Seeing the Light with Cracker
When I first saw Cracker, it was the summer of 1992, and I was 21 years old. I’d gotten my hair chopped into a Louise Brooks-style bob, and dyed it black, hoping to look like a cool Boston girl who knew her way around Newbury Street, despite the fact that I’d always lived in New Hampshire, and wasn’t even sure how to get to Newbury Street. Unfortunately, I looked ridiculous – it was far too sophisticated a style for me, and I was extra self-conscious, and uncomfortable being seen. But I was stuck with it for a while before it would grow out.
Anyway, I’d been a fan of the band’s lead singer David Lowery’s other band, Camper Van Beethoven, since a fateful late night viewing during high school of MTV’s “120 Minutes” when they played the video for “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” Cracker was David Lowery’s new band; a stripped-down, rootsy rock band that dabbled in country. In 1992, they released their debut record, and put on a free show in Northampton, MA, just a little over an hour from me. There was no way I was going to miss this.
So my friend Steve and I went to Pearl Street, a small, well-worn club, for the show. Steve was great to go to shows with, because he was always as unreservedly excited about seeing bands as I was; neither one of us cared about seeming cool or aloof – we just wanted to have the best time possible. Cracker was in the upstairs “ballroom” where they had the bigger acts play, but attendance was sparse at first. So Steve and I stood up front and center. As the band played, more people filtered in, and suddenly we were being pushed against the stage – the tops of my thighs bloomed bruises that I was thrilled to see lasted for days. Lowery and his new-to-me guitarist, Johnny Hickman, led the four-piece band in one of the most energetic, earnest, kick-ass rock shows I’d ever seen. Lowery towered before me like a grinning California Dandelion in shorts and tall, Oxblood-colored Doc Martens, wailing on his guitar and flinging wickedly funny, unsentimental observations and prophecies through his rockstar-graveled throat. I was mesmerized. Hickman burned up on lead guitar and some vocals, working the crowd, and connecting with us plebians worshiping at their altar. His easy smile, charisma, and openness made us all feel like he couldn’t be happier to see us.
I had a lot to look forward to: an exchange student stint in England in a few months, the last part of college, and then… Who knew? But I was struggling with things I didn’t have the words for then: anxiety, a pinch of depression, and a heaping portion of self-loathing. It was a weird, dark place, and I was sad a lot, though I couldn’t have given you a reason why. As I got to know Cracker’s record better, it made me feel like it was ok to be there, but to not take myself so seriously, and have a wry sense of humor about it; like in their song, “I See the Light” off that eponymous first record: “I’d really like to be with you / ‘Cause we could be so dark…” It’s the way he sings “dark” that I love, and connected to – like it’s in italics, like a punch line to a joke you hadn’t realized was a joke yet. There was so much of that self-awareness in their songs that seemed to say, “Yeah, I sulk and glower a lot, and yeah, I know I look ridiculous. Maybe I’ll grow out of it one day, but until then, you can fuck right off.” David Lowery wasn’t anchored in one genre or one way of thinking – maybe I didn’t have to be, either. Maybe I could get through this, feel that dark, and laugh about it too.
That night, Steve and I snuck backstage and met both David and Johnny. I felt nauseous to be in David’s presence, but I was damned if I was going to waste the opportunity to tell him something about what his songs meant to me.
“I love you,” I stammered, and promptly blushed.
“Well, that’s one thing we have in common,” he said with a chuckle.
If that response reads as douchey, please know that it wasn’t – it was hilarious, and delivered awkwardly, like “Jesus, what else am I supposed to say to that?” We laughed like old friends who went way back, which we did – well, on my side, anyway. He graciously let me hug him that night before we let him go on to other, undoubtedly cooler fans with more extensive vocabularies. Johnny kept us company for a few more minutes, and easily convinced us to make the trip to Boston the following night to see them again (another story for another essay).
I was beaming for days. Maybe years/decades. It might sound silly, but I felt like if two of my heroes deemed me worthy to talk to for a few minutes, ridiculous haircut and all, that maybe I was worth talking to. You know, like, in general. It was a revelation.
Since that night, Cracker has endured; they’ve gone on to put out eight more studio records, numerous compilations and side projects, and raise families. They’re always on the road. David and Johnny have been the constants, with the rest of the band fluctuating with the times.
When I met my now-husband at our college radio station in 1994, Cracker was the band that bridged his love of the Grateful Dead to the stuff I was into (which was absolutely not the Grateful Dead), and gave us a common ground that we’ve since built off of. We bought their records when they came out, and burned them into our minds and hearts. Later this month, we’ll celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary; last month, we got to see Cracker’s twentieth anniversary tour of their brilliant “Gentleman’s Blues” record. Ah, sweet synchronicity.
The show was general admission, and we didn’t get there until ten minutes before showtime; we figured we’d be stuck way in back, shoehorned in between people and tables. Instead, there were two open spots at a table right next to the small stage. As we took our seats, I assured the two guys already seated that we were low-maintenance tablemates, and thanked them for being cool with strangers plunking down with them. This was their first time seeing Cracker, and their excitement was evident – they’d been waiting a long time for this. By the end of the show, they were like our friends. By the end of the show, we had all sang along with “I See The Light” together, along with the rest of the packed house:
“I see the light at the end of the tunnel now,
Someone please tell me it’s not a train.”
Steve was even there, though we didn’t manage to connect for more than a hug and a brief chat. Steve has been through some serious shit since that first show too, but he still grinned with unvarnished joy to see them again. There is just something magic about this band.
In 2018, watching Cracker in a different venue, but the same town I’d seen them in so long ago, it struck me how David Lowery’s voice, Johnny Hickman’s playful guitar licks and soaring harmonies, and the band as a whole have been a consistent and significant part of my life for well over half of it. Not a lot of other bands have had that kind of long, creative, active career. I adore them for that, and for always making music that grows with them as people, with me, and with the times.
A lot has changed since 1992. I’m in a much better place now, and still have a lot to look forward to. I finished writing a novel this year; I’m proud of it, and am trying to get it published. I’ve learned to play a couple of instruments and sing a little. I’ve been in a few bands of my own. My husband knows me as well as anyone can, and loves me anyway. He has also been with me for over half my life now. Sure, some sad things have happened, but I’ve figured out how to cope with sad, or recognize when I need a break from the world because I can’t. I’ve kept going, I’ll keep trying, and will keep improving. Just like Cracker, soundtrack to much of my life. I can’t wait to see where we all go from here.