Thursday, February 05, 2009

Songs Lux Interior Taught Us

The Cramps often described themselves as ''beautiful monsters'', a term they say a homeless person gave them that just stuck. They made the sort of music that probably strikes many listeners as monstrous, but which contains a great deal of beauty, and came from a place of love, and lust. Blending a bone-deep love of B-movies, rockabilly, fetish gear, garage rock, bad taste, and each other, the singer Lux Interior and his beloved guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach were the backbone of a band that lasted for over three decades, together longer than any other ''punk'' band in the United States.

Their music couldn't really be isolated to the punk genre though; it was a mix of blues, rock, country, and punk that spawned an entire genre of music of its own known as ''psychobilly''. Lux described himself as ''one half hillbilly and one half punk, with three long legs and one big mouth''. There are few musicial groups that could be said to have spawned an entire genre, but in terms of punk rock music, the vast majority of bands sound like a handful of originators the Ramones, Misfits, Cramps, Operation Ivy, etc. In terms of the Cramps, it is simply impossible to imagine bands like The White Stripes, Southern Culture on the Skids, or the Rev. Horton Heat existing without Lux and Ivy establishing the prototype.

Lux and Ivy [born Erick Purkhiser and Kristy Wallace] met each other in 1972 while in college in California. The story goes that she was hitchhiking in torn jeans and red panties, and he came to a screeching stop to pick her up. They were inseparable after that, both of them sharing the same strange tastes in movies and art, and the same inability to fit in with the world around them. They were both obsessive collectors and enthusiasts of obscure movies and art, and madly creative. They went on to create an entire world for themselves out of their influences.

From this world bubbled up the band, one of the early ''new wave'' bands in the late 70s NYC scene. Their early music was rough and primitive sounding, with two guitars and no bass. The song Human Fly, for instance, has only two chords throughout the verses. Bryan Gregory, the other guitarist, played mostly fuzz and feedback. Unlike most punk bands, the Cramps played songs that were slow and menacing. As an early album's liner notes put it, ''they ooze; you'll throb''. The music sounds dirty and raw; it's sexy too. The Cramps are the only punk band I could imagine fucking to.

Their songs tended to be about sex anyway. There were a number of songs about monsters and aliens; but largely they were about Lux's unquenchable desire for Ivy. Many of the album covers were sexy pictures of her, by him. The irony of the band is that, for all of their alienation and juvenile delinquent aura, their music was the story of two weirdos who found their soul mate- it's devastating to think about what Ivy is going through right now.

The band went through any number of drummers and bass players [having finally added a bass]. Members described the band as being like a cult- Ivy and Lux would educate musicians, keeping them for hours after practice to watch obscure exploitation films, making them avoid sunlight to stay pale, asking them if they'd be willing to lose a finger to join the band. Again, what was fascinating about the two of them is that they weren't faking it. This was who they really were. And, if you pay attention to the songs, for all their black humor and weird references, there was often an autobiographical aspect filtered through. Lux really was a ''teenage werewolf'', or ''Elvis fucking Christ''; Ivy really was the ''queen of pain''.

They were also enthusiasts- I can't tell you how many great bands I've discovered through Cramps covers; nor how many weird B-films; nor how many great artists. There are several record compilations dedicated to the songs that Lux and Ivy so much as referenced. Bands like The Sonics and the Count Five are known by punk rockers in every city because the Cramps championed them. Whether or not they hated the ''squares'', the Cramps loved a lot more, and celebrated entire swaths of lost American culture in their music and their lives.

And they really did ooze and rock; their songs are still funny, sexy, subversive, and brilliant. I always wanted to see a documentary about these two originals who fashioned a complete universe out of the strange things they loved. It's still devastating to think that we'll never have another new Cramps record. And it's horrible to think that Lux has left the planet, even if we all knew he was from outer space.

So, goodbye Lux. I'll drink a glass of Wild Turkey and strychnine in your memory.

Some of those influences can be heard here.


Brian Dunbar said...

You've persuaded me to hunt up some of their songs and give them a listen.


rufus said...

If you're downloading, you might want to get a few songs from Songs the Lord Taught Us and then a few from A Date with Elvis to see the musical regression. Also, my favorite of all their songs is Human Fly, which has got to be on Youtube. Nouvelle Vague does a fantastic cover of that one.