This pre-Franorama World post was my final entry at the Fresno Beehive, Feb. 5, 2009, 6:35 p.m. PST:
When I mentioned the death of Lux Interior, singer for punk/psychobilly pioneers The Cramps, in the newsroom this morning, colleagues looked at me as if I had four horns and six eyes. That’s fine — The Cramps were usually looked at the same way, and damn proud of it.
Lux (real name Erick Purkhiser), one of the most uninhibited singers to ever take a rock’n’roll stage (and with a history that includes Iggy Pop, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, that’s saying a lot), died early yesterday morning in Glendale of a pre-existing heart condition. I don’t know whether I’m more surprised by his death or the fact that he was 62 — I never thought of Lux (or his wife, guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach) being old. The Stones? They’re old. The Cramps, who were around for 36 years? Hell no.
The backstory: Erick, a native of Stow, Ohio, picked up hitchhiker Kristy Wallace in Sacramento in 1972. A few weeks later, they found themselves in the same “Art and Shamanism” course at Sacramento State — and soon found out they shared the same tastes in horror film camp (especially, for Erick, the horror TV movie show hosted in Cleveland by Ghoulardi), fashion and, most importantly, obscure, trashy rock’n’roll, mostly rockabilly and garage, of the ’50s and ’60s. The two lovebirds formed The Cramps — Erick eventually took the name Lux Interior (from a car commercial), Kristy decided on Poison Ivy. They moved back to Ohio the next year, then to New York in 1975, to be part of this interesting new punk thing that revolved around CBGB.
From the start, there was no one who sounded or looked like them: A deep, sinister, two-guitar sound by Ivy and the late, sinister-looking, Bryan Gregory (and, later on, Kid Congo Powers) — the swagger of “The Way I Walk” by Jack Scott and the dirty guitar of Link Wray, all amped up. Raw, primitive drumming by the basher they brought from Ohio, Miriam Linna, and her (longtime) successor, Nick Knox. (And If you want to draw a historical line from Miriam to Peg O’Neil of The Gories to Meg White of The White Stripes, be my guest.) And there was Lux, a tall, gaunt guy who looked like he stepped out of a horror flick. He and the equally statuesque Ivy made every show a Munsters dance party. They reveled in the bizarre and encouraged it — though, sometimes, the results could be kinda out there, like the time they performed at the Napa State Mental Hospital.
Their heyday was the late ”70s/early ’80s. Alex Chilton (of The BoxTops and Big Star fame) produced their first two singles, which were re-released the next year by I.R.S. Records as the EP “Gravest Hits.” After opening for The Police in Europe, then being filmed for the legendary concert movie “URGH! A Musical War,” they had Chilton produce their first full-length album, “Songs the Lord Taught Us,” followed by “Psychedelic Jungle.” They released several albums after that — exploring the standard pleasures of rock’n’roll (sex and drugs; what else?) in their unique way, throwing in the obscuro cover here and there.
Through it all, Lux was a showman. My lasting image from the first time I saw them, in ’81 at a dance club on Long Island, was Lux in a stovepipe hat and cape, skanking around the dance floor to the Tommy James hit “Hanky Panky,” and he removed said hat — and all his hair was sticking straight up beneath it. And while the band ran out of steam musically by the early ’90s, their shows were still spectacles. Lux kept getting more outrageous, looking for some new kind of kick: In the mid-to-late ’90s (including my first visit to California, at the Warfield in San Francisco, Halloween night, 1997), the sinfully thin Lux would come out in a latex catsuit (red or black) with matching stiletto pumps; eventually, he’d be writhing on the floor, Iggy-style, howling wildly as he practically swallowed the mic, and by night’s end, he’d be left sprawled out, spent, in nothing but a thong and heels.
And the Cramps were a band whose influence was easily bigger than the sum of the list of their recordings:
* Without their re-recordings and live performances, a lot of great, underappreciated records from the ’50s and ’60s would’ve gone unnoticed: “Goo Goo Muck” by Ronnie Cook & the Gaylads, “Domino” by Roy Orbison, “She Said” by Hasil Adkins, “Love Me” by The Phantom, “Psychotic Reaction” by San Jose’s Count Five, “Strychnine” by The Sonics, “Uranium Rock” by Warren Smith, “Lonesome Town” by Rick Nelson. (And Miriam Linna, who left early on, would be equally as influential — she and husband Billy Miller keep the flame alive back in Brooklyn with their outstanding archival label, Norton Records.)
* While the genre has gotten harder and more codified (more like rockabilly-meets-thrash, with just-so rockabilly pompadours and Bettie ‘dos), it was Ivy who coined the term psychobilly for their sound, after something Johnny Cash once said. (Remember that when you go see The Rev. Horton Heat Feb.18 at the Tower.)
* Without The Cramps, the equally iconic Misfits might not have had a gimmick.
* And without their horror show-meets-fetish fashion sense, maybe the whole Goth thing would’ve evolved differently. And what would fill the spaces in all those shopping malls where Hot Topic would never have been?
And The Cramps’ last really big hurrah was appearing on rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson’s 2003 album “Heart Trouble,” joining her for a remake of her “Funnel of Love.” Who’da thunk it — Jackson, a longtime born-again Christian, with the hedonistic, fetishistic Cramps? It was a killer version.
So, despite the puzzled and downright amused looks of my colleagues, I’m sad and I’m sticking to it …
Footnote: And if yesterday wasn’t bad enough … I mentioned Lux to a colleague, and I mentioned how The Cramps did a great version of “Psychotic Reaction” (on the live “Smell of Female” album), and he told me, “The singer from the Count Five died a couple months ago.” Somehow, the death of John Byrne Dec. 15 escaped me. (And it’s a pretty sad story.) So … John Byrne, Ron Asheton of The Stooges and Lux … That’s three on a match … that’s enough death for now …
Tags: Alex Chilton, Bryan Gregory, CBGB, Count Five, Domino, Fran Fried, Franorama World, Funnel of Love, Ghoulardi, Goo Goo Muck, Hasil Adkins, Heart Trouble, Kid Congo Powers, Lonesome Town, Love Me, Lux Interior, Miriam Linna, Nick Knox, Poison Ivy Rorschach, Psychedelic Jungle, psychobilly, Psychotic Reaction, Rick Nelson, Ronnie Cook & the Gaylads, Roy Orbison, She Said, Smell of Female, Songs the Lord Taught Us, Strychnine, The Cramps, The Misfits, The Phantom, The Sonics, Uranium Rock, URGH! A Musical War, Wanda Jackson, Warren Smith