it: Box O’ Laffs.  Sometimes we wrote it this way Box O’ Laffs™ as the name was supposed to evoke a toy or board game.  Often the venues would list our name wrong in ads or on flyers.  They’d spell it “Box of Laughs”.  This drove us crazy.

So Box O’ Laffs™ was formed in 1981 when I met Chris Hart and Eric Curkendall at College 5 at UCSC.  I was still living on campus and so was Eric.  We constantly struggled to find places to practice.  We rarely managed, so much of our rehearsing was done live at shows.  There was a neat little formula.  Chris and I would make up a couple of very simple repetitive grooves.  Then we’d alternate between the two while Eric improvised lyrics over the top.  Each “song” had a title and generally Eric sang about pretty much the same thing  but each performance was always different. Sometimes radically different.

It was very easy to add a new song to the repertoire.  As long as me and chris alternated correctly between the two or three grooves that made up a song,  usually the drummer could follow along.  And Eric? well he was good at just making shit up on the spot.  After a while these improvisations became more and more settled. Eventually they would come to resemble normal songs.

Mostly the college kids we were playing for didn’t notice this process.  The grooves we played were kind of bouncy and were easy to dance to.  As long as we didn’t stop they danced.  No one seemed to notice that Eric would be singing lines from Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth, Dr Seuss stories or even laconically announcing a LA Lakers vs Boston Celtics game like a stoned Chick Hearn.  This is how we worked out the songs.  Sounds crazy i know but the over all effect was  we came off like a slightly funky californian version of The Fall.

But a little bouncier.  So a lot of people compared us to The Talking Heads.

So what does this have to do with the Hunter S. Thompson quote?

In the summer of 1983 Chris Hart our guitarist was living in LA.  He was working for Eric Curkendall’s father in Pasadena.  At the very end of the summer he started to call me repeatedly insisting that he had managed to get us a gig supporting The Talking Heads in Los Angeles.

Chris was never the most reliable person.  Although he was the most normal or straight laced looking member of the band there was something not quite right about him.  Aside from being a poor judge of character he would constantly end up in some fucked up situation. He of course would profess that he was a completely innocent bystander and had no idea how these bad things kept happening to him.  The truth was we had all watched him put himself in dangerous situations over and over again. It was strange to us.  Cause otherwise he was (and probably is still) an intelligent and thoughtful person

Still we had our guard down when Chris phoned us and said he’d got us a gig with the Talking Heads.  We were skeptical but we wanted to believe.  We called people we knew in LA for some sort of independent confirmation.  Anthony even called KROQ to see if any of the DJs had heard anything about us opening for the Talking Heads. We know from our friends in LA that we weren’t in any advertising.  It was 1983 and it wasn’t like  we could look on the Goldenvoice website to confirm we were playing. It seemed improbable to us… still we wanted to believe.  So after a little badgering from Chris we decided to make the 400 mile drive Santa Cruz to LA to play the gig.

Anthony Guess was at that time the drummer for Box O Laffs.  Anthony and I got Joe Sloan to drive his pickup truck to LA.  Anthony me and the gear road in the open back of the truck 400 miles to the leafy Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena.  It was nearly midnight when we made it to Eric Curkendall’s parents house. Early september.  We waited out in the yard smoking cigarettes and enjoying the mild night. we waited for quite a while for Chris Hart and The Talking Heads’ “percussionist”.  They didn’t show.

Joe Sloan started to get really impatient and agitated.  Finally someone figured out where this “percussion” player lived.  We drove over to the apartment which was in a much sketchier area of Pasadena or perhaps even Alta Dena.  There we found Chris Hart with a person who in retrospect was very clearly a crack head.  Chris seemed pretty disoriented and stoned himself.  Did I say apartment?  It was really more of a crack house.  An upscale crack house, but nonetheless a crack house.

Immediately our spirits fell.  Still there is nothing like wanting to believe that something really implausible is true.  We began to pepper the “percussionist” with questions.

“What time do we load-in?”

“How much do we get paid?”

“How long do we get to play?”

“Why aren’t we in any of the advertisements?”

The “percussionist” began to get more and more agitated.  Finally he’d had enough of us and our ridiculous questions.

“Man I’m not talking about that gig.  That gig is the fake gig.  I’m talking about the real gig.  And the real gig is after that gig.  The real gig is on a flying saucer above Los Angeles”.

Joe Sloan is a big man.  And at first I thought he was gonna attack the “percussionist”. Instead he turned his attention to Chris Hart.  I really thought he was gonna beat the crap out of Chris.  He didn’t.  But he didn’t do anything to rid Chris Hart of the notion either.  That is the rest of the night Chris kept a wary eye on Joe,  certain that the ass-whipping was about to come at any time.

Now to quote the lyrics from the third verse:

playing on a flying saucer

box o laffs was supporting talking heads

everyone was high and having a real good time

they was having a real good time.



The story doesn’t end there.  In the summer of 2000 I went to the wedding of Virgin CFO Ken Pedersen.  There were several other celebrity guests at the wedding and I was delighted to find out that I was sitting at the table with David Byrne.  Wow.  This is so cool.  David Byrne, ever gracious, stood and introduced himself to me as I approached the table.  We exchanged greetings and then I said:

“We actually played a gig together a long time ago”

“Really?!”

“Yes, it was on a flying saucer above Los Angeles”.

At this point David Byrne backs away almost imperceptibly.

“It’s a long story,  you don’t remember because they erased your memory of the event”

Now he perceptibly takes a step back from me.  Of course I then realize that i may have genuinely freaked him out.

“I’m joking… well sort of…”

It all ended up okay and I did manage to explain the whole story to David Byrne and he seemed to think the whole thing was amusing.  But at the same time I could tell he was thinking what I sometimes think:

“some of our fans are out of their minds.”

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The Long Plastic Hallway


CHORUS:
La la la la la la
La la la la
La la la la
La la la la

REPEAT CHORUS

Cigarettes and carrot juice
Marijuana and lots of booze
I threw the flower of youth into that stew

The serpent’s tongues were red and pointy
But they were wearing very cool shoes
Who wouldn’t wanna sell their soul?

REPEAT CHORUS x4

We waited in line for hours
VIP passes bouquets of flowers
To see the brand new siren sing her song

The virgins then were thrown into volcanoes
A beating heart, it was held aloft
And no expense was spared

REPEAT CHORUS x4

Quezacotl and Busby Berkeley
Hanging out in Pasadena
Rodney on the ROQ, and David Byrne

Playing on a flying saucer
Box o’Laffs were supporting Talking Heads
Everyone was high, everyone was having a good time (a good time, they were having a good time)

REPEAT CHORUS x4

 

 

 

#67-Turquoise Jewelry- Grace Slick Where Art Thou?

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven with tags on January 7, 2011 by davidclowery

 

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07 Turquoise Jewelry

come down from that condominium treehouse

stop driving around in that station wagon with the wood on the side

take off that jumpsuit you look like grace slick

staying up all night drinking that 7-11 coffee

Funny story about this song.  It was all pretty much based on the alleged sighting of Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) at a 7/11 in the north bay of SF.  Sausalito?  Mill Valley?  I’m not really clear.  I’m not even sure who told me about it.  Paul MacKinney (my old college roomate) Jackson Haring (our former manager)  one of the guys in Spot 1019?  Anyway the alleged sighting was approximately this:  Someone had seen Grace Slick buying coffee at a 7/11 or other convenience store.  She was wearing some sort of fashion forward pantsuit or designer coveralls, and a fair amount of jewelry.  I’m pretty sure that the turquoise jewelry part was my embellishment of the story. More on that in a minute. The part of the story that makes me question the veracity of the story is that she left in a Buick roadmaster station wagon. No self respecting Northern Californian hippy would drive a Buick station wagon.   Any former hippy who needed a station wagon would naturally choose a Volvo station wagon.  I’m pretty sure it’s in the handbook.

Either that or it wasn’t Grace Slick.

Or the entire story was made up by one of my friends.

But what this song clearly illustrates is Camper Van Beethoven’s delight in picking apart the bones of the dead or dying Norther California hippy scene while simultaneously praising and emulating hippy culture in general.  For at the same time the songs distinctly owes it’s narrative voice to Don Van Vliet.  That’s Captain Beefheart to you civilians.

Check the distorted harmonica,  disjointed and seemingly random horn parts, the hoo hoo hoo vocalizations  and most tellingly the barked non-sequiturs.

I know Captain Beefheart was from Southern California. So was Zappa.  See even the guys from Northern California in the band seemed to prefer these hippies, these musical anarchists to their Northern Californian cousins.

We were mocking the flower power, peace and love part of hippiedom while simultaneously trying to emulate and update the bomb-throwing part of the movement.  Using Captain Beefheart’s voice to comment on Grace Slick was just one way of doing it.  We didn’t really dislike Grace Slick or Jefferson Airplane. They just happened to be innocent bystanders.  Collateral damage if you will…

(and too be fair Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane were a lot more edgy and punk than we gave them credit  for).

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But as previously noted Camper Van Beethoven was also defining itself against the punk and post-punk scenes.  To a lesser extent the new “college rock” movement.  Back in 1986-87 we actually wore a lot of turquoise jewelry.  It was one of our ways of rebelling against the punk and college rock movement.  It worked too. If you wore a fake indian pancho, giant turquoise belt buckle,  laminated scorpion bolo tie and turquoise beaded mocassins into Hollywood’s Club Lingerie in 1987  people loked at you like you were crazy.

We didn’t wear the good stuff.  Just the knock-off fake stuff you’d buy at a truckstop or “indian” trading post along I-40 somewhere in the southwest.  We also spent a lot of time in thrift stores in this part of the world.  Tucson and Albuquerque still have some of the best thrift stores around.  I mean they were (and probably still are) hip deep in fake indian panchos and bolo ties with laminated scorpions and of course turquoise jewelry.  When we’d return to Santa Cruz from one of our periodic tours, it was usually via the 40.  Inevitably we’d come home looking like a deleted scene from movie Billy Jack.

Right on.

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Turquoise Jewelry.

Come down from your tree house condominium
And start driving around that station wagon with the wood on the side

Take off that jumpsuit, you look like Grace Slick
Stayin’ up all night an’ drinkin’ that 7-11 coffee

And take off your turquoise jewellery

Shake your medicine rattle

And fill a sock with an herb
Put on your fringe skirt

Come sit down next to your man, he’s hankering for some company
Come sit down next to your man and let him cough in your ear

‘Cuz you bring me sticks and stones
You bring me everything

Take off your turquoise jewelry
Shake your medicine rattle

‘Cuz you bring me sticks and stones
You bring me everything

#59 Stairway to Heavan (sic)- In Praise of Half Baked Ideas and Unfinished things. The importance of not being earnest.

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2010 by davidclowery

“C amper Van Beethoven” II and III.  I think the C fell off the paste up board and was incorrectly lined up again.  Camper Van Beethoven placed the Star of David on the album for no other reason than to confuse people.  The symbol has such heavy meaning while this record was purposely devoid of any coherent meaning, messages or interpretation. On Subsequent pressings the star was removed after we were hammered by Rough Trade about the symbol.  They were worried that the obliqueness of our songs and the record would eventually lead to terrible mis-interpretations of our intent. Some sort of radical zionist or anti-semitic interpretation of one our songs. who knows.

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Part of the charm of camper van beethovens earliest records that they sometimes contained half baked ideas,  studio experiments and things that were really only partially finished.

Some might disagree.  But when I look back on these records I think that it was cool we had the self confidence to not take things so seriously.  Most young artists tweeze their records to death.  Over polish and over arrange each song.  They remove every little imperfection.  They constantly fret how each song will be perceived.  We did none of this.  As noted above we put one of the most meaningful symbols of the  20th century on the cover of II and III for no apparent meaning.

In 1985 and 1986 underground rock music was a very serious business to most of our friends and peers.  Lyrics were serious.  The music was serious.  Everything was very important and burdened with meaning. We were very aware of this.

I noted this in earlier posts that Camper Van Beethoven was purposely messing with that notion right from the start.  From the choice of the band name,  to the non-sensical “Take the skinheads bowling”. We felt it our mission to be seriously unearnest.

But part the way through the second album and especially on the third album  we started doing this in a different way.  We started including weird sonic experiments and including them in the record.  Half finished songs.  We included these also.   They weren’t bullshit filler,  but neither were they 100% serious endeavors.  Some were accidents.Like putting the tape on the reel upside down.  so the wrong tracks played and were backwards.

We came to believe that if we tried too hard to arrange these accidents and turn them into a real song we would ruin the original flawed yet briefly beautiful idea.

Others were songs we felt  just weren’t enough of an idea to be a real song of proper length and scope. So instead of struggling to make them a second rate “song” with lyrics and a standard verse chorus verse chourus bridge chorus outro structure,  we let them be as they were.

We WERE earnest about some things. We had the earnest belief that we were creating a sort of demi-song,  an overlooked and under appreciated form of music.

04 Turtlehead

The first entry is a Chris Molla penned ditty.  A “small idea” I remember him terming it.  A small spinning tension.  Release in the repeated abrupt stops.  An explosive atonal bridge. Then release in the repeated abrupt stops.  No words.  The title ?  I have no idea.

12 Circles

Circles was created by listening to the song the song Oh No backwards.  We learned the structure and kind of played along with it. In the A and C sections. We added a few incidental melodies with guitar and keyboard but nothing that could be considered a focal point an actual melodic theme that ties the song together.  The only part of the song that makes an effort at being a real song is the B section where we let the words to chorus play backwards.

13 We’re All Wasted and We’re Wasting All Your Time

This was also done at about the same time as circles.  This is jonathan and victor singing along to Take The Skinheads Bowling backwards.  I thin anthony guess or chris molla is also drumming along with it.  It’s got a sort of reggae rock steady feel. weird.  But again. Its just a thrown away chorus.  Perfectly joyful and mischievous.

13 Dustpan

This hard driving collection of guitar chords changes and arpeggios would have been used by most bands for the basis for a song with lyrics.  Even CVB in a more traditional mood would have tied it all together with an instrumental melody line.  Neither of these happened.  It was left this way.

17 Cattle (reversed)

Another song that contains what would normally be a good set of riffs,  an A and B section that should have made a good basis for a psychedelic blues song that an early led zeppelin or fleetwood mac might have played.  There should have been some robert plant hobbit rock lyrics over the top of this.  but no we were content with the “response” lines of the guitars.  The fact the “call” vocal lines are missing qualify this as a demi- song.    Arguing against that is the strange interlocked guitar parts in the B section.  They are of two different lengths so they phase against each other.  This is more interesting and makes this part of the song a more full fledged instrumental.  The title of this song came from a randomly drawn celtic rune. (kind of like tarot cards)  we went through a period of naming songs in this manner.  Abundance (tarot card)  The fool (tarot card).

16 Zztop Goes to Egypt

This song really doesn’t  belong in this category.  The only reason i put it in this category is that it doesn’t have two traditional elements of a fully fledged CVB song.  A repeated consistent melody or lyrics.  The main feature of the song is jonathans multiple tracks of modal violin noodlings.  The song slowly builds in intensity. After the crescendo it pedals and slowly decays.  That is the arc of the song.  Building tension a climax and decay.  It is however the most successful of our melody less psychedelic demi-songs. People always shout out for it at shows.

03 Five Sticks

This is pretty much ambiguity song backwards.  Or parts of it.  It was the result of putting the reel of tape on the machine upside down.  We made a stereo mix of it and then figured out how to play along with it.  It has a strange beauty.  Like an ancient text in a lost language.  Untranslatable.  I assume we called it 5 sticks to continue the reference to Led Zeppelin’s fourth effort.   The Led Zeppelin album features a track called 4 sticks.  get it?  I mentioned in an earlier post we always considered this album our 4th album.  The second album was both the second and third album  hence the curious title II and III.  It was recorded in two different sessions.

Also while on the subject.  We toyed with using symbols as the album title.  Just like Led Zeppelin.  However we did not.  What we did do was give the album a title that no one could find.  Unless you were looking very closely.  The album does have a title.  The title is “Soviet Spies Swim Upstream Disguised as Trout”  It’s right there in the liner notes.  And on etched in the inner groove of the first run of vinyl.  We titled it this way because we had an obsessive fan that would write us nearly everyday.  In one of the letters she (?) said she dreamed the next Camper Van Beethoven album was titled “Soviet Spies Swim Upstream Disguised as Trout”.  et voila.

07 Surprise Truck

This was simply a damn good riff that didn’t want to have a B section or anything other musical variatiion attached to it.  Relentless with just some off the cuff bullshit lyrics about “the surprise truck”.  (the “surprise truck” was the apparently the literal translation of hezbollahs code term for their then novel suicide bomb trucks).

08 Stairway To Heaven (sic)

So Led Zeppelin’s 4th and untitled obliquely titled record contained Stairway to Heaven.  Well we decided we needed a track of approximately the same name.  Of course we changed the spelling and added “sic” (Spelling incorrect). Largely because we had all just read Hammer of the Gods and we’re pretty sure Peter Grant or some english thug who worked for Led Zep  would show up and break our legs.  This track is the most accidental.  It starts with a live recording of CVB playing an after hours illegal show in The Icehouse in Fayetteville Arkansas.  It was a very early very slow version of the song processional.  Someone is playing a weird toy piano or something.  It then goes into a Mao Reminisces about his Days in Southern China.  With extra instruments dubbed in forward.  Most notably a distorted slide and a dumbek. But the great accident is when the previous song on the real comes in.  It’s Folly for two.  It’s backwards cause we were always flipping the tape upside down to do these manipulations.  We didn’t intend for that last bit to be on the recording but it did.

09 Pope Festival

Another interesting case is this song.  It doesn’t really count as a demi-song.  but there is something cool about the unfinished non-words and dense repetitive arrangement.  Later when it went onto Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart album,  it got “produced”  it has a better arrangement and structure but becomes quite inconsequential. It was also retitled “The Fool”.

12 The Fool

10 Interlude

And then all those demi-songs disappear once we start making our albums for Virgin Records.  With one notable exception the track “Interlude” from Key Lime Pie.   This is simply Garth Hudson – yes that Garth Hudson from the Band- warming up on his pump organ as the microphones and such are being placed and adjusted.

Later when the band reforms these demi songs these sonic experiments come back into play.  Camper Van Beethoven is Dead Long Live Camper Van Beethoven is largely made out of these pieces of music. Tom Flower’s 1500 valves being the most notable piece.  The drums are from a reel of drumbeats that Chris pedersen sent to us.  The strings are a chopped up bit of Dixie Babylon strings.  Jonathan and victor played along to this loop. I’d just watched a show on the Bletchley Park. This was Britain’s brilliant codebreaking enterprise in WWII.  Thomas Flowers was the unsung hero.  He built one of the first working computers if not the very first.  It used 1500 valves or tubes.  We made up the song in a few hours. Jonathan tagged on a very discouraging message to him from PJ Harvey, rejecting his suggestion she sing on his solo album.

03 Tom Flower’s 1500 Valves

finally I hate this part of Texas and Come out to show them are similar type songs from New Roman Times. But we already went into great detail about both of these.

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Tom Flowers 1500 valves

Contains recording of a phone message where PJ Harvey rejects music from a tape sent to her by Jonathan Segel.

Further info from David Lowery:
"Thomas Flowers was the British postal service engineer who with Alan Turing built the first (years before the americans) electronic computer (Colossus?), allegedly powered by 1500 valves.   I watched a BBC documentary on Bletchley Park some years ago, and i believe these are more or less the historical facts, of course its all a little foggy to me now.
Bletchley Park (sic?): the site of english and allied efforts to break german ciphers in W.W.II.
Cipher Girls: the corps of young women who were hired to work by hand all the possible permutations once a code was partially broken.
Monty: Montgomery.
Ultra: the Cipher Girls slang for decoded german communications
Valve: English term for Vacuum tube.
Tunnyfish: nickname for the german u-boat cipher, apparently the most
difficult to break."

[INTRO:]
[A]

[BREAK:]
[A]-[Bm]-[E]-[C#m]-[D]-[Bm]-[Esus4]-[E]

[A] Bletchley Park – [Bm] what a lark
[E] Cipher girls, they’re [C#m] dressed in curls
They [D] gave to Monty [Bm] the very best of their [E] Ultra

And Thomas Flower in his hour,
It’s 1500 valves were powered
And tunnyfish, is permanently broken

[BREAK] (unintelligible echoey voices)

[BREAK] (voice of PJ Harvey):
[A] “Hi Jonathan, this is Polly, [Bm] er, got your call, and thanks very much for [E] sending that CD and demo tape that Ann? showed my Mum?. Erm, I listened to the [C#m] tape and, er, I don’t [D] feel that it’s the right kind of #thing for me to [Bm] be doing, it’s just not, I don’t feel the [Esus4] mood is right for me, so I, [E] I’m sure you’ll understand. Erm, it was real good to [A] see you the other day. Errm, I-I [Bm] hope it all goes well for you, and er, [A] keep in touch, get your card? off?, and maybe you’ll find that [Bm] recording in Majorca/New Yorker? should last [A] through, kind of help proof? some different? songs?. [Bm] So, er, yeah, really good to see you Jonathan. [A] Take care. Bye.”

#55 James River- Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. Richmond Virginia.

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker with tags on September 28, 2010 by davidclowery

 

The James River in Downtown Richmond.

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The James River is the major waterway through the center part of the state of Virginia.  The river is quite deep until it hits the “fall line” at Richmond.  Indeed this is why Richmond was built at this spot.  It is the farthest you navigate up the James in an ocean going vessel.  After that there are a series of falls and rapids. In the early 1800’s  the James River and Kanawha Canal was built to bypass these rapids and bring trade from the mountains of Western Virginia down the James River to Richmond. As a footnote it was surveyed and designed by George Washington. But that’s another story.  This canal helped bolster the city’s commercial activity turning it into a relatively prosperous and large city.

Although Richmond is very far inland few people realize that there is actually a Port of Richmond which accepts container ships -albeit the smallest container ships.  The port is tucked away along the south eastern side of the city, in an area dominated by large (and mostly abandoned) industrial sites.  Few people who live in Richmond even know where it is. I’m not sure how financially viable it is. I suspect that the fact the Defense Supply Facility is nearby has something to do with it’s continuing function

But these days the James is a relatively unimportant waterway.  And it figures little into the commercial life of the City. The city literally turned it’s back on the river for many years. The banks were  dominated by railroad right aways,sidings industrial facilities and power plants. Until recently there was no easy access to the river from downtown. It was only in the last 15 years a riverwalk was built along the river in downtown.  There were parks along the river but you still have to cross railroad right aways to reach them.  And thenyou were often in close proximity to railroad hobo camps (south bank) or the rough but not unfriendly denizens of Oregon Hill.*  It is a beautiful river nonetheless.  There are spectacular rapids for rafting and this is in the core of an urban city.  Quite strange really. Deer, foxes, bald eagles and even bears are often seen wandering along the forested banks of the city’s river.  But to me there is a certain sadness or nostalgia to river.  It feels at times a relic of the past.  Like the antebellum mansions and the Civil War battlefields  and monuments. And a hint of even darker things.  Belle Island in the center of the river was a POW camp for Union troops throughout the Civil War.  By american standards a gulag of unimaginable horror.  30,000 prisoners on this island. 1 in 25 perished.  A prominent Baltimore surgeon who treated some of the  released captives from the Belle Isle prison  had this description of the prisoners:

“in a semi-state of nudity…laboring under such diseases as chronic diarrhoea, phthisis pulmonalis, scurvy, frost bites, general debility, caused by starvation, neglect and exposure. Many of them had partially lost their reason, forgetting even the date of their capture, and everything connected with their antecedent history. They resemble, in many respect, patients laboring under cretinism. They were filthy in the extreme, covered in vermin…nearly all were extremely emaciated; so much so that they had to be cared for even like infants.”

 

Talk about Southern Gothic! Cormac McCarthy in his imagination could not do much better.  But it is less the horrors along the river that captured my imagination. It was the sense the river was part of the lost past.  Once important it  is now but a shadow of itself. It is irrelevant to the life of the city. Just as the city was once the capitol of the Confederacy it is now a second tier urban center.  It is somewhat irrelevant to the greater life of the nation.That is both sad and sweet.

The river was the heart of a system that sent the products of the colonies and antebellum south mostly tobacco back to England and Europe.  An export oriented agricultural / natural resource economy.  Trade that went East to West with Richmond an important trans shipment point.   But as the North began it’s rapid industrialization, and railroads proliferated  trade shifted North to South.  The Civil War only accelerated this trend.  Indeed one of the minor frictions between the norther and southern states was over tariffs.  High tariffs protected developing industries in the north.  Richmond was also industrializing and was becoming more tied to the northeast than the south.  Hence many Virginians reticence to join the cause of the Confederacy.  As Corry Arnold (Rock Prosopography 101)  recently explained to me:

Thus the geography of Richmond is infused with a logic that no longer applies to the way the city works, as it is oriented towards the river when that is not actually the economic engine of the city (rivers are pretty, fortunately, so its not a terrible thing, but I’m not researching quality of life). In effect, the economics of Richmond were literally rotated on its axis, as the James River initially facilitated East-West transportation, but was of no value when commerce in the the region moved to a North-South axis (eg Atlanta and Florida to Baltimore).

(This post on richmond is largely based on research that Corry sent to me)

I wasn’t aware of this when I began to write about the James River.  But one – even an recently transplanted westerner- could sense that the James River represented the old romantic past of Richmond.  It’s sorry state also represented something else that I came to associate with Richmond. “Elegant decay”  and “opulent poverty”. Two evocative phrases my ex-wife  Mary uses to describe Richmond.

 

The first time I ever spent any real time in the City was my 29th birthday sept 10th 1989.  Camper Van Beethoven was on tour with the 10,000 maniacs.  We played a show at the Mosque theater (now called the landmark theater) just west of downtown in the middle of the VCU campus.  Natalie Merchant had some friends that lived nearby.  Later Natalie asked me if I wanted to go to a party at her friends house in this funny little neighborhood to the south of the VCU campus.   This neighborhood is called Oregon Hill.  It is a former factory neighborhood built along the banks of the James for the workers at the Tredgar Iron works.  The neighborhood is very distinct.  It even has it’s own accent despite the fact it’s a 4 by 10 block area.  Tiny two story  row houses with porches.  It looked like some neighborhood in New Orleans.  The residents were out on their porches this fine late summer evening.  Some polite with nods or “good evenings”  others drunk with catcalls and wolf whistles.  Cicadas buzzed in the trees and I thought to myself?  “where the hell am I”.  I’ll explain this  neighborhood more in a later post (Can I take my Gun Up to Heaven).

It was at this party where i met my future ex-wife.  (I’ve always wanted to use that expression). It is the neighborhood that Mary and I lived in for many years.  And more importantly this is the neighborhood that Johnny and I set ourselves up as we sought to finish writing the first Cracker Albums.

So the song started as a Camper Van Beethoven Song.  With me trying to evoke what I would term the “Old-fashioned seediness” and “antiquated decadence” of Richmond.  There were a surprising number of junkies, drug fiends and decadents in the music scene when I first began courting Mary.  So that was what first struck me. That’s what the Camper Van Beethoven version and early Cracker demo reflects.  Later I would come to appreciate the “Elegant Decay” and “Opulent Poverty” of Richmond VA.  Thus the later more gentle more evocative version of the song on Gentlemans Blues.

Finally I hope my description of Richmond comes across as honest but still affectionate.  In many ways my musical career is deeply infused with the life of three places the Inland Empire,  Santa Cruz and Richmond VA.

james river (live) Camper Van Beethoven Italy March 1990

05 James River (Demo) Cracker Sept 1990

04 James River-Cracker Gentleman’s Blues
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James River (later version)

[INTRO & BREAK:]
[Dm]-[Ddim]-[F]-[C]
[Dm]-[Ddim]-[F]-[C]
[Dm]-[Ddim]-[F]-[C]
[G]

 

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

[Dm]You come across [Ddim] the [F] James River [C]
[Dm] A-for a [Ddim] needle, and a [F] spoon [C]
[Dm] But would you [Ddim] come across the [F] James River [C]
To be my woman again [G]
To be my woman again

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

You come across the old lee bridge
A-For a dollar fifty in change
But would you come across the James River
for this heart of gold?
For this heart of gold?

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

[BREAK]

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

You go to work for Ms. Kitty
For a decent rate of pay
But would you come across the James River
To be my woman again?
To be my woman again?

[BREAK]

[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]

You keep a pistol in your left boot
A brush and comb in your purse
But would you come across the James River
To be my woman again?
To be my woman again?

[ENDING:]
[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]-[G]-[Dm]

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