#32 Poor Mexico so far from God; So Close to Camper Van Beethoven

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“¡Pobre México! ¡Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos!” -José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori. President of Mexico 1876-1911.
Poor Mexico, So Far from God, and so close to the United States.

In #22 I ride my bike. I briefly mentioned  the borderlands of California and the Southwest. This is as important as the Inland Empire and Santa Cruz to the identity and development of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven.
So I Should explain the concept of a Borderland a little better.

Borderlands are a concept from Geopolitical theory. It comes in handy when trying to describe California. Borderlands are regions where the immigrant population is still culturally and economically anchored to their nearby ancestral homeland. The classic example is Mexican immigrants in the Southwest of the US. Coachella valley, large swaths of LA,  the southern Central Valley. All borderlands. These pockets are neither US or Mexico or both depending on your viewpoint.  While physically part of the US they are culturally and economically tethered to nearby Mexico. If you slide into one of these pockets from Mexico or from the the southwest of the US there isn’t really much of a process of adaptation.

Contrast these with the large pocket of Arab immigrants around Dearborn Michigan.  The weather alone would require adaptation.  But this immigrant population is isolated economically and culturally from ancestral homeland.   Sot this population is firmly part of the United States.  Exotic and unusual but not a borderland.

So this is what the members of Camper Van Beethoven and Johnny Hickman grew up around,  these transnational pockets called Borderlands. Jonathan, Greg and Chris Pederson grew up near these borderlands. Victor, and Chris Molla across the street from the Borderlands while Mike Zorn, Anthony Guess Johnny Hickman and I grew up inside one of these transnational pockets. This was especially true of Anthony Guess.

BTW Guess is really his last name. It was not a stage name. More than any other member of CVB Anthony was the most immersed in the borderland culture. He grew up in the farming and ranching town of King City California way “up” (south) the Salinas Valley. He showed up in Santa Cruz at the ripe old age of 18 and quickly gained a reputation as the great drumslinger in town. First we grabbed him to play in Box o’ Laffs. Later we talked him into playing in Camper Van Beethoven. He was a nut. In a good way. His music options in King City were limited so he learned to play everything. Rock, Country and of course the Norteña or Conjunto music. When we asked him to play with CVB he agreed only if he could play Conjunto style. I had no idea what he meant. But to him it meant he would only bring a kick drum, snare drum, high hat and sometimes a cowbell (pre-irony) or tambourine. The entire first CVB record is played with kick drum high hat and snare. Nothing else. Genius.
Not only did anthony play drums like he was from the borderlands he also talked the talk. His speech sounded vaguely chicano and he sometimes threw in spanglish phrases.

Camper Van Beethoven already had a little subset of norteña influenced ska:

01 Border Ska

04 Yanqui Go Home

11 Tina

But when Anthony Guess came into the band this stuff really started sounding very cool. Like i said we all lived in or near the borderlands so it was as if we were culturally fluent in this stuff anyway. Anthony Guess just took it to another level. Even the flat footed folk of Tina took on a Conjunto edge.

01 Heart

But long after Anthony Guess had left the band we continued to occasionally dabble in this style. Heart was re-recorded in 1987 with Chris Pederson and still retained it’s borderland feel. Although technically it was played more in the Tex-Mex style which was a later offshoot of Norteña.

A quick but important aside.  Some people are confused by the this lineage?Norteña before Tex Mex? Norteña is very old. It goes back to the 1850s and those german settlers bringing their music into northern mexico.  But it keeps being re-invented. Every 20 or 30 years.  Just when it’s about to become old folks music it transforms itself. And always by attaching itself to the most dangerous and edgy elements of the borderlands.  Most recently in the 70’s by groups like Los Tigres del Norte, and in the 80’s by Chalino Sánchez (who was born in mexico but spent more than half of his life in california ie a borderlander) In both cases these artists re-invented Nortena by popularizing the Narcorrido.

Damn it feels good to be a gangster. Chalino Sanchez while performing in Coachella CA  was attacked and shot onstage. Still standing  he pulled his own gun and shot and killed the would be assassin. It was The federales that finally got him in Mexico.

02 L’Aguardiente

The song L’aguardiente nods towards this as well but it was actually more of a play on South american and European music. This track was recorded in Vienna Austria in 1990. Note how enthusiastically the Austrians embrace the Waltz section of the song. That in itself illustrates my earlier German/Czech/Texan/ Northern Mexican musical connect the dots.

Finally there is a Camper Van Beethoven song that addresses the concept of The borderlands directly. Or at least treats it as the real geographical entity it is. Borderline from Key Lime Pie. Like all the songs on this album it’s bathed in melancholy and a dreamy figuratives. But it’s a couple driving from east to west, and west to east across the borderlands. Not into and out of the US and Mexico. They are observing that nothing is changing, they remain in this transnational space between the two Nations. The song even suggests that the Nations are fiction while the Borderland is real. Not to divagate too far but if the people of borderland are bound together voluntarily (which i understand is arguable) their transnational state is as legitimate as that of the US or Mexico. My Anarchist and Libertarian friends might say more legitimate.

06 Borderline

Politicians and Military strategist worry mightily about borderlands. Perhaps rightfully so. These areas tend to explode into violence and chaos. They tend to be flash points for much greater wars. But no one seems to learn from these episodes. We are always given two false choices. Make these areas part of one nation or another. The more obvious and successful choice:  Why not let them be? These borderlands have been with us throughout history and oftentimes-not always- they are places of great innovation, thought, music, art and even prosperity. From my political perspective it is often because of the very weakness of the official states in these areas. The governments have limited influence on the culture and economy. People often enjoy extra liberty. Grey market labor, less taxes, fewer regulations and contraband not available in the firmly controlled areas of the nations. They often enjoy less security. But not that much less.

If these areas manage to stay peaceful (an iffy prospect mostly because of interference byt the nearby nations). They are often powerful economic engines. I would say that this is generally true of the borderlands of the US, even if the wealth is unevenly shared. I know this sounds crazy if you look at the headlines in the newspapers. It’s stories of drug smugglers and violence. But the vast majority of the people who live in these regions live peacefully and contribute greatly to the wealth of both countries on either side of the border. And most of the Borderland is not lawless.  There are some marked exceptions. Juarez which is firmly part of Mexico (and so technically not a borderland) is currently bordering on anarchy.  Some of this spills into the real borderlands of El paso and Las Cruces, but Baltimore is more dangerous than El Paso.

There i go again looking at the big picture.

The Yaqui Nation straddled the border of the US and Mexico. They were still fighting to remain independent of the Mexico in 1918. My Niece who is very much a All-American Californian girl is 1/4 Yaqui, should she go back to Mexico?

Finally shouldn’t we say “immigrants” with quotation marks because a large portion of these immigrants are mestizo. that is mostly Amerindian. Their ancestral homelands straddle both sides of the border. In fact we should probably go even further putting quotation marks around “Mexican”. For many of these people’s ancestors could have just as easily identified themselves as Americans or Texans had history been a little different. Indeed many of their ancestors did identify themselves as such. The recent self-identification of many of these Mestizo people as Mexicans was the result of manipulative nationalists on both sides of the border.

Note in our New Roman Times story Texas has neatly dealt with the situation. Aztlan the semi-autonomous republic within texas is made up largely of the borderland region of the southwest. And in our story it is assumed that these people identify themselves as Tejanos rather than Mexicans, yet still remain culturally distinct. In the story the Texans and Aztlans are comfortable with this arrangement. In reality i don’t know if that would have been the case. But one can hope.

Oh and since i love flags so much the Yaqui have a Flag.

As a historical note. During the Mexican Revolution many of the great Mexican corridos were recorded in San Antonio Texas. Texans in general are more comfortable having a border and shared cultural traits with Mexico than the rest of the western states (except New Mexico). This is instructive.

And indeed Sir Douglas Quintet did in the 60’s in texas what CVB dabbled in 1980s. 20 years before. basically because they were Trxan.

Cracker pays tribute to Sir Douglas Quintet on this track.

It Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself- Cracker

And don’t worry Cracker heads. i”ll devote an entire post to It ain’t gonna suck itself.

Kenny Margolis.  It’s not the Violin that is the Devil’s Instrument.  It’s the Accordion. And Kenny keeps his DI in a Holster.   At least we think it’s a DI. Now that i’ve read about Chalino Sanchez I suspect it’s his pistol.

Finally  Kenny Margolis accordion player for Cracker had this idea to take the Bruce Springsteen song Sinaloa Cowboys and make it a Nortena song.   This song is very much about the borderlands of California.

04 sinaloa cowboys

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Todays words and music.



I will [G#m] sing
I will be [F#] passed on over [G#m] now [B] [Emaj7]
Take the [G#m] wheel
Take me [F#] down
Let me [G#m] sleep till we have [B] disappeared [C#m]
‘Cause we’re [Emaj7] moving from east
to [C#m] west
Across the [B] grain, it’s meaning-[E]-less
On the [F#] borderline nothing is [Emaj7] real except for [G#m] you and I


I have silver
And I have dollars
And papers, too
Bring me a mango from the south
Pour me a drink from the bottle
And one for you
‘Cause we’re empty as the desert
As we drift from west to east
On the borderline everything is empty, even you and I

[G#m][F#][G#m] Yeah? [B] OK [Emaj7]

‘Cause we’re [Emaj7] moving from east to [C#m] west
Across the [B] grain, it’s meaning-[E]-less
On the [F#] borderline nothing is [Emaj7] real except for [G#m] you and I


26 Responses to “#32 Poor Mexico so far from God; So Close to Camper Van Beethoven”

  1. This post would be remiss without linking to the recent-ish CVB video where Anthony Guess-ted on Ambiguity Song:

  2. Michael Dill Says:

    With each installment I feel I am gaining a deeper understanding, not only of your music, but of the land, the people and the experiences that have helped shape your art. This is invaluable to me. Explains why your songs have always seemed so much more connected to the real world than so many rock songs.

  3. The great Tom Russell album Borderland is a set of songs about El Paso. Recommended.

    And thanks for another brilliant post.

  4. So much history have been left out our history books, and the reason why I enjoy reading these blogs is to discover events that had been forgotten by those who write our history. I’m interested to read about the influence each country has on another country’s music and culture.
    Michael’s reply above says it all.

    Thanks for enlightening us on culture and migration.

  5. pete in ohio Says:

    On a musical note, I’m somewhat ashamed to say (as a drummer for 25+years) that I never noticed that the drum set on Landslide Victory consists only of high hat, snare, and bass. Interesting to know the cultural and musical background behind that. I’ve played in a couple ska and reggae influenced bands, and these are some of the toughest styles i’ve encountered to really get right. Very interesting stuff. Thanks again.

  6. Dr. F Zen Hinkopf Says:

    It’s nice to wake up after a show near the Canadian border and read/listen to this. Borders are to cultural evolution what habitat edges and ecotones are to biological evolution: centers. Mixing, creativity, and a little bit of uncertainty or stress are what drives us forward.

    Borderline is one of my favorite songs (why do I keep coming to that conclusion with each new post?), and of course the accordion is a great instrument, not close to god, but friends with many demigods and muscially inclined demons. But then, I’ve never been shot by one.

  7. This to me is your most striking and transcendent post yet as per your mission to give the history of the world through cvb and cracker. World-class, huffington/drudge worthy. How many of our societal issues are framed as 2 false choices and then there is the thing that’s going to happen anyway so why don’t we work with that.
    Shaking his finger he warned his family, ‘Don’t make me talk to you in David Lowery lyrics’.

    • That is the best quote I have heard yet.

      ‘Don’t make me talk to you in David Lowery lyrics’.

      “then there is the thing that’s going to happen anyway so why don’t we work with that”

      Translates too

      “Its all coming down so lets just get out of the way”…

    • lynn marie Says:

      no offense meant, but I don’t think that either huffpo or drudge are worthy of anything written by dl. those places are tabloids (I’m being kind by using that word). I’ve grown weary of political blogs because most of them really do encourage you to “take one side or the other,” or as you say frame 2 false choices. I’m sick of all that shit – I’ve come to see how most politics is manufactured to produce a certain outcome (hegelian dialectic). I used to take politics so seriously. but I would agree with your description of “world-class” for these posts, absolutely.

  8. In the spring of 1998, fresh out of college, I took job with the BLM in El Centro, California. At the time I was unaware of the Borderlands as a geopolitic concept, but I took great delight in informing my Eastern US family and friends that the “cultural border” was much farther north than the geographic border. I placed a zigzag line that swung up to about Palm Springs. The one thing that always struck we as “crazy” in El Centro was how spanish speaking the population was. Whenever I’d buy groceries at the Von’s Supermarket, the cashiers would always start by addressing me in Spanish. And I’m pretty damn white looking. When I responded in English the cashier would switch, somewhat begrudgingly. They expected me to speak Spanish as much as I expected English. My attitude was something akin to “dammit this is ‘Merica, speak English,” while theirs was something like “listen guero (white boy) this is our land, you need to learn to address us in our language.”

  9. On a different note, David, I’ve always been curious what your opinion was of the band Devotchka. I’ve always felt that the did a similar thing as the CVB, but a more “palatable” version for the masses? Likewise, but to a lesser extent, Calexico?

    • not familiar with devotcha. i thought calexico did this. there is a big cvb/tucson connection. but that’s another story. another post. difference with calexico: last time i saw calexico they had moved completely into latin music. there was no longer any rock in their set. they were almost traditionalists. CVB is defintely a rock band. and will remain so.

      • DeVotchka did the soundtrack for “Little Miss Sunshine.” The are a Denver based band and blend a lot of what I’d call Slavic music with latin, and a little rock. I saw them open for James Brown once and they entered the stage through the audience with in marching band still, whistles and drum line going. Lots of fun actually. That was before little miss sunshine and the toned it down.

        I saw Calexico in a Calexico, Ca bar in 1998 and they were almost pure country then. Funny that they have gone the other way now.

  10. Christian Says:

    When you get to “Vampire Can Mating Oven” can you tell us how much on the back of the original vinyl cover is lies? I’ve also noted that reading “gravity’s rainbow” while listening to either cvb or the dead Kennedy’s is probably one of the best combinations ever

    • vampire can mating oven is all lies. i told you. i’m always lying.

      • Christian Says:

        After reading your blog a lot of it is entirely believable, like burying tapes to protect them from cosmic rays; Friends of mine (including myself) have all at least at one time thought to bury our “genius” ideas in a field to protect them from others and sinister forces.

  11. Sorry I meant to say marching band STYLE.

  12. RE: “Borderline” I had thought this song might be-in part- about someone with BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER as defined in the DSM-IV-R. People with this disorder tend to see things only in extremes or black and white terms. For example, they see people and/or situations as either All good or All bad. There is no in between. Perhaps I read more into the song then is there. But, that’s my theory and I’m sticking t it.

  13. Jerry Johnson Says:

    I must say that I am a Post CVB fan. I came on board during the Cracker turn of events. Although, I read these posts because I, not only get insight into your songs, but learn more about a part of the world where I haven’t spent much time. I have visited New Laredo, Mexico while traveling in Southern Texas. I was young and naive and didn’t get much out of the trip but a feeling of lawlessness. Its interesting to hear about the borderlands of California.

  14. lynn marie Says:

    I’ve never lived near any borderlands, so I appreciate reading your description. you paint a very vivid picture, and I can see how these places would make great settings for movies, books, and songs. and blog posts. great song selection in this post too.

  15. Great to see my “Ambiguity Song w/ Anthony Guess” video posted in the comments! After meeting Anthony at the record store prior to that particular performance, I’ve been very interested in learning more about his time with CVB. This blog shed’s a lot more light on the few bits that I’ve been able to glean about Anthony Guess. Thanks for the enlightening writings David, and it was grand seeing you guys at Neumos.

  16. RE: “Borderline”. I always thought it sure would be cool if on these apothecary tours if it could make it onto a set list with Johnny on harmonica. Another one of those slick little Lisher riffs.

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