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The greatest band you never heard of

A look behind the scenes at the Cramps. First, a cpl-three of my personal favorites.

Yes, I’m aware that the Cramps’ bare-bones, raw, stripped-to-the-primer sound; the shock/schlock vintage horror-movie sensibilities which are shot through both their recordings and their onstage presentation; and Lux Interior’s more-shouted-than-sung vocal style isn’t going to appeal to all of y’all CF Lifers—let alone the bizarre way he prowls and flings himself around onstage, the outré antics, the in-your-face freaky-deakiness. I can see how that might be off-putting to those who didn’t come of age during the mid-70s punk rock explosion like I did, and that’s cool. In consideration of more-restrained and/or genteel tastes, I’ll do y’all a favor and just tuck the rest of this post away beneath the fold.

One of the verymost intense and exciting live performances I ever witnessed was the Cramps’ headlining gig at CLTs venerable Park Elevator club, the same venue where I rode my old 1971 FLH up onto the stage a few years later, blipped the throttle a few times, and parked it by my blonde Bassman amp as the BPs were launching into our opening number. The Cramps concluded their encore set on the aforementioned night with Lux stalking recklessly atop the dizzyingly-high PA stacks, wearing nothing but a leopard-print G-string and a pair of red spike stripper-heels, wallowing and raving as the band’s frenzied, driving attack reached its thunderous climax behind (and below—WAY below) him.

Everyone in the joint was drenched in sweat, utterly exhausted, and happy as some clams, if the languid smiles were any indication. I know I was, anyway.

I won’t embed it here due to its 15 minutes-plus length, but if you’re interested you definitely ought to watch this YewToob documentary on the Cramps. It’s fascinating, even sweetly touching in places, specifically the footage featuring Lux and his wife of 37 years, lead guitarist/songwriter/producer Poison Ivy Rorschach (Kristy Wallace IRL; Lux was born Erick Lee Purkhiser). The couple met in 1972 at Sacramento State College, moving to Lux’s hometown of Akron, Ohio in 74 before landing in NYC just in time to launch the Cramps in 1976 as part of New York’s punk rock revolution.

Even as a diehard Cramps fan of many years’ standing, I learned something from the documentary I hadn’t known before: the Cramps were acknowledged among friends, fans, and inner-circle types as being “Ivy’s band,” a less-than-obvious truth that even Lux himself never tried to gainsay or dispute. Though she seldom got credit for it, Ivy ran this show, in every sense, and nobody but NOBODY dares to claim otherwise.

The “touching” part arises from the onscreen interaction between the devoted couple during the interview clips: they simply can’t stop looking at each other, respectfully consulting each other on every question, in constant physical contact if it’s nothing more than two fingers absently intertwined. Unconventional though their lifestyle was, Poison Ivy and Lux were as perfect, as complete a couple as I can ever remember seeing, in any context. Small wonder, then, that since her husband’s untimely death in 2009 Ivy has been a recluse: declining all interview requests, shunning the spotlight, just quietly walking away from the rock and roll grind with neither fuss nor fanfare.

In this interview, Lux tenders an opinion I couldn’t agree with him more on, which I’ll boldface and italicize for y’as.

Sal: Lately, as far as listening, has anything been on the record player for awhile? I guess being on tour is kinda hard.

Lux: Oh all kinds of stuff. We listen to stuff all the time. We bring a CD player, 2 big boxes of cassettes and stuff, compilations I’ve made out of singles. That stuff we always take with us. Just a lot of Rockabilly stuff is kinda what we are listening to, it’s really our favorite thing. We did that interview in Incredibly Strange music talking about Bachelor Pad Music, that’s what they’re calling that these days, we listen to that sometimes, that’s sometimes a fun thing to listen to but our real passion is Rockabilly and 60s.

Sal: There seems to be lots of Rockabilly coming out. I mean I remember the first time in the 70s Rockabilly resurgence but now there’s so many, even more things coming out of the vaults. It’s like a time machine, people cranking them out.

Lux: There seems to be a lot of bands that seems to treat it too reverently. You know, they sing about boppin’ in the soda shop and all this kinda stuff and that ain’t what rockabilly is supposed to be about. It’s really supposed to be about sex. And I like Reverend Horton Heat, they do something new with it, and there are a few other bands that do. I wish that somebody would take Rockabilly a step further, and Psychobilly that’s not sexual enough, it’s too fast and not sexual enough most of the time. It’s kind of like Rockabilly mixed with punk. It seems it’s not as sexy as it should be.

Sal: Yeah it doesn’t really seem to be concerned with that. It seems to be concerned with the hair-do’s and basically how fast they can play. It’s not tribal enough or sensuous.

Lux: Yeah, I mean if Elvis was concerned about what came 30 years before him, he’d be doing the Charleston. It makes no sense.

Sal: It didn’t seem like they want to be rule breakers, like Elvis was more into breaking the rules, so was Jerry Lee Lewis and all the original people.

Lux: Yeah and I think that’s what Rock’n’Roll is really all about whether it’s R’n’B, Rockabilly, whatever it is. I think the Stooges were a great band. They did something brand new when they started, they were about breaking rules and every once in a while something like that happens. But I don’t see much happening since punk rock hit (in) the 70s, you know the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the American bands like the Ramones, when that happened and when we started out, I think that was culture changing and people are still copying that, fashion is copying that and since then Grunge was just a copy of early 70s progressive rock. The thing that punk rock rebelled against – and retro – that’s just disco for the fifth time over again. I’d like to see a bunch of 16 year old kids do something exciting and new with R’n’R. That’d be great.

Concur. From the above, as well as the Cramps’ recorded output and live shows, it’s clear as crystal that Lux was no great admirer of what I’ve always called “Rockabilly under glass” or “Museum-quality rockabilly,” and neither am I. Oh, there are a handful of really good trad-RaB artists out there who play it the old-fashioned way—such as High Noon, or Sweden’s the Go-Getters—but nonetheless bring their own fresh passion, originality, and creativity to the party.

With the museum-quality bands, on the other hand, it all seems to be about getting the correct vintage clothes, the perfect pompadour, the correct vintage gear, and then taking the stage to try and out-Eddie Cochran Eddie Cochran, ferchrissake. It’s a mug’s game, and after seeing an endless succession of these grave-robber bands at one of the big RaB weekenders like, say, Viva Las Vegas, it gets mighty boring mighty quick. My late wife disdained the copycat breed as “RockaNazis”; she had no more patience with them than I do, or Lux did, bless her outlaw heart.

For years, I made it a point to flaunt black nail polish and heavy eyeliner onstage, just to annoy the RockaNazi types. As our repertoire evolved from mostly classic-rockabilly covers to more muscular, harder-edged originals, the BPs caught our share of grief from the fussy traditionalists for playing “too loud,” “too hard,” “too fast,” etc over the years, which was just jake with me.

I dropped the period-perfect garbadine jackets, slacks, and brothel creepers for black jeans and engineer boots. I still worked gobs of NuNile pomade into my hair, but instead of a laboriously-constructed pompadour I started cutting it myself, grew it waaay out on top with razor-short back and sides, and let my preposterously long, greasy bangs fall where they would as the night wore on, the crowd got rowdier, and the sweat made the pomade run in rivers down into my stinging eyes.

In light of my post-adolescent rebellion against all things staid and traditional, then, can it come as any big surprise that what I consider to be one of the most gratifying moments of my life should occur in, oh, around 1999 or thereabouts, when I was living in ATL?

See, it went down this way: my friend Mark, who had been playing bass with us for a jot under a year, was gainfully employed as a bar-back at the fabled Masquerade Club and got tasked with picking up Lux and Ivy at the airport and bringing them back to the venue for soundcheck in his ratty old van. The rest of the band arrived earlier in the tour bus; can’t remember why it was that the other two had to fly in, but whatevs.

As Mark related to me the next day, he had a pile of the Playboys’ recently-released live CD strewn about the floor between the front seats, which Ivy noticed with delight. She picked one up and asked Mark, “Oh, do you know these guys? We LOVE them, they’re a fantastic band!” Mark grinned back over at her and allowed as how he was our new upright bassist, he had the CDs to help him learn our songs. Whereupon Ivy responded, “Me and Lux have ALL their CDs, except for this one. We didn’t even know they had a live record out, it’s the first time I’ve seen it!”

Lux affirmed his wife’s statements, and when they all got to the Masq Mark gifted his passengers with four or five copies of One Nite Of Sin to add to their own personal stash back home. Being complimented in such fashion by Lux Interior and Poison Ivy is praise indeed as far as I’m concerned, and has to be one of the high points of my entire life—even moreso now that I know how congruent our attitudes and stylistic approaches to the music we played really was.

Ivy, I sincerely hope you’re well, and as happy as may be, y’know, considering. Thanks for all the music, the fun, and the memories.


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