In light of yesterday's passing of the Cramps' frontman, Lux Interior, I'm re-running my firsthand account of what was quite literally the last time I saw the band live in concert, September 4, 2006, with my fellow lover of the band, the redoubtable Xtina. I had planned to write a fitting eulogy for Lux, but since this piece both says everything I have to say on the band and the experience of seeing them in all their bizarro glory, I think it's rather appropriate.
Rest well, Lux. You will be sorely missed and your like will never pass this way again.
Thanks to our crazy-assed mongrel heritage, I firmly believe that no other country on this planet could have come up with rock ‘n’ roll. In its undiluted form rock ‘n’ roll stirs the baser emotions within the blackest part of the human soul, reviving thoughts we Americans have been brainwashed into keeping hidden in an attempt to pass unscathed through so-called “civilized” society, which is probably why in this age of outright hypocrisy and galloping horseshit real rock ‘n’ roll is dying a very slow death, edged out by corporate replicants and their indistinguishably sound-alike product, barely kept on life support by an unwavering subculture of I-don’t-give-a-fuck disciples and electric shamans. And there are no shamans of truer mettle than the Cramps.
Stirring their cauldron of “psychobilly” potion for thirty years, the Cramps are a musical freakshow that defiantly gives pop music the finger with its toxic waste-marinated mutant lobster claw, assaulting the ear with a uniquely visceral sound that simultaneously seduces, repels, and hypnotizes, sort of like a big bag of psilocybin mushrooms washed down with a couple of double shots of cheap tequila and a six pack of Iron City beer (and believe me, I should know). They perform a cornucopia of covers that often blend different songs to create a perfect, sinister hybrid, and their original compositions are often obsessed with sex, intoxication, driving way too fast, other-worldly beasts, killers and unabashed celebration of all manner of delinquency. This is exactly the kind of music that parents and defenders of general decency since the 1950’s have tried to quash, and I’m glad to say that the Cramps are here to make sure that such no fun pussies will have something to give them the drizzling shits for the foreseeable future.
My introduction to the Cramps came in 1982 when, in my ongoing explorations as my hometown’s only black kid who listened to something other than dance music and the nascent rap offerings, I purchased the soundtrack to URGH! A MUSIC WAR for the live Devo track it included (namely the definitive version of “Uncontrollable Urge”), and worked my way through the rest of the double album. Of the many unusual groups who graced the LP, the Cramps was the only band that stopped me in my tracks and made me return the turntable’s needle to the start of track so I could be sure I’d really just heard some howling lunatic deliver a deranged desecration of Johnny Burnette & the Rock ‘N’ Roll Trio’s classic “Tear it Up.” I fucking loved the sheer insanity of the live performance and vowed to check out the band in earnest, eventually picking up their first album, “Gravest Hits.”
From the crawly guitar dribble and ominous stomp beat that opens “Human Fly” through an outrageous cover of the already out there “Surfin’ Bird” and the absolute greatest version of “The Way I Walk” ever committed to vinyl, I knew I was hooked for life, thereafter buying each subsequent release and seeing the Cramps live more times than any other band (I think I’ve seen them around ten times as of the other night, but I have honestly lost track).
In recent months I have been in a wretched state of mind, and I really needed to let off some steam, so when my old pal Xtina let me know that the Cramps were coming to town I jumped at the chance to see them again. Like a holy roller who had begun to lose faith, I needed an infusion of that which inspires me, and the long dormant demon within howled to be let loose once more. So I bought my ticket and counted down the days until the imminent invocation of the primitive voodoo spirits of rock ‘n’ roll.
I left work at the barbecue joint early Sunday evening and got ready for the show, anticipating both the event and some of the rare time I get to spend with Xtina; she’s one of the coolest humans ever to draw breath, has a very dry and drowsy sense of humor that sneaks up on you, likes to hoist an intoxicating beverage or two, and shares nearly all of my taste in outré music. In short, a bit of a dream girl (but sadly not my date, but what are ya gonna do?).
We agreed to meet in front of the venue at 10PM, so I made my way into Manhattan and scoped out the scene.
The venue was Avalon, once known as the Limelight, a vast deconsecrated church on the corner of Twentieth Street and 6th Avenue. Long a magnet for Goth kids and other horror wannabes who ate up the atmosphere and labyrinthine interior, the place is lots of fun to explore, what with its multiple balconies, moodily lit hallways and bars, and couch-laden areas where a so-inclined couple could make out — or perhaps even engage in a bit of public osh-osh — totally undisturbed.
What I didn’t know when I bought the ticket was that this was not only going to be a Cramps performance, but it was also part of an ongoing party series called Motherfucker that encourages attendees to dress as fabulously as possible, so the whole shebang was guaranteed to bring out all of the garish and gorgeous from the five boroughs; gay or straight, black, white, yellow, you name it, all of New York’s freak contingent would be there, flags a-wavin’ for all the world to see. Since the area looked like a madman’s imagination had been unleashed onto the street and into the club, I felt no shame at flagrantly making use of my digital camera and documenting the fun, including Satan himself waiting on line,
and two nice kids from Boston who were Devo fans and intended to stay up all night, riding back home the next morning hung over like Vikings after a frat party.
Gives me hope for the youth of America.
I went inside to pick up my ticket and discovered that once inside you could not go back out, so I wandered Avalon’s interior knowing that Xtina would find me sooner or later, either on the dance floor near the front of the stage or at one of the many bars. As I meandered about, the faithful began to funnel in, many of whom were done up in all manner of finery ranging from full-blown drag to the sartorial elegance of an undead bridal party.
Soon enough, Xtina showed up from out of a dark corridor, her pale hair rendering her visible in the blue radiance.
The two kookily bantered back and forth, making the expected menstrual jokes regarding the Cramps, and then Theo introduced them with the gushing love of a true fan, rightly proclaiming them as “one of the greatest bands of all time.” The crowd stood ready, packed in like sardines, anticipation crawling up our collective ass like a greasy finger during a prostate exam.
Then the Cramps took the stage and all hell broke loose.
The familiar buzzsaw thrum and jolting rhythm filled the air, permeating the once-holy ground with a devilish miasma, igniting the guts and loins of the attending mob. In one song after another the Cramps resurrected the arcane and vital spectres of rock with the terrifying aplomb of a seasoned juju practitioner weaving a spell to set the deceased Frugging down Main Street. Particularly stunning were the evening’s renditions of “Human Fly,” “Big Black Witchcraft Rock,” “The Way I Walk,” “Primitive,” “TV Set,” and the wholly appropriate “Let’s Get Fucked Up” (a song that spoke to the tequila and Budweiser that substituted for much of my blood that night).
Frontman Lux Interior growled into the mic, raw, about-to-burst lycanthropy foaming from his gaping maw, infusing the often absurd lyrics with both gravity and black humor, a volatile cocktail that it was futile to resist. Stalking the stage like a revenant that was pleased to be free of his earth-covered casket and just had to strut and show you how full of piss and vinegar he was, Lux stole the show as he always does, this time merrily imbibing from several strategically placed bottles of red wine, an act that bordered on the sacrilegious thanks to the venue. Spewing showers of vino all over himself and several adoring audience members, anointing one and all with the lifeblood of mischief, the man could do no wrong to this appreciative throng.
As the madness escalated, Poison Ivy wielded a more subtle power, if that’s at all possible while carving out a tapestry of badassed guitar yowlings, appearing both utterly calm and focused on what she was putting down, yet seeming coiled and ready to strike like a redheaded rattlesnake. This six-string goddess mesmerizes both men and women alike, both with her dangerous, foxy beauty and her balls-out mastery of her instrument; women who rock are rare, but women who rock like Poison Ivy are as rare as tits on a mailbox and should be treated with the awe and reverence they have not only earned, but deserve without question.
Her guitar style is a case of understanding what makes rock ‘n’ roll work in the first place and taking that nucleus to dark, evocative places that no other guitarist dares to go. You can have your showboaters like Eddie Van Halen, your soul-free masturbatory noodlers of the Yngwie Malmsteen ilk, or your derivative grave robbers like the inexplicably overrated Eric Clapton (yeah, I said it!). Me, I’ll take Miss Rorshach over those cock rockers any day, and I’ll state as much in a court of law.
No two ways about it, I absolutely fucking love this stuff and as the show proceeded, the demon within me was as happy as he could be. The music put me in the mood to drink, smoke dope, steal a car, punch out some douchebags and fuck the living shit out of every female within reach, and as all that went through my heart and mind I comprehended the fear of this heathen “race music” held by parents back in the days. That comprehension gave me a cathartic belly laugh that exorcised me of much of my recent foul humors, nostalgically returning me to my growing-up years and my mother’s oft-heard moan of “You didn’t spend MY money on that, did you?” whenever she heard any of the odd tunes that emanated from my room.
Too soon for my liking, the show neared its climax, a moment that is easily foreseen by regular Cramps-goers, namely when Lux begins climbing the amps. This time, he scaled the stacks and attempted to swing from the curtains in back of him, taking a header onto the understandably nervous drummer, shrugging it off like the consummate professional he is and resuming the song.
At about that point Xtina shouted into my ear, alerting me to a topless hottie in the balcony. The toothsome brunette in question had lowered the front of her outfit, kindly letting the twins out for a breather, a delightful visual that I was surprised to see no else seemed to notice despite being entranced by Lux Interior’s antics. I’m telling you, folks, if I knew I was going to die within five minutes and could only see one more pair of breasts before I joined the Choir Invisible, these were the titties I’d want to see!
Once the Cramps left the stage, a large platform was hauled out, onto which jumped a go-go boy who served as the herald for the all-night party to ensue.
As I made my way to the bar to rendezvous with Xtina (she was retrieving her credit card), I noticed a huge bald dude lumbering toward the stage, followed by a slimmer fellow with a goatee. I thought to myself, "Wow! Those guys look just like the stars of my favorite Saturday TV show, GHOUL A GO-GO..." My mind then snapped to attention because they were exactly who I thought they were, so I politely stopped them and told them how much I loved their show. They were both really cool dudes and Vlad, the vampire of the duo, complemented me on my shirt, a t-shirt bearing the image of none other than Vlad Tepes, aka "Vlad the Impaler," his namesake. And as if that weren't enough icing on the cake, Vlad and Creighton posed for a shot with yours truly.
For more on the truly excellent GHOUL A-GO-GO, check out their website at http://www.ghoulagogo.com/index.html and shell out the cash for their DVD through Something Weird Video. Trust me, what other twisted public access kiddie show is cool enough to feature such guests as Hasil Adkins (whose "She Said" is a Cramps staple), Uncle Floyd, and the 5-6-7-8's?
Remember these chicks from the "House of Blue Leaves" sequence in KILL BILL VOL. 1? I'm sure you do!
Anyway, Xtina and I parted ways outside and I returned to the hinterlands of Park Slope, my faith once again bolstered and my pride in the freakishness of myself and others restored. Music can indeed soothe the savage breast, but it can likewise rekindle long-forgotten savagery which is our birthright as the human animal, and for that I will always hold the Cramps dear.