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Published: 2004/10/30
by David Steinberg

Featured Column:Return of the Camper

Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Shopping online is great if you know what it is that you want already, but only by going to stores are you likely to find what you didn't know existed. I almost ordered the It DVD from Dry Goods. Past problems with preorders arriving well after the release date made me decide to pick it up at a store instead. I drove to Borders during my lunch break and saw the display for the new release. That didn't surprise me. What was right next to that display did though. There was a display for a brand new Camper Van Beethoven cd.

I’m not sure what surprised me most about this fact – the release or the display. Camper Van Beethoven was a major part of the soundtrack of my college years. I first heard about them on my trip to visit Bard as a prospective student. There was a review of II & III in the Village Voice that I picked up in the student bookstore. The band name stuck in my head so I looked them up when I got home. A local record store had the punk/ska Telephone Free Landslide Victory. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it per se, but "Opi Rides Again" and "Where the Hell Is Bill" stuck in my head. It was an amusing album but nothing that spectacular. Things changed in 1988. That year both Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and their self titled album (with the EP Vampire Can Mating Oven as a bonus) came out on cd.

These albums are the best psychedelic classics that kids these days haven’t heard of. To some degree they reinforce the lesson about the problem of political music. References to General Pinochet, cold war conflicts, and childhood memories of watching stories about Patty Hearst didn’t age that well. It’s too bad about that because the songs are quirky, melodic, and playful. A song on their Camper Van Beethoven album is based around the sounds created by reversing a song from Telephone Free. A song from Beloved Revolutionary samples two from Camper Van.

As with a certain other band that I love, the silliness is just the primary level. They have a sense of humor, yes, but very few of these songs are novelties. Between the faithful cover of Pink Floyd’s "Interstellar Overdrive," and the song writing skills demonstrated in songs like "She Divines Water" and "Tania," these albums are quite worthy of defining the late 80s.

I did manage to see the band once. I loaded my car full of fellow Bard students and drove the sixty miles north through sleet, snow, and freezing rain to attend this event. This was an important event in many ways beyond the concert. This was the night I was nearly arrested for not smoking pot. [1] Two of my friends kind of hooked up in the passenger seat on the way home, starting a relationship that lasted years.

As for the music, it was a different experience than what I normally see. There were no jams. The songs were largely similar to the album versions. It was towards the end of Camper’s existence. It might not have been a life changing experience but it was a good time.

Camper’s comeback wasn’t quite as sudden as I make it out to be. Sure they disappeared after Key Lime Pie, but there were signs of a reemergence of interest. A rarities album came out. Then came the bizarre idea of covering all of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. A box set was released. The band went out on tour – without anyone bothering to inform me of this fact. The signs were there for those who could see them.

So after fifteen years, a band heavily influenced by surrealism and late 80s politics comes out with a new cd. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that it is set in an alternative universe; the current political climate isn’t exactly conducive to direct criticism. In a North America where Texas is an independent, strongly Christian country and California is in the middle of a civil war in the aftermath of a military coup, a 9/11-esque event inspires the Texas elite military group 51-7 to invade an unnamed mid-east country.

The album more or less follows the story – such as it is – of a soldier for the Texas army who grows disillusioned. After being injured in the war, he goes to fight for the occupying force of California (amusingly enough, outsourced to a private company TexSecurIntelliCorp). He grows addicted to a hallucinogenic drug, decides to join the rebellion, and… well… it gets vague from there. Did I mention that the rebellion is led by aliens who are claiming to be the saviors of mankind?

The idea of the science fiction setting seemed like an interesting idea to talk about the ideas behind 9/11 and Iraq without actually having to talk about, well, 9/11 and Iraq. At times though it backfires. Since we have no real attachment to the universe of the album, the band can be a bit callous towards them. The instrumental that represents the attack is rather upbeat for such a thing. There are three different songs that romanticize terrorist attacks, including the rather unfortunate chorus in "I Am Talking to this Flower" of, "And if I weren’t high on this flower/I would walk into our tower and/ Do something nuclear or worse." That strikes a little too close to home. It also would be nicer if the Texas army weren’t such an obvious straw man. Fortunately, there are enough interesting ideas around the edge of the main story, that I find myself wondering more about the universe.

"Come Out" is a throwaway song unless you read the liner notes that explains it as, "A famous minimalist composer has a pop hit inspired by the anti-fascist riots in Watts, California." That makes me curious for more details about the culture of the non-United States. A cute touch is that Box O Laffs is a popular band there; in our universe they were the precursor band to Camper. A line in "New Roman Times" points out that the geopolitical divisions are different, as the ex-soldier goes to, "Las Vegas, California/occupied/ the Republic of California." The hints and teases draw me in. I want a map and a mix cd and a history book. Besides, you have to respect a rebellion that has this for an oath:

I would fight for hippie chicks.
I would die for hippie chicks.
We might stop and surf a bit,
But we would die for hippie chicks.
We might stop and skate a bit,
But we would die for hippie chicks.

If you have to have a rebellion, at least have a life affirming one.

At least for me, the jury is still out on this album, but I have to tip my cap for the attempt. It would be easy to just try to make another Key Lime Pie, instead we get a surreal retelling of the past five years. It might ultimately be a failed experiment, but it’s always interesting to see the attempt.

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html

He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

[1] If you want to hear this one find me at a show and ask. It runs the risk of incriminating some people after all.

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