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Happy Campers: Songwriting partners Johnny Hickman and David Lowery have sprinkled Cracker's fifth album, 'Forever,' with playful references to a certain coastal town.

Roll Over, Beethoven

Santa Cruz is at the center of Cracker's weird musical universe

By Steve Palopoli

EXPATRIATE DAVID LOWERY has long been famous in these parts for pulling together the landmark local combo Camper Van Beethoven, whose legacy of breakout success continues to offer much-needed hope to ambitious Santa Cruz scenesters. His subsequent band Cracker, besides nailing a couple of hit singles with "Low" and "Get Off This" in the early '90s, won many a hometown heart with Lowery's 1996 ode to Santa Cruz, "Big Dipper." Lines like "From the top, you can see Monterey, or think about San Jose, though I know it's not that pleasant" are sure to knock 'em dead around here.

But with the release at the end of this month of Cracker's fifth album, Forever, somebody's going to have to make this guy the freakin' minister of tourism, already. Not that Lowery doesn't have his tongue typically planted in cheek on the song "Miss Santa Cruz County," but still, you gotta love lines like "There's no shame in being seen as the Artichoke Festival queen."

"The Artichoke Festival used to trip me out," says the Texas-born Lowery, who paid his way through UCSC largely by driving produce from Freedom to Castroville and Monterey. "I know that's a different county, technically it's not Santa Cruz County. But I couldn't remember what the Watsonville festival was."

That would be strawberries.

"Strawberries? Yeah, that wouldn't have worked," he says.

Though he now lives in Richmond, Va., with the rest of the band spread across the country, Lowery still keeps in touch with many of his pals from back in the day and occasionally recruits old Camper band mates for gigs when Cracker is on tour. Sometime after writing "Surf City," yet another Santa Cruz song (which didn't make the new album), he even conferred with some of his former band mates on his increasing use of Santa Cruz references.

"Jonathan [Segal] and Victor [Krummenacher] and I were having a conversation about whether there were any Santa Cruz references in Camper Van Beethoven songs, and our conclusion was no. Jonathan said there were only Santa Cruz references in Cracker songs and other post-Camper records."

Ah, but what about "Baby, Don't You Go to Goleta," the 1986 song that comes off as the ultimate defense of UCSC by sticking it to most of the other schools in the UC system?

"Yeah, but it doesn't ever actually mention Santa Cruz, only sort of by omission," he says. "Santa Cruz was sort of looked down on at the time--'Oh, you don't get grades, everybody takes acid.' You know, I got a fine education."

Slacker Dreams

A decade after he left town (he stayed in L.A. after Camper recorded 1989's Key Lime Pie there), Lowery is willing to cop to a bit of newfound nostalgia about his Santa Cruz days.

"It was one of those great slacker towns--the rent was really cheap, everybody just had crappy jobs, you could get a monthly bus pass if you didn't have a car," he says. "You lived this perfect life--the real idea of what civilization was about, which was to work less."

Maybe you can't go home again, but at least Lowery has recently resurrected Pitch-A-Tent records, an independent record label begun in Santa Cruz in the mid-'80s by the Camper gang. Though they originally were only trying to get their own records out, they ended up releasing other Santa Cruz bands like Spot 1019. It was all part of a post-hip, totally smartass movement whose attitude Lowery would take into Cracker on songs like "Teen Angst," "I Hate My Generation" and the new album's "Bring Us Down."

"It was an anti-underground sort of thing that was going on in Santa Cruz. We were already over being underground and cool," he says. "When hard-core punk rock was becoming the sort of pre-eminent underground movement in the United States, we were already making fun of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks."

At the same time that his own songs were a big part of defining the college-radio sound, Lowery was building with both bands a following that was well-established long before anyone was talking about alternative rock and has lasted long after people were sick of hearing about it. He has a solid record of beating the music industry at its own game--a talent that goes back to his early success with the unforgettable underground hit "Take the Skinheads Bowling."

"It might be disillusioning to everyone just how business-savvy Camper was right from the beginning," he says. "We had one of the first portable PCs by Compaq that we hauled around, and we had this whole database going ... people I guess probably thought we were hippies driving around in our Volkswagen bus taking acid. Which of course we were."

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From the January 23-30, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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