In the spring of 1990, I saw the Cramps play an especially frantic show (even by their impressive standards) at the Latin Quarter, a now-defunct Detroit venue once accurately described as "looking like a bombed-out Vegas showroom." (The person who coined that phrase was trying to dissuade the Cramps from playing there, clearly failing to understand that that was just the sort of place where the band would feel at home.) About two-thirds of the way through the show, lead singer Lux Interior took a few moments to slither out of the snug, faux-leather plastic pants he'd been wearing since he took the stage, and then hoisted the trousers over his head, clad only in a leopard-skin bikini. Lux dumped what appeared to be a couple of quarts of sweat (and possibly other bodily fluids) out of his pants over his head, and the collective cheers and cries of "Ewwwww!" at this bit of stagecraft achieved a volume and intensity Johnny Knoxville would have envied a decade later.
There's something about that moment that always summed up Lux Interior to me -- no matter how much you loved the Cramps, you could never be entirely sure what he might do on stage at any given show, except that it would be something remarkable and that Lux would show no fear of "going too far." The fact that Lux was a superb rock & roll howler with a stunning variety of shrieks, gulps, bellows and leers at his disposal was never quite enough -- in the grand tradition of Iggy Pop, Lux Interior was a frontman who was going to give you the show of your life if you weren't too chicken, and when word began to spread on Tuesday, February 4, 2009 that he'd died in Glendale, California as a result of a long-time heart condition, the immediate reaction of myself and many fans seemed to be that it couldn't be true -- how could any man that furiously alive croak in a hospital somewhere? Sadly, a few hours later it became clear that it was true, but even in death Lux Interior seems too wild and powerful a figure to be silenced, even if he'll only be heard through his recordings from now on.
Lux Interior was born in 1946 in Stow, Ohio, where his parents gave him the far less glamorous name Erick Purkhiser. Thriving on the combination of great rock 'n' roll radio and wacked-out late-night television that made Ohio a fertile breeding ground for so many of the psychotronic mindset, Purkhiser became a passionate fan of rock 'n' roll and underground culture, but he never made any serious efforts to form a band until he moved to California. Taking a class on "Art & Shamanism" at Sacramento City College in 1972, Purkhiser recognized one of his classmates, Kristy Wallace, as a pretty hitchhiker he'd picked up weeks before, and the two struck up a conversation. It was a love match -- before long, Purkhiser and Wallace were living together, and they'd stay together for close to forty years. Sharing a taste for high-octane music of all eras but especially rockabilly, garage rock and rhythm & blues, Purkhiser and Wallace headed to Ohio for a while, and then lit out for New York City in hopes of starting a band and becoming rock stars.
By 1976, Purkhiser had changed his name to Lux Interior (after the monikers Vip Vop and Raven Beauty failed to take), and Wallace became Poison Ivy Rorschach; she'd become a gifted guitarist with a knack for the ringing single-note lines of early rock 'n' roll, while his enthusiasm for Lou Reed, Alice Cooper and David Bowie had taught him the importance of no-holds-barred frontmen. With Bryan Gregory on noisy second guitar and Miriam Linna on the drums, they became the Cramps and started playing clubs in New York City, and while the band were something of an anomaly on the city's burgeoning punk scene, it didn't take long for them to find an audience. In 1979, after Nick Knox (another former Ohioan) had replaced Linna on drums and the Cramps had self-released a few singles, the band was signed to I.R.S. Records; their first 12-inch release, the Gravest Hits EP, appeared a few months later, and pretty much anyone who cares about the band knows how the story goes from there.
The Cramps would eventually become the most enduring band to emerge from the New York punk underground; while Lux and Ivy moved to California in 1980 and a small army of musicians wandered in and out of the lineup over the years, the act never broke up and continued to record and tour to adoring audiences on their own terms. The Cramps were practically a genre unto themselves; plenty of people were influenced by their mutant spawn of rockabilly, garage rock and pop culture gone to seed, but no one else ever sounded quite like they did or captured the group's gloriously sleazy magic. While Lux and Ivy were by no stretch of anyone's imagination rockabilly purists, in a very real sense they flew the flag for the sound long before it re-entered public consciousness with the rise of Stray Cats, and the brazen sexual undertow of their music had a lot more to do with what Charlie Feathers or Ronnie Dawson wrought in their heyday than what most latter-day revivalists generated with their perfect quaffs and shouts of "Go Cat Go!" Similarly, their take on '60s garage sounds was dirtier, more elemental and druggier than the many Paisley-clad revivalist acts that would follow, and there's an eloquence in the horny throb of their album Psychedelic Jungle that honors the intent of the obscure regional singles they cherished. And because the Cramps refused to treat rock 'n' roll's past (and its vital influences) as museum pieces to be treated with kid gloves, they helped encourage a whole generation of musicians who explored the roots of American music without feeling hindered by tradition or decorum, from the Gun Club to the White Stripes; the Cramps helped teach the world that music is messy, and messy things are usually the most fun.
And, of course, the Cramps were blessed with one of rock 'n' roll's wildest and most charismatic frontmen. No one who ever saw Lux Interior slither across the stage, crawl up an amp stack, hump the stage, swallow a microphone or, yes, dump a whole bunch of sweat over his head is likely to forget it, and he brought both the danger and the sense of Dionysian glee that's so much a part of the best rock 'n' roll to life every time he took a stage. The last time I saw the Cramps perform (in 2004), Lux was as brilliant as ever and made few if any concessions to his age, and with Ivy's guitar as clear and raunchy as ever, they drove a packed house into a frenzy. Interior's death brings an unfortunate close to one of the most joyously unhinged phenomena in American music, but Lux and his band were a wonder while they lasted, and the fact they lasted over thirty years says much for the strength of their X-rayed vision.
Rockin' Bones - 13 Classic Cramps Sides:
"Human Fly" (from Gravest Hits)
"TV Set" (from Songs the Lord Taught Us)
"I Was a Teenage Werewolf" (from Songs the Lord Taught Us)
"The Mad Daddy" (from Songs the Lord Taught Us)
"Green Fuz" (from Psychedelic Jungle)
"Caveman" (from Psychedelic Jungle)
"New Kind of Kick" (from Bad Music for Bad People)
"Drug Train" (from Bad Music for Bad People)
"Can Your Pussy Do the Dog" (from A Date with Elvis)
"What's Inside a Girl" (from A Date with Elvis)
"God Damn Rock and Roll" (from Stay Sick)
"Bikini Girl with Machine Guns" (from Stay Sick)
"Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs" (from Flamejob)