The year was 1999, and I was at a college party in Portland, where my friend Kat went to Lewis and Clarke. Kat had gotten me into the band Cracker the year before, and I was glad because now I had a point in common with her friend Dan, whom I had a small, secret crush on. Instead of intimating this longing, I professed my emphatic love for “Trials and Tribulations,” a song from Cracker’s Gentleman’s Blues.
“Who do you like better, Cracker or Camper Van?” Dan asked. We were standing out on a deck drinking keg beer and looking out over suburban southeast Portland, an expanse swampy and dark for all the trees.
“Camper Van?” I said stupidly, clutching my red plastic cup and hoping that Dan didn’t notice that I was three inches taller than he.
“Camper Van Beethoven? David Lowery’s band before Cracker? You’ve got to check them out— I have to say I think I like them better than Cracker.”
In retrospect, this conversation is so perfectly 90s and so perfectly college. I’m pretty sure we were both wearing wifebeaters, ripped jeans, and flannel shirts. It was that time of life when everything seems a revelation. I drove back to Olympia in my 82’ Toyota Celica hatchback and immediately purchased the first Camper Van Beethoven album I found, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. I was smitten before I even popped the CD into my crappy boom box. Best album title ever, I thought. And is that a Masonic symbol on the cover? I was not disappointed. The first track is “The Eye of Fatima pt. 1,” a short song with a driving tempo and no chorus.
He’s got the Eye of Fatima on the wall of his room.
Two bottles of tequila, three cats and a broom.
He’s got an 18-year-old angel
and she’s all dressed in black.
He’s got 15 nickels of cocaine tied up in a sack.
And this here’s a government experiment
and we’re driving like Hell.
To get some cowboys some acid and to stay in motels.
We’re going to eat up some wide open spaces
Like it was a cruise on the Nile.
Take the hands off the clock,
we’re going to be here a while.
And I am the Eye of Fatima
on the wall of the motel room.
And cowboys on acid are like Egyptian cartoons.
And no one ever conquered Wyoming
from the left or from the right.
But you can stay in motel rooms and stay up all night.
On a warm fall evening, my roommate and I sat on the back bumper of my car, in the yard, and listened to the song on repeat while drinking cheap beer in the light of the streetlamp. This was amazing. Tequila? Drugs? Cats? Witches? Ancient Egypt? Staying up all night? Nonsensical lyrics? We were so in! It was like David Lowery had mapped our brains.
I would go on to nerdily collect every Camper Van Beethoven record, even going so far as to hunt down a Monks of Doom LP. (Because if you are going to be into the cooler, earlier precursor to a popular band, you better know a thing or two about their side projects.) But I found myself annoyed many years later when I attended a Cracker and Camper Van reunion show at the Crocodile in Seattle.
Camper Van fans were standing around looking like they weren’t having any fun while stiffly assuring everyone in earshot that they were, of course, there to see Camper Van Beethoven, not Cracker. In my memory they are all curly-haired white dudes in their 30s, wearing hipster glasses and plaid shirts buttoned up to the neck. They muttered when Cracker took the stage. This is exactly what drives me crazy about music nerds— the idea that obscure is good and popular is bad.
Cracker and Camper Van are both good bands. Camper Van Beethoven is weirder, snarled with violin. They wrote some great songs but, like most experimental bands, also put out a few songs that are unlistenable. Cracker is more accessible, has an appealing country twinge, and, like most successful rock bands, wrote some pop songs. Camper Van lyrics are occasionally obtuse, like they were written by people on acid, while Cracker lyrics are odd and funny but still deal, for the most part, with the vagaries of real life. To be honest, today both bands sound dated, if in a charming way that makes you want to put them out when you’re sitting around with old friends on the cusp of drunkenness. To me they perfectly capture my nostalgia for an era when I thought that being strange made me somehow different.