Wednesday, September 23, 2009

For the Love of Ivy

(Not a terribly original title, I know. But what the hell else was I gonna call it?)


By Chuck Miller
September 24, 2009

Like a lot of people I know, I took the death of Lux Interior pretty hard. The thing about Lux is, you either GET him or you don't. In order to really GET him, you have to be a certain kind of person, and there just ain't that many of us. If you're reading this at all, chances are you know exactly what I'm talking about. To say that Lux was my favorite singer would be like a Christian saying Jesus was their favorite guy that got nailed up on a cross. Technically true, but missing almost all of the emotional subtext.

We mourn his passing, and rightly so, for he was a rare bird whose like will never be seen again.

But leave us always remember and never forget: What Lux was to a set of vocal chords, Ivy was/is to an electric guitar.

The Cramps without Lux Interior would be like Elvis Presley without Elvis Presley. However, as Lux himself knew full well, there is no "I" in Cramps but if there were, it would stand for "Ivy." That doesn't make much sense, but sense is not what I'm shooting for. I'm trying, in the most roundabout way possible, to say that the Cramps were, essentially, a duo. Drummers and bassists and second guitarists could come and go-- and there were some great ones-- but in order to have the Cramps, you hve to have Lux AND Ivy.

Now, we only have Ivy. And we must continue to cherish her. The Cramps are no more and will never be again. But we still have a kick-ass nasty red-headed guitar heroine by the name of Poison Ivy Rorschach.

Back in about 1990, I had the very great good fortune to interview Poison Ivy for a little entertainment paper I worked for at the time. When I say "little," I mean just that. It was extremely local, given away for free at libraries, laundromats, college campuses, etc., in Mobile Alabama. Not exactly Vanity Fair, it was almost as prestigious as the Thrifty Nickel. Most of the writing was as boring and crappy as the small, parochial "music scene" it covered. (I also played guitar in a band called the Church of the Chainsaw, which might just as well have been a Cramps tribute band.)

So, I had a grandiose idea. I was going to try and get an interview with someone who was actually famous. I selected a few artists I really liked and wrote to their record companies or publicists. The Cramps, of course, were on the list. The very top, in fact. Some time went by and I heard nothing from anyone, which I had more or less expected. I had almost forgotten the whole business when one day, while I was at work, the phone rang. I answered, a female voice asked to speak to Chuck Miller, I admitted I was him. The caller said, "This is Poison Ivy of the Cramps."

Since reaching adulthood, I have never once shit in my pants. But if I had, that would have been it. I knew It was not a joke because any of my friends would know that they'd be signing their own death warrant with such a stunt. I got my shit together, got a tape recorder, and we talked for more than an hour. It was the highlight of my journalistic career, if not my whole fucking life. I wish I still had that tape.

Another thing I've never done is have a religious experience, but, again, that came very close.

I have interviewed a few more celebrities since then, but that was the only time I ever came away from it feeling that I had just talked with someone who genuinely appreciated my interest and who thought I was just as important as she was.

Years later, I got to meet both Lux and Ivy face-to-face, for all of about 15 seconds, at a club in New Orleans while they were making their way to the stage. I seriously doubt she actually remembered me, but she very sweetly pretended that she did.

I always had the impression that Ivy was the brains of the outfit. But not in a creepy Colonel Tom kind of way. More like an "I know that what we are doing is some incredibly great and unique shit, and I intend to take good care of it" way. She built and maintained the framework that allowed Lux to be the magnificent beast that he was. She was his foundation. Had there not been an Ivy, right now there might be only a handful of people mourning the death of that weird old Mister Purkhiser who ran that used record store out by the airport. Would young Eric ever have found the freedom to gleefully bounce around nearly naked on a stage in a pair of high heels? Maybe, maybe not. And had he not, how much poorer our lives would have been.

Now, I am not seriously suggesting that anyone here is likely to forget or even discount her. But with everything that has been written about Lux, a lot of it by me, I want to take the opportunity, now that some time has passed, to express my gratitude, admiration and appreciation to the Cramps' other half.

I have a friend in California with three daughters, all under the age of 15. They are lucky kids indeed because they all got to see the Cramps in 2006. The youngest was less than a year old. The two older girls were enthralled with Ivy. She touched something deep inside them. There is still a lot more sexism in the music world than anyone wants to admit. There are a few basic molds into which most female performers squeeze themselves. There are way more Pussycat Dolls than there are Girlschools or Runaways. Where can a young girl look to find a guitar heroine of her own? Not many places. But one of those places was the stage before which those girls stood on that day. And they will carry that with them for the rest of their lives.

"We met in 1974 in college in Sacramento, California. Under the guise of the Art Department there were classes like "Art and Shamanism," which was really a study of amanita muscaria; the textbook was The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. The class was real loose; the teacher would ask you, "What grade do you want, an A?" He would gravitate toward certain students and invite them to "heavier" classes at his home--he had this fabulous spread. Lux and I met in his class, although actually we met hitchhiking. We talked and discovered we were going to see each other again in this teacher's class. Actually, the first kiss was in this instructor's house--we'd taken mushrooms, I think."
(From Incredibly Strange Music Vol. I)
Poison Ivy- Kristy Wallace (born Kristy Marlana Wallace February 20, 1953, San Bernardino, California), better known as Poison Ivy (or Poison Ivy Rorschach), is a founding member of the American garage punk band The Cramps. Wallace was married to Cramps' singer Lux Interior (Eric Purkhiser), with whom she had been for 37 years, until his death on February 4, 2009. Instruments played: guitars, echo-theremin. The band was formed when Lux Interior and Poison Ivy met during a college course on art and shamanism. The name originated in a dream and was initially "Poison Ivy Rorschach", the Rorschach referring to the Rorschach ink-blot test, however over the years it has been contracted to plain and simple "Poison Ivy". Her stage persona is best defined by as being the bad-girl vixen from next door; this is underlined by the sexually explicit cover-art which she has frequently posed for the band's albums. (Wikipedia)


February 20, 2009-- A very special baby girl was delivered unto this Earth in Sacramento, California on this day in 1953. The babe's parents named her Kristina Marlana Wallace, but you can call her Poison Ivy.

Poison Ivy Rorschach is easily one of the hottest women in music. For the last 3 decades, she has been rockin' n' shockin' onstage with psychobilly pioneers The Cramps, alongside her larger than life husband, Lux Interior. Sadly, when Lux departed this mortal coil on February 4, 2009, he took the future of The Cramps with him. Now that the irreplaceable frontman is gone (but never forgotten), the amplifiers have fallen silent, the drum beat no longer keeps time, and the adoring fans stand perfectly still before the stage.

Thank gods for the 15 album legacy The Cramps were thoughtful enough to leave behind.

Bonne fête, Poison Ivy... Rock n' Roll Goddess.


Stay Sick!, the first Cramps album to come near the mainstream, positively slithers with the procreante urge. Poison Ivy's distorted rockabilly riffs cover Lux Interior's monstrous, monotone vocals like cool Calamine, maximum reverb and tremolo, please. While Lux lampoons images of smoking poodles, drag racers on acid, and women swimmin' in chilli, Poison Ivy plays the straightwoman, creating 50s-approved guitar parts that pay tribute to the likes of Link Wray, Paul Burlison, and friends. Seldom has psychobilly been so appealingly packaged.

The Cramps finally seem to be crossing over into the mainstream.

Or are they crossing over to us?

Has your image or over-the-top performances style caused you trouble?

Not too much. Not anymore than most bands. In fact, lately not too much at all. We used to get in fights and stuff; people tried to pick fights with us. We haven�t been arrested . I think we've been pretty fortunate. It's great that this band has been a success for us on whatever level its been at. I don't think Lux and I can do anything else (laughs). I'm not sure we're even employable doing something else, so it's good we're allowed to do it.

Has your audience evolved?

Every time we play there are newer, younger people. When we started out in New York at CBGB's and Max's Kansas City, fixtures would always be at the show, but since then its changed. I actually see more variety at our shows than I do at other people's shows. I think there's these facets that reach different kinds of people. Some people like us for the instrumental aspects and someone else will like us because we're dangerous or scary.

How do your shows compare to the records?

They're different. Some people think that we don't get that thing we have live onto our records, and I don't agree. They'd feel different if they heasrd a tape of a show which I do a lot of times, because we tape all our shows. They don't always sound that great, and I think people get confused by the visual things that are going on. You have to be there. But when they talk about the wild aspect not being on the record, I think they're just wrong. They're just remembering how they felt, or maybe they were loaded at the show when all that stuff was going on. It's different. It's not sloppier live, but even if we play the same songs every night, they're never the same way twice. I suppose with recording, we do try to concentrate on the ultimate arrangement, the ultimate impact.

Do you record live?
Some songs on the new album had to be recorded live - Muleskinner Blues, Shortnin Bread and Her Love Rubbed Off couldnt be recorded any other way because of the way we have to interact with each other and Lux singing. Other ones, though, were tracked with drums and bass first, although we do that together. We try to track the rythym together; it makes it easier to record songs.

Where did your idea of the marrige of rockabilly and punk originate?

Well we didn't think of it as that; others call it that. What happened was that Lux and I were living in Ohio, just finding wild records. At the time, the only way you could find rockabilly was on the original 45s; there weren't any reissues of it. We were finding some incredible records around the Akron area because a lot of people from the South had moved up North to work in the factories and dumped their records. So we were hearing all this stuff, and at the same time there were contemporary bands we liked. We loved the New York Dolls and the Stooges, so we were excited by that. We had boring jobs, we were taking speed, and with the combination of those things, we ended up going to New York. There was no place in Ohio where you could have an original band, and we knew that CBGBs was starting to happen. We even bought a P.A. -- we thought you needed to own your own P.A. in New York. I mean we didn't know anything about having a band. We'd written songs, so we got together with several various configurations before we actually played CBGBs. When we moved to New York, we saw the Ramones several times and it was all a combination of our excitement. We knew that rockabilly and the kind of music we were listening to was what everybody in the world wanted to hear! At the same time we were really moved and inspired by punk-rock bands that were happening in New York at the time. We didn't have any concept about putting it together; it just happened kind of naturally. Who we were was more out of control than some of the music we were listening to, and we were just shoved on in there.

What are the essential elements of the Poison Ivy sound?

Live it's always pretty much the same. My main live guitar is a 1958 Gretsch 6120 with the pre-patent Filter-Tron pickups. I play it through a Fender Pro Reverb with a blackface that's kind of unique - it has one 15� JBL that appears to have been done at the factory. I don�t know if someone had it custom ordered or what. I found it that way as a used amp. The big speaker sounds really great with that hollowbody guitar. I've started using a modern pedal, an Ibanez delay computer. It's pretty cool. And then I use two distortion units, A Univox Super Fuzz, that's the fuzz sound of the Cramps, and a pedal called (Tube Works) Real tube, whuich supposedly simulates overdrive, but it doesn't really. I don't use it on many songs.

Do you play any styles that might surprise your fans?

Not anything unusual, like, you know, classical.

You're not a closet bluegrasser?

Well, actually maybe some of the more country styles - you know some fingerpicking country that's not quite bluegrass. It's a simple, pure country style just when I'm foolin' around. I do straighter blues stuff too.

Do you practice?

I should. Not as much as I like. Most of the practice I get is onstage. Seems like I get spread thin doing other things. I'd be happy if all I did was play guitar, but I don't get an opportunity to. I'm not working on improving anything specific about my playing. I'm always listening to records and watching people. As I go along, things kind of become unveiled or revealed to me. After years of wondering what was gong on, things that seemed unfathomable sometimes become clear. It's kind of fun, and I guess that happens with any guitar player. That's going to happen for the rest of my life.

Do you always have a guitar around at home?

Oh yeah. The one I have at home-- I never play it live-- is a 1952 Gibson ES295. It's gold guitar and even has ivy on the pickguard. It's that famous Ersel Hickey guitar that everyone copies for the classic rock profile. It's a really great guitar. The neck is hard for me to play; it's really big and bulky, but it's a great-sounding guitar.

What's the best way to get a visceral tone in the studio?
Mainly just try to get the recorded sound as close to what you're gonna want it to be before you mix, just through miking it. I play loudly on really small amps; almost the whole Stay Sick album was recorded on a Valco amp from 1959 or '60. This one has a tiny 10' speaker. The less processing the better.

You seem to have a tougher sound this time.

Yeah, well it worked (laughs).

Where did rockabilly guitar come from?

Oh, God, I don't know. I don�t know why rock and roll even happened. I mean, it was a product of the '50s, even though people will argue it was invented in the '20s and '30s. Well, it wasn't. It was a phenomenom of the '50s. I don't know if it had something to do with the atom bomb or Sputnik or what. I just think people were thinking really big. Electric guitar came to life in the '50s. It was just like dynamite in the hands of these players who were mainly teenagers. They were capturing electricity, making this music out of it. Have you ever seen this movie, Carnival Rock? James Burton is backing up both David Houston and Bob Luman, who were both Louisiana acts. Burton is just a kid, but oh, man, he's incredible.

Besides Cliff Gallup, James Burton, and Scotty Moore, who are some of the must-hear 50s cats?
Link Wray. Even though he's known, he's not credited well enough. He had the most apocalyptic, monumental sound I ever heard-- real emotional and so simple and so violent. That stands for rock and roll, which is supposed to be violent and dangerous, and have this dangerous sound. Ike Turner isn't that well-known for his guitar playing -- he's more known for his associations with Tina, I guess. But he had an incredibly wild, unique guitar style, and he was also responsible for being a producer and an A&R man in the '50s.

Have you encountered much sexism in the business?

Anything negative has been pretty much trivial, like, I go into a guitar store and they call me sweetheart and tell me how to hold the guitar. I actually haven't had any obstacles. The main thing that's been sexist, I guess, is that if I am recognized or credited, people will say I play as tough as a guy. In a way that's insulting, because for one thing, I play different. It's got nothing to do with guys. No guy taught me how to play. I taught myself. And you,d be surprised how much you can learn yourself, just listening to a lot of records and watching people play and hanging out with a lot of players, rather than having someone show you his cliched way of playing. Try something original. And I'm sure there's even something about being a girl that has an original flair to it, and women should try to allow that to come out in their playing. And that can be something pretty scary, too. People expect us to be timid, and it can be the other way around.

Do you do anything special to keep your sanity on the road?

No, I'm hopelessly insane. It's too late now.

Any special messages for guitarists?

Just stay sick and turn blue!


  1. The Cramps never got the attention and praise they deserve and especially Ivy's guitar playing. Thanks for this. Stay Sick!

  2. I wonder if we're gonna hear about Ivy soon
    Great job, thanx Chuck

  3. Guitar playing is an art and not everyone is a gifted guitarist. This article is devoted to all those guitar lovers who have at some point of their life or the other, experienced a deep desire to learn playing guitar. Well, guitar learning is not as difficult as people say it is.

  4. Beautiful. I just recently found out that Lux died last year. :-( So true that Ivy as much as Lux was key to the Cramps' unique sound. And also true that there aren't many female guitar heroes (still!).

  5. It would be really cool if Ivy did an instrumental album.

  6. I'm still listening to my Cramps cd's. One of the best bands ever!