Ed. Note: My next few blog posts will be dedicated to talking about Camper Van Beethoven songs that, for some reason or another, I find worthy of talking about. This series is inspired by the thoroughly researched and always entertaining blog Dog Star Omnibus, which belongs to my buddy from olden days, Bryan McMillan. Bryan uses his blog to explore pop culture that captures his imagination — everything from James Bond novels to Stark Trek TOS to Stephen King to Cheers — often in hilarious and thorough ways. I love it, even if I don’t always know the source material, or because I make the occasional appearance.
I approached Bryan via chat last month and proposed he host a guest blog of me ranking my favorite Camper Van songs, and Bryan thought it was a capital idea. After giving it some thought, I figured I’d just put the posts here, both because I didn’t want him to have to wait for me and because I didn’t think I could live up to the standards of his ranking posts. Seriously. Check out the rubric on the Star Trek villain post. Hell, his rubrics have rubrics.
I have no rubrics. I have a list of songs I like and first drafts that I will fire off halfway into my second beer as I’m writing. Of course, the inevitable question will arise: Why CVB? My reply is and always will be: why not CVB?
I have conceived of the songs in certain groupings: Pre-Key Lime Pie, Key Lime Pie, New Roman Times, La Costa Perdida/El Camino Reál, Psychedelic Surfer Instrumentals, Euro Instrumentals, Political Tunes, Historical Tunes, Covers, etc. Instead of thinking of these as strict labels, consider them tags. So a song like “The History of Utah” (Camper Van Beethoven, 1986) would be Pre-Key Lime, Historical, and maybe Political. Who knows? It doesn’t really matter.
One last note: when possible I will reference outside sources to help make my points, namely David Lowery’s website 300 Songs. I’ll do my best to cite everything properly. Should I not, please just let me know. I can’t understand lawyer speak. Allah akbar! Hari Krishna! Praise the Lord! And Merry Christmas!
Tania (Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, 1988)
Now that Patty Hearst is cool again, thanks to Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst, this song takes on a renewed significance. While not mentioned in the book (not cool, Toobin), lines from this song kept running through my head as I read it. If you are unfamiliar with the Patty Hearst story, it goes something like this:
Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst (granddaughter of Orson Welles or something) is kidnapped at age 19 by a rogue band of moronic white kids who think they are Black nationalists. She’s locked in a closet until she figures out if she can pretend to be down with the cause, she’ll be let out to participate in the free love and plum brandy bacchanals held by the group (The Symbionese Liberation Army) in crappy apartments around the Bay. Once a member of the SLA, Hearst changes her name (“Oh, my beloved Tania…”) and robs some banks and goes on the lam and gets caught and eventually gets pardoned by Jimmy Carter or something. Whatever. It doesn’t matter.
This song is set in the pre-trial days of the Hearst saga. The speaker of the song looks at Tania as a kind of folk heroine crush. It might be that the speaker is meant to be a fictionalized version of Tom Matthews, a high school baseball player who Patty — sorry,
Tania — and two others kidnapped under the guise of being interested in purchasing his used van. They used the van to hide out at a drive-in movie after robbing, ironically, a sporting goods store. I wondered while reading the book if the person infatuated with Patty — oops, Tania — was that high school kid who found it kind of cool to be kidnapped by this celebrity fugitive. (I know the song is in plural, but still…)
What charts this song high in the CVB catalog for me is not just the cool lyrical content, but also the eerie opening provided by Segal’s haunting violin. Something bad is about to happen until the song breaks into a ska rhythm with a
sped up violin to carry the melody, which has a faintly Eastern Euro vibe, until the end of the lyric-ed portion breaks into a kind punk rhythm before exploding into an instrumental that veers into bluegrass and psycho punk. This song, perhaps more than any other, perfectly combines all of CVB’s core ingredients: a variety of musical styles, historical lyrics set to Lowery’s shifting cadences, the centering of the Bay Area as a location. It’s been one of my favorites since I first heard it, before I knew who Tania even was. It also name- checks the name of the album on which it appears, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, which happens to be my favorite CVB album on most days.
For the last two years, I’ve been working on this “spoken word” album called Let’s Don’t Be Crazy, and now it’s done. It still has poetry on it and what not, but it really turned into much more of a rock album. I’ve uploaded the album here. Download it, and you will get five bonus tracks, including some old school stuff from a time way back when.
Thanks to the Tacoma Arts Commission for a TAIP Grant to fund the album’s production.
I pick up the Sunday paper and if there are no reviews of poetry books in the Book Review, I move along. I usually leaf through the sports page looking for some non-Yankees, non-Mets baseball coverage, or a quick pass through the Review for something not about politics, but nothing in the paper is satisfying. A student of mine said to me the other day: “I told my friends you only read poems.”
I put down the paper and pick up the poetry I am reading: Dunya Mikhail’s The Iraqi Nights and pick up where I left off last night, with a 24-part poem called “Tablets.” Last night, it took me over an hour to get through the first poem in the book, the title poem, because I was researching all of the references to Arabic mythology about which I am woefully uneducated. (Ishtar and Tammuz, if you are interested.)
I don’t read memoir or creative non-fiction. I haven’t read a novel in months. Almost a year, I think. I really only read poetry because there’s so much I haven’t read and I think at this point in my life, I will never get caught up. Here’s a short list of what I’ve finished or started reading in the last few weeks: Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Dreaming the End of the War, Martín Espada’s Vivas to Those Who Have Failed, Raúl Zurita’s Purgatorio, francine j. harris’s Allegiance, Krista Franklin’s Study of Love and the Black Body, Diana Garcia’s When Living was a Labor Camp.
I think there are some others, but I’m losing track.Where to go next?
I started a painting: a blue background, kind of sky blue and two large forms: yellow (mustard) and red (raspberries) complementing each other: they appear something like Gibraltar? something jutting out of the Pacific Ocean on the middle of Oregon (or is it Central Oregon) coast…and with that — where was I, oh yeah, the painting:
It started out a blue yellow red painting and stark forms then I made green (deep forest) to put around the borders of the forms, but thought it too out of place (all this because the guitar is in the shop so I’ve got to somehow fill the minutes) and I filled the whole blue space with green and as it dried, the green let the blue seep in and turn the green a kind of seaweed, so maybe that was the right choice, representationally: (what happened next?)
The island rocks are drawn in with mixtures of yellow and red — not orange — and I really have no eye for things, no skill to paint or conceptualize the next move or be intentional about what I am making, I just like to move color around, I enjoy the impermanence of liquidity and the illusion of permanent form — not entirely dissimilar from ink, though vastly different: the ink is more intentional and once it’s on the page it doesn’t move instead recedes into the paper unless it’s smudged which is accidental in a different way and not part of the process (for me):
So what will happen with this painting when it’s done? I’ve been (not) working on it for several months now, started in July and just now got restarted on it after so many things (family and travel) and I think I started it because I had this canvas I found on the curb in Philadelphia which I unstapled from the frame and flipped over and reattached — the original drawing was chalk — a naked woman — the artist’s girlfriend, maybe? — and that was it: I made (can make) a painting because I have a blank canvas and some paint and because my guitar is in the shop and because this morning I’m bored to death with poetry, even though right now I am not painting but writing and that’s what the pros call paradox.
So what will what happen with this painting once it’s done? I’ll hang it above the bookshelf in the living room which is a good spot for it, above the bookshelf and the reading chair like a threat like hey, books, see what happens? — the right sized spot, good spot, no gallery, no exhibition, and people will ask me when they come to my house, which they rarely do and I will say when they ask who painted it, I don’t know I found it on the curb in Philly and I will say no it’s not for sale: