THEY SPREAD LIKE FUNGUS The Cramps

They knew where the
REAL freaks and weirdos lived.

 

BY ROB MILLER

 

Lux Interior, the singer, showman, shaman, rock and rock
archeologist, thinking and fucking man’s Elvis by way of Vincent Price,
huffing, puffing, grinding leather-panted and stiletto-healed leader of the
Cramps died on February 4th
They were/are my favorite band. 
Ever. Lux, guitarist Poison Ivy and the rest messed me up but good
and I never really got to thank them for it. 

 

I can still distinctly recall the exact time and place I
first heard the Cramps in 1981: on the late night, left of the dial radio show
“Radios in Motion” broadcast over the oily waters of the Detroit
River from Windsor, Ontario.  Amidst the
preening synth-pop, humorless art rock and knuckleheaded hardcore so prevalent
at the time came “Human Fly.” 
The fuzz.  THAT fuzz.  It crawled into
my ears through the headphones and gave me an itch I scratch to this day.   It was like a light switch turning on and I
ain’t been right since. They oozed, I throbbed.

 

That week I picked up the Gravest Hits EP, Songs the
Lord Taught Us
LP and the Drug Train 7″ at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale.  I have since worn out all but the 7′ from
untold numbers of spins.

 

While everyone in my high school was going ga-ga over the
Go-Gos, I had Poison Ivy.  While the
great rockabilly scare brought on by the Stray Cats caused a run on rayon
shirts and leopard skin creepers, I was soaking in, goggled-eyed, the fatback
reverb, the scuzzy howl, the horrorshow ethos and the campy heresies contained
in those grooves.  In a punk/hardcore
scene where regionalism ruled and every town had their bands, and, at least in
Detroit, “from DC” or “from LA” seemed to be on every other
flier (back in the day when most info on shows in the underground was
disseminated via fliers), the first Cramps one I ever saw said ” from
Outer Space.”  I was not then, nor
am I now, inclined to disagree. 

 

 

I’m the night head hunter lookin’ for some
head…

 

 

Seeing the Cramps in concert cemented my nascent love of
live music.  Lux was a spectacle.  There was no mopey shoe gazing or static
crooning, there was only pure, feral conviction and, in the face of
indifference, confrontation.  He was
going to take you on sweaty thrill ride whether you wanted to go or not by any
means necessary.  If he had to strip
naked or climb a PA stack or deep throat his mic, he would do it in the name of
the naughty spirit of true rock and roll rebellion.  Once, I saw them on acid and it is an
experience I want to neither repeat nor forget. One does not want to cheapen one’s
conversion on the Road to Damascus,
you know.

 

From the Cramps, it was a short trip to the Gun Club, X, the
Meat Puppets, Panther Burns and a host of other bands that were churning
through the guts of Americana and fermenting in me a love of music that exists
between the genres, that looks back to look forward.  Thanks to them I discovered the REAL freaks
and weirdos, never-beens and no-hit wonders that lurk in the nooks and crannies
of rock and roll’s basement, and each song they covered was like a mysterious
rune from a wild and hastily hidden past. 
Forgotten or never known American treasures like Hasil Adkins, Andre
Williams, Ronnie Dawson, the Trashmen, the Novas, the Phantom and Charlie
Feathers found new opportunities to entice and enthrall and dement. They
exposed the mainstream freaks and weirdos like the Misfits and Marilyn Manson,
who scared and titillated the dollars out of suburban kiddies’ pockets, to be
the frauds they were.  The Cramps didn’t try to be out there, they were out there.

 

Sure, the latter years saw them trading on their
increasingly cartoonish image, but they were never mere shtick.  If they were, they wouldn’t have influenced a
thousand other bands to get real, real gone for a change, or a dope like me to
someday start a record label.  Lux could
sing in that rare way that was leather tough for the guys but would make the
girls sneak out their bedroom windows to meet him behind the biker bar.  The Cramps were beyond punk or psychobilly,
beyond trite hyphenates like sleaze-rock or horror-rock or garage-punk.  They were the Cramps. 

 

One knew exactly what that meant.

 

 

I’m the king of the jungle, 

They call me Tigerman

 

 

It is somehow befitting that Lux Interior should die as the
mainstream media waxes rhapsodic over the 50th anniversary of The
Day The Music Died, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were
killed in a plane crash.  Rock and Roll,
like all families, has characters that can be sometimes uncomfortable.  The nostalgia factories and revisionist
musical historians would like us to enjoy it (and consume it) as all virginal
Peggy Sues and Donnas and rave ons and la bambas and sock hops and malts,
memories to recall fondly, safely, sitting on the plastic slip-covered sofa,
thumbing through the photo album with your kindly Aunt.  The Cramps, though, were like the dirty uncle
we all secretly hoped would come to a family reunion and tell us stories about
knife fights and scoring with showgirls, show us the shrunken head he bought at
a bazaar “somewhere out East.” and then wink, give us a boozy, smoky
laugh and let us take a pull off his flask if Mom wasn’t looking.  Both sides of the family of rock and roll
sang about the virtues of wanting to kiss your sweet lips, it’s just that the
Cramps aimed a little lower, and a little truer than most spoke of in decent company.

 

It is not hyperbole to say that Bloodshot Records would not
exist if not for the Cramps and the damage they inflicted on me.  I have no doubt that dozens of other labels
and hundreds of bands could make that same claim. Without them, I might not
ever have known the joy and freedom that comes from mutating and molesting
forms and sounds and tropes that have come before us.  Beyond music, it’s the way I’ve lived my
life.  For that, I am grateful to them.

 

Lux Interior is dead. 
There will never be any performer like him again.  That is at once high praise and very, very
sad.  It’s time to listen to their
dissection of “Surfin’ Bird,” which teeters on the edge of disintegration.  Lunacy. Exquisite. Epochal.  I hope the end of the earth sounds something
like it.  Truly it would be a joyful
apocalypse.

 

 

The Cramps were born to give us fever…be it
Fahrenheit or centigrade!

 

 

***

 

Rob Miller is co-owner
of Chicago’s
Bloodshot Records label.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Steve Jennings]

 

 

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