Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lux Redux

What can I say about Lux Interior? What kind of a eulogy can I give him on what would have been his 63rd birthday? How can I explain why the Cramps meant so much to me and still do? Frankly, I do not know. That is to say, I can't quantify it, I can't give you a formula. What follows has been assembled from a couple of earlier posts, and a few other things I've written on the subject. Looking back, I think I did a fairly good job of saying what I wanted to say, so I thought it might be appropriate to bring it out again. I've put it together and filled in some of the cracks with more or less fresh insights. I hope it says something to you.
My painting in honour of Lux's Birthday
SlimGil DeLuxe

by Chuck Miller

I was born in Akron, like Lux, and I lived in Cuyahoga Falls, no more than a few miles from the Purkheiser residence in Stowe. It is entirely possible that child-me and young adult Lux passed one another on the street now and then, neither of us aware of what destiny had in store. Erick Purkheiser may have glanced at that dopey-looking little redheaded kid bouncing along and never dreamed that his future activities would affect that child's life in ways both subtle and noisy; profoundly rewarding and profoundly dangerous.

Of course, it ain't about geography. Lux and Ivy could have come from Idaho or Wisconsin or the moon or Planet X, and the result would have been the same. And in fact they WERE from all those places, and quite a few more. They pulled together such a diverse array of inspirations and influences that they were from everywhere.

It is perhaps easier to say what the Cramps were NOT than to try to define what they were. They were not punk rock or psychobilly or any of that. They were unique in a way that very few things ever are, and there was never a pigeonhole built that could hold them. They were sui generis. What kind of music did they play? Cramps music. What kind of a band were they? They were the Cramps kind. Where can I find their records? Under "Sacred Music" of course.

The first time I actually SAW the Cramps in action was in the movie "Urgh! A Music War." As you know, they contributed a blistering rendition of "Tear it Up," which not only eclipses every other performance in the movie, it eclipses every other performance in the fucking history of the fucking world. At the time, though, I did not quite see it that way. It was frightening. I was a bit stunned. What is this I am seeing? Is this man having a nervous breakdown on stage? Is this like one of those clips of Elvis when he was too fucked up to remember his lyrics? And look at that poor guitarist! She must hate this guy. I mean, if looks could kill...

Obviously I knew nothing at that point. I was staring directly into the sun and trying to make sense of what I saw, but I lacked the vocabulary for it. However, instead of blinding me, this sun began to pull my eyes open. It would take me a while longer to complete enough of a paradigm shift to accommodate the Cramps, but once I did, there was no going back. The interesting thing is, it was not so much a process of discovery as it was of recognition. The Cramps spoke to something that was already in me, dormant and undernourished. The change was not instantaneous. Nothing worthwhile ever is. And when it had been accomplished, I could finally answer the question posed by Lux in "Garbageman."

Yeah, I DO understand!!!

And what's more, I have understood for a long time, though I didn't know it because I had never had it shoved into my face and shaken like that. I knew that this was the purest form of what it was, and what it was was what I wanted.

I, like Lux, ended up playing in a band that was a de facto homage to my inspirations-- mainly, in my case, the Cramps themselves. I did not come up with a stage name, but I had a person in me that only came out on a stage in a club late at night, and it's a damn good thing. This person would do or say absolutely anything. He wasn't me, and yet he was. Possibly he was more me than the one who walked by day.

And I did not consciously invent him. More like I discovered him living down in my basement, so to speak. Which makes sense, when you consider the fact that most of us spend about 90 percent of our time refraining from doing whatever it is we REALLY want to do.

Many observers took Lux's stage persona at once too seriously and not seriously enough, without really understanding just what they were seeing, and they got it hopelessly confused with the man behind it. Which it both was and was not. In many ways, I suppose it was the purest distillation of what Erick Lee Purkhiser really was. As with all great fiction, it was closer to the truth than mere reality; it was authentic on a level the "real world" seldom reaches.
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 have 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 wasn't 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 shook hands with Lux and stammered out some incoherent but sincere expression of my admiration and devotion. To which he replied, "Thank you." Those were the only two words ever spoken directly to me by Lux Interior, and I have no doubt that he meant them as much as I mean it now when I say, rather belatedly, "You're welcome, Lux. And thank YOU."

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, more Brittneys and Jessicas than Candy Del Mars. 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.

They saw a little glimpse of freedom, a hint of their own potential, just like I did so many years before. Someone telling them, without words, that they could do this too, if they want. I don't talk too much about the trappings, you'll notice. The cheap horror movie sensibility, the kitsch, the camp, the fashion. It happens that I love most of these things myself, but the truth is, they are just details. Not all that important. It could have been anything. They could have dressed as giant lobsters and played polka, and they still would have been the Cramps.

The Cramps demonstrated that it is possible to live a life untainted by compromise or surrender, that it is possible to be, not so much what you think you want to be, as what you really ARE at your core, no matter what that is, in a world that encourages anything but. It is a lesson that few will ever grasp and even fewer will ever live. But, thanks to the Cramps, some of us poor suckers will at least have a chance.

Oh, and perhaps the most import thing-- I never eat stuff off the sidewalk. No matter how good it looks.

-- Chuck Miller

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