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.
If this was universally the case, Friday nights at the Boardwalk would be downright sadistic. But Blue Öyster Cult takes seriously the kind of gig that numerous lesser acts would treat as some kind of where-are-they-now closing vignette from an early-period Behind the Music. The dreamy main riff and strange ersatz reggae of "Burnin' for You" fused together with the sound of waves and ride-machinery and the permeating scent of weed smoke mysteriously radiating from the old hippies and biker couples getting down on the beach. It turned something that for all intents and purposes should be sad and creepy into something weird and beautiful.
But the obverse, and perhaps more exciting face of the summer concert series arcade token is the Eddie Money experience. If Blue Öyster Cult rises above its pigeonholing as a goofy retro spectacle, Mr. Money gleefully embraces it with a show that can only be described as a resplendent, lurid train-wreck. Eddie Money is no resurrected has-been. Quite the contrary: he is finally capable of carrying his earlier work to its full potential — sung by a "supercharged city kid with rock 'n' roll in his soul" (as per Journey's Steve Perry on an episode of Midnight Special).
Staples like "Two Tickets to Paradise" and "Take Me Home Tonight" are admittedly catchy, but ultimately banal. But in the senior Money's filthy clutches they drip with sleaze. He gingerly struts around the stage while crooning his myriad hits in a scratchy approximation of his original singing voice. He interrupts nearly every song to demand that we "shake it with the money-maker," and to illustrate what this might look like, he opens and spreads his black suit jacket and gyrates toward the crowd. His set isn't so much about music as it is about performing the paunchy, slightly unhinged middle-aged '80s rocker, a staple of the free concert circuit, and a persona that Money seems to have perfected. The Eddie Money of that Midnight Special clip is dead; in his place is someone infinitely more interesting.
Classy to the end, the Money-man closes his set with a "don't let your girlfriends drive" joke, as the 200-plus in attendance file out of the Boardwalk. Be sure to leave the beach as clean as you found it!
SANTA CRUZ BOARDWALK BANDS ON THE BEACH!
Fridays, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.; through Sept. 3; free
(Fri/13, Spin Doctors; Aug. 20, Papa Doo Run Run; Aug. 27, Starship starring Mickey Thomas; Sept. 3, The Tubes featuring Fee Waybill)
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
400 Beach, Santa Cruz