O Pioneertown, Part II: Roadtripping to the Camper Van Beethoven & Friends Campout, Pioneertown Palace, 9/12/2008
Welcoming Campout effigy
1.57pm. El Monte, CA. DF barrels eastward down the 10 freeway and through the San Gabriel Valley. Losanjealous recedes into the distance, Kellogg Hill looms ahead on the horizon. The road trip is in its infancy and the sense of excitement is so palpable that DF rolls down the window so his anticipation-inspired saliva (mostly) exits the vehicle and becomes the problem of fellow motorists.
2.23pm. LaVerne, CA. Some facts: the destination is Pioneertown, CA, some 120 miles due east of the city in the high desert near Joshua Tree National Forest. The purpose: a pilgrimage to the Campout, a blessedly-off-the-radar-screen music festival bringing together a heady mélange of alt-rock acts. The accompaniment: BA, friend of DF and devoted (and frighteningly knowledgeable) fan of tonight’s headliners, Camper Van Beethoven. The vehicle: the DF-mobile (obv.), a 1996 magenta Chevy Monte Carlo with over 140,000 miles and extensive body damage. Seriously, other drivers, please crash into me. Nothing can harm me in this battleship, and I could really use the insurance money.
2.40pm. Ontario, CA. DF & BA pause for much-needed lunch break at the In-n-Out Burger just off the Vineyard Avenue exit. Double-doubles and trays of hot greasy fries are scarfed in silence and with far too much speed. It is a veritable feast of doom for one’s cardiovascular system, but the deliciousness justifies the increased death risk.
3.40pm. Beaumont, CA. I knew I ate that burger too fast. Oh well—when nature calls, you gotta accept the charges. In case the proprietors of the Little Luau Hawaiian Grill are reading this, DF sincerely apologizes for the befoulment he inflicted on your bathroom facilities. A quick stop at a local Rite-Aid for some much-needed immodium, and we’re off: next stop, Pioneertown!
4.23pm. Along the 29 Palms Hwy, CA. We turn off the interstate and onto a two-lane highway that heads north into the desert. Soon, shaggy, craggy Joshua trees dominate the landscape. BA points out a store sign that reads, “Dig your own cactus, 59¢.” A brief spat erupts over whether and how many cacti to dig. Resolution: dig your own goddamned cactuses. La ville des pioneers awaits!
4.52pm. Pioneertown, CA. Glorious arrival! O Pioneertown: you are even magnificent than I’d hoped. BA and I tramp around the environs to drink in the majesty of the late-afternoon desertscape. I know that all these wooden fences, wagon wheels, cattle skulls, and rickety ranch houses were all put there for movie-set purposes back in the ‘40s, but damned if they don’t feel real. As we finish our desert hike, I’m surprisingly short of breath thanks to the thin, high-altitude air. DF needs a drink.
Glorious exterior of the Pioneertown Palace
5.14pm. Fortunately, there are drinks galore at the unfathomably awesome Pioneertown Palace. I am hard-pressed to define a honky-tonk, but this definitely is one. The site itself is a well-worn adobe-brick-style building, low to the ground, with unscreened wood-shuttered windows painted with horses and sunsets (these double as entrances and exits as the night wears on). BA and DF saunter in and sidle up to the bar (FYI: in addition to sauntering and sidling, the only other permissible form of ambulation in this municipality is moseying).
5.20pm. At the bar, tap beer is served in mason jars. Sioux City Sarsaparilla is on offer (NB: DF does not drink sarsaparilla; it angries up the blood). Signs exhort us not to fight (yeah right). Everything on the menu is cooked in a pit barbecue. I expect Sam Elliott to take the barstool next to me. Is this heaven? When my food arrives—a heaping plate of Santa Maria-style tri-tip—I conclude that it certainly must be. NB: you may be asking, didn’t DF eat an enormous burger-based meal only a few hours ago? Yeah, pardner, well what of it?
The ghost of a delicious BBQ dinner
6.03pm. Full of insanely good bbq (and, in DF’s case, several mason jars’ worth of suds), we are duly media-credentialed, and head out into the backyard stage area of the Palace. It’s more like a set from 3.30 to Yuma than a music venue—a brick-fenced enclosure with the desert sky for a roof and the earth for a floor. Wooden stands offer booze, chow, and souvenirs. The sun sets over the stage as the first act starts up.
6.13pm. I find myself wondering whether something can just be Quasi, or whether there is a hyphen and additional word missing from this band’s name. But then I cease to ponder this issue and find myself crushing on the two lady band members, each of whom sport fetching Bettie-Page-esque hairdos. Drummer Janet Weiss earns plaudits for her furious work on the skins as well as her Rocky Horror reminiscent name. In an attention-grabbing counter-move, singer/keyboardist Sam Coomes flings himself prostrate on the stage at the end of the set and performs from a prone position. Ow.
Quasi at dusk
7.12pm. Night has fallen on Pioneertown. As we await the CVB set, DF casts his eye skyward and ponders the refreshingly visible constellations overhead. All you city slicks have no clue what this is all about. See over there, you’ve got Orion; his toe is both the end of the Big Dipper’s handle and Andromeda’s left teat. Then there’s Cassandra’s eyepatch, which is the most southerly point in the heavens. Finally, just yonder is Drogheda’s mastodon, which the Greeks called Cerberus’ eyebrow, and if you keep the most easterly star—no, not that one, that one, goddamn it, just over there, see where I’m pointing?—over your left shoulder, you will always be heading the right way. The great Portuguese sense of navigation triumphs again!
8.12pm. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Camper has taken the stage and they instantaneously launch into a soul-satisfying rendition of that Zeppelin-esque Revolutionary Sweetheart instrumental rocker, Waka. From there the CVB embark on a workmanlike, banter-free get-in-all-the-songs-we-can performance. The band’s passive-aggressive nature is revealed, as skinheads are stomped, then exhorted to bowl. Matchstick men are photographed along with yours truly. There comes a time when Goodman Lowry looks me in the eye and intones “TAKE OFF THAT JUMPSUIT, YOU LOOK LIKE GRACE SLICK!” I find myself simultaneously busted and enchanted, and I can’t but comply with his instruction (the jumpsuit is an underrated garment, my friends — esp. on a brisk desert evening). Covers on the setlist reflect Camper’s eclecto-phrenic roots: 60s psychedelia (Status Quo, Pink Floyd) and Yank and Anglo punk (Black Flag, the Clash) are granted their due CVB-style reinterpretations. We don’t get the exhaustive forty-song celebration the CVB served up earlier this summer at their Silver Show in Frisco (downloadable here, by the way — who’s your sugar daddy?), but tonight’s distillation of the Camper oeuvre, from Lottery through Good Guys and Bad Guys to Militia Song (another number with uncannily DF-appropriate lyrics) hits all the right buttons. The band closes with an extended jam of the aforementioned Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive. I say it’s the best overdrive ever; preferable even to its Bachman-Turner cousin. All in all, the performance is a solid, satiating run-through that showcases the CVB’s truly distinctive sound, inflecting rock roots with ska, punk, and country influences. It ends to lusty applause from the assembled Pioneertown pilgrims. Must another full year pass before Lowry, Krummenacher, Segel, Lisher, and Funaro reassemble to deliver the goods? One hopes for a greatest hits tour.
A pensive moment with CVB frontman Dave Lowery
9.33pm. And just who are these Pioneertown pilgrims, you might ask? This crüe is mötley at best. There are hipsters spanning the generations; some look like they were in attendance when Camper was on its Telephone Free Landslide Victory tour; others look like they weren’t even born then. I spot a hippie or two, which I think is standard for any music festival; hippies are drawn inexorably to anything with the word “festival” in its name (which makes for some awkwardness at Christian rock festivals). The rest of the Pioneertown Palace crowd is an assemblage of bikers, cowboys, and assorted desert weirdos. DF feels profoundly at home.
10.11pm. But wait, there’s more. Closing act “Built to Spill” has given themselves a self-deprecating name, but this seems unwarranted to DF. They should be called “Built to Successfully Contain Liquid Without Mishap”. Truly, it is a workmanlike denouement.
11.03pm. Upon exiting the venue, I discover to my horror that the men’s bathroom has been declared entirely out of commission (not anything to do with me, I swear), and as a result I bid adieu to Pioneertown while watering a Joshua tree in the pale moonlight.
11.40pm, somewhere on the 10 freeway. BA generously chauffeurs, allowing DF ample opportunity for reflection as we barrel westward toward Losanjealous. Ah, the serene, surreal beauty of the desert at night. Hallucinogenically gargantuan white windmills tower overhead, making DF feel shrunken-Alice-in-Wonderland-esque. The Cabazon dinosaurs from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure loom off to my right. A tanker truck with “Love’s BBQ Sauce” passes by. I drift off to sleep, and dream that I am jumping off the top of a three-hundred-foot, enviro-friendly windmill into a vast lake of tangy BBQ sauce where T-Rexes dog-paddle frantically and brontosauruses perform a langorous backstroke.
A Joshua tree in the late afternoon sun