California identity in new music
What’s the fastest way from Berkeley to Bakersfield?

Just flip to the second disc of the album.

California’s disparate regions are nearly impossible to connect. But over the past two years, two music bands—with overlapping members—have pulled off the trick, issuing three albums that examine today’s state, thoughtfully and lovingly, from its coast to its inland deserts, from north to south. It is precisely by exploring the state’s divides so thoroughly that those two bands—Cracker and Camper van Beethoven—have shown what really connects California.

Those connections are more about the wrong turns and struggles of regular Californians than about the handful of Hollywood triumphs or sun-splashed Silicon Valley successes.

Camper van Beethoven’s two albums—2013’s La Costa Perdida about Northern California and 2014’s El Camino Real about Southern California—show how dream-seeking remains alive and well on both ends of our state, even if the dreams seem smaller. And Cracker’s new double album, From Berkeley to Bakersfield, offers one side of Bay Area folk rock, and a second side of country that owes a debt to Merle Haggard. Despite the stylistic differences, both sides of the album depict Californians as they are—poorer and living in grittier places, but still trying to carve out their own little kingdoms, even among squalor.

“Between the two bands,” David Lowery, a founder and frontman for both Cracker and Camper van Beethoven, told me in a recent interview, “we took the entire state apart and reassembled it.”

California, for all its dynamism, is still defined by dreamy songs and bands from previous generations—Tupac and Dre’s “California Love,” the Beach Boys’ entire oeuvre, that Eagles hotel. But there has been some smart musical grappling with the reality of today’s California—from DJ Quik’s Compton rap slap at exurban sprawl—

You couldn’t keep up with the city
So you moved out to the desert
And you want to blame your drama on me

—to Becky G’s teenaged accounts of the impacts of foreclosures to Tom Brosseau’s hilarious smartphone lament “Cradle Your Device”:

I’m wearing next to nothing
I even put on a little spice
I long for you to hold me in your arms
But instead, you cradle your device.

And you can almost smell the marijuana on the latest album from the very popular duo Best Coast, California Nights. On the title track, they sing:

I stay high all the time
Just to get by …
California nights make me feel so happy I could die.

But none of California’s classic titles are as grounded in the details of California places to Cracker’s and Camper van Beethoven’s recent songs. Both bands are established and more than 20 years old—with roots in both Santa Cruz and in Redlands, in San Bernardino County.

But Lowery says their deep musical dive into the state was inspired a few years back when a show at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur got canceled, and the musicians found themselves with an unexpected week off. Lowery revisited California writers like Joan Didion and Richard Brautigan, and soon his groups were producing songs that are very location-based. They divided them up by region, and thought the concept worked.

The work spans the state. There are songs about “Northern California Girls,” San Bernardino, and Camp Pendleton. In La Costa Perdida’s title track, Camper Van Beethoven sings of a fruit picker from near Brawley—a killer working under a dead man’s name who got his heart broken “in the oil fields of San Ardo” (in Monterey County), buried his beloved in Parkfield, and sold her car in Fresno.

The albums celebrate gritty places and people across regions. Cracker tells a Berkeley girl she’s beautiful and suggests they attend “an anarchists’ rally at People’s Park.” And the main character of “King of Bakersfield” sings:

I got a double wide in my own merlot vineyard.
I got plenty of space to park my dually trucks
I never have to deal with L.A. traffic
Life is good they call me the king of Bakersfield.

If there’s one song that binds all the work together, it’s the haunting “Almond Grove,” sung from the point of view of a guy from Maricopa in Kern County who goes to Oakland to work at the port, gets involved in drugs, and ends up sleeping in his car.
The song sounds at first like a triumphant return.

I’m going home to the cotton fields
To the almond groves, to the old homestead
See my Ma and Pa, mighty brother Jack
He went to Kandahar, but he never come back.

By the song’s end, it’s clear that he’ll see his relatives because they’re dead—and so is he. His ashes are going back to the almond grove.

That’s as dark as things get. The albums generally don’t pick sides, though I detected a Southern California lean in some of the work. Lowery, who has lived both in the north and the south, didn’t deny that. He says that he loves the north, but finds the state’s heart in the south. “The sprawl, I think, produces better culture,” he says.

The songs aren’t angry—except when they discuss Silicon Valley and its disruptive arrogance. Cracker’s “March of the Billionaires” thunders:

Give up your rights, your most private thoughts, don’t make us label you
some kind of Luddites.
It’s better for us, therefore it’s better for you.

And the song “El Cerrito,” about the Contra Costa County town, laments the sameness of today’s San Francisco, blasts at “pink-moustached taxi cabs, don’t you know that they’re just scabs,” and offers the unforgettable chorus line, “I don’t give a shit about your IPO, I live in El Cerrito.”

While much of From Berkeley to Bakersfield was recorded in California, Lowery doesn’t live here. For family reasons, he splits his time between Georgia and Virginia, but he still plans to come back: “I would either live somewhere in the High Desert. Or maybe up in the northwest corner of the state, Arcata or Crescent City.”

Or perhaps, he says, in both.

It’s all the same place, after all.

 
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square.

 
*Photo courtesy of Chris Frewin.

  • Great story! I love the albums and did not have some of this background.

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