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I was once dumped for Camper Van Beethoven. In fact, the object of my affection didn't so much leave me for Camper Van Beethoven as I did him for them: in a sort of intervention, I was told I could have my "punk rock" or my "boy's cock." Laughing at the classification of Camper Van Beethoven alongside the Circle Jerks, I kept my records and became an expert masturbator. After all, high school sex is about as satisfying as Camper Van Beethoven is punk rock. And 10 years and about as many significant others later, my hand is tired, my records skip, and I couldn't be happier.
Get this straight: Camper Van Beethoven does have an element of punk, just as pubescent sex has an element of worth. It's just that Camper Van Beethoven erupts into full-fledged punk rock just about as frequently as a teenage girl erupts into orgasm from teenage cock. Instead, they're too sly to really slip into one or two convenient little adjectives—that makes them all the more satisfying to listen to, even if it's that much harder to put into words.
The closest I've come so far is this: Camper Van Beethoven is dirty basements and worn photographs, dusty love letters stained with post-breakup wine. They're Black Flag covers by white kids who sing about Jah and taking skinheads bowling, and they're covers of the Chocolate Watchband covering the Kinks, all done by guys you get the feeling really aren't "like everybody else." Camper Van Beethoven is crying in the car on the freeway while speeding toward Northern California; at the same time, they're laying in bed with your arms wrapped around visions of Patty Hearst in an attempt to squeeze out your boredom. They mock, fight, lift up and slam everything in the world. Even Camper Van Beethoven. Or Vampire Can Mating Oven. Or Camper Van Chadbourne. Or . . . fuck, I give up.
I was just five years old, having my heart broken for the first time, when Camper Van Beethoven was born as a folk hardcore/Russian folk band in an alien land where the natives apparently have a superhuman ability to rationalize just about any musical combination without worrying about what we earthlings might call "taste"—or was that "pretension"? This place is called Redlands, California, perhaps best known for its namesake college with a reputation for filling the mailbox of every 17-year-old with voluminous promo literature. It isn't even known for being the birthplace of the band, but it is.
And while it's true they came into their own in Santa Cruz, trying to trace the history and many, many, many (many) lineup shifts of Camper Van Beethoven is pretty much the equivalent of poring over the Old Testament in an attempt to figure out who begot who begot who, et cetera and so forth and so on. It's best not to bother. It'll only confuse your weak mortal brain. Besides, it's a hell of a lot more fun just to sit back and listen to the Camper Van Choir and the fire and brimstone sermons of Pastor David Lowery.
It's also best not to leave a group of college-aged Santa Cruz musicians alone in a mountain cabin in the '80s with a four-track and a copy of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. You just might find them, nearly 20 years later, releasing their faithful cover version to the general public, and you might find yourself wishing you didn't like it so damn much because, well, you just aren't supposed to like bands that like Fleetwood Mac, just like you aren't supposed to like bands that cover Led Zeppelin or Country Joe and the Fish. But damn it, you just do.
Camper Van Beethoven finally dissolved bitterly in the middle of Europe in the midst of a tour long before my high school romance ended just as bitterly to the tune of "Sweethearts." They went their separate ways, forming a montage of bands, including Sparklehorse and Cracker. But in typical fashion, Cracker (headed by Camper Van Beethoven vocalist/guitarist/whateverist Lowery) at one point opened for both the Grateful Dead and the Ramones. The rest? It's rumored that one former Camper Van Beethoven member actually did become a minister. Maybe some of them followed Lassie to the moon. Who knows with Camper Van Beethoven?
But what we do know is that when they eventually gathered together a decade later to work on compiling their comprehensive box set, Cigarettes and Carrot Juice, they apparently kissed and made nice and—even better—made plans for touring. I might not have that box set yet, but I've got the carpal tunnel syndrome I've developed since losing all those boyfriends, scratching all those records and, well, you know. And I consider myself very satisfied.Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker perform at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Wed., 8 p.m. $20-$22.50. All ages, but 16 and under must be accompanied by an adult.