The sad, creepy, weird and beautiful music of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
"Live from Betty Ford, it's the Eddie Money show!" — Eddie Money, Santa Cruz, 8:45 PM, 7/30/10
MUSIC It's hard to convey your passion for amusement parks without sounding like the lyrics to "Lakeside Park," Rush's sentimental 1975 tribute to the summertime midway. Hopefully this observation should serve as a decent justification for an elegy to the unspoken muse of the group's Caress of Steel.
Consider the beginning of summer in the Bay Area. It can't properly be called a seasonal phenomenon; rather, summer doesn't officially begin until you've been bombarded with that stupid goddamn Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk commercial — the one that's remained pretty-much untouched since 1994 — at regular 10-minute intervals. Recall the slightly askance shot of smiling oily young people running on the beach in weirdly lurid 1990s-era one-piece bathing suits, screaming brats strapped into the Fireball, maybe some kind of close-up of a Dip 'n' Dots kiosk, all unfolding to the strains of "California Sun." For better or for worse, this has become the harbinger of the Northern California summer.
Unlike the adjacent pier, another tourist destination, suspended precariously above the water by barnacle-encrusted poles, the boardwalk feels so thoroughly entrenched in its surroundings that it's effectively become a natural feature of the Santa Cruz shoreline. Years from now, the pelican shall nest on the Giant Dipper "Scenic Coaster"'s wooden bones while sea lions caper with jellyfish and squid in the sepulchral wrack of Neptune's Kingdom (the big arcade with Skee-Ball, I mean).
I know it's naïve to think the commercial hasn't actually changed — tragically, some new versions of the iconic annoyance have been springing up, laced with recycled footage, of course. Likewise, the Boardwalk has seen a handful of new rides incorporated into its landscape since the commercial originally aired. But stepping onto it in the warm California sun really makes you feel as though you've unwittingly wandered into some perpetually-20-years-ago liminal zone — like Richard Linklater's Austin, Texas, or the Los Angeles of 1987's Surf Nazis Must Die.
The living, and their fiberglass approximations, populate the "Bands on the Beach!" series, the annual free showcase for long forgotten, mid-level, Frankensteined back together rock acts. It's certainly hard not to feel cynical about the series after Gregg Rolie (original lead singer for Santana) amuses the crowd with a timely "Who let the dogs out?" reference. But at their core — and I'm only being slightly facetious here — there's something awesome and spontaneous about these concerts, a judo-like grappling with the condition of being presented as a reanimated artifact.
The first set I caught this summer was Blue Öyster Cult, who I'd seen earlier this year at the Santa Cruz County Fair in Watsonville. BÖC's facility with vocal harmony and baroque, intertwining guitar arrangement is often discounted. And while the band maintains a rightfully dedicated/defensive cult fanbase, it nevertheless picked up a different set of fans with a certain comedy sketch based on a highly, highly exaggerated cowbell enthusiasm. Multiple factors conspire to make the band's set a one-note joke, an opportunity to wring those last few precious drops of irony out of a period that's becoming rapidly depleted.
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