THE FEVER EXTINGUISHED Lux Interior

“It’s not music. It’s
misdirected noise”: When the Cramps frontman died on Feb. 4, we felt a
disturbance in the Force.

 

BY TIM STEGALL

 

Who are The Cramps? They
are the most beautiful – yes, beautiful – group I have ever seen, and the fact
that they exist is enough.” – a pre-fame Morrissey, 1979

 

The band walks on, looking
like 1950s juvenile delinquents straight out of American International
Pictures’ central casting office attempting a glam rock version of The Addams Family.
The gangling, basketball-player-tall front man, resplendent in Herman Munster makeup, black
fright wig hair, black PVC head-to-toe, and black patent leather stilettos,
surveys the audience with demented glee. To one side, a porcelain china doll
exuding stock-still ice maiden sex, straps on a big hollow-body Gretsch guitar a la Eddie Cochran. A pompadoured
drummer in head-to-toe black and vintage Ray Bans, settles behind the minimal
kit, looking like the corpse of Roy Orbison.

 

Mr. Dementoid Singer leers
at the gathered masses, then grabs the mic and announces, “On this solemn
occasion, I have one word to set the proper tone.” He then leered a beat
longer, and stuck the mic in his mouth and HOOOOWWWWWLLLLLLLED!!!!!

 

By the end of the set, The
Cramps would reconstruct the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll in their image,
and Lux Interior – said dementoid – would wind up stripped to a black pair of
silk panties, writhing on the stage howling further, covered in red wine and
smeared makeup. It’s what happens when you spend the preceding minutes acting
as a shaman in the service of demon rock ‘n’ roll.

 

“Rock ‘n’ roll is so
great that everyone in the world should think it’s the greatest thing that’s
happening. If they don’t, they’re turds.” – Lux Interior

 

 

Once you saw The Cramps
live, you were marked for life. Such was the passion and commitment and
intensity of their mission to strip rock back to something primal and
ferocious. And much of the impact of the band had to do with the vision and
personality of Lux Interior. (And “vision” might be more apt a term than any of
us realize: The man was once quoted as saying, “I lived on mescaline for a
long time.”) When Lux left this sphere Feb. 4th, 2009, battling an
existing heart condition in Glendale Memorial Hospital
in Glendale, California at 4:30 AM PST, this sphere lost
an awful lot. But Lux surely died knowing he and The Cramps changed the world
in ways it likely does not realize.

 

The Cramps – who for all
intents and purposes, were the core of husband Lux Interior and wife Poison Ivy
Rorschach, through innumerable lineup changes – believed in rock ‘n’
roll. It was a fundamentalist religion to them, of snake handling,
speaking-in-tongues intensity, and had nothing to do with whatever you saw on
MTV or read in Rolling Stone. In The Cramps couple’s universe, ’56 Elvis
met ’72 Iggy headlong at 150 mph, illuminated by the sickly blue cathode ray
light of 1000 low-budget horror and exploitation films, soundtracked by
scratchy no-hit ’60s garage rock and beyond-obscure ’50s rockabilly 45s. It was
a universe given context and life within the energy of the early Manhattan punk scene,
although they didn’t sound like any other punk band alive. But loads of bands
ended up trying to sound like them, and loads of fans were introduced to a
culture, lifestyle, and aesthetic much richer than whatever was offered by
whatever was the modern pop culture at any given point across their
30-years-plus existence. Including whatever the punk or indie scenes had to
offer.

 

Lux was born Erick Lee
Purkhiser ten days before Halloween of 1946, in Stow, Ohio.
He grew up during the rock ‘n’ roll ’50s in the thrall of local disc jockey
Pete “The Mad Daddy” Myers and late night horror movie host Ghoulardi. Come the
early ’70s, “feeling quite psychedelic” as he put it, he allegedly picked up
young hitch-hiker Kristy Wallace and began a lifelong romance that would color
every aspect of their new lives together. By the time they’d relocated to
Cleveland, they’d already begun a lifestyle where they’d be existing on lunch
meat in order to afford collecting scratchy 45s, books, movies, etc., etc. – the
talismans of their aesthetic.

 

And then: “After we saw
the New York Dolls, I was sure that was what we should do,” as Lux would put
it. “I didn’t know how to play an instrument, but neither did they.” By
the time the pair had migrated to mid-’70s punk rock NYC with brother and
sister Brian and Pam “Balaam” Gregory on guitar and drums, respectively,
Purkhiser was Lux Interior, Wallace was Poison Ivy Rorschach, he was singing
and writhing and she was strumming. And nothing would be the same.

 

It’s hard to calculate the
immensity and scope of The Cramps’ impact. It surely exceeded their record
sales: According to Reuters, the band’s best-selling release (1984 greatest
hits package Bad Music For Bad People) only moved 95,000 copies. But The
Cramps likely did more to propagate the vogue for ’60s garage sounds than Lenny
Kaye’s seminal Nuggets collection and introduced more punk rockers to
rockabilly than anyone this side of The Clash. The thing was, The Cramps were
not a nostalgia outfit. These strains were influences. There was no
attempt in channeling the Sun Records’ spirit as, say, the Stray Cats tried to look and be Elvis, Scotty, and Bill. In tapping into garage-psych, they never
did as The Chesterfield Kings and grow Brian Jones pageboy haircuts and wear
Beatle boots and corduroy and play through crappy Vox amps with buzzes. Even
playing CBGBs and Max’s, they were a sore thumb that impacted all around ’em: Opening
several show for The Ramones, the headliners took note of how the voodoo
exorcism had transformed The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” and would work up their
own typically stripped-down arrangement for 1977’s Rocket To Russia LP.

 

But… where do you think
Jack and Meg White figured out they did not need a bass guitar? That The
Gun Club figured out they could make punk rock out of the bones of rock ‘n’
roll and blues past? (To the point of the band paying explicit tribute in the
song “For The Love Of Ivy,” and losing guitarist Kid Congo Powers for a time to
The Cramps.) Where Australia’s
The Scientists, once tired of channeling the Dolls and Flamin’ Groovies,
learned to get swampy and primal? The Jesus and Mary Chain learned to reduce,
reduce, reduce, and get noisy? It is literally possible to cite thousands of cases for The Cramps’ impact on all most of us hold dear. But room does not
permit.

 

Instead, you should weep.
The Cramps taught by live, throbbing example what Lux Interior stated to a pair
of interviewers years ago: “It’s not
music. It’s misdirected noise!”

 

“To us,” Lux
summarized, “rock ‘n’ roll is a blues-based folk music, not a record company
product.” More musicians could stand to have that attitude nowadays. We
will never again see Lux climbing atop enormous PA stacks, stripped to the
waist, his leather pants riding dangerously low, finding lighting gels and
stuffing them in his mouth and spitting them out in the audience, mindlessly
chanting a one-word mantra over his band’s frenzied deconstruction of “Surfin’
Bird”:

 

 

“MOW! MOW! MOW! AAAAAAOOOOOOOUUUUUUAAAAAGGHHHHHH!!!!!”

 

Rock ‘n’ roll as cathartic
ritual.

 

As the man himself ad-libbed
on The Cramps’ rendition of Little Willie John’s “Fever”: “Well, now
you’ve listened to my story/Here’s the point that I have made/The Cramps are
born to give you fever/Be it Fahrenheit or centigrade – WE GIVE YA
FEE-VAAHHH!” I always took that to be The Cramps’ version of KISS’ “You
drive us wild/We’ll drive you crazy.” Except The Cramps meant it, and meant something
beyond selling lunch boxes and action figures.

 

And with Lux Interior’s
exit, so exit The Cramps. What a pitiful world we now live in.

 

TIM “NAPALM” STEGALL, an
Austin-based punk rock musician and writer, has fond memories of interviewing
Lux and Ivy twice. “Lovely people,” he says of them.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply