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.