Fuzz, sex, and drugs: the universe of The Cramps
Rock, it's all a sublime sacrilege.
Award shows for art are stupid - the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys. Can one person proclaim that one schlocky brain-dead Hollywood film or one crappy teenybopper-formulated-by-bloated-executives pop song really is the best? Does anyone have the right to say her favorite painter, even if he lopped off a body part, is the best painter or that a certain author who shot himself has no equal? People, of course, have their personal favorites, but art, highbrow or low, works on so many levels that we can't really make lists.
I make one exception to this rule. When it comes to rock music, I take a stand. One band rises to the top, and it is both the cream and the scum. It is the greatest of all time, the best that ever was, is, or will be. Rock 'n roll had one favored child, a demented, dirty, and lovable devil spawn. I'll happily grant that countless rock groups deserve your undying adoration. You should continue to worship at their feet if you feel the need. But only one band is rock ‘n’ roll. That band is the Cramps.
How can I make that proclamation? It's simple. The Cramps remain singular in one way. Like that perfect suction and collapse of a black hole, the Cramps have an all-consuming vision. It's not just their music, which is deity-defyingly great, it's the whole Cramped universe. They understand with every subatomic particle what makes rock music rock. They do it. They live it. They are it. Lux Interior and Poison Ivy have created a body of work in which the art and the artist have become inseparable. The Cramps are real, and that realness comes through every chord, stomp, and microphone shoved down a throat.
The Cramps are a four-piece, but at the core, we have two people: Lux at the microphone and Ivy on guitar. Yes, they're a couple, together for more than 30 years, and there's every indication that they are happy. I think this happiness adds something to The Cramps' music. Whether the subject is decapitation, bad trips, or bad dreams, it's still a celebration. And like the old concept of the godhead that no one wants to talk about anymore, The Cramps encompass and exalt in both the masculine and the feminine, cock and pussy rocking together. We have no epic ego struggles here. Lux is Elvis Fucking Christ and Ivy is the she-devil goddess. Each rules his or her own domain.
So what do the Cramps sound like? Musically, Lux and Ivy do what any true masters of an art form do. They look to the past while creating something absolutely original. The music pays homage to the early rockabilly sound, but there's so much else swarming around in there: the DIY ethic and sonic drive of punk, the rawness of garage rock, artiness, sex and lust, reverence for all of America's trash, extreme drug use, and a steamrolling wit. As Lux put it in "Garbageman":
It's just what you need
When you're down in the dumps
One half hillbilly and one half punk
Big long legs and one big mouth
The hottest thing from the North
To come out of the South
Usually, people describe bands by comparing them with other bands, but that's impossible in this case. No one else has that Cramped vision. Many bands have been influenced by the Cramps sound, but those that try to copy it usually mutate into cartoonish clones. For everyone else, it's an image, an act, not a way of life.
No other music holds onto that primate essence, music from the bowels of the Earth and the body. Listen to the guttural fuzz on "Thee Most Exalted Potentate of Love" or the way the guitars grind and squeal and the drums drive in "Garbageman." Feel the engorging rhythm of "It Thing Hard-On" or the slinky pounding of "Dames, Booze, Chains and Boots." This music will get that early hominid inside you jumping. It's music for bad people, by real people, people just like you. The only distinction is that little something called genius.
Over the decades, the music has changed. In the late '70s, with two guitars, they sounded wild, sparse at times, true music innovators. Over time, the second guitar became a bass, and The Cramps' sound got fuller, tighter, even louder, all without becoming stale. And though drummers and bass players have changed over the years and the sound has evolved, we still hear that same pervasive ode to the sickness of humanity. From "Human Fly" to "Dr. Fucker M.D. (Musical Deviant)," we are taught the wise lesson that we "human beans" aren't special because we're somehow better than animals, we're special because we are the most fucked-up animal, the animal that makes art, be it an opera or a slasher flick. Even the most hifalutin' connoisseur just wants to grunt down in the mud every now and then. Our brains like art, like pretty things, and sex, and drugs, and hitting things with hammers … With The Cramps, you start with a hammer to the brain, and then move on to the next item in the list.
So what are The Cramps trying to tell us? If you've never heard Lux's lyrics, then you're missing out on rock's true poetic voice. He can be intriguing, obscene, and downright hilarious in just a few syllables. Nothing's regurgitated, and you always sense that sick mind working furiously behind the scenes. Lux takes the music seriously, but not himself. And rock musicians who think that they somehow inherently matter and can change the world are arrogant, preachy assholes, like how I sound in this essay. Then again, essays are a good place to preach, not a damned rock song.
That's not to say that you won't learn something from this music. You'll learn about art, sex, death, philosophy, violence, desire, and even love (driving you mad, perhaps). Each song displays genius in its own way. For instance, in these lines from "Wet Nightmare," we get a clear description of this heretofore undescribed nocturnal occurrence:
I seen a striptease torture
and blackbirds flyin' backwards
And a pagan rout in a hellhole
in a bed full o' crackers
It was a wet nightmare.
And in these lines from an homage to Herschell Gordon Lewis, "I Ain't Nuthin' but a Gorehound," we get an idea of what a Cramps-based religious cult might believe:
I don't know about art but I know what I like
I'll be surfin' in a swamp on a Saturday night
I've been to the mountain and it's just a big hill
I guess I'm nuthin' but a gorehound born to thrill.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust
Easy come, easy go, ain't no big fuss
Finally, we have this stream-of-consciousness tirade at the end of "Let's Get Fucked Up" that exemplifies Lux's unique poetic voice:
Baby, let's strap on a little of that abnormal delirium
We'll take a long fall down into that surrealist bucket
We'll make one big grease spot out of this town, baby
Hey, I wanna be your Siamese Chihuahua sweetheart
The ultimate degenerate
Clearly, this is a man with something to say. We owe it to ourselves to shut up and listen.
The Cramps' vision can enhance just about anything. In general, you can tell the power of an artist's vision when that artist can take an existing composition and remake it as her own. So why do most song covers sound like the original, except much worse, by less talented musicians, and with all the life and vitality sucked out to make room for the cloyingly updated bells and whistles? We understand the concept: if the song was a hit for someone else, it might just make our sorry asses some money too. Don't change it too much or the audience will be confused. The Cramps have covered a lot of songs over the years, some obscure, some more famous. Yet somehow, every time The Cramps cover a song, it becomes a Cramps song. You'll never listen to the original the same way again.
Even when covering a well-known song, The Cramps claim ownership. For example, the band adapted one '80s hit song, and that adaptation just happens to explain the Cramped view of rock:
I dig that god damn rock 'n roll
That kinda stuff that don't save souls
Lux later sings:
Even before Van Gogh had art
Adam and Eve did it in the park
Yeah, they did that god damn rock 'n roll
The true test of rock greatness, however, is the live performance. How do The Cramps stack up against the rock gods we all know and love? I saw the band for the first time about 15 years ago. And though I'd been to loads of shows, it was still obvious that I was discovering something truly special, something seedy yet pure in its understanding of rock music as a whole. Before they came on, I saw a sign hanging from the curtain at the back of the empty stage, The Cramps logo in its horror-movie, blood-dripped font, golden and glittery and exquisitely trashy. For anyone else, a sign like that would have seemed like a joke or overkill. But for The Cramps, it was a promise: no frills, just honest-to-goodness fuckedupedness. Soon, we'd all be part of that unified Cramps vision. We were about to witness something truly authentic. And when they took the stage, they took it with an unforced, undeniable presence.
You've got the perfect front man in Lux Interior - grinning, leering, mouth sucking down microphones, shrieking a song, raving in an impromptu rant, or chatting convivially with the fans in the pit between songs. High heels, leather or latex pants (eventually down to a G-string), and a bottle of wine in hand. When it comes to frontmen, there's Lux, and then there's everybody else. Name your names, make your arguments, yank out your hair for all I care. Other singers try to pull it off, but they have the sheen of desperation in their sweat. They prance about the stage, eyes closed, mouths contorted as if the hot air they're puking up manufactures the very oxygen we need to live. They're acting, not being. Climbing stacks of amps, breaking mic stand after mic stand, moving around the stage like he owns it, both feeding and feeding off the audience, Lux ain't saving the world. If anything, he's showing you how to screw it all to hell while laughing like a hyena on speed. No one else can combine the madness, talent, energy, humor, and showmanship in one human form.
To his left, Poison Ivy. She, with the burst of red curling locks, a tighter-than-skin go-go outfit or maybe something see-through. On stage, she is Lux's opposite. For all his thrash, she hardly moves. She stays her ground, swaying her hips to the music, stamping her feet, but always in control. She glares, she sneers, silent except for her fingers on the guitar. It's as if Ivy has to contain The Cramps' genius by displaying a queen-like serenity, tinged with a queen-like haughtiness. (In the dozens of shows I've seen over the years, she's smiled only once that I can remember, when Lux climbed into the balcony at The Fillmore with a blow-up doll that some helpful audience member provided. Eventually, all you could see over the edge was a tangle of latex and plastic legs, and that was too much for even her.) Over the years, rock has given us many guitar gods, but few goddesses. We're accustomed to the usual testosterone-infused stylings, tongues lapping in rhythm to frenetic solos. Yet without the posturing, Ivy still controls the show, still makes sounds that cause humans to act like sharks at a feeding frenzy. Her fierceness comes from the merest flicker, a kick and stomp, and fingers along the fret.
My words do nothing but scratch the surface. Only genius can describe genius. I'm just smart enough to know it when I have it shoved in my face. So if the next Einstein would come up with a theory to explain why The Cramps are so fucking great, I'd be much obliged. For everyone else, go out and buy all the albums and devote yourself. The songs will take you places. You'll move from hell to heaven, but you'll mostly stay in hell, where people can do their Drano hot shots in fiery peace.
- Mark Latiner