It's a Saturday night in 1980 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Chelsea, the Dead Kennedys and X have all come and gone, disgorging an awesome load of punk rawk to the dripping crowd that packs the hall. These are three groups at the height of their powers; what band could follow such a triple wallop and possibly satisfy this exacting audience of fucked-up, slam-dancing, snot-hawking punkers?
The Cramps take the stage.
Front and center is Lux Interior, the quartet's tall, glowering singer. He moves and looks like a slightly more graceful version of Lurch. Lux is bare from the waist up, his pasty, slab-white pallor offset perfectly by skin-tight black-vinyl pants that are having a rough time concealing a good four inches of Mr. Interior's butt crack. But maybe that has something to do with the microphone that is wedged down the front of his trousers.
Lux stalks the stage in front of his guitarist and "soul mate" Poison Ivy Rorschach--whose stage presence rivals the Sphinx for detachment--as ashtray-eyed drummer Nick Knox kicks into a plodding, slave-ship beat. Lux wrenches the mike from its crotch pocket and begins to wail/sing some kind of rockabilly dirge into the smoke-filled room as the crowd weaves like drunken zombies. After just one verse, Lux is contorted and drenched in sweat, pants inching ever lower; Ivy's guitar is breathtakingly out of tune. The music oozes along like molten lava.
Then Lux is on his knees, crawling the stage like some retarded animal. He shoves the eight-ball-size head of the mike completely into his mouth and starts growling and dry heaving with each rhythmic inhale/exhale. With great awkwardness, he scales the huge stacks of the sound system at stage right, finally making it to the top, where he teeters on a great black speaker cabinet. Is the guy really crazy? Will he slip and plummet to the concrete floor, the cabinet dropping on top of him? Half of the mob below edges out of the way, the other half screams for him to jump. Lux stares down like a trapped beast, mike still halfway down his throat, and lets loose with a vein-popping howl that lasts until the music grinds to a halt.
And that's what happened during the first song.
Despite the passage of 15 years, a Cramps gig is still a delicious slice of sleazy, pent-up-and-moist rockabilly theatre. The band's rhythm section may have changed a few times, but Lux and Ivy have remained as true and constant as a 4 a.m. test pattern. The couple has been together since the late Sixties--when he picked her up hitchhiking in Sacramento--sharing a passion for cheap horror movies, Fifties and early-Sixties cultural flotsam, and rockabilly, a far-from-hip genre back in those groovy days of long hair and bell-bottoms.
"We were going to all the glitter things, Lou Reed, David Bowie and T. Rex, and that was really fun," says the soft-spoken Lux from the couple's home in Glendale, California. "In San Francisco and northern California, where we were at, it was like the people in the crowd thought they were the bands; they were twice as wild as whoever was onstage. Those shows were very formative for us."
But the fun could not last forever, and what is now the scary subgenre known as "classic rock" kick-started the Cramps. "When [the glitter] started to die out, what was left was the Doobie Brothers and Crosby, Stills and Nash, the worst things imaginable," shudders Lux. "There was nothing that was really like rock 'n' roll left. We were real excited by the idea of starting a rockabilly band; it's timeless music that really hasn't got anything to do with the Fifties--or at least we didn't think it should have. It was exciting music that no one was doing. We felt like if anyone was going to do it, it was going to be us."
After moving their mission to New York by way of Ohio ("We didn't have a band yet but we had the name in Akron"), the Cramps debuted at CBGB on November 1, 1976. Forbidden to play at the club again, Lux and company took their talents to the fabled Max's Kansas City, where the musical illness of fun that the critics dubbed "psychobilly" began to fester.
Tours with the Clash, Ramones and Police followed, as did albums like Songs the Lord Taught Us, Smell of Female, Bad Music for Bad People and Look Mom No Head!. Flamejob is the latest addition to the Cramps family of battered music, and it holds its own with songs suitable for dancing or staggering like "Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs" and the demonic rockabilly of "Inside Out and Upside Down (With You)."
But there's something a bit different this time around, at least on the album's liner notes. A quote by the late, brilliant surrealist artist Man Ray:
"Each of us, in his timidity, has a limit beyond which he is outraged. It is inevitable that he who by concentrated application has extended this limit for himself, should arouse the resentment of those who have accepted conventions which, since accepted by all, require no initiative of application . . ."
Huh? What gives? Does this band of musical trash merchants consider itself to be artists? Well, yes. And why not? reasons Lux. "I feel like I've always been an artist, I've painted and drawn all my life; from an early age, I've felt like a very spiritual person."
And the Man Ray quote is no false attempt at intellectual hipness. "I really like Man Ray," explains Lux. "We went to the apartment that he lived in in Hollywood from 1940 to 1950. I stood right in front of his door and I took two pictures of Ivy, 3-D slides, and when I got them back from the developer, only those two pictures were heavily solarized; it's a completely magical thing that happened, it's something that can't happen." In case you didn't know, solarization, a technique created by Man Ray, involves exposing a negative to a short burst of light as it is being developed. An act from beyond or from slipshod Fotomat employees--you be the judge.
Beyond his obvious loves of mutant rock, its trappings and even Man Ray, Lux digs a lot of unexpected things. "I'm really into reading about quantum physics and flying saucers, and I get hypnotized regularly and I just do a million things that no one even knows about."
To paint him as just another fringe rock madman--based on the onstage Lux--is all wrong. On the phone, he seems like a regular guy. But then again, he thinks he's not regular at all, compared to most of the people who tell him they're shocked to find out he's a regular guy. Get it?
"From my viewpoint, I feel very strange in real life," Lux offers. "I hear this all the time, that I'm just a regular guy and stuff, but I don't think it's true. They just don't know me. I don't know what people expect, that I'll start screaming at them when I talk to 'em or something? It's usually the average frat boy that says to me, 'You're just a normal guy!'"
Just what are the turn-ons of Interior? "I'm interested in Jungian archetypes, what it is that makes people want to see movies about flying saucers and alien invasions. I'm interested why someone would write a film like Robot Monster [a notoriously bad Fifties piece featuring a monster that was essentially a gorilla with a deep-sea-diving helmet for a head]. And why a lot of people would write films that have so much in common--Robot Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space, you name it, all those old horror movies.
"I think it has something to do with the collective unconscious. I feel like watching these films to be just like dream interpretations. When I see an old horror movie, it really strikes a chord in me, and it's because I'm connected to the same thing that the person who wrote the movie is connected to."
Lux pauses briefly, then provides a summation: "I think the reason I do things is a lot like the same reason Johnny Rotten did what he did, or the same reason Marcel Duchamp did the things he did. We're all connected together in one aspect of consciousness."
You can't help but admire a man who can write songs like "What's Inside a Girl" or "Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?" and then thoughtfully fill a conversation with references to Jung and Duchamp.
The art of the Cramps is borne out of the Lux/Poison Ivy union, and the union is in turn continually propelled by the Cramps. 'Twas ever thus.
"Oh, yeah," agrees Lux. "We listen to music from the minute we get up to when we go to bed; it's an inseparable part of our life. We get excited about the concept of writing one more song. It's what we do, and I think all people should do something creative.