In 1976, singer Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach were penniless civilians, scraping the scummy bottom layer of survival in Manhattan, rotting their brains on a steady diet of low-grade monster movies and feverishly scheming on the best way they could figure to hijack rock & roll. A year later, operating as the Cramps, they had perfected a battle plan, launched a savage campaign for underworld conquest, and with a singular apocalypto-psychedelic-rockabilly grind, had the entire city at their feet.
Although they routinely shared stages with the likes of the Ramones and the Clash, the Cramps had little to do with any recognizable form of punk rock, relying instead on the crafty, alchemical blend of elements that has since carried them around the world. With a stage show renowned for both Lux’s drastic, acrobatic performances and Ivy’s icy hot-guitar primitivism, the pair has continuously challenged rock & roll convention, in the process pulling their cult of low life acolytes ever deeper into a vortex of quasi-mystical, fiendishly eroto-maniacal big-beat madness. As they prepare to launch their hotly-anticipated Halloween-season spate of infection—after more than a years’ glaring absence—the beguilingly gruesome twosome emerged from their subterranean lair to dispense reflections on past mayhem, and offer a cryptic glimpse or two into their future.
With the band’s 30th anniversary fast approaching, Lux—flashing his chrome-plated choppers (the teeth were damaged by years of microphone chewing) and sporting a shaggier silver-blond mane—and a black-clad, metallic gold eyeshadow-highlighted Ivy discussed their unlikely start over a boozy, late-afternoon lunch.
“Our first show was November 1, 1976 at CBGB’s,” Lux says. “We got four encores and I went up to (club owner) Hilly afterwards and said ‘Can we get a gig for the Cramps?’ and he said, ‘Well, we ain’t got no gig for the Cramps.’ But Peter Crowley, the booker for Max’s Kansas City was there, and two weeks later we were at Max’s every weekend from then on, opening for whoever was playing. That’s probably the biggest thing that made us into a kind of immediate, everybody’s-talkin’-about-it thing, but if that guy hadn’t been there, I’m really not sure what our career would have been.”
“It might,” Ivy adds, “have ended that night.”
Either way, it was hardly a sure bet: “For a long time, we got booed every time we played,” Lux says, “or half the audience was booing and the other half was beating up on them. It was really kind of strange—and cool. But when they stopped booing, it was like something was missing because we really enjoyed the hell out of it and all of a sudden it wasn’t happening.”
Instead, as captured on their recent two-CD archival retrospective How to Make a Monster, the crowds were howling, as the band routinely stirred NYC’s hip chick set in a nonstop chorus of hyper-shrill, madly aroused screamers. Thus began a bizarre odyssey, captured on some of the finest issuances any rock group managed (debut mind-ripper Songs the Lord Taught Us, masterpiece Psychedelic Jungle, and frantic jolters Smell of Female, A Date with Elvis, and Stay Sick to name but a few) and the conversation spins into a kaleidoscopic series of lurid recollections:
“When (drummer) Nick Knox played his first gig with us, we were in Memphis, at South Western University.” Ivy says. “He’d never even seen the Cramps. The first time he saw us, he was playing in the band—he’d moved to New York to be in the Cramps, sight unseen, because a friend of his told him that we were cool and he should be in the band.”
“And we scared the hell out of the people at that show,” Lux says. “We were set up outdoors, people walking by and I was yelling crazy stuff at them—‘The prom has been cancelled!’—and I put [guitarist] Bryan Gregory on my back and we went out into the audience during “Surfin’ Bird.” Of course, he wasn’t plugged in, but he kept playing and I was just screaming in their face ‘bah-bah-bah-bah,’ in a shower of beer cans that ended up covering the stage—and this was at two in the afternoon.”
And: “In Philadelphia at some comedy club—there was no place to play in Philadelphia, and some local punks got us the gig—we’re playing, and all the punks are trashing the place and the owner’s freaking out . . .”
Closer to home, Ivy recalls “The one time we were supposed to play Palm Springs, this was with [guitarist] Kid Congo, so it was sometime in the early ‘80s, and I don’t how—except from experience—we knew we were going to get stiffed, they weren’t going to pay us. We were ready to play, all set up, and asked to get paid, but when they can’t come up with it at that moment, you know you’re fucked. We walked out.”
“We did play, though—in the Jacuzzi, back at the preppie hotel, to a bunch of 15-year-old girls.” Lux adds. “Ivy had a ukulele and Nick had some bongos, and Nick says, ‘Oh, don’t worry, the water’s good for the bongos, it tightens the heads.’”
“In the Jacuzzi—with our jewelry and makeup on,” Ivy continues, “we didn’t have swim suits, I was just in my bra and underwear, and later Nick said, ‘This is my favorite part of the Cramps—I play the bongos, Ivy dances and Lux takes pictures.’”
The past is much on their minds, as the couple has been working on another from-the-vault specialty and an accompanying DVD, set for release in early 2007.
“There’s some footage of me when I was three years old putting on ladies clothes and lipstick . . . wacky stuff,” Lux says. “And the original ‘Human Fly’ video, which was only seen once—when we showed it on a sheet at CBGB’s. It’s great—I shoot myself in the neck with a hypo and turn into a werewolf, we did the whole stop-animation thing. And the album, it’s different from How to Make a Monster, which is really more like a historical ‘for fans only’ album. This was all recorded in Memphis two years before Songs the Lord Taught Us, and if this record had come out first, I think we might have had a different history.”
While it features many of the same titles from their debut (and several quite surprising new ones), the new release delivers with the throbbing mayhem typical of their ‘77-era live show, and with a clutch of never-before-heard numbers, it’s as intoxicating a blast of unhinged expression as anything they’ve cooked up since. Yet the present weighs heavily on their minds, too, as the perennial personnel changes still keep them on edge—former Blasters drummer Bill Bateman is out, longtime traps man Harry Drumdini is back, and they’ve just added Sean Yseult, the White Zombie-Famous Monsters bassist who Lux & Ivy have been trying to recruit for years.
“We’re sort of in transition right now,” Ivy says, “and Sean probably will just do this tour—I don’t know how she is on guitar, but when we go out next year on the new album, we’re going back to the two-guitar, no-bass sound.” The tone becomes guarded, implying Yseult may stay on, but both also hint at acquiring a guitarist of stellar proportion. Who would it be—Congo? James Burton? They aren’t talking.
Instead, Ivy goes off on a characteristically offbeat, philosophical flight: “I’m fascinated with the concept of ‘Folie a Deux,’” she purred.
“What’s that mean?” asks Lux, “I don’t speak French.”
“A delusion of two—a folly of two—and it’s usually a negative, meaning something that never manifested,” she explains. “But I think, in the case of the Cramps, we definitely seem to have manifested, and it’s great because being delusional, we’re not the most employable people in the world. And it’s also something that could spread, out to a folly of who may dig it and share the folly, and it could, who knows, topple a government, bring on a revolution . . .”
She pauses. “Anything could happen.”
The Cramps; Demolition Dollrods; Groovie Ghoulies at The Key Club Morongo, 49500 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, (888) 667-6646; www.keyclubmorongo.com. Wed., 7:30 p.m. $23. 18+