Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Rock n Roll Daddy Has Done Passed On: Lux Interior, 1948-2009

Let's take a moment to remember Lux Interior, rock-n-roll madman and leader of one of the holiest bands in my personal pantheon, The Cramps.

When these obscure punk rockers die, you always find out all this surprising information. Like how old the guy was. I had inferred from things he'd said in interviews that he was older than most of his peers in the punk scene, and had spent a lot of time fucking around and slacking before starting the band, but who knew he was 60? If he had started the band when he was 18, they would have been one of the original '66 garage rock bands! The other mystery that I've wondered about for years was Lux's relationship with Ivy Rorschach, the band's guitarist and co-founder. Were they lovers? Husband and wife? We saw an interview with them once, and Bobbie informed me that Lux was obviously gay, and Ivy a fag hag. Turns out they've been married for 20 years.

The story goes that Lux picked Ivy up hitchhiking in Sacramento in the early 70's. I've never seen them make any reference to any sexual or romantic relationship in any of the interviews I've read, but they always made it clear that they were immediate soulmates, and spent the next several years collecting old records--rockabilly, garage rock, fuzztone psychedelia, rhythm and blues, and whatever other weird shit came across their path--along with EC comics, horror movies, 3-D cameras and the rest of the cultural flotsam and jetsom you find in thrift stores, eventually travelling across the country on the trail of old vinyl, making their pilgrimage to Graceland, and finally ending up in New York. Starting a band seemed to be an outgrowth of their crate digging, and they hooked up with some like-minded freaks. Lux wanted to sing, Ivy wanted to play guitar. Brian Gregory also wanted to play guitar, and since he'd actually picked one up in the past, suggested that Ivy play bass. She would have none of it, so they just decided to proceed with two guitars and no bass. In the early days, they had another girl playing drums. They began playing at Max's Kansas City in 1977 (you can hear one of their earliest shows captured on the How To Make A Monster collection), and several of their gigs in that first year were opening for The Ramones. The idea of a Ramones/Cramps double bill makes me green want to spend the rest of my life researching time travel.

I actually heard The Cramps pretty early, in 1979 or 1980, when they used to show the video for "Garbage Man" on Video Concert Hall. It made an impression on me, but I couldn't quite figure it out. It was an elusive video--I think I only saw it twice. I remember referring to it as "jungle music," a genre that, in my mind, also included "Come Together" (which was, in my mind, an Aerosmith song, since I didn't know shit about The Beatles). In that song, you can hear the basics of the Cramps' sound. One guitar is playing something that sounds like rockabilly, the other is farting fuzz chords like an exceptionally lo-fi garage rock record. People talk about The Cramps as an amalgam of rockabilly and garage, which is more or less true, but they also charicature those genres, exagerating the aspects that attract them. There are no records from the 50's or 60's that sound like The Cramps. No rockabilly crooner hiccups as much as Lux does on "I Can't Hardly Stand It," no garage band had guitars as thick and sludgy as those on "T.V. Set."

I'm not sure if it was because I had heard that song, but when I started getting into punk, The Cramps were one of the first bands I went apeshit over. This was a while later, maybe around 1983, and I started with their then-current live EP Smell of Female (love that title!). It's a great record (I have particularly nostalgic associations with "The Most Exalted Potentate of Love" and "Call of the Wighat"), but it was a mere prelude to the insanity that I was shortly exposed to via Bad Music For Bad People and Songs Our Lord Taught Us. These two records (they overlap by two songs) are pretty much the heart of the band's catalog. Songs, their first album, is a masterpiece of grunged-out psychobilly, beginning with the thump of voodoo drums on "T.V. Set" and continuing through the stipper grind of "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," the fuzzed-out fog of "Sunglasses After Dark" and the self-descriptive "Zombie Dance," all interspersed with high-speed rockers like "Rockin' on the Moon," "Mad Mad Daddy" and "Tear it Up." Bad Music, being a collection of singles, b-sides and album cuts, is not quite as dark or as thematically unified, but makes a great party album, and contains some of Lux's best moments. Like these:

She Said (YouTube link, embedding disabled)
I Can't Hardly Stand It:

Their second album, Psychedelic Jungle, is more of a drugged-out wall of sludge (I don't want to say "psychedelic," which makes me think of something like Sgt. Pepper or Odessy and Oracle, which this is definitely not) on tunes like "Don't Eat Stuff Off the Sidewalk," "I Can't Find My Mind" or the drugsploitation classic "Beautiful Gardens." But once I'd gotten ahold of that one and the Gravest Hits EP, there was nothing else out there, and the search for more Cramps became frustrating. There was another singles collection called Off The Bone, but it was all the same songs. One day I flipped out for a moment when I found a new record in the Cramps section of the bin at the Ft. Pierce Record Bar, only to realize someone had mis-filed a Condemned to Death album. Then, on a trip down to Ft. Lauderdale/Miami, in Open Records, suddenly a new Cramps record was there--a 12" single called Can Your Pussy Do The Dog. I snatched it up, and later in the day ended up at Yesterday and Today Records, where they had a 7" version of the same single. I was a little bummed at first--a Cramps 7" would be even cooler to own than a Cramps 12"--but hey, mine had an extra song, so that's more important. "Can Your Pussy Do The Dog" is one of their best songs, but I find the two songs on the B-side interesting, because they're a rare example of The Cramps not indulging in any schtick, just playing a couple songs they think are good tunes. Here's "Georgie Lee Brown."

You can find both of those songs as bonus tracks on A Date With Elvis, btw, which actually has some of their best tunes: "People Ain't No Good," "Cornfed Dames" (which has some of Ivy's best guitar work), and this one, "(Hot Pool of) Womanneed."

This is one of Lux's best vocal performances, as he combines Elvis-like rockabilly croonin' with a southern evangelist preaching style. You can picture him in a rhinestone suit, wiping sweat off his brow, preaching the gospel of lust to the masses. After this album, I kind of wrote them off. I heard bits of Stay Sick and Look Mom, No Head (both came out while I was in college), and they seemed like a band out of ideas. I'm sure I'd have liked them if they were the first Cramps records I'd heard, but as it was, I couldn't really get there. I had a chance to go see them in Athens, but I think Jonathan Richman was playing the same night, and I chose him instead. I wish I had had a chance to experience them live, but I blew it. Whatchagonnado. They did seem to have some life left in them, though, as I learned when I came across this song from their last album, The Fiends of Dope Island, with the incredible title "Elvis Fucking Christ."

Like I said, the band was sort of an outgrowth of their record collecting (you should really find a copy of RE/Search's Incredibly Strange Music volume, which has something like 20 pages of interview with Lux and Ivy, wherein they just discuss their record collection), and well over half their songs were covers or, in some cases, what we might call "mash-ups", like "Sunglasses After Dark," which may or may not take it's lyrics from a rockabilly song of the same title, but attaches them to a Link Wray instrumental. It pays to hunt down the originals, since so many of them (their take on Hasil Adkins' "She Said" is a notable exception) are much better than The Cramps' versions (eg, "Strychnine," "Green Fuz", "Love Me"). At some point, there was a three-volume compilation called Songs the Cramps Taught Us out there. Google it. My introduction was an album that I actually bought the same day as that 12", called Rockabilly Psychosis and the Garage Disease. It's a weird collection, as the first side is a bunch of old garage and rockabilly songs (4 out of 6 were covered by The Cramps), and the b-side is all newer (80's) psychobilly bands. The Cramps themselves are represented on a very obscure track from a studio session they did in Memphis as the backing band for Jimmy Dickinson (James Luther Dickinson). You can even hear Lux doing backing vocals!

Jimmy Dickinson w/The Cramps - Red Headed Woman


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