WALLACE BAINE: Forget about keeping Santa Cruz weird; have we lost our once-notorious edge entirely?
When “The Lost Boys” came out in 1987, it put on display the edge Santa Cruz had become known for. Nearly a quarter-century later, it’s worth reevaluating whether those same eccentric ideals are still part of this place.
We all remember the beginning title sequence of “The Lost Boys,” as the protagonist mom and her two sons first arrive in “Santa Carla” (Santa Cruz’s barely-even-trying drag name).
Just as we first spy “Murder Capital of the World” graffitied on back of the sunshiny Welcome to Santa Carla sign, the familiar guitar line of the Doors’ “People Are Strange,” in this case covered by Echo & the Bunnymen, strikes up, followed by an extended montage of images designed to evoke the kinda-seedy-kinda-cool vibe of Santa Cruz in the mid 1980s.
It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but as “People Are Strange” percolates in the background, we are witness to a parade of punks, goths, hippies, surfer dudes, cruisers, skate rats, mohawks, shirtless loiterers, and at least one grimacing neo-druidic high priest of weirdness in a black medieval cowl.
True, “The Lost Boys” is not a documentary. But this vaguely menacing freak show sequence was drawn from Santa Cruz locals who signed on as extras, goaded by announcements in the local news media one spring day back in 1986: “Colorful extras needed by major motion picture.”
Exaggerated? Maybe. But anyone who was hanging out in Santa Cruz in the ’80s and ’90s knows that “People Are Strange” would not have been too far off the mark as the city’s theme song.
Santa Cruz in the Reagan/Bush era could point to any number of homegrown countercultures in town: musical, sexual, political, even intellectual. And these renegades against mainstream monotony were out in the streets and on the sidewalks every day.
Today, 35 years after “The Lost Boys” was shot in and around Santa Cruz, there is at least one public reference to the Doors that remains: the downtown thrift shop Love Me Two Times. But generally, much of the “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” subcultures immortalized in “The Lost Boys” seems to be in hibernation, if not lost to history entirely. So I think it’s about time we ask:
Has Santa Cruz lost its edge?
This is not a rhetorical question. I’m asking it of anyone in Santa Cruz with an opinion on the matter. Sure, I have my viewpoint on the subject, but I don’t trust it. As a graybeard softie who is suddenly prioritizing bedtime over all other pleasures, I have about as much edge as a beach ball.
It’s entirely likely that my old-guy sensibilities are blind to the cutting-edge cultural ferment going on in town. Sometimes it feels like my ignorance is a mighty oak, and I’ve become much too comfortable sitting in its shade.
But this I do know: When I first started covering this town’s cultural scene as a newspaper reporter 30 years ago, Santa Cruz had nothing but edge.
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By “edge,” we mean a certain cultural tension defined by a kind of reckless defiance against the complacency of mainstream culture. “Edge” is that uneasy suspicion that many people around you every day are less timid and less compromised, and more passionate and more bold than you are. “Edge” might also mean public expressions that could carry real costs in terms of social stigma, ostracism, or even violence.
College towns are notorious for edge. Soon after the University of California landed in Santa Cruz, it was tagged as a kind of “Berkeley By the Beach.” But by the time “The Lost Boys” was shot in Santa Cruz, a better comparison might have been “Austin By the Ocean.”
In 1991, Austin, Texas, filmmaker Richard Linklater released the super weird film “Slacker,” a cockeyed profile of Austin’s brilliantly eccentric free spirits, but the film could have easily applied to Santa Cruz as well. A decade after “The Lost Boys,” Bookshop Santa Cruz launched the tongue-in-cheek “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” campaign which was lifted directly from a similar and earlier “Keep Austin Weird” movement.
I don’t know what’s happening in Austin, but Santa Cruz these days seems to have lost its fastball in the edge game. Perhaps it’s entirely a function of this maddeningly prolonged pandemic, but I suspect it’s more than that. For one thing, Santa Cruz is much too expensive and housing is too precious for too many punk rockers or transgressive artists to thrive here.
The transient college-age population that comes in and out of Santa Cruz is probably much more stressed by housing and financial factors than their counterparts from 30 years ago and thus don’t have the inclination to play hipster.
The internet and social media have also essentially flattened local subcultures as well, allowing people to find their tribe on a matrix other than geographical proximity. That means, in cities and towns everywhere, once-thriving “scenes” have been atomized out of existence by the lure of online acculturation.
But mostly, over the course of three decades, mainstream culture and market capitalism have just about swallowed edge whole, and in the process have bleached away much of its transgressive nature. Queer culture, for example, used to exist on the edge because it has no other place to exist. Now, all but two Major League Baseball teams have Pride Nights.
Years ago, in Santa Cruz, the fearlessly political queer artists of the Bulkhead Gallery were inventing whole new levels of edge with their provocative in-your-face work and ideas. Now, Kellogg’s markets “Together With Pride” rainbow-colored breakfast cereal. Who would have imagined that back in 1987?
Weed culture went legal, put on a tie, and renamed itself “cannabis,” and it doesn’t have to live on the edge anymore.
Weed culture went legal, put on a tie, and renamed itself “cannabis,” and it doesn’t have to live on the edge anymore. Tattoos and piercings not too long ago used to be badges of edge, an opportunity to show a real and (literally) painful commitment to individualism and non-conformity. Now such a notion seems positively antique. Punk bands these days are likely to have a 55-year-old lead singer, and a drummer with grandchildren.
In one way, Santa Cruz losing its edge might be good news. Today, in many parts of the country, the most potent and seductive form of cultural edge is coming from the political fever swamps of the far right, which has already masterfully refashioned the impulse of defiance and non-conformity to its own ends. Let’s hope that’s an edge that stays far out beyond the horizon.
So let us know what you think. Tell us something we don’t know. Has Santa Cruz lost its edge? Is there still a way to stake out an identity that stands on the edge of what’s acceptable in the mainstream? Is “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” an outdated idea? Is there an artist or artists in town who are pushing that cultural edge? To quote the Doors, are people still strange?