Sometimes when you’re making an album that’s destined to be a rock classic, you have to take the time to stop and ask, “Hey guys, is this too dumb?”
“I mean, literally, that was a question that was asked,” says David Lowery, frontman for Cracker, about the writing of “Happy Birthday to Me,” a song off the band’s self-titled debut album. This year is the 25th anniversary of that record, which began the second act of Lowery’s career after the break-up of Camper Van Beethoven two years earlier, at the height of their run as one of the most successful bands ever to come out of the Santa Cruz music scene.
Lowery recalls that one of the songs he was working on at the time didn’t have a chorus. “And then it was like, ‘if we do a ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ song, maybe it’ll get played when people need to play a happy birthday song. If you think about the rest of the song, it doesn’t have anything to do with a birthday. So I’m trying to figure out a chorus, and I go ‘Is this too dumb?’”
The gist of the response from the band, says Lowery, was “Well, kind of, but kind of not.” He took it as a green light.
Strangely enough, his hunch that it could turn into a semi-official birthday song—despite lines like “I remember you/You drive like a PTA mother” and “Sometimes I wish I were Catholic/I don’t know why”—seems to have been on the money.
“We get royalties for public performance, and ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ is hands down the winner on that album,” says Lowery.
There’s been an interesting bigger shift since the album was released; at that time, the unofficial single “Teen Angst,” with its Alternative-Nation-anthem chorus “What the world needs now/Is another folk singer/Like I need a hole in my head” was the song that got all of the attention. (It’s probably also the song that got Lowery branded a diehard cynic, a tag that continued to dog him after Cracker found platinum-selling success with their next record, 1993’s Kerosene Hat, and its singles like “Low,” “Get off This” and “Eurotrash Girl.” Fans of Camper Van Beethoven, however, were more likely to recognize Lowery’s love of writing flawed and sometimes downright unlikeable characters as first-person narrators, à la “All Her Favorite Fruit,” “Tania” and a number of other Camper classics.)
Over time, however, it’s the weirder songs off of Cracker that have eclipsed “Teen Angst” as fan favorites and proven to have the most staying power, like the dating-nightmare-a-thon “Mr. Wrong,” the Southern Gothic “Dr. Bernice” (Baby, don’t you drive around with Dr. Bernice/She’s not a lady doctor at all”) and, of course, “Happy Birthday to Me”—which in fact was promoted to a final encore number for some shows on the band’s recent tour of Spain, though Lowery admits it’s an unconventional closer.
“Yeah, that’s not really a traditional rockin’ sort of song,” he says. “But people like that song. You know what that is? That’s the last song of the encore when you’re like, ‘OK, so we’re going to turn on the lights after this.’ You sing ‘Happy Birthday to Me,’ turn the lights on in the house—OK, we’re done.”
It’s fitting that the oddest songs on Cracker would eventually be the record’s legacy, since the band was an odd project to begin with. Since it sold 200,000 copies and Cracker went on to be far more popular than Camper ever was, it’s easy to forget that making what was basically a country-rock record was not considered by anyone to be a surefire way to blaze up the charts.
“It was really, really not obvious that that was going to be successful, or even be a non-harmful career move,” says Lowery. “I think that’s the best way to put it. It wasn’t even clear that it was going to be an innocuous failure. It could have been a bad failure.”
The results, however, affirmed the path that he and lead guitarist Johnny Hickman—the childhood friend with whom he formed Cracker shortly after Camper broke up—had chosen: something completely different than Lowery’s previous band.
“The thing that people probably would have preferred us to do or expected us to do is what in retrospect would have been the worst thing for us, which was to do sort of a Camper Van Beethoven ‘Mark II’—to quote Spinal Tap. That would have been an insult to a band Johnny and I both loved.”
Cracker plays on Saturday, June 3 at the Redwood Mountain Faire at Roaring Camp, 5401 Graham Hill Road in Felton. The festival runs 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on June 3-4. Also performing on Saturday are Carolyn Wonderland, the Coffis Brothers, Victor Krummenacher (of Camper Van Beethoven), and more; Sunday’s performers include Dave and Phil Alvin with the Guilty Men, Poor Man’s Whiskey, the Stone Foxes and more. Tickets are $25 per day; redwoodmountainfaire.com.