Guest Writer: Rebecca Carlisle-Healy
God Damn Rock and Roll: The Cramps
From: August 10, 2005
For me, The Cramps start in Ohio. I don't know if history supports me on this, because creation stories are alluringly murky at this point, but it my belief that The Cramps formed in 1972 in Akron, Ohio. This is plausible, as Lux Interior nee Erick Purkhiser grew up in Akron, but legends conflict enough to indulge theory. Was it Akron or Sacramento? Was it hitchhiking or art class? Although true evidence suggests that Poison Ivy Rorshach and Lux Interior physically met in California, in my heart I know that their spirits' union---the holiest of all unholy unions--occurred in Ohio, the land of my own maternal home.
There's something about Ohio that brews some of my favorite creation. It's an often overlooked state, but it has quietly bred some of the greatest popular figures in our time-off the top of my head-Devo, Dean Martin, Gloria Steinem. Yeah, so that's a mixed bag, it does demonstrate a certain fecundity. But it's like magic happens when you mix low brow, Midwestern, and working-class with indian and the underground railroad. If you are born weird in Ohio, you have to forge your own way to what seems cool to you with scraps and cut-up bits, whatever happened to filter through the trees and burial mound hills. For Erick Purkhiser, this was Ghoulardi, a local late-night horror host, comic books, and rock and roll music.
It is this stuff that The Cramps are made of. Culling all that is trashy, demented, and rejected, Ivy and Lux formed an aesthetic of dime store junk and the cheapest of thrills. Their true genius is not in their originality, but in the rough aping of the lost culture of pulp camp and trash. They are librarians of Americana's dregs. TV horror emcees, mid-century poster princesses, crudely drawn comic zombies--whatever bore a B was thrown into the wash unsorted, and what came out of the dryer smelled like cigarettes and was made of spandex. Ivy wears it in promotional photographs and album covers, a cheetah-woman in fishnets and patent stilettos. When Lux wears it, it looks like leather pants and scratches on his chest.
But for all the posturing and the sex, The Cramps aren't even that cool, at least in the traditional sense. They're too clever to be cool. As much as Lux looks like Iggy Pop's evil twin when he's cut and bloody on stage, he lacks the dreamy vacancy that makes a dumb ruffian beautiful. The Cramps are self-caricatures, smart alecks, wiseacres. You can put sunglasses on that and it's hot, and it's simpering, but it's also just dorky. Their predilection towards corny jokes and kitsch makes it hard to know where to put them in punk history, even though their 70's New York arty punk resume would seem to put them at the top of everyone's must-have list. An example: in some of my research, I came across a "psychobilly" website whose Cramps write-up attempted to justify its inclusion on the site in such a way that made it obvious that the site's author did not realize that The Cramps themselves had coined the term. It seems like the band missed this fame and cruised straight into infamy. It's as if they didn't know that the party was over, and the now-sober revelers are looking upon their seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time antics with embarrassment.
So, the music. The band's 4-piece lineup shifts with the tides, and only Ivy and Lux have remained constant. Their sound varies with the change, but it's typically a stripped-down drummer, Lux on vocals, and a second guitarist to drone, buzz, and feed back Ivy's plucky, more sauntering licks. Drummer-beast and second guitar-beast have too many aliases to list, but they seem to effectively understand the party for the time being. And let not your notice slip that Ivy is not relegated to the bass, that eye candy's trifle, but a capable musician in the heavily manned world of rockabilly-garage-punk, making her 1-note call as lead. And she's eye candy, Poison Ivy, plain and slim beneath kohl and leotard. She stoically two-steps in her role as the ultimate bad girl vixen, somewhere between a smirk and a sneer.
Lux is more plainly obscene in his role as the sinistral. He plays a mascara-smeared wino with his pants around his ankles, prancing and writhing and he cusses and spits out lyrics so stupid they're brilliant. An Elvis croon gets lost in an animal's guttural slobbing and extended sexual hyperventilations. A microphone is blowjobbed, and a stage floor is thoroughly humped. But beneath it all, you are aware that all of this is parody, a front for the kind of witty theatrics that far pre-date rock 'n' roll. "Can Your Pussy Do the Dog" is about fucking, right? No. Oh, no. It's the courtesan's dry humor in another era when men wore high heels. It's like if Momus fell in love with Ricky Nelson instead of Japan.
I'm really not ready to provide you with an album-by-album chronology, or to highlight the finer points of their low-light career. I appreciate The Cramps as a broad, sopping mess of decade's worth of material, all of it throbbing snarky on basically the same note--funny, weird, and beautiful. But even that, though true, might be too much to say, because in the end, they are just a simple rock 'n' roll band; and maybe The Cramps are just Lux and Ivy's elaborate homage to the greatest bands of all time. But either way, I am glad they are from Ohio.