So 33 1/3 announced their finalists for this year’s crop of books today, and of the 400-ish submissions mine didn’t even make the top 100. Such are the vagaries of the publishing world. Anyway, the proposal they asked for was pretty extensive–we’re talking like grad-school admissions type hoop-jumping–so I’ve got a lot of material sitting on my hard drive that it looks like I’m never going to use. We’ll start w/the opening chapter. Bear in mind that had the proposal been accepted I would’ve (most likely been able to) set up interviews w/the band members and gleaned all kinds of insights that may or may not have affected the final text.
Note: Any typos are the result of cutting/pasting from google docs into wordpress, a process that created many, many re-formatting problems which were, frankly, hard to navigate through the blurred vision caused by my salty & free-flowing tears.
And here we go… A consolation prize, to myself as much as you obviously.
3. A draft introduction/opening chapter for the book, of around 2,000 words.
Every band starts out as a utopia and ends as a nightmare—a prison of silence and hurt feelings, grudges that stretch so far back you can barely remember what created them in the first place. In a band’s last entropic moments, there’s only one thing left you’re able to agree on. Nobody wants to do this anymore, and everyone wants to go home.
Given the ferocity of their breakup, the last days of Camper Van Beethoven must have been particularly brutal. It was May 1990, and they were nearly 6,000 miles away from home in the midst of a European tour to support their latest album, Key Lime Pie—an album that was already, by the standards of its time, both a critical and a commercial failure. Lowery had mortgaged the band’s future on the album, taking control of a once democratic collective, a group founded on freedom and freakiness and spontaneity, and driven it into a major label career. In the process he exerted greater control over the songwriting—over everything. Convinced he was writing the best songs of his life, songs that could stand alongside anything in the then still-evolving canon of rock, he fought to make sure they turned out the way he wanted, even if that meant irreversibly pissing off the rest of his band.
And if the record had reached higher than #141 on the Billboard Albums chart, if critics hadn’t dismissed it as ‘dull’, ‘humorless,’ or ‘lugubrious,’ ((That last one’s from Christgau in the Village Voice, and though it reeks of one too many late-night trips to the thesaurus, lugubrious is one of those rare words—like belly, or asinine—that sounds exactly like its definition.)) he might have pulled it off.
Sundsvall, Sweden, located 4 hrs north of Stockholm, is a strange place for a band to break up. It’s even stranger when you’ve accepted money from the record company to be paid back at the end of the tour and you still have over two weeks of shows left to play. ((Called ‘tour support’ within the industry. Like most things involving the s-word, it can be as much a hindrance as a help. While it’s nice to get some money, failure to pay it back promptly puts you at the mercy of all kinds of infamous sketchy & shark-like accounting practices.)) But the anarchic elements within the band, tamped down over the years, suddenly and unexpectedly sprang forth in one last burst of impractical and self-destructive behavior. Cancelling in Sundsvall meant the band would still owe $40,000 to their record company. And because of some fine print in the tour support agreement, all of the band’s royalties were on the hook for the balance, including publishing royalties, if they didn’t complete the tour. ((Because all label expenses—recording, promotional, etc.—get charged back against the artist in your standard contract, bands rarely make money off their royalties from album sales. However, publishing royalties are another matter entirely. The words sketchy & shark-like were not chosen lightly.)) And because Lowery was the band’s main songwriter, he would end up taking the biggest hit.
But if the timing was unexpected, the breakup itself had been in the real world cards for sometime. Even in 2013, bass player Victor Krummenacher described Camper as being ‘as much a stand-up comedy act as a band.’ Given that Key Lime Pie is, in the words of Wikipedia, ‘dark and serious to an unprecedented degree,’ it’s not surprising that internal tensions surfaced around this time. Said Krummenacher, ‘None of us were happy. We were fighting, I mean physically fighting…We just imploded.’
‘The label wanted just to deal with one guy and that was David. I’m a commie. I like more social, democratic arrangements for how to work things.’
–Jonathan Segel, a founding member of CVB
And Segel wasn’t even in Sundsvall for the implosion. He had already left the band (or been kicked out, these things are usually ambiguous that way) prior to the recording of KLP. ((And yet, in a very Camper sense of psilocybic designless connectivity, Segel currently lives in Sweden.))
Appropriately they ended this particular incarnation of CVB, an ending that would last a dozen years, with a song from their first—and at the time best-loved—album ((It’s still the band’s highest rated album on Allmusic, with 4 ½ stars.)) called ‘Ambiguity Song.’ In light of the very unambiguous breakup, its certainty/finality, the band probably got a kick out of singing the song’s refrain, Everything seems to be up in the air at this time. It both was and it wasn’t. As bandmates, as friends, everything was decidedly over. But as individuals they had a new and unexpected freedom ahead of them, a freedom that 48 hours earlier hadn’t existed.
Except for Lowery of course, he still had that $40,000 debt to pay off. It wouldn’t be until 1993, and the commercial success of his next band Cracker, that he’d finally get himself back into the black with his label.
One likes to imagine the band thought about this while they played ‘Ambiguity Song.’ Because Camper seemed like the kind of band who liked to think about stuff like that. KLP was their 5th album, and seven years had passed since their first practice in Santa Cruz, California. The band had started as a goof, a side project from the member’s other bands, the only rule being you had to play a different instrument in Camper than you did in the other band. So David Lowery, the bass player in Box O’ Laffs, became the singer/guitarist of Camper.
It turned out people in Santa Cruz liked the side project better. So did the members of Camper Van Beethoven.
The story of CVB is many things, but first and foremost it’s the story of a collective that became a dictatorship, a side-project founded in the spirit of recklessness & fun that became a career and in doing so embodied the biggest paradox of democracy—the individual v. the collective—mirrored in the songwriter v. the band. Which might not be a big deal if all you care about is the music, but might be a very big deal indeed if you care more about politics than you do about art, or if you were a founding member traveling the world in a situation that bore no resemblance to the thing you originally signed up for.
For a band who had mined a lot of subject matter out of mocking the failed hippie ideals of the 60’s, mocking their journey from communes to condos, from civil rights to self-interest, Camper had unwittingly traced a similar journey. And if Sundsvall was their Altamont, well at least nobody got killed.
However, there was one thing lost in all the rubble, in the band’s dark & bitter implosion.
Lowery was right.
Nearly 25 years later, Key Lime Pie now stands as the best record the band ever made—a record that equals anything done by Dylan, or Cohen, or any other writing in rock. On KLP, Lowery wrote with a compassion and empathy not found in his records before or since. Its first side features a song cycle about the dark underbelly of American consciousness. The second merely contains ‘All Her Favorite Fruit,’ one of the greatest songs about lost love ever written, and a song that contains one of the most audacious narrative shifts in recorded music. Or in a story. Maybe David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive can compare, the way the change doesn’t explain itself or make linear sense, but still connects on a visceral level that feels right. ((I’ll admit that in Lynch’s case the narrative change in MD feels a lot righter than the one in LH.))
It’s common wisdom in professional baseball that players reach their peak between the age of 27-30. Lowery turned 29 within a week of KLP’s release, and to continue the Dylan comparison, he writes like a man with a head full of ideas driving him insane. The album is a literary tour-de-force, veering from abstract poetry to novel-like detail, packed with fictitious characters & historical subjects.
From the macrocosm of geopolitics to the microcosm of the trailer park, from the White House to the wagon wheel, for one album Lowery seemed able to do anything as a writer, even developing a dark, open-throated romanticism (‘June,’ ‘Flowers’) that foreshadowed Neutral Milk Hotel.
Lowery’s description of Jack Ruby as the kind of man who beats his horses—or the dancers who work in a bar is worthy of Raymond Chandler in its cruel specificity, its lack of sentimentality. And what better place to start a story about the loss of US innocence that a song about the man who killed the man who may or may not have killed JFK?
In the song, Lowery even tries his hand at speculative fiction. The song picks up where Don DeLillo’s Libra, an imagining of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life published just one year earlier, leaves off. For DeLillo, the JFK assassination represents the fragmentation of truth and meaning—some cultural critics have gone so far as to label it one of the birthings of postmodernism the way it encapsulated ideas about the relative/subjective nature of truth, skepticism towards authority, etc. But Lowery goes even further than DeLillo, positing that Ruby shooting Oswald was the true nihilistic act. And he’s right. Ruby made it impossible for us to know who killed the president. And unlike JFK’s death, Oswald’s death was seen by millions on live television. ((It’s easy to take the Zapruder film for granted now, after years of perpetual viewing, but it wasn’t shown in public until 1969, and wasn’t shown on television until 1975.))
Or consider ‘Sweethearts’, a six-verse biography of Ronald Reagan that doesn’t mention its subject’s name until the final verse, where Lowery comes clean with some of the most heartbreakingly empathic lines you’ll ever hear in a song that, at its heart, despises the person being discussed.
Cause in the mind of Ronald Reagan / Wheels they turn and gears they grind / Buildings collapse in slow motion / And the trains collide / Everything is fine / Everything is fine
Furthermore, ‘All Her Favorite Fruit’ was inspired by a section in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Couple that with the DeLillo influence and ask yourself, how many songwriters can hold their own beside two of the greatest and most original novelists of the late 20th century? ((This is more or less a rhetorical question b/c it’s way too complicated to fully unpack in such a small space w/o creating more questions than it answers, but let’s just agree among ourselves that the short answer is ‘not many.’))
But in 1989, most critics missed all this. They just complained that KLP wasn’t any fun. Even Greil Marcus, a man with an awe-inspiring ability to find a metaphor for America in almost any song, ((GM’s linking a mid-70’s Van Morrison concert to Mario Savio getting hauled off by campus officials enitrely on the basis that both events occurred in Berkeley, CA’s Greek Theatre is an example that feels particularly strange & random. Also check out this one:)) completely missed KLP, an album almost entirely about the false consciousness of then-contemporary US life.
Of course up until now, Camper had been about fun. If their tongues weren’t being stuck out at the audience, then they were planted firmly in their cheeks. The song that had first brought them public attention, ‘Take the Skinheads Bowling,’ was a silly piece of surrealism that got played for months on Dr. Demento, a nationally syndicated show that also gave Weird Al Yankovic his big break. Two more albums of critically-acclaimed psychedelic whimsy followed. And then Virgin records came calling.
A major label brought a decent recording budget and an ill-advised ponytail for Lowery. And while Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart provides hints of what’s to come—the title references kidnapped heiress turned armed revolutionary Patty Hearst, and points towards themes that will be explored more fully on KLP—it’s also a record where Lowery sings, without any trace of irony, ‘How can I believe that everything in this world is going to be fine?’ and ends OBRS with the life-affirming ‘Life Is Grand,’ a song so radically different from anything on KLP that I’m going to quote the lyrics in their entirety.
And life is grand / And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor / With those of you who have appointed yourselves / To expect us to say something darker / And love is real / And though I realize this is not a deep observation / To those of you / Who find it necessary to conceal love / Or obscure it, as is the fashion
Camper had spent five years searching for the light, but KLP is an unimpeachably dark album. Each of the side openers mentions the devil. The last word you hear on the album is darkness. There’s hardly a cheerful moment to be found, and whatever humor surfaces is bitter and grim and bleak.
Anyone who had followed Camper’s career up to this point and brought home KLP might have seen a song called ‘Borderline’ listed on the sleeve and expected—given the band’s earlier goofy covers of Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Pink Floyd, and Ringo Starr—a version of the 1984 Madonna hit, a jokey deconstruction, a sarcastic re-imagining. Instead they got a ska-influenced ballad that used ideas about the porousness of national boundaries to reflect the slippery nature of personal identity.
So the general public can be forgiven, slightly, if they were a bit confused by the new CVB album.
But there was a cover on KLP, ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men,’ a Status Quo song from 1967, that would prove to be, along with ‘Take the Skinheads Bowling’, the biggest hit of Camper’s career. And if you question Lowery’s future cynicism, his bottom-line cantankerousness, ask yourself this question: How would you feel if you’d written an album like Key Lime Pie and your band’s two biggest hits were a novelty song and a cover?
One last thing. ‘(I Was Born in a) Laundromat,’ with the Teen Spirit syncopation in its riff two years early, merely forsehadows the entire next decade of what would come to be known as alternative rock.
So an overlooked masterpiece then? An unacknowledged work of genius? Maybe. But nobody thought so in May 1990, least of all the band. Brought into creation by a juggling act on the part of its creator so impossible to maintain that it could only end in destruction, in shattered fragments of bottles and glasses strewn across a hotel floor in Sweden, Key Lime Pie marked the death of a band, the end of a dream, all ideals and enthusiasm finally at last truly exhausted and gone. Nothing left except a legacy of failure and debt, just like the world they had worked so hard to get away from. What a goddamn waste.
Or so it must have seemed at the time anyway.
1 e.g. all these goddamn footnotes.