October 21 1946 – February 4 2009
The first time he saw The Cramps play New York’s CBGB, in 1977, Alex Chilton, who would go on to produce the group’s seminal first singles, knew he had witnessed “the best rock’n’roll band in the world.”
Over the next 30 years, few who saw the band’s howling live shows came away doubting that assessment, or that Lux Interior was one of the greatest frontmen this planet has ever seen. Onstage – and often off of it, crawling over seats or scaling the walls of venues – Lux took off from the cathartic, lacerating performance space that Iggy Pop had first cleared out, then pushed off into his own dimension, usually wearing high-heels, and with his PVC hipsters around his ankles. Iggy, who guested on The Cramps’ 1991 album Look Mom, No Head, was a fan.
Lux could go so far out because he knew he always had a rock solid base to return to: the precise, roaring wall of voodoo of his wife and co-conspirator Poison Ivy Rorschach’s astonishing guitar. The Cramps began when Lux, born Erick Lee Purkhiser in Akron, Ohio, first met Ivy (née Kirsty Wallace) in California in 1972. Legend says he picked her up hitchhiking, and they bonded over their shared love of obscure 1950s rock’n’roll, their shared disdain for both the mainstream and hippy counterculture of early ’70s America, and, in genral, “plastic and acid.” Forget Sid and Nancy. This was punk’s true love story, the Bogart and Bacall of outsider trash. Moving to New York, they formed part of the city’s initial punk explosion.
Lux Interior undercover, 1990 (Photos: Damien Love)
Eventually released in 1980, their debut album Songs The Lord Taught Us didn’t so much fall off the critical radar as take a flying leap. While The Cramps were influenced by the same proto-punk pantheon as the rest of New York’s late-‘70s CBGBs scene – sucking the marrow out of the bones of The Velvet Underground in their meanest, bad-drug moods, The Stooges on the verge of self-mutilation, The New York Dolls at their most street-fighting-slutty, and the meanest longhaired garage reprobates compiled on the Nuggets LPs – their debut album, like all Cramps albums, drew more inspiration from excavating an obscure, ulterior musical tradition.
They drew with particular obsessiveness from lost and fringe recordings, in particular the cheap, quick 1950s records made on the outskirts of rock’n’roll by gutter garage bluesmen and feral hillbilly madmen hopelessly hoping they might turn into the next Little Richard or Elvis. Guys with names like Billy Lee Riley, Warren Smith, Ray Harris, Jimmy Wages, Charlie Feathers, Hasil Adkins – still astounding 45s, headlong rushes, things clattering out of control, spelling out what was frantically bubbling in the id along America’s rural, God-scratched backroads.
Digging into all this – radioactive rocks, hot-rods, money, movies, late-night TV, God and Satan, wild blues and lonely country, working fields, lonesome truck drivers, chicken farmers, household appliances salesmen, electroshock therapy, exclusion, knife fights, girls, gut-rot booze, benzedrine, the atom bomb, flying saucers, prison, girls again, above all, the itch in their jeans – emphasising the Bo Diddley echoing eternally in the Velvets and drawing out the vice lurking in the versa, The Cramps’ sound, at its finest, is almost all fuzz
Fans are legion – Nick Cave, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Primal Scream are just some of the many who wouldn’t have sounded the same without them – but, while The Ramones have become a T-shirt, The Cramps are still really to get their due. Too often, they get written off as some kind of psychobilly “horror-rock” parody. But while they had a wicked sense of humour, Lux and Ivy were committed to a serious project. Quoting as much from high art, the avant-garde and art-cinema as low pop, comic books and grindhouse culture, they drew a straight spiritual line from ’70s punk back through ’60s garage-psyche, pilled-up ’50s rockabilly and R &B to the wildest, strangest recordings of the 1920s.
Trawling flea markets for forgotten 45s and 78s, they were curators of this stuff, and they kept it alive and moving in their own music. Track down the 16-volume Lux and Ivy’s Favorites, a fan-assembled compilation of obscure tracks the couple covered or cited, and you will find something very like the perfect Pop-folk sequel to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Discovering The Cramps was like being bitten by a radioactive spider, then finding strange doors to new places opening up all around you. Bob Dylan is rightly praised for the diversity of his Theme Time Radio Hour shows, but Lux was already doing something similar when he hosted The Purple Knif Show back in 1982.
This world is a less interesting place without him. But, wherever he’s gone, the jukebox will be amazing.
February 4 2009