Cracker takes us back to early 1990s
You could argue pretty easily for calling Cracker one of the more underrated bands to break out of the early '90s, despite its platinum success and radio hits like "Low." Underrated mostly because getting caught up in the midst of the post-Nirvana grunge tidal wave — "We got played next to Stone Temple Pilots on MTV, and at the time people thought it was a perfect fit," lead singer David Lowery wryly remembers — meant the band unfairly fell out of popular favor once America's thirst for all things flannel waned.
But the members of Cracker were some great, gifted songwriters who belonged more in the company of roots and Americana bands like Wilco and the Jayhawks than anything with a Seattle postmark.
Those who already know of and acknowledge the band's musical gifts will be at ACL Live on Friday when Lowery — who also leads the similarly inclined college radio heroes Camper Van Beethoven — and his bandmates play Cracker's hit album "Kerosene Hat" in its entirety and follow that with CVB's high-water album "Key Lime Pie."
To get a look at Lowery's writing talents, we asked him to peel back the skin on one of Cracker's most heart-wrenching and vivid songs, "Big Dipper," from its 1996 album "The Golden Age." A classic time and place song about an unnamed guy longing after the girl who said "Thanks, but no thanks," it doubles as a time capsule documenting the early roots of both bands.
The imagery: The song is almost a still life portrait of Santa Cruz (California) circa '83 or '84, after we'd been out of there for four or five years and thinking about how it had changed. It was a great old town with these Victorian-era buildings, and the song is a way of going back to that.
The Big Dipper is actually about a roller coaster there that was called the Giant Dipper. Big Dipper is an English generic term for a roller coaster, and I liked how the Giant Dipper was all lit up at night like a constellation and I tried to show how that felt.
There's also these lines about the Cafe Zinho, which was this coffee place where you'd go and meet people, and this was in the early days of coffee joints before they were all over the place so having a place where you could just hang out with similar people who had tattoos was really unique to a town like Santa Cruz then, or Athens, Ga.
The lament: It is kind of a classic lovesick song — about the guy not getting the girl -— but that's mostly an excuse for me to talk about Santa Cruz and the people there at the time. There's a reference to tattoos ("Cigarettes, and carrot juice, and get yourself a new tattoo") that's all about the spirit of the hippies meeting the punk culture, which became kind of commoditized with a band like Jane's Addiction. Young people would move there with this clean canvas and you could tell when someone new had just gotten their first tattoo, they'd have that pink skin and you'd know.
It was such a transitional thing, this ecosystem you got in a slacker town like Santa Cruz, Tucson (Arizona) and Austin and Portland in the early days, where bands like Camper Van Beethoven came into being. Some towns like Austin and Athens have stayed that way, but for others it was just a very specific phase.
The inspiration: I'd had the idea for "Big Dipper," for that story and character for a couple years before the owner of the 40 Watt Club in Athens played me a copy of Vic Chesnutt's "West Of Rome." Before that I didn't realize it needed to be a slow kind of dirge of a song for it to work. Doing that meant I had to give up any Bruce Springsteen prejudice I might have been carrying around. I did that, and there's some of that Springsteen sense in there only with a bohemian dead-end-edness. It's not like anything off of "Nebraska," but you get a little of that time and place feeling from it that everyone knows him for.
Cracker with Camper van Beethoven