by Jonny Whiteside
Published on January 25, 2001
Underworld fuzz guitarist Bryan Gregory died Wednesday, January 10, at Anaheim Memorial Hospital. The 49-year-old Detroit native had recently suffered a heart attack, and while the hospital won’t release the cause of death, Gregory had reportedly been ill for several weeks. He was best known for a spectacular stint with the Cramps, where his drawn, acne-scarred visage, framed by a trademark shock of long, skunk-striped hair, and a penchant for distortion and feedback earned him a reputation as one of the punk-rock era’s most distinctive practitioners.
From their 1976 start together in NYC, the Cramps’ dark, dirty rockabilly blitz was an at-the-time unparalleled sound, and Gregory’s bizarre image, juxtaposed against singer Lux Interior’s towering elasticity and guitarist Poison Ivy’s deadpan cool, made for an unforgettable frontline. His 1980 split from the Cramps, concurrent with the band’s litigious departure from IRS Records, generated a tsunami of fan gossip and resentment. Gregory resurfaced in 1982 with Beast, a death-rock quartet fronted by singer Andrella Christopher; heavy on candle-lit atmospherics and midtempo dirges, Beast released one full-length album and undertook U.S. and European tours, but disbanded by 1984. In 1992, Gregory’s band the Dials performed a handful of shows, and at the time of his death he’d formed a new outfit, Shiver. Contrary to cult-propelled rumor, Gregory patched things up with Lux and Ivy in 1991, and this bittersweet recollection (see below) from Poison Ivy should reconcile much of the confusion surrounding one of rock & roll’s most lurid triumvirates.
Sadly, after 20 years of misinformation and misquotes regarding the Bryan Gregory chapter of the Cramps, here’s my one and only chance to directly express my feelings. While it’s true that Bryan didn’t actually play on some of the seminal recordings that are attributed to him (he wasn’t always present for Songs the Lord Taught Us), he could be a truly charismatic live performer when the spirit moved him — particularly in the CBGB/Max’s Kansas City days, when spirit was everywhere in the air.
He wasn’t anything like the myth promoted by his record company and subsequently the press; the real Bryan had a kooky charm the public doesn’t even know about — the truth was far stranger than fiction. He and I shared a birthday, and we met on our mutual birthday on February 20, 1976. We were almost the same size and could fit into each other’s pants and shoes. We understood each other because we weren’t the boygirl next door, and we’d both already been through a lot and knew how to hustle tooth and nail to survive. We could be our scary selves without horrifying each other. My fondest memory is of tripping on acid together in Central Park that summer. We were never quite able to sustain that high.
Bryan’s creative forte was more visual than sonic — when we met him, he had just moved to New York to pursue a graphic-arts career. He loved art, jewelry making, decorating — I think it was the visual aspects of the Cramps that appealed to him most. Lux and I had come to New York in 1975 with a mess of songs and crude home demos and a plan to take over the world, but I think it was mostly our exotic looks and Flying V guitar that lured Bryan to join us. When we gave the guitar to him, he immediately decorated it with polka-dot price stickers and painted our name in fancy script on the case, and you know what? It looked hot!
Bryan was more enigmatic and incongruous than imagination would allow. Once, in a packed coffee shop, he pulled a switchblade on a boothful of square businessmen who were snickering about him, but on another occasion he whined that he couldn’t leave his apartment because the neighborhood teen toughs followed him down the street teasingly singing “Sweet Child in the City.” A sense of adventure led him to let Lux dangle him upside down by his ankles from a 17th-floor high-rise window “just to see what it’s like,” yet he despised touring because of his fear and hatred of “foreigners.” He thought rockabilly was “goofy” but said we made it work for us “’cuz you’re so weird.” We had a brief, intense relationship, and I don’t think any of us knew what hit us. At one time we all wanted to be in a band that people were afraid of offstage. He was a true DMF — Detroit Motherfucker.
On a soul level, the affair was over by 1979, after we started touring and recording regularly. Without a passion for and understanding of the fundamental forces influencing the Cramps, a combination of too much hard work, chemical haze and backstage leeches drove him to the next bright, shiny object in his path and a pursuit of so-called social relevance. I’ll always remember the high-flyin’ Bryan that few people had the privilege to know, before he stopped being a rocker and became a “rock star” . . . the way he walked, the way he talked, the way he rocked.
—Poison IvyHe appeared on two Cramps records, 1979's 'Gravest Hits', produced by Alex Chilton, and 'Songs The Lord Taught Us' in 1980, after which he left the band suddenly. He performed from 1980 to 1984 with the band Beast, and The Dials from 1992 to 1995. He had also formed a band called Shiver.