Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lux Interior: Requiem for the Undead

On Wednesday night I returned home from a show in Echo Park at around 10:30 and sat down to look up some info on the band I had just seen. As I was was surfing for info on the group at the NME website, I saw a news headline on the homepage that said "Cramps founder dies". I did a quick double-take to make sure I had read this correctly. What? No! This can't be!

Sadly, the news was indeed true that Lux Interior, the lead singer of the pioneering punkabilly group, The Cramps, had passed away early Wednesday morning in nearby Glendale from a pre-existing hear condition. I was absolutely stunned. I had no idea that he suffered from any health problems, but then he and his wife and co-conspirator, Poison Ivy, were always a fiercely private and secretive couple. Also, as a friend would mention to me later, "How can someone who is already dead die?"

This remark would have undoubtedly amused Lux. The Cramps entire image was founded on an obsession with horror films and trash culture of the 50's and 60's. Lux and Ivy looked like the freakiest and most ghoulish couple to ever walk the face of the earth. They could have jumped onto the screen of any zombie, vampire or monster movie of the last 75 years and fit in perfectly. Surely, a rock n' roll zombie can't really die, can he?

Erick Lee Purkhiser was born in Stow, Ohio, a small suburb of Akron, in 1946. From an early age he had a fascination with horror and sci-fi films of the 40's and 50's and EC comic books like, "Tales from the Crypyt" and "Vault of Horror". By his teen years he was also a huge fan of early rock and roll, particularly as it was presented by local Akron disc jockey, Pete "Mad Daddy" Myers. The Mad Daddy mixed horror, rock n' roll and R&B with a rapid-fire delivery that was usually done in rhyme and hipster jive. Another early influence was local late night television host ,Ghoulardi, who introduced horror and sci-fi B-movies on "Shock Theater" with his own hip slang, using catchphrases like "Stay Sick" and "Turn Blue".

After living in the Akron area into his early 20's and trying to avoid the Vietnam draft--mostly by staying unemployed and untraceable---Lux decided to move to California and enroll in college as a way of ducking the draft legitimately. He moved to Sacramento some time in the late 60's and began attending school at Sacramento State. One fateful day he met the person who would become his life-long partner in love, music and other crimes, one Kristy Marlana Wallace, born 1953 in Sacramento. Lux swears that he met her while she was hitch-hiking near campus in 1972. They also were in the same art class together and soon became inseparable,eventually moving into a mid-town apartment together.

Lux was already a fanatical collector of rockabilly, garage punk, surf, and early rock n' roll / R&B records, especially the really rare stuff. Records by regional garage bands that only released one or two 45s in limited quantities or that one rockabilly record that every hillbilly or failed country artist who thought he was going to be the next Elvis made. Ivy was also a big fan of early rockers like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy and particularly Link Wray. Lux did extensive record rummaging around Northern California, tracking down all kinds of rare stuff before there was a real market for it. It is worth noting that there was no re-issue market and generally no compilations for most of the rockabilly and garage obscurities that we take for granted today on collections like "Nuggets", "Pebbles" and "Desperate Rock and Roll". If you wanted to hear this stuff, you had to track down the original 45. Many of the people who were tracking down these obscure releases were the people who wound up putting together many of those quasi-legal compilations.

One favorite record haunt was the Records shop on the K Street Mall in downtown Sac. Ray, the late owner of the place, befriended Lux and Ivy and was instrumental in turning them onto R&B vocal groups (never say "Doo-Wop"), whose wild vocal gymnastics on up-tempo numbers would also play an important role in the eventual sound of The Cramps.

Tiring of what they thought was the "small town mentality" of mid-70s Sacramento, as were they of a hippie scene they did not feel a part of, the couple briefly moved back to Akron in early 1975, but by the fall, after having seen The New York Dolls perform and being inspired by their look and their desecretion/veneration of R&B, they decided to move to New York City and start a band. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision, as they wound up be at ground zero of the punk movement there, centered around the Bowery dive bar known as CBGB's. It was here that they adopted their new monikers of Lux Interior and Poison Ivy.

The band they put together would be an original amalgamation of all the things that Lux and Ivy had been soaking up for years--Lux was almost 30 at this point. The sound they came up with, to quote Lux, was "A patchwork hybrid with a life of it's own--a rock n' roll Brides of Frankenstein". Rockabilly was only the starting point. Rockabilly was fused with the fat, distorted, fuzztone power chords of Link Wray, the surf riffs of groups like The Ventures and the twangy reverb of Duane Eddy. The guitar playing was simple, but menacing and effective. Lux also said of their nascent sound, "There were all these bands, like The Rolling Stones and The New York Dolls, that took R&B and did something with it, but nobody had done anything with rockabilly yet". As a line in their seminal single "Garbage Man" said, they were indeed "one half hillbilly and one half punk".It was a sound that found room for Link Wray, Sun Records rockabilly singles and Sonics-style garage punk.

One novel approach they had in their early years was that they had no bass player. Instead they recruited second guitarist,Bryan Gregory, more for his looks (peroxide blonde hair combed forward, obscuring half of his acne scarred face, scary-looking face) than his musical ability. Gregory lay on thick sheets of atonal guitar noise while Ivy held down the more traditional, structured guitar licks. The drums would be a primitive, stomping beat (provided by Nick Knox) that was straight out of snarling garage punk classics of the mid-60's.On top of all of this was Lux's echo-drenched vocals and vocal mannerisms that were a combination of rockabilly yelps and hiccups, the nonsense jive of R&B vocal groups and bird calls and animal noises that may have come from Exotica records or Tarzan movies, maybe both.

Lyrics were handled exclusively by Lux and were such marvelously humorous and inventive things. Funny lines that were a distillation of every song lyric, movie dialogue quote,comic book image or Maddy Daddy and Ghoulardi bit he had ever heard or seen, mixed with a twisted sense of the macabre and more than a touch of surrealism. Later in their career he would dive whole heartedly into lewd and racy lyrics that were a product of the sex-ploitation films, such as Russ Meyers', that he became a big fan of, as well the "blue" lyrics of certain smutty, double-entendre jump blues records of the late 40's and early 50's. Here are a couple of examples of Lux's lyrics.

"Well I'm a human flyIt's spelt F-L-YI say buzz ,buzz, buzz, and it's just because..I'm a human fly and I don't know whyI got ninety six tears in my ninety six eyes.I got a garbage brain, it's drivin' me insaneAnd I don't like your ride, so push that pesticideAnd baby I won't care, 'cause baby I don't scare'Cause I'm a reborn maggot using germ warfare. Rockin'Zzzzz..." Human Fly (1978)

"oh baby i see you on my tv set yeah baby i see you on my tv set i cut your head off and put it in my tv set i use your eyeballs for dials on my tv set i watch tv i watch tv since i put you in my tv set oh baby i hear you on my radio yeah baby i hear you on my radio you know i flip flip flip for my radio you're going drip drip drip on my radio am radio pm radio since i tuned you inside my radio... like this! oh baby i see you in my frigidaire yeah baby i see you in my frigidaire behind the mayonnaise, way in the back i'm gonna see you tonight for a midnight snack but though it's cold you won't get old 'cause you're well preserved in my frigidaire" TV Set (1980)

" I been a drag racer on LSD, and i rode bare-assed on top of the shpinx, i even had a gorilla on the slopes of kismet, and man, that was fun for a while you bet but... well i savored many foriegn kinds of delicacies, intoxicated til i can't tell what the hell i could see, had all the violence and liquor within close reach, but all bars, pills and threeways lead me back to the beach and... now they say that virtue is it's own reward, but when that surf comes in i'm gunna get my board, got my own ideas about the righteous kick, you can keep the rewards, i'd just as soon stay sick..." Bikini Girls With Machine Guns (1990)

"Torso tossin'. Shockwave a causin'. A wammy in the boogaloo. Busted up bustle, too. Gear strippin' dynamo. Limbo down kinda low. I can do the camel walk. Torture me. I won't talk. Down in the fashion pits. Girls wearin' tourniquets. Rough and ready riff raff. Straight jacket sneak attack. Wig hat jack knife. Out on bail for life. Sex in the cycle set. Mama don't allow no pets." Dames, Booze, Chains, and Boots (1991)

The Cramps also excelled at covers, unearthing many obscure gems from rock and roll's past like "Goo Goo Muck" (Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads), "Sunglasses After Dark" (Dwight Pullen), "Rockin' Bones" (Ronnie Dawson), "She Said" (Hasil Adkins), "Love Me" (The Phantom), and "Save It" (Mel Robbins) just to name a few. These were never straight covers,but songs given a signature Cramps style, often slowed down, dirtied up and spooked out versions, with bits of other songs sometimes thrown into the mix, like in the case of "Sunglasses After Dark" which is fused with a Link Wray song called "Fat Back". In other cases the band shamelessly stole other songs and created their own. For example, The Busters "Bust-Out' instrumental would mutate into "I'm Cramped", while The Riptides "Machine Gun" would serve as the basis for "Call of the Wighat". There are a couple series of albums devoted exclusively to songs that the band covered or cribbed from, one being the "Born Bad" series and the other known as "Songs The Cramps Taught Us". Both are highly recommended, though not always easy to find due to them essentially being bootlegs. Whatever the case, one of the enduring legacies of The Cramps will be that they exposed many people to a ton of classic obscurities. They were a gateway drug to so much great music from the 50's and 60's.

The first two Cramps singles (Surfin Bird/The Way I Walk and Human Fly/Domino) were self-released in 1977 and 78' respectively and they were soon signed by IRS records where they were to do their most influential ,and many would argue best, work. 1980's "Songs The Lord Taught Us" and 81's "Psychedelic Jungle" are both considered the high water mark in terms of their quality and their hipness. These albums and assorted singles sides of their IRS tenure are still held in high esteem and even gave birth to an entire genre known as Psychobilly, a term they coined but later disowned when they became disenchanted with so many inferior groups trying to copy their style. During the early to mid-80's they were considered as cool and hip as any act out there. Any store selling rock merchandise would be sure to have plenty of Cramps t-shirts, buttons, stickers, and posters, almost always with their trademark dripping band name logo.

A legal fall out with IRS left them without a label for a few years and between 82' and 85' only the self-released (and subsequently licensed) 6 song live EP (of new material) "Smell of Female" came out. During this time they had also moved from New York City to Hollywood, California. By the time the of 1986's "Date with Elvis" album, they had ditched the second guitarist format and had recruited their first in a long line of bass players, for a more conventional set up. From this point forward, the songs lyrics became more sex-obsessed and less horror film-oriented. They became more burlesque ,and some would criticize, more cartoon-y. This may have resulted in a loss of some of the hipster crowd, but their now world-wide cult remained as strong as ever. They toured North America, Europe, Japan and Australia with regularity.

The longer they went on, the freakier their appearance became. What began as a look that was merely dressing in black, eventually became all manner of lingerie, gold lame, latex rubber bondage gear, leopard print pants,shirts and bikini briefs. Lux was known to wear high heel shoes,makeup and maybe a string of pearls on stage, too. Lux and Ivy also had the palest, mostly deathly pallor I have ever seen on two human beings. This just added to the allure and to the enduring image of the scary but somehow adorable freak show they had become over the years.

Live shows were where they were really in their element. A Cramps show was always an event, a guaranteed good time out. Many in the audience would dress as outlandishly as they did. Lux was the consummate showman, always giving 100% of himself and his body. He had a gallery of facial expressions he would pull during a performance as he stalked the stage, often seemingly trying to swallow the mic , dropping to his knees, his latex pants hanging half way down his ass as he would eventually be nearly (and occasionally entirely) naked by show's end and god knows how many mic stands he destroyed over the years.

The show-stopping finale for as long as I can remember was their version of The Trashmen's "Surfin Bird". This began as a fairly straight version of the first half of the song (the "Birds the Word" section) but when it came time for the "Poppa Om Mow Mow" second half, all hell would break loose and Ivy and whomever their bass player happened to be would unleash a wall of distorted noise for 10 to 15 minutes, the drummer (another revolving door after the January 1991 departure of the long-tenured Nick Knox) tried to keep up a relentless beat while Lux went totally berserk. Lux would destroy mic stands, climb all over the speaker stacks, lay on the ground writhing or pouring a bottle of wine over his body while still trying to sing the "Poppa Om Mow Mow" mantra. Words don't do this justice. Lets just say it was as unbelievable a spectacle as your are likely to see on a music stage. Pure theater of course, and heavily indebted to Iggy Pop's performance style,but thrilling nonetheless. One of the six times I saw the band was at a KWOD radio show concert where they were on the bill with The Jesus and Mary Chain and Weezer. Most of the audience were teens there for Weezer. When The Cramps went into their "Surfin' Bird" number, I have never seen so many shocked and baffled faces in my life. I think a number of them actually stepped back, away from the mayhem.

Now back to their recording career, both "Date With Elvis" (1986) and "Stay Sick" (1990) were both excellent albums in their new perverse, tongue-in-cheek style. "Stay Sick" contained the single 'Bikini Girls with Machine Guns', earning them their first national chart hit of any kind--number 35 in the UK. However, with 'Look Mom, No Head' (1991) it was the first time they genuinely disappointed me, though it has a handful of good tracks, especially "Dames, Booze, Chains, and Boots". 'Flame Job' (1994) I thought was a pretty good return to form; having what amounted to a major label deal certainly inspired them to dig a little deeper. However, 'Big Beat From Badsville' (1997) was just an awful piece of crap and it was the point where I stopped caring about them so much. They were back in indie-land and the album was a collection of really generic originals that had no impact. They were masters of unearthing great songs to cover (or steal shamelessly from) , but not on this dud. Not a single track was memorable at all.

The final album 'Fiends of Dope Island' (2003), released a full six years after the last one, was an improvement, but not by much. Ivy was just recycling the same old tired riffs and the Cramps formula seemed spent. They were not a band that was ever going to embrace any changes; it was the antithesis of what they were about in the first place. At least in the past they seemed inspired to write great songs. I guess eventually all artists lose it and become hacks or a shadow of their former selves.So, the last 13 years produced two fairly crappy albums that nobody bought and most people were not aware were out anyway.

Lux and Ivy had moved to Glendale in the late 80's and spent their time ensconced in their home with their massive record collection, their cult films ,Lux's 3-D photography and Ivy's cats. Whether they had a new album and tour or not, they would always emerge from their lair each year for a Halloween show in San Francisco (because they said SF gets into the spirit of that holiday the best) and maybe a New Years show in LA or SF.

They were still great live and could draw crowds world-wide as a cult act. They were a band that always seemed out of sync with what was going on, yet they endured. Bands form and break up, trends come and go, The Cramps outlasted them all. They were so completely original and true to themselves that they were almost beyond reproach, at least as a live act. Most bands develop a fanbase and more or less keep the same one until it dwindles to the select few. The Cramps, on the other hand, were always regenerating their audience. It was always a wide range in ages with many young people at the shows.

Their sound was already out of time with what was considered trendy in the punk/alternative/underground rock world, so they never fell out fashion. Really it was a timeless sound that lasted for over 30 years and will still sound great in another 30.

Hard to believe that the great ghoul of rock and roll is gone. He was a genuinely a hero of mine, from back at a time when I still had those. I never thought he would go this soon. Hell, since he seemed to be amongst the living dead, I wasn't sure he would ever disappear at all. I can't believe there will never be a Cramps show to go to again.

Perhaps Lux took a look around the beginning of the 21st century, found it boring, and went back into his crypt to sleep this one out, waiting to emerge again in the 22nd century to terrorize the world's stages and teach the human race of the future what real rock and roll is. Well, it's a nice dream anyway.


  1. Very well stated JBC-15!

    As you know, I know that record store on K street in Sacramento very well. I picked up my fair share of Who, Jam, Clash and Undertones records at that place. We used to call it "overpriced records." The records would have silly prices on it and then you would have to go up to Ray and negotiate a better price. I recall he and I getting pretty heated over an Everly Bros record: Two Yanks in London. The best find I ever got there was from the Berlin, Germany band from the mid-60's, the Lords. It was a mint copy of Don't Mince Matter on the original German label. I still wonder to this day how the hell that record ended up there.

    Re: the Cramps themselves. I saw them twice and can attest to your description of the band's manic performances. Some time around '86 or '87 I was lucky enough to share a greenroom with them at a theatre in San Diego. I remember being very nervous about it. I think I expected a very caustic and condescending experience. I mean, I was really worried about it. I was 100% wrong. Poison Ivy and Lux were incredibly nice and incredibly interested in the music we were listening to. I remember having a long and totally relaxed conversation with Lux about European bands from the 60's. He knew many of them which was quite the amazing thing at that time. We played him a few things we had on cassette and he took particular interest in a group called the Phantoms (I can't remember if they were German or Dutch) and their Cramps like cover of Bo Diddley's Roadrunner (but recorded 20 years earlier!). I remember him saying "hey, we stole their whole act without even knowing it." [hmmm, i'll have to try to find this record which i probably have not heard since '86!]

    Coolest of the cool, however, I got to see Poison Ivy "adjusting" her micro-bikini before she went on stage. A nearly naked woman holding a Gretsch. This is the stuff that boys dream of.

    The last I ever saw of them was directing them to an Ihop in downtown San Diego. I recall telling them to go to Roberto's Taco stand instead. They didn't listen to me, however. Perhaps he would still be alive if he had.

  2. Good gravy JB! That is one helluva detailed and comprehensive summation of the Cramps and Lux. Nice work. Even though I wasn't a huge Cramps aficionado, I certainly enjoyed a lot of their stuff and respect and admire the perseverance and dedication to a singular vision that Lux (and Ivy) maintained. They were great in and of themselves, and they did have a huge influence on a lot that came after.

  3. Thanks for the post JB!

    I must confess to never seeing the Cramps live or listening to them at all. My introduction to them is, believe it or not, the youtube video that your post's title links to. It's the Cramps playing The Way I Walk at the Napa Mental Hospital. Watching it I can understand the allure of the Cramps to which you whole-heartedly succumbed. Lux's delivery is captivating and the song is great. I wished I'd seen them.

    Mr. Flip-side: What were you doing in a greenroom with the Cramps and what are the chances you would have that particular song to listen to? Its a cool, unapologetically quirky rendition. Any chance in putting it up?

  4. A group called the Tell-Tale Hearts were opening up for the Cramps that night and I was doing the roadie thing for the TTH (aka, drinking their beer and eating their food). As always, I had a portable tape player with me as my 1964 Buick Wildcat only had a radio in it. I had a bevy of tapes that night which included Howlin' Wolf, The Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday, and an obscure European comp of Euro trash from '64-'66 I had just bought called Trans-World Punk. The Phantoms (and the Phantom Brothers) were both on that comp. I dug out the record and digitized the song. It is a VERY Cramps like performance.

  5. Pretty good but the last two albums kick ass. Big Beat first of all, has the greatest version peter gunn ever recorded in history and hypno sex ray, no club lone wolf. Fiends of dope island was a great! Don't care too much about that bass player chopper franklin but it was great!