Blue Oyster Cult
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, July 14th 2017
It didn’t seem like an ideal situation, as Caitlin hates my music. If it has guitars in it, she calls it ‘hippie shit’ and what could be more guitarsy than Blue Oyster Cult? However, despite the unpropitious prospect of seeing a band from the 1970s with a kid from the 2000s, it was a hot July night and we had only been back from Washington for a few weeks. We have been trying to revisit all the fun places we love in California; Santa Cruz tops that list. So we set out together, our differences briefly on hold. “Let us go then you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table...” That’s what it looked like at the top of the mountain pass you have to go on to get to the Monterey basin. You top the summit and look down on a verdant carpet of redwoods that falls away to a vista of ocean. Normally, it’s shrouded in mist, but sometimes in the summer there’s a hot spell and you can practically see the curve of the earth.
This was one of those days. First, though, we sat in traffic. We crawled up to the top, and we crawled all the way down, but it never grew foggy: instead, sky blue and forest green and dark gold it was, a perfect Californian day, with the Victorians in pastels and the shadows lengthening on the mall, and a lot of kids playing guitar and singing. We ate fish tacos and went shopping, and when we were good and satiated, we headed over to the shore, walking slowly down Pacific past the Golden State Warriors B team arena, the soccer practice fields, and the Dream Inn.
Boardwalks are funny places, a rare mix of total seediness and charm. I suppose it is because they are always in places – oceansides – that are almost unspoilable in their loveliness, or maybe it’s because they emit this ghostly air of nostalgia, but boardwalks of any kind are hard to resist, and the kind with rides are crystalline, perfect. You practically can’t ruin them, try as you might – and the bookers for Santa Cruz do try as they might: had I gone the week before, this blog would have been about Quiet Riot. Blue Oyster Cult, though, are almost the humano-aural equivalent of a seedy old American Boardwalk. As soon as the pier came in sight, we could hear the music, but it faded out as we got nearer and nearer, drowned out first by the cries of seagulls and people playing beach volleyball, then by the canned music of the promenade (Rhianna’s “SOS”) and finally, when we entered the pavilion, by the awful beeps and clicks and buzzers of the pinball arcade. God, I hate the noise in that room! When Caitlin and her friends were little they liked to spend time in there, it was awful then and it still is.
Then aesthetic of the video game arcade is truly abysmal, but it’s a different story under the portico where the taffy machines and the t-shirt stores are. I know it’s equally cheesy, but it’s cheesy circa 1911, which is a different thing altogether. Out there with the sea in sight and the screams of seagulls and children surrounding us, we began seeing large men with handlebar mustaches and beards wearing Lamb of God and Korn t-shirts, and yet we still couldn’t hear BOC: from afar I heard a snippet of “Burnin’ For You’” and something like “Harvest Moon,” but it was hard to tell. The band was drowned out by the terrorized shrieks of thrill-riders on the roller coasters that overlook the beach. Up the boardwalk we walked, past the haunted house and the merry go round from 1911, and Neptune’s Kingdom, alongside games like Plinko and Skeeball, at which you could win plushies of Spongebob, plushies of dolphins and plushies of, I kid you not, poop. Poop plushies seemed to be a thing. There were also plush poop hats you could buy, which I refused to even take a picture of, on the grounds that if my camera phone was every hacked or somehow commandeered by the government, a picture of a poop-hat was just too shameful of an artifact to stand by.
In addition to the plushies and the knick knacks and the strange games and the rides, there was the usual array of horrifying food stuffs, including deep fried Oreos, artichoke hearts and PBJ sandwiches, garlic fries, corndogs, and something called Tacolocos, and I wondered if backstage they were bringing BOC a platter of this stuff to choose from. I like to think that there was a table with a little of everything from the boardwalk food booths, but especially the signature Americana foods, like dipping dots, saltwater taffy, roasted corncobs, rainbow colored daiquiris and so on. You’d never see those foods anywhere else, and you’d never eat them anywhere else, but somehow when you’re walking by the seaside in 70 degree weather and the sun is going down, it all starts to look strangely appetizing.
Indeed, I will confess I bought us each a softie ice cream, for the outrageous price of $4.50. Mine was dipped in sprinkles, but it couldn’t hold a candle to those ones you get in New York City from the Mr. Softie Truck, which I personally consider a culinary peak.
To pay $9 for bad ice cream is not a good thing, but if you think of it as the entire cost of admission to an evening with Blue Oyster Cult, it is pretty darn good. When they played the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma recently, tickets were $65. And even though I wanted to go to that show, and even though I only stayed for part of this one and couldn’t hear or see a lot of it, I think this one was better.
BOC were playing two sets, and we were aiming for the first. Alas, we only parked at 6:30 and it took a half hour to make our way through boardwalkmania to the stage; only when we were right on top of them could we finally hear BOC again, and – though according to set list.com they began with “The Red and the Black” and played a few other numbers I know, at this point they were jamming. And when I say jamming, I do mean jamming; that kind of jamming from older-than-I-am-fashioned-days with traded off wheedle-wee guitar solos and a drum solo and so on. (Setlist.com calls it, “Buck’s Boogie.”) We could barely see the stage, so we just looked at the people around us who were wiggle-dancing, as one HAS to, to a guitar solo jam, and I think it went on for fifteen minutes, minimum. I could only just see Buck Dharma – who is very short – and Eric Bloom over the heads of the people in front of me. I could only just relate the band in front of me, playing essentially in daylight, with the darker, more typical Blue Oyster Cult that I had seen a few years earlier at a club in San Jose; that draws a crowd of fans in tour thirst, whose index fingers stay aloft throughout, and who – like one guy I saw here, like to tape the shows on sticks with recording devices duck tapes to the top of them.
But I could still hear the cowbell. And I could still hear the Blue Oystery-sound of the wall of guitars that makes this band special and unique, even today. Blue Oyster Cult don’t, in my opinion, play metal music. But it’s sort of what a lot of that music is derived from. In a more ruminative moment I might have spent some time pulling apart what is good about metal (its actual timbre) and what, to me, is bad (its, for lack of a better word, white, beatless, soullessness), but a free show at the boardwalk doesn’t lend itself to that kind of analysis. The boardwalk lends itself to smearing your face with salt grease and sugar, and then wishing you could find a place to wash it off.
In other words, it’s distracting.
The people in the comfy beach chairs in front of the stage had had to line up all day to get there, so most of the crowd was, like us, jammed along the actual boardwalk-walkway, hovered over by scare-rides. The whole time BOC was playing, people were literally shouting with terror on top of them, and I wondered if that was bothersome to the musicians, or if they just took it in their stride because playing the beach boardwalk is probably good fun in its way. The only thing is, the band’s backs were to the sea, so all they saw was red-faced revellers, with our pot bellies and our sunburns and our faces smeared with ice cream and chocolate, whereas what we saw, out beyond the stage, was a dead still blue ocean, a sail boat, and the pier with its pretty lights strung along, and the cliffs. In that way, we had the better deal.
Presently, the jam ended, and BOC began playing “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” possibly the greatest pop song ever written and surely the greatest one ever written about suicide, the meaninglessness of life, and the ravages of time. I mean, seriously. “Seasons don’t fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun and the rain and we should be like they are,” seem to me to be words to live by, even more so now that I am older than when I was young.
If anything, I find I like this song better than I did in high school; only today it reminds me of my parents, rather than Romeo and Juliet; if that doesn’t date a person, nothing will. Still, I never fail to get choked up at the end when they look backwards and say goodbye. Caitlin tells me that this song is a perennially loved by kids her age as well, who hear it on video games, in fandoms, memes and other solemn, doom-laden YA artifacts; “Thirteen Reasons Why,” and so on. No wonder BOC are on permanent tour: according to the interwebz, they recently played a bunch of shows in Europe (including one at which the opener was Sweet);; in California, they were heading on to play a number of county fairs.
“Don’t Fear The Reaper” is surely BOC’s finest moment and it was the end-song of both sets. But while others at the Boardwalk rocked out to it and grooved on seeing a live band jam, Caitlin and I found ourselves drawn more intently to the ASL interpreter who was an excellent one. Caitlin has taken ASL for the last two years, so she could understand some of it – the signs for “gone,” for example, and “fear,” and “40, 000 people” – and she showed me how the interpreter was singing the La-La-Laaaa-la-la part on the chorus by lifting her hand in the ASL alphabet letter ‘L’ and then lowering her index finger to make it an A, over and over again. It was easy so we did it too: hand in the air, finger in ‘L’, “LA-LA-LAAAA, LA-LA,” and when the whole thing was over and people started to disperse, Caitlin turned to me and said, “Wow, that was so fun!”
I couldn’t believe it. Blue Oyster Cult! That’s what she said, I am not even making it up. It was like a miracle. Caitlin, who only listens to old jazz standards and Gorillaz, who thinks Kendrick’s new record isn’t as good as his last one and who won’t go see him because the venue is too big; who hates anything I like and who has just started listening to music 80s music ironically…liked Blue Oyster Cult.
You know how we live in these most polarized times, when everyone hates each other and constantly says mean things, when democrats and republicans can’t agree on anything and most of us can’t even get behind either of them anyway? When the smallest comment creates an argument or accusation, when music, especially, divides rather than unites? How there is nothing on god’s green earth that we can all seem to agree about? For those who are disturbed by this turn of events, this night on the Boardwalk would have been heartening, since it turns out even now there is one thing we can all rock out to with no argument whatsoever, one single sonic moment of bliss that unites us, young and old. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Blue Oyster Cult.
|Ain't no cure.|