Who knew we were worth singing about? At least 20 people! And actually even more, but in honor of Devil Makes Three—who wrote a great Santa Cruz song and return for New Year’s Eve this week—here are our favorites
By Steve Palopoli and Jacob Pierce
Most major American cities have their own definitive anthems: “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “I Love L.A.,” “New York, New York,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”
But smaller places like Santa Cruz rarely get one. However, we apparently make a big impression for a town of our size, because there are some three dozen songs floating around out there that mention, are set in, or were otherwise known to be inspired by Santa Cruz. Not long after we started working together, the two of us began talking about which of these Santa Cruz songs are best, and how we would rank them. And it only took us four years to pull it together! It’s all about the journey, people!
Anyway, for some reason motivated by Devil Makes Three’s return to Santa Cruz this week (because they have a song in the list, see? Look, just go with it, OK?), we have chosen the best 20 of these songs, along with some honorable mentions. We were pretty lax with the standard of what constituted a “Santa Cruz song,” but we did feel there had to be some genuine intention. For instance, despite how often people here have tried to appropriate it, “Under the Boardwalk” was written by two guys from New York and never meant to be about Santa Cruz, so it’s not on our list.
Without further ado, we present the best songs about our city. We’re Santa Cruz, music world. Thanks for noticing!
1. “Beer Run” – Todd Snider: Todd Snider wrote “Beer Run” here in Santa Cruz during his friend Robert Earl Keen’s set at the Fat Fry—a festival put on by KPIG 107.5 FM, a.k.a. “the best radio station in world,” as Snider calls it in I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like: Mostly True Tall Tales. In the book, Snider discusses the origins and meaning of “Beer Run,” explaining, “I sing it as a love song to Santa Cruz and KPIG and Robert, not as a song about beer.” The tune is, of course, the outrageous based-on-a-true-story tale of two underaged frat guys from Texas looking for some brews, as well as the Robert Earl show. And they end up having an adventure along the way. Snider’s 2003 album Near Truths and Hotel Rooms Live features the original debut of this clever song, recorded on air in the KPIG sty, complete with DJs “Sleepy” John Sandidge and Arden Eaton—as well as the rest of the “Please Stand By” crew—doubling over loudly in uncontrollable laughter. That’s why this one’s the best, Steve. JP
2. “I’m Comin’ Home” – Robert Earl Keen: Actually, Jake, first and second are virtually interchangeable on this list, thanks to the symbiotic relationship between this song and “Beer Run.” Unlike Snider’s song, “I’m Comin’ Home” may be only tangentially about Santa Cruz, but you couldn’t have had the “Beer Run” line “They met an old hippie named Sleepy John/Who claimed to be the one from the Robert Earl song” without this. Keen’s verse about how “life is good out in Santa Cruz” has made us famous in a lot of unexpected places (especially in Texas) and similarly turned the lyric “Seems like everybody knows ol’ Sleepy John” into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But more importantly, its longingly emotional and yet still laid-back vibe captures exactly what it’s like to listen to outlaw country on a hazy afternoon in Santa Cruz, or jam to the all-night blues. “Beer Run” is funny, but this is Santa Cruz’s spiritual anthem. SP
3. “For Good Again” – Devil Makes Three: Pete Bernhard has no shame when he sings about drinking and popping pills on the steps by Santa Cruz High School, or the tiny dive he lived in on Lincoln Street: “It was low-level existence, that’s what you proper people would say/But I wrote songs in that attic that I now get paid to play/So, if you don’t like people who live in attics, now mightn’t be the time to say/’Cause everybody who’s anybody in my opinion at one time lived in somebody’s hallway.” This Devil Makes Three tune recalls a time when Santa Cruz was a little younger and a little wilder. Or maybe we were? JP
4. “Surfin’ USA” – Beach Boys: Certainly this is the most famous namecheck of Santa Cruz in any song ever. We lucked out to get it in what is arguably the all-time greatest surf tune. (With lyrics, that is. Against instrumentals it might not make the top five.) But the best thing about this song is that anytime that stupid debate about what town is really “Surf City, USA” comes up, people from Santa Cruz inevitably just point out that we’re in “Surfin’ USA,” and Huntington Beach isn’t. Mic drop. Love it. For a completely different take on this song—imagine all surfers were also the vampires from Lost Boys—check out the Jesus & Mary Chain version. SP
5. “Banana Slugs! Racing Down the Field (Proposed UC Santa Cruz Fight Song)” – Austin Lounge Lizards The only sad thing about this uproariously whimsical faux-fight song is that the 2003 track seems to have gone unnoticed up on the hill—both by the administration and the student body. We realize it sounds like the Austin Lounge Lizards might be making fun of UCSC’s slugs for having a slimy mascot… or for being more interested in drinking beer than in winning games. But the band put the track on a studio album, and it’s structured perfectly like a high-octane school song for the field, no matter how wacky the words are. Furthermore, it’s only 54 seconds long. Consider this a call to action, Sluggers. It’s time to learn this song. JP
6. “Big Dipper”/”Miss Santa Cruz County” – Cracker: Two equally great songs from Santa Cruz legend David Lowery’s post-Camper-Van-Beethoven alt-hits band. “Big Dipper” is more famous, mentions Café Zinho, and features the lines “From the top you can see Monterey/Or think about San Jose/Though I know it’s not that pleasant.” But “Miss Santa Cruz County” is more rockin,’ mentions local urban legends the Blue Ladies, and features the lines “So come on down, Miss Santa Cruz County/Won’t you come on down from your daddy’s hydroponic farm.” SP
7. “Wrecking Ball” – Gillian Welch: In this piece off her 2003 album Soul Journey, the wrecking ball symbolizes a lot for Welch. It’s a force that rips down someone’s identity in their young adult years, when they move away to college and try to find themselves. To Welch, the wrecking ball is also a marijuana grow she tended in the Pogonip city park during her UCSC days, causing her grades to slide. In the final verse, the year is 1989, and a wrecking ball is coming downtown to tear up the Pacific Garden Mall after the Loma Prieta Earthquake devastated blocks of Santa Cruz, prompting demolition crews to level much of what was left. Now that’s an identity change. JP
8. “Oxford Way” – Slow Gherkin: If you know where Oxford Way is, between the circles and West Cliff Drive, the title of this song makes sense. If you ever had to struggle to just barely hold your life together in this town in your 20s, everything else about this song makes sense, too. The upbeat, hooky melody and A.J. Marquez’s wistful vocals mask some of the pain, but the underlying truth of this one gets you where it hurts. An unheralded late-period classic from the kings of Santa Cruz’s ska era. SP
9. “Santa Cruz” – James Durbin: The former American Idol contestant’s ode to his hometown is about as hokey and upbeat as they come. Durbin’s “Santa Cruz” is so loaded with extra cheese, it almost makes you feel guilty for secretly falling in love with its catchy chord progression—that is, until you remember that both the video and song so are jam-packed with local references to everything from Pizza My Heart’s Tuesday night specials to First Night celebrations on New Year’s Eve. Then you start feeling bad for ever feeling guilty. It’s literally about how Durbin likes Santa Cruz more than any other place in the world, and how, no matter how many times the big cities pull him away for work, this is always home for him. JP
10. “Alone in Santa Cruz” – The Ataris: If you’re wondering what a pop-punk band from Indiana was doing singing about Santa Cruz, the fact that frontman Kristopher Roe relocated to Santa Barbara around the same time they released this on their debut album probably has something to do with it. It definitely has the outsider feel of someone who desperately wants to get out of Santa Cruz. But it’s also a very sweet love song, and its retro, almost doo-wop touches are a prime example of how the Ataris always seemed a little more musically adventurous and interesting than a lot of punk bands at the time. SP
11. “The Other Day (Near Santa Cruz)” – Leo Kottke
Probably the most musically impressive creation we studied, “The Other Day (Near Santa Cruz)” brims with Kottke’s trademark acoustic guitar slides, hammers, bends and bizarre chords. In it, Kottke, who normally sticks to instrumentals, sings about a man on a search for “hippie chicks”—the kind of smart, meat-hating women who he assumes abound on the Central Coast. But we get the sense Kottke himself, who sometimes plays the Rio, knows that actual Santa Cruz hippie girls would vomit on any man who thought they were this one-dimensional. That’s part of what makes it funny. JP
12. “Roller Coaster by the Sea” – Modern Lovers: When he released this song in 1977, Jonathan Richman was 26, looked 14 and acted like he was 7. And I mean all those things in the best way possible. If you don’t have fun listening to this song, you may (spoiler alert!) be dead. I mean, “Roller coaster by the water/Made me feel more as I otter?” That pun is so full of pure, blissful joie de vivre that one is actually legally exempt from pun jail for making it. (It’s known as Jonathan’s Law.) And yes, this is the second song about Boardwalk rides to make this list. SP
13. “Santa Cruzin’” – Will Ray: Like other tunes on the list, “Santa Cruzin’” is clearly written by an enchanted, wide-eyed passerby in what’s seen as a reefer-smoking, hippie-friendly, party-loving surfer town. Seriously, it’s hard not to get inspired by the upbeat blues beat and energetic licks and feel like it’s time to hit the dive bar circuit hard, Santa Cruz-style. JP
14. “Santa Cruz” – Pearl Jam: If you’re a little stunned right now to hear that Pearl Jam wrote a song about Santa Cruz, well, it wasn’t on an album or anything—it was one of their holiday single releases a few years ago. And it’s not that surprising, since Pearl Jam worship at the altar of Neil Young, who has always had a special relationship with this town. I saw at least one spontaneous secret Pearl Jam show at the Catalyst, following the Neil Young tradition. Indeed, Eddie Vedder invokes him in this song: “Got Neil Young on the stereo/He comes along everywhere I go.” But it’s actually the feeling of Vedder’s own connection to the Santa Cruz landscape that makes this song so powerful: “I need the beach to set me free/I need the wind to make me breathe/I need the water to wash my soul.” Eddie, we get what you’re saying, but they do have those things in Seattle, you know. SP
15. “Chestnut Street” – Kendra McKinley: A few years ago, Aptos native Kendra McKinley lived in a house downtown on Chestnut Street, where she wrote an album by the same name. Lyrically, its title track is not explicitly Santa Cruz-focused. Actually, the song only has one line about even living at the house. Of course, that mention is also the only line in the three-minute song, a layered looping track that warmly captures the feeling of a cozy, rainy night. JP
16. “Paddle Out” – Sublime: This 75-second blast of noise was on Sublime’s third and final record, and is basically a list of beaches Bradley Nowell liked to surf at while he was going to UCSC (he transferred to CSULB, which is where he started Sublime). Big points for not only mentioning half a dozen beloved Santa Cruz surf spots in a song that’s just over a minute long, but also showing off some Locals Only expertise. “Natural Bridges on a clean west swell/Breaks over the reef like a bat out of hell.” That is some surf punk poetry. SP
17. “I Almost Stole Some Weed From Todd Snider” – John Craigie: John Craigie was backstage at the Catalyst four years ago opening for his idol Todd Snider, but the two “didn’t really hit it off,” as Craigie mentions in this confessional and hilariously dorky song. “So with all of this clearly not meant to be,” continues Craigie, normally a straight-laced guy, “I figured, why not steal a little bit of his weed?” It’s a hilarious entry from a modern-day rambling, slightly self-conscious, folk-singing troubadour. JP
18. “Santa Cruz” – J.J. Cale: Bluesy rocker J.J. Cale, who passed away in 2013, had a great relationship with Santa Cruz—he came through a lot, and always seemed to like playing here. So it’s pretty funny that his Santa Cruz song is one of the darkest and most menacing songs on this list. “Ooh-wee, how did I lose?/Talkin’ ’bout the night in Santa Cruz.” He sings it like something terrifying went down, but it turns out it’s just a show that didn’t go that well. I have to think the sonic melodramatics were his way of having a laugh at himself, given lines like “Hey, J.J., can you play ‘Cocaine?’/Do ‘After Midnight,’ it’s all the same.” SP
19. “Drag It Out” – GLAT: GLAT, a.k.a. songwriter Brett Hydeman, captures the sense of limbo felt by those few UCSC graduates who stick around after school for a few years—all by comparing this town to an eerie game of almost post-apocalyptic Monopoly: “Around here, she says, every card has been pulled/Hotels on every corner, but the Boardwalk’s gone cold.” Hydeman’s tune begs the question: how do you know when the game’s over? JP
20. “Losers Night Out” – The Huxtables: If you watched Stranger Things and thought, “gee, I wonder if my town had any socially awkward, D&D-playing supernerds,” this song is for you. In fact, when the Huxtables appeared on the local music scene, they repped a previously unsung faction of Santa Cruz geeks who believed that going to the donut shop and dropping quarter after quarter on the Marvel Super Heroes arcade game was a perfectly fine alternative to dating (“It’s Ferrell’s time/Ferrell’s time/We’re taking Thanos down tonight”). SP
We didn’t forget…
There’s a long list of runner-ups in the race for the best song in the West
Probably the best-known track that didn’t crack our top 20 was 2002’s “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far),” the debut single from the Thrills, Irish soft rockers who sang about a place that seemed so idyllic—and ironically very far away—in their imaginations.
One could say the song’s an exploration of loneliness, a theme that recurs in tunes about this town. The motif comes up again in San Francisco folk singer Avi Vinocur’s “Santa Cruz,” which focuses on the despair of a loved one skipping town, moving away to a beautiful new place. It also runs through the Mountain Goats’ “Someone Else’s Parking Lot in Santa Cruz,” which was eliminated from contention for the top 20 because it later became “Someone Else’s Parking Lot in Sebastopol” for John Darnielle’s side project the Extra Glenns.
The loneliness trend isn’t new, either. It also pops up in Eddie Callahan’s creepily melancholy “Santa Cruz Mountains,” released on 1975’s False Ego.
There are more rock songs as well, like Tom Petty’s slow-rocking “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove,” which includes a verse about our motel and hospitality industry. Then there’s They Might Be Giants’ postmodern, perhaps lazily written “Santa Cruz,” off their album about venues they’ve played in. Add to that two Doobie Brother songs—the instrumental “Steamer Lane Breakdown” and the Prankster-esque “Neal’s Fandango.” Lost Gonzo Band, a forgotten 1970s supergroup, gave us “Santa Cruz After the Nick of Time,” painting the laid-back feel of a coastal road trip.
Fred Eaglesmith has a lost track off Ralph’s Last Show about the house of DJ “Sleepy” John Sandidge, who has become embedded in Americana song lore.
Environmentalist Peter Scott and his former mayor wife wrote the adorable “Dancing on the Brink of the World” about the San Lorenzo River, although good luck finding a recording.
Outsiders have written about how Santa Cruz is so beautiful, it feels heartbreaking—somehow making people miss their loved ones more. Locals, though, often prefer to write about the chaos, insecurity and difficulty of trying to make ends meet here—a theme that comes up again in James Rabbit’s “Ocean Street,” which songwriter Tyler Martin drafted one night during the year he spent in my living room closet, saving up money for his next tour. JACOB PIERCE