Stream: The Cramps “Caveman”
I’d never considered myself a drooling fan-boy of the Cramps. Truth be told, a lot of those latter-day Cramps albums were short on spark—more creepy-cuddly than frightful-fuzzy. But somewhere deep down, I’ve always carried a torch for the Cramps, and I never realized how brightly it burned until my Lux was taken from me yesterday.
For many Angelenos, I think the Cramps’ appearance at Sunset Junction two years ago was a profound return to form—for both us and them. I hadn’t seen them perform in at least a decade, and was prepared to see how age had stiffened Lux’s springy gyrations. But Lux seemed to wear his age well, his hair a shock of white and black makeup pressed deeply into his eye sockets. It made him more ghoulish than ever before. He climbed around on the metal scaffolding, shouted “Waaaaaaah!” like a Hammer vampire cringing against the sun, and even read us a ghoulish Ghoulardi parody of TV Guide right from a stage in the middle of Silverlake. It was an incredible show—mind-numbing in its drum monotony and cool jungle guitars—and I never would have guessed that this was a bookend for me. If anything, it seemed like a brand new beginning for this power couple who had forged a way for fandom to become a lifestyle to become a sound.
Remember, for most people now in their thirties—old enough to remember punk when it was still the cool kids’ club for getting’ spat on by jocks—the Cramps were one of the few bands to really hit you sideways with everything you thought had been nullified by hardcore. The T-shirt for Bad Music for Bad People was a glaring yellow ogre in a sea of black in the mail-order section of Thrasher Magazine. When I finally got the cassette, I expected it to be some kind of punk Iron Maiden—something to make Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra look like Cheech and Chong. Instead I found slow Bo Diddley beats, crooning instead of screaming, bwaaang instead of badabadabada. Should I even like this? Isn’t this corny?
Yes, it was! But corny lyrics from Lux sounded way less ridiculous than the Circle Jerks at their straightest. Lux really was “one half hillbilly and one half punk.” Only later did I learn that literally half the album was covers of rockabilly songs—some less inspired than the originals, maybe, but no one could doubt the conviction in Lux’s glottal stutterings. Here a creature was floating to the surface of the black leather lagoon that was far more real and sinister than anything Bad Brains had to teach me. Faster was not necessarily better.
Like Ian MacKaye, or like the hundreds of fans who’ve left comments on dozens of blogs within the past 24 hours, I could go into how transformative my first Cramps show was. Mine was at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, an old country bunker, which for years had a high-heel hole in the ceiling that Lux made while masturbating on top of the PA during a thirty minute version of “Surfin’ Bird”. But what will be mentioned less in today’s obits is how in the nineties, bands like Big Sandy, the Boss Martians, and the Makers kind of pushed the Cramps into grandpa-land. They provided more historically correct thrills to that new era of Betty Page rockabilly gals and tiki-collecting garage surfers than anything Lux and Poison’s pubic punkola could provide.
Yet Lux and Poison were still lurking in the shadows, and one of the biggest thrills for nineties Angelenos was spotting the Cramps in the wild. I caught sight of them first in a Beverly Hills garage, after a showing of Nosferatu with a live orchestra at some posh theater, when Poison Ivy was dressed to the nines in jangly earrings. Then at a reunion show for ? and the Mysterians at Spaceland, I literally ran into Lux near the bar and had a drunken conversation about the Sonics. He held up on his end quite politely, despite not knowing me from Adam. I saw Lux again at an Andre Williams show, and then once at a Lords of Altamont appearance, where he was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and straw hat—like a man back from a fifties vacation—and where he spent some time gabbing with Tom Kenny of Spongebob fame. People told me that Lux and Poison never went out, but it was easy enough to find them if you just went to see bands that rocked and rolled.
So today I’m in mourning—something I’d never expected to feel for a man who spent his whole life playing dead. A 61-year-old rocker is neither young enough nor old enough to die. And yet his legacy still walks among us. I never realized until reading his obit that the man was born in 1948. That means by the time the Cramps got anywhere close to big, Lux was older than I am now—which is pretty old by rock and roll standards! He was older than Alex Chilton, who recorded them for Songs the Lord Taught Us, and he was probably older than many of the kids on those Pebbles comps Lux enjoyed covering so much. Despite stayin’ sick for over thirty years, he actually must have lived pretty healthy, drug and booze-wise, to rock that hard and look that good. And his devotion to his wife Poison showed us all that exposing your dingle on stage every night and loving a woman with all your heart aren’t mutually exclusive.
Goddamn it. I hope he makes it to rock and roll heaven and tears that damned place up. If not, maybe he’ll at least give us an aloha from hell.