Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Thoughts on the Cramps

Poison Ivy and Lux Interior, by Steve Jennings

I interrupt my two-part interview with Tony Bardach to pay homage briefly to the newly late Cramps vocalist Lux Interior, who died earlier today of heart problems at age 62.

My fondest memories of the Cramps are actually peripheral to their music. The first involves the repeated occasions where I would argue at length with my Goth/punk friends of yore about the meaning of "Garbageman," back in Maple Ridge. We were all naive, sheltered suburban types, attracted to the music and the fashion of punk, but hardly living on the street; in fact, we were all living with our parents. Though I was a complete stranger to drug use - and actually quite judgmental about it - through my teen years, I had read Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries, and knew a little bit about the language of heroin: so when Lux sang, "You ain't no punk, you punk/ You wanna talk about the real junk?" I knew what he was talking about. No one else believed me! Even when I pointed out that Lux is plainly seen holding a syringe as he sings the song in the rock video - which we taped on VHS and watched over and over, back in those pre-Youtube days, when exposure to this sort of thing over the airwaves was rare and precious - my big-hair'd Skinny-Puppy-listening female compatriots refused to be swayed; meanwhile, I was experiencing one of my first moral objections to a punk rock song, since heroin hardly seems something to glorify ("Do you want the real thing or are you just talkin'?" he taunts; at least the Velvets' tune presents the substance with enough of its self-destructive baggage to give people pause. Lux seems to just want to gloat that he's cooler'n everyone else because he shoots up - an irresponsible sentiment indeed). Objections or no, I kept my Cramps albums - I had Songs the Lord Taught Us, Bad Music for Bad People, and Psychedelic Jungle - and when they toured through Vancouver on (I believe) the Date With Elvis tour, playing out at UBC in nineteen-eighty-something-or-other, myself and these same Skinny Puppy types, we bought tickets and went.
Once again, my most cherished remembrances of that night did not involve the Cramps per se. The sweetest involves sitting on a wall waiting for the show to start, and having some other black-clad, big-haired, white-skinned Goth/punk types come to talk to us. (Note: I did not, myself, have big hair; I favoured a prison surplus workshirt and for awhile had a quasi-mohawk). My black-attired female friend, sitting next to me, made the comment to one of the newly arrived girls: "You're so pale, it's disgusting." And I watched this newcomer's face fall, as she took this in.

Somehow I apprehended what was the matter. "She means she's jealous," I chimed in (Allan to the rescue!). And then everything was okay again - the girl visibly flushing with relief that she was not, in fact, being verbally abused by "one of our own."
I also vividly remember one of our party piercing her own nostril with a sewing needle that afternoon, so she could wear a stud to the show. There were far fewer places, I imagine, that would do it for you back then - or else it was prohibitively expensive. It was fun to see her walking around with the needle jutting out of her schnoz at a right angle. After the show, waiting for buses to take us back to the house off Victoria where we were crashing (an old three-story where the Animal Slaves used to practice), I remember dancing with a young male punk on the grass as he sang "The Mad Daddy" and then lying exhausted on the grass, watching a star that seemed to be moving - a satellite or a UFO or some damn thing - in the clear sky above. No one else could see it - I tried to point it out to them, this little dot in the heavens - but as I recall I was the only one who actually could spy it. This moment is clearer than anything Lux did that night.
Sometimes with musicians whose image much precedes them, it is fairly difficult to actually believe you're there watching the show happen; you end up doing reality checks all night, wondering what anything means, and can't quite enter into the spirit of things. I felt that way seeing Neil Young and Crazy Horse; I felt that way a couple of years ago, seeing Iggy and the Stooges. It was thus on this evening. I struggled with the mosh pit, and wondered if Lux resented the audience's chanted demands that he strip; news reports had circulated that he'd taken his pants off at the previous Cramps' concert in Vancouver, and people really wanted to see his weenie, I guess. He did not remove his pants on this night, and encores - I vaguely recall "Surfin' Bird" - were brief. I was disappointed, truth be known - not by not being treated to an eyeful of Lux's cricket-set, but because I'd expected the uninhibited wildman of the "Tear It Up" clip, and got, instead, a polished performer whose personal connection to what he was doing remained a bit mysterious to me. I recall reading an even more negative show review in Discorder, where the reviewer claimed that Lux had thrown a fit and trashed his tape recorder when he tried to get an interview, afterwards (it's quite possible the interviewer was being a dink). Opening act Slow left a far better impression, performing in blood-spattered nurses uniforms; it was the only time I got to see Slow play.

All the same, I did not give up on the Cramps. I have, to this day, a Cramps CD in my collection (Gravest Hits/ Psychedelic Jungle). I imagine people who use them as a "gateway drug" to rockabilly and garage punk revere them far more than I do - in the way I revere Peter Stampfel, say, for turning me onto the joys of oldtimey. I'd probably be a much bigger admirer if I'd progressed on to Hasil Adkins, say. Still, I almost always smile when the Cramps surface in the local urban ambience; I highly enjoyed watching Little Miss Risk at the Biltmore's burlesque Kitty Nights last Sunday do a "mad scientist" striptease to the tune of "Human Fly," for instance... even if her performance (and truly, all others) was ultimately eclipsed by the excellent and unexpected singing voice (to say nothin' of the soft fleshy curves) of Yvonne Le Monstre. I'm glad the Cramps have endured, and that there's a whole lot of tattooed, pale, shockabilly-lovin' "Goth Girls 2.0" who love their music; my condolences to Poison Ivy Rorschach, Lux's bandmate and widow, and my hope for Lux that the REAL void is as pleasant to repose in as drug-induced ones.

Eerily, yesterday, I was listening to the Cramps' cover of Sheriff and the Ravel's surf-doo-wop-garage hit "Shombalor" yesterday (coincidentally, the original was introduced to me by Peter Stampfel - things have a way of connecting). I was briefly struck by the thought that Lux was going to die, which I dismissed. When I checked the Wikipedia Recent Deaths page this afternoon and saw that a punk musician named Erick Purkhiser had died, I knew before I saw his band who it was.
So I needed to pay my respects: even though I guess I'm not the most devoted Cramps fan out there, there are few punk bands who have done their homework so well, or had so big a cultural impact.

There's much on Youtube to allow you to pay your own respects to Lux tonight. Check out the Cramps' excellent "Bikini Girls With Machine Guns" - one of the better rock videos out there; or Lux in PVC and red high heels in the video for "Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs." There's even the whole Live at Napa State Mental Hospital show, it looks like, divided up into clips.
Beats the hell out of having to break out the videocassettes.


cyberprof said...

Al- Derek Elliott here- those were the days hangin out with Zarowni and pretending we knew about 'ard times!!- I was at that show with John Cuipka and as Lux hit the stage someone yelled 'elvis lives'... the gold lame suit and tiara were sublime! It stands out as one of my alltime highlights of live shows- right up there with the Femmes at the Commodore...I heard the news and started surfin through old memories- glad i cam across your blog- Cheers!

Madame Hell said...

I dunno but I'm feeling all restless tonight... thinking about Lux dying gets me down I guess. Nice tribute, though as to "gateway drug", the Cramps ARE my drug.

I love you Lux xxxxx