Santa Cruz 1: Harbinger

Things didn’t go as planned in Santa Cruz, but I learned some important lessons. I’d like to share these lessons, especially one biggie, over the next few posts. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In this post, I want to share the premonitory episodes that took place on the first night in Santa Cruz. But even before I get to that, some back-story should be shared.

Santa Cruz wasn’t initially on the radar for Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh. I already had a Spring Break beach trip planned (initially for this year but postponed until 2016) to Daytona Beach, FL. Then my good friend Chris called to say that he had access to a cabin at Mission Springs, near Santa Cruz, and asked if I would like to do some tattoo research among the surfing crowd that gravitates there. He also mentioned that Echo and the Bunnymen, one of our favorite 80s bands, would be playing Santa Cruz in early August. We checked the dates and made it happen.

On the way in to the cabin, we stopped at a coffee shop in Scotts Valley. I noticed that they served vacuum-pot coffee. I asked the barista about it, but unfortunately they were too busy training some new staff to take the time necessary to make that particular type of coffee. I would have to wait one more day to experience what is supposed to produce the smoothest coffee on the planet. We bought some beans for the cabin and chatted with the barista, who was sporting a number of tattoos. When I told her that I liked her ink and asked if there might be a story, she shared that she had struggled with depression in her life (I also saw, but did not comment on what I assumed were cutting scars on her arms). She pointed out the tattoo on her wrist, which reminded her to STAY STRONG. At that moment I thought our conversation was a promising sign that Santa Cruz would indeed be a great place for ink-talk. Little did I know that this would be one–and definitely the most meaningful– of only a small number of tattoo-initiated conversations we’d have that week.

After we got settled in the cabin, we headed into downtown Santa Cruz for some dinner at Kianti’s. From their lovely outdoor seating, we were able to observe the constant stream of foot traffic through the downtown strip. It was impossible not to notice a burned-out young couple who looked like zombies. For no apparent reason, the woman looked terrified and the man looked completely defeated. When we saw them later, they looked slightly more relaxed but just as lost. We would see them again several times throughout the week.

Our waitress was professional and friendly. We learned that she was from Costa Rica and was in the USA studying at UC Santa Cruz. I said, “Oh, so you’re a slug”, referring to the UCSC mascot, the Banana Slug. She agreed, but asked us to keep that on the down-low; for some reason the locals aren’t all that appreciative of their local university. I asked why, and she surmised that it had to do with the impact UCSC students had on local apartment prices. I thought it a bit strange, especially since the school resides up the hill from the city of Santa Cruz, but as a fellow outsider, I took note of her experience.

Chris and I crossed the street to The Catalyst, where we would remain for the concert. An innocuous acoustic duo played a few opening numbers, after which we were ready for the Bunnymen. However, the Bunnymen weren’t quite ready for us, and their stage crew took quite some time setting up after the opening group and their equipment were cleared. We guessed that the group had not taken a sound-check prior to the show; all the instruments needed tuning and the amplifiers checking. We were excited to see and hear the guys we had promoted and listened to during our days in college radio–even though our colleges were on opposite coasts.

Down went the house lights,IMG_1947 and Echo and the Bunnymen took the stage. Singer Ian McCulloch, wearing dark sunglasses, assumed a statuesque pose at center stage, both hands around the microphone which was held in a floor stand before him. This would be his position during every song they played. Guitarist Will Sergeant, the other of  two original members present that evening, took his place to the far left with a red Fender Jaguar in his hands. The rest of the band consisted of a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, and a second guitarist. I took quite a few photos with my iPhone that night, the best of which is here on the left. We enjoyed the opening few numbers before we began to observe some strange things happening onstage.

First of all, the lighting was coming exclusively froIMG_1944m the rear of the band, effectively placing them all into silhouette. Their faces remained in shadow, as you can see in this photo on the right. That was disappointing as I (as well as, I imagine, most people) had been looking forward to “seeing” the band perform. Even though we were relatively close to the stage, facial expressions were indistinguishable. McCulloch’s sunglasses remained in place for the entire performance, which added a certain absurd sense of irony, considering that all the lighting was coming from behind the band. The guitar technician had to hold a flashlight so that Sergeant could see what he was playing!

Between songs, McCulloch spoke to the crowd, but his words were indecipherable. I’m not sure if it was his accent, his state of insobriety, or a combination of the two, but other than a few f-bombs, we couldn’t make out anything. Then he would turn away from the audience, to a small table that contained a glass of milk, a second glass of brown liquid that we assumed was some form of hard liquor, a pack of cigarettes, and a lighIMG_1954ter. At first he smoked between songs, then switched to keeping one lit as he sang. Milk, booze, and cigarettes. Probably not suggestions given to him by his vocal coach, but they were McCulloch’s stage staples.

The band didn’t  interact much with one another, and even less with the audience. During two of their best-known songs, the whole band pulled back their volume so the audience could be heard singing on the chorus, but other than that, there was pretty much zero interaction. Chris and I talked about this after the show. At first we agreed that their stage presence was intense, but the best word Chris found to describe the experience was “impenetrable.” They seemed unhappy and/or bored to be there, which might have been explained by the small stage, the small venue, the lighting, the lack of a sound-check, jet-lag, or many other things. The audience was excited, but it seemed like the band was ready to head for bed.

I should add one correction to that last paragraph. Echo and the Bunnymen performed two encores after the show. One of them was my favorite selection from their library: Lips Like Sugar. At the end of the show, and at the end of each of these two encores, McCulloch threw cigarettes (unlit, thankfully) into the audience. Not sure why, but there were plenty of folks smoking outside the venue afterwards, and they were probably pleased with the gifts. I guess that was interaction, Bunnymen-style.

These experiences, all of which took place on our first evening in Santa Cruz, were a collective harbinger of the week to come. As I will write in the next entry or two, the Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh experience of Santa Cruz was intense, but in the end pretty much impenetrable. Just as the lights and sunglasses obscured these performers, we would find that many of our experiences, from surf shops to coffee shops, were more confusing and less engaging than we had hoped. Fortunately, there were lessons to be learned, which I will begin to share in my next post.