Thursday, February 5, 2009
How Far Can Too Far Go?: Deceased Artiste Lux Interior of the Cramps
It’s a magical sound, the sound of the Cramps. The band has been written off for some time as punk legends who got stale, but they never were as simple as punk (all the best punk acts were never as simple as that label implied). The Cramps have been the foremost purveyors of garage and rockabilly and psychedelia and surf and wonderfully overdone stage theatrics and unforgettably brilliant bad B-pictures and Bettie Page-like chix shimmying in revealing outfits, while the guitar twang was produced by an equally alluring woman sporting a revealing outfit. The lead singer and man who put the brain into the monster died yesterday, one Lux Interior, a guy who was never afraid to look utterly ridiculous on stage, and who exuded his love for this pretty much lost music every single time he sang a cover tune, or an original that seemed like it had already been written….
The Cramps have been one of the best “gateway” acts to discovering the lost world of garage music, which is now in the process of being celebrated and codified by Little Steven in the Underground Garage. I am a listener of that show (and the Sirius network when I have a “free pass”) and love what he’s doing in the UG, but I’ve noticed since I started listening that the Cramps have been played a sum total of once on his syndicated radio show, and have only shown up on the Sirius channel when someone else (Billy Kelly, Handsome Dick Manitoba) plays them (one spin of "Bikini Girls" does not a tribute make). This has been a big gap in the "garage” handbook, as it’s pretty evident that Lenny Kaye may have indeed kickstarted the entire garage phenomenon with his sacred 2-LP Nuggets compilation, but for many of us, the Cramps were a lifeline to this music, playing it, riffing off it, and collecting it, with Lux all the time pointing his bony finger backward at the guys who originally wrote and sang the tunes.
I first heard about the Sonics, Hasil Adkins, and many others through Cramps covers of their work (and once you’ve heard “She Said” or “Strychnine” you do not forget them), and perhaps the single best compilations of cool garage and raucous rock ‘n’ roll besides the Nuggets collections are the bootlegs titled Songs the Cramps Taught Us. The Songs... are three long CDs that contain all the orginals the group covered. The range is there, from Charlie Feathers and Slim Harpo to Roy Orbison and Rick Nelson to the Count Five and the Third Bardo. The 45s loved and performed by Lux and his wife/guitarist “Poison Ivy” Rorschach were, indeed, to borrow a term from Little Steven’s playbook, “the coolest songs in the world.” (The original Cramps-inspired rock classix collections Born Bad are also great, but not as thorough as Songs....)
The Cramps also constantly pointed the way back to some of the most enjoyably strange and silly movies ever made, from Russ Meyer’s brilliantly twisted sex comedies to the Ed Wood films, Herschell Gordon Lewis’ gorefests and biker-babe pics to (again) Irving Klaw’s Bettie Page loops to totally forgotten softcore pics (you don’t think Lux came up with the title “Hot Pearl Snatch” on his own, didja?).
I was turned on to Lux and Ivy’s crazed genius by my college friend Dave, who recommended the 1983 compilation Off the Bone as a good place to dip into the band. It’s an excellent collection that I’ve played way, way too many times, which mixes tracks from their first two LPs, debut EP, and a live song. Lux and Ivy were a married couple who shared a love for vintage vinyl (check out the Incredibly Strange Film Book for a delicious view of their collection), and their initial albums contained delectable covers (in fact whenever Ivy graced them, the albums had delectable covers) peppered with new songs written by the “Interiors.” As time went on, the band turned mostly to their own tunes, which indeed did sound like the older tunes. Thus the charge went that the act “had lost its steam.” Besides the fact that even their meagerest albums (and remember, friends, every band’s got ’em) were still imminently playable, it’s a fact that their stage show was always pure distilled madness by the now late Lux.
The set-up was simple: a tight group of three musicians, led by the terrifically attractive (and truly ageless) Ivy — who also happens to be a top-notch musician — behind a tall thin madman sporting an androgynous/movie-monster/pre-goth look. As the show progressed (and particularly as they reached the older tunes), Lux would move into Iggy territory, but with a twist. Instead of simply hurling himself into the audience like the Ig, Lux would ascend the speakers, usually to the balcony, clad only in skin-tight pants (usually vinyl) and high-heels. He would swig from a liquor bottle (that obviously contained something non-alcoholic) and would perform a song or two to the balcony or the rafters, or whoever the hell was in the uppermost reaches of the club. As Lux did all this, Ivy and the other two musicians would hold down their end, her looking as bored as she could be (while still keeping to the Link Wray model of crisp perfection). It seems weird to me to be putting all this text into the past tense, as I have looked forward to the Cramps’ gigs in NYC for about 25 years now, and can’t quite conceive of the fact that the lecherous, slightly mad gent in the heels was actually, the last times I saw him on stage, a man in his 50s with a heart condition. There was no way to know that, but you always thought he'd slip in those damned shoes....
The band remained a killer act on stage not because of Lux’s shtick, but because of the songs they performed and their love of them. The first half of the show would of necessity be a big plug for the new album (the audience in the club were all marks like myself who would, of course, acquire it on vinyl, long into the CD era). The second half would be things from the band’s first five immortal albums and covers that lent new life to those Songs the Cramps Taught Us.
It’s best to always hear vinyl-crazy performers on the medium they so loved, but MP3s will work if you’re just interested in encountering the band for the first time. Here is the discography, as it is available online. The first five are indispensable:
Songs the Lord Taught Us
Smell of Female
Off the Bone
A Date with Elvis
Look Mom No Head
Big Beat from Badsville
Fiends of Dope Island—not online
Confessions of a Psychocat
Rockin ’n’ Reelin’ in Auckland New Zealand
The official rarity comp How To Make a Monster
Live at CBGBs
And the most interesting find of all: an upload of a one-shot radio special that Lux did where he played his fave wax. It's a very groovy (and influential -- I can i.d. one local radio host here in NYC who might've heard it) program called, in honor of the late Ernie Anderson's "Ghoulardi" character, The Purple Knif. Download it here.
And here are the compilations that will make life a hell of a lot more entertaining, and give you a fucking AMAZING crash course in rockabilly, garage, "psychobilly," novelty records, and truly the coolest records on this spinnin' orb!
Songs the Cramps Taught Us, Vol. 1
Songs the Cramps Taught Us, Vol. 2
The whole damn Born Bad series!
And for those in search of a really thorough trip through the backwoods, the garage, and the insane asylum, check out the most exhaustive compilations, the series compiled by rabid fans on the Net (which I just discovered and will be sifting through for weeks to come!) called "Lux and Ivy's Favorites". The rest of the volumes can be found here. The compiler of these awesome collections goes by the nick "Kogar the Swinging Ape" (what a Rat Pfink!), and I offer him my undying admiration.
HERE is a link to a piece of memorabilia I remember I didn't have the dough to purchase back in the Eighties: a really fine tour booklet that has some nice pics, the story of visiting Ed Gein's home by Lux Interior, and Ivy's list of her fave movie quotes. The way the booklet is uploaded, you'd need some kinda Photoshop technology to zoom into the pages but what the heck, it's free! UPDATE: Here it is again, this time as a download, thanks to Ride Your Pony
ANOTHER UPDATE: There is an entire blog containing great pics and rarities called Brain-Steak Bikini, maintained by a Belgian fan. It reveals, among other things, that books on the Cramps are available overseas. Makes perfect sense to me as, again, America never really recognizes its finer talent until it goes away. Lux's death made the Yahoo! front page, and was prominently featured on rollingstone.com and mtv.com, but most folks you talk to have never even heard of the Cramps. The group's act did have a solid amount of campy humor, but they were never cute like the B-52s or cuddly-grungy like the Ramones. Perhaps their logo will now become a popular item on T-shirts worn by poseurs who barely know of their music (I can't tell ya how many Ramones shirts I see now on the streets of NYC).
But, we need to get back to the music. Here are the clips that rate as the best Cramps material on YouTube (I’m not including the Urgh! A Music War performance of “Human Fly” because that is everywhere on that site and others):
Super-rare Super-8 of the group in the early days. This YouTube poster deserves a major thank-you from the afflicted fans:
The band’s seminal publicity film, “Garbageman” (every single goth band in the universe has stolen this look and mood):
The band at CBGBs, shot for a Japanese punk documentary, a great raw performance of “Human Fly” and “I was a Teenage Werewolf”:
One of their finest covers, “Goo Goo Muck”:
Lux celebrates Halloween with bad gag items. Lovely Ms. Ivy wisely remains in the background:
There aren’t many interviews on YT, but this one is probably the most intriguing, as they both talk about their interest in the seedy side of L.A., where they moved to after living in NYC during (yes) the punk era.
A song I’d like to call a personal anthem, “People Ain’t No Good.”
The band’s “answer song,” another bit of well-worn wisdom, “All Women are Bad.” Here's a dancing babe shimmying to the tune:
Lux and Ivy’s compositions would spell out the sexuality that was hinted at in the songs they covered. One of the band’s finest albums, A Date with Elvis, featured plenty of tunes devoted to worship of the vagina. One of the snappiest is “Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?”:
The band reached its biggest-ever audience, in the U.S. at least (they have a giant following overseas, as always happens with genuine American talent), when they appeared on a Halloween episode of Beverly Hills 90210:
The uncensored (yes, there breasts in here, but don’t tell YT) version of “Ultra-Twist”:
On the topic of covers, only Lux and Ivy could rock the fuck out of “Muleskinner Blues”:
And they gave many of us our first glimpse at the twisted brilliance of Hasil Adkins. Here is the Haz performing his original tune (covered by the Cramps), “She Said.” Haz likens the woman whom he wakes up to a “dyin’ can of commodity meat” — pure country poetry.
The Cramps cover Dwight Pullen’s “Sunglasses After Dark” with a riff blissfully stolen from Link Wray’s “Fatback”:
And since Ivy deserves infinite appreciation, too, let us see the husband pay tribute to his wife. The video for “Like a Bad Girl Should.” Yes, Ms. Rorschach is in her 50s here (and I think the glass table is a reference to the lovely rumor that persists about Otto Preminger):
The toughest questions are always the best. ”How Far Can Too Far Go?”
Thanks much for all those years of wild, unforgettable entertainment, Lux. My sympathies to his collaborator and life partner, Ivy.