By Rebecca Bulnes
By Lee Zimmerman
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Currently being posited as an alternative to the mournful noisy rock out of the suddenly loathed Northwest are all kinds of Good-time Joe's Toe-Tappin' Jug Band-type nonsense -- as though the opposite of morbidly paralyzing introspection were witless grinnin'. Well, there's another option that has yet to be seriously considered: kicks.
Kicks can be innocent and beautiful, they can be ugly, creepy, or dangerous, but they have no place in the Mall of America and they don't belong in city hall. Kicks are where you find them and you often find them underground. That's where the Cramps live.
Led by pale, rail-thin, leather-pantsuit-clad, high-heels-wearing male singer Lux Interior and gorgeous, mute, lingerie-wearing female guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach, the Cramps have strained Fifties rockabilly through a cartoonish tales-from-the-crypt filter, modernizing it and translating it for succeeding waves of music fans. Their wig-flipping stage shows, half outtake from the late-Fifties celluloid heroin epic Girl Gang and half performance-art parody, have driven good girls bad and got bad fellas gone for more than twenty years. All that time the foursome has serviced and been serviced by a modest but thoroughly committed and constantly replenished fan base. They're the last alternative to alternative.
The Cramps -- Poison Ivy on guitar, Lux on vocals and psychosexual cavorting, Slim Chance on bass, and Harry Drumdini on drums -- are Los Angelinos these days. Ivy and Lux have always been the heart and soul of the band, running through a succession of rhythm sections: Chance signed on in 1991, Drumdini in 1994. Speaking by phone from his home in L.A., Lux, who now and again leans away from the receiver to ask Ivy a question, gives the dissonant impression of punk-rock domesticity. Maybe Ivy was washing the dishes. Shudder.
Regardless of the state of the principals' cohabitational bliss, the Cramps have remained true not just to their rockabilly soul but also to their own unique take on life and culture. These are souls conditioned by the "worst" of the Fifties: grade-B horror movies, suburban psychosis, and voodoo.
"When we started out we were playing in the Bowery," recalls Lux. That fairly unpleasant section of New York City contains the now legendary CBGB's nightclub, where, prior to the Cramps' arrival in 1976, the Ramones, the Dead Boys, Television, the Heartbreakers, and Blondie had been cobbling together something called punk rock.
"The Dead Boys' drummer [Johnny Blitz] got stabbed," Lux remembers. "Every night something was happening. It was real people making a folk music. Now it seems like it's all suburban kids making pop music to sell."
In the wake of the mainstreaming of punk and alternative musics, the Cramps have stayed firmly in the half-light, recently releasing their twelfth album, Big Beat from Badsville, on the punk-oriented independent label Epitaph. This scandalously sexed-up album, with its wicked imagery and urgent dirt, containing songs such as "It Thing Hard-On," "Monkey with Your Tail," and "Badass Bug," has been widely hailed by critics as the best thing the band has done in a decade. It contains, beyond argument, the single best manifesto to appear on any record in the history of rock music: "Kill all squares!"
"I don't think of this album as apparently better than the last," notes Lux, referring to 1994's Flame Job, released on the Medicine/Giant label, a Warner Bros. subsidiary. "But Epitaph sure felt good after Warner." At Warner Bros. the band had a hard time getting any vinyl out of the Man. "They looked at us like we were crazy when we told them we wanted to put the record out [as an LP, too]," Lux sighs. With Lux in his rubber suit, it's uncertain that it was the vinyl that gave the Man pause. But according to Lux, arrangements are commodious with Epitaph, and each of the group's releases for that label will be issued on LP as well as CD.
"I always make sure that we release a 45 from each album," Lux explains, "with a song on the B-side that isn't on the album. We started out not as musicians but as record collectors." The Cramps' personal record collection, specifically the combined stash of Lux and Ivy, has got to be a sight to behold, given that they've been at it for more than 25 years. Has the well run dry?
"Always more songs show up," Lux says. "There's always some little band up in Minnesota or somewhere who got together, recorded a 45, put just that one record out, and broke up. And there's this great song, just hiding somewhere." Their latest discovery is "Walked All Night" by an old Memphis rockabilly band called the Embers.
The iconography of the Fifties is not the only aspect of that much maligned decade to influence the Cramps. Lux points out that his hiccupping vocal style owes a great deal to Memphis rockabilly singer Charlie Feathers, who co-wrote "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" for Elvis. "He put the hiccup in country music," Lux points out. And Ivy's guitar style was derived in part from the fuzzed-out tones of Fifties guitarist Link Wray ("Rumble").
Like a lot of artists whose primary urge is not to constantly change styles or incarnations, the Cramps have been victims of the Picasso-ing of rock music, where if you have the bad taste to stick around, then you are at least expected to "grow." You know, like R.E.M. and U2. To listen to a Cramps album and wonder why there isn't any drum and bass is like reading a Shakespeare sonnet and wondering when you'll get to the villanelle or haiku. To express yourself through a genre as demanding as rockabilly means you have to think it out -- you have a limited vocabulary and an unlimited number of things to say using it. It's a challenge and can be very rewarding to listen to as well as to make.