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Load Up the Camper

Camper Van Beethoven reunites, and it feels so good

By Gina Arnold

THERE ARE GOOD REUNIONS and bad reunions. A few weeks ago, the legendary band Television put on a lame one, but last week's gig by Santa Cruz's Camper Van Beethoven was just the opposite--a vital, living, growing thing, like a beautiful vine that's twined itself up a tree for 20 years and suddenly burst into flower. Fourteen years after it broke up, at the second of two San Francisco performances, the band played for more than three hours and not a minute of those hours was junky, nostalgic or boring.

It's hard to know what makes one band's reunion a weak, tawdry, nostalgic thing and another one's so great. It's certainly not the chops--Television had those--or the audience's level of interest, since TV's was as worshipful as could be. CVB's audience seemed new, young and fairly drunk. Many people yelled for "Take the Skinheads Bowling" over and over again, and one even stooped to yelping out that most inane comment of all, "Free Bird."

"You ought to know we can play the shit out of that song," singer David Lowery snapped out, and when the idiot persisted with the plea, added, "You think it'd be funny now, but believe me, four minutes into it you'd be begging us to stop."

It would have been awful if Camper had played a shit song like that when there were far too many of its own songs to get through. Camper didn't even get to the two songs I most wanted to hear ("Never Go Back" and "Life Is Grand"), and I still left the club satisfied, pleased to know that at least one band from my wasted youth was as good as I remembered it.

When the front line--David Lowery, Greg Lisher, Victor Krummenacher and Jonathan Segel--stepped up to the lip of the stage and rocked out together, it was like a surprise truck had come barreling out of the backdrop, as powerful as that.

Maybe the show rocked so hard because CVB was ahead of its time. The songs commented on the dumb hippie ethos of both Santa Cruz and the members' own suburban towns like Redlands and Petaluma. Camper also genuinely caught the feel, not just of those times, but of something eternal about humanity. Therefore, it wasn't just drunken punk-rock idiocy as played by serious music majors. It was also transgressive, unique and inventive. Camper would add violin to a Sonic Youth song, or pretend to be Russian folk artists on a number about Patty Hearst.

But in the midst of the silliness, Lowery's songwriting skills were phenomenal. Songs like "Sad Lover's Waltz" and "One of These Days" hold up eternally, while the politically cutting "Sweethearts" and "Lottery" remind me of the Reagan era and how incredibly deeply those of us in the opposition resented his reign.

CVB still only plays for love, which may be why this reunion was such an enormous amount of fun. I spoke to Lowery, who now lives and works in Richmond, Va., a few days before it occurred, and he assured me that CVB wasn't bitter any more and had wanted to reunite for ages; the guys were just a little worried about what people might think. "I don't want to be considered retro, like something on Nick at Nite."

"You care about critics?" I asked, aghast.

He sighed. "Well, not exactly, but I am concerned about what our fans think. I'm in the middle of the music business. I'm a producer. I own a recording studio. So even if I don't read things, I know how things get perceived, and I just ... it would be hard to put out a [new Camper] record and have it be dismissed or ignored."

I think that would be a shame as well, but I know what he means, and given the climate of pop music, it could easily happen. David held out hope that there might be more CVB down the road. The fact that the show ended not with a Camper song but with one ostensibly by Cracker that CVB members played on ("Brides of Neptune") underlined that possibility. I hope very much to see Camper Van Beethoven together again soon, and I hope when I do that it plays all new songs.

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From the September 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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