They've been in self-parody mode for so long it's safe to write them off these days, but give credit to the Cramps for this: They've steered numerous punk kids and hipsters toward some of the greatest lost classics in the pantheon of trashy rock, bizarro rockabilly, and fuzzy garage stomps. Back when they mattered -- from their early singles produced in the late Seventies by Alex Chilton to 1983's Smell of Female -- the groundbreaking punkabilly Cramps dragged unsuspecting cultists to an alternate universe through their whacked choice of covers. These spanned the gamut from Charlie Feathers's hiccupping classic "I Can't Hardly Stand It" to Dale Hawkins's tremelo-drenched obscurity "Tornado"; from Hasil Adkins's completely insane "She Said" to Ronnie Pullen's "Sunglasses After Dark," a celebration of juvenile delinquency on which the Cramps scrapped the original's generic rockabilly bop and affixed the lyrics to Link Wray's consummately bad-ass instrumental "Fatback."
No one from whom they borrowed, though, has benefited from the Cramps' taste in eclectic covers quite as much as Ronnie Dawson, a Dallas-based rockabilly who was just a teenager in 1958 when he cut the indescribably hyperactive "Rockin' Bones." It's an anthemic slice of back-from-the-grave boogie that the Cramps reworked on their 1981 album Psychedelic Jungle.
Nicknamed the Blonde Bomber for his towering, shimmery pompadour, Dawson made his debut in 1957 with the crazed single "Action Packed." But neither it nor "Rockin' Bones" made him anything close to a household name until the late Seventies, when rockabilly aficionados and collectors first began to dig deeper than Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis in search of even weirder stuff than was being cut at the time in the genre's Southern hotbed of Memphis. Suddenly bootleg compilations featuring Dawson's work ("Rockin' Bones," of course, but also "Action Packed" and the sides he cut in the early Sixties for Columbia under the name Commonwealth Jones) were popping up in specialty stores and mail-order catalogues, and he joined the echelon of rockabilly's top-ranked also-rans.
Dawson, meanwhile, had no idea an international cult was growing around him. He didn't even know the Cramps were singing his song. Hell, he hadn't even heard of the Cramps until the mid-Eighties, when a Dallas musician brought over a copy of the group's Psychedelic Jungle. But that's not to say Dawson drifted away from the music business. In the Sixties he worked as a session drummer (that's him on Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby" and Paul & Paula's "Hey Paula"), and toured with the Western swing group the Lightcrust Doughboys. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties he led Steelrail, a country-rock outfit. Still the idea of a New York punk band paying homage to a no-hit celebration of pseudonecrophilia was baffling to Dawson, who had assumed his early work had been forgotten.
"I didn't really know what to think of it," he says of the cover during a phone interview from his home in Dallas, still sounding somewhat baffled by it all. "I thought it was about time! But I figured I'd been around long enough to become like a cult figure or something. I guess the music was so old that people were going back, looking for it. It was interesting to the Cramps, and I thought that was really neat. I've since met them many times and know them. We've had a lot of laughs together."
Beyond the laughs the association with the Cramps also helped jump-start Dawson's career. By the mid-Eighties he was recording for the unfortunately named No Hit Records, a British label operated by famed record collector Barney Koumis, who also assembled Rockin' Bones, a set of Dawson's vintage work. Manic as the old stuff is, the man's newer albums are even more intense, from the perfectly titled Monkey Beat from 1995 to Live at the Continental Club, a scalding document of a typically crazed show from last year. Dawson, however, says it's More Bad Habits (his latest album and his first for the Chapel Hill indie Yep Rock) of which he's most proud.
"Every record I've made, there was always a special reason behind it," he observes. "There was a philosophy behind what I was doing, and a lot of fun and love and work went into them. With this new one I figured I'd already cut everything for the vintage market overseas, so I wanted to try and upgrade [the sound] to try and get more airplay than we have from the previous albums. We had to get the sound quality up to where maybe some of the NPR stations would at least consider playing it. We've never had a problem with the college stations, but you have to try and pick up a few more stations here and there and, as a result, pick up a few more fans in this country. I'm sure there are gonna be a few hardcore fans out there who think it's too slick, but there aren't enough of them to even worry about. If they don't like it, tough. They can go buy something else."
It's hard to imagine anyone accusing Dawson of being anything close to slick. But there is a slight modern-country polish to More Bad Habits, not to mention an emphasis on novelty songs ranging from the self-explanatory "Good at Being Bad" and "Toe Up from the Flo Up" to "Chili Pepper Mama," a toast to a culinary bombshell. Even the album's cover and title send up Dawson's excruciatingly healthy lifestyle, with the lean, well-toned rockabilly sitting at a table cluttered with burgers, sausages, onion rings, French fries, chili, coconut pies, beer, and an ashtray overflowing with butts.
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So how much of that heart-stopping stuff would he actually put into his system? "Probably none of it," Dawson says with a laugh. "It's all strictly a tongue-in-cheek thing. I try to be as healthy as possible. I run ten miles a day when I'm not on the road, then I'll stretch or swim. It keeps me honest. It's become like a religion to me. It's something you do to keep yourself in tune and in good shape. I can't stand destruction -- rock and roll destruction or any kind of destruction. I'm about positivity and having fun and smiling. You don't have to smoke 50-jillion cigarettes and drink martinis all the time just to have fun.
"I've met people over the years like Gene Vincent," he continues, referring to the doomed rockabilly icon whose life and career degenerated into alcoholism and cynicism following his lone hit, 1956's "Be-Bop-A-Lula." "He had a chance and he blew it, through his lifestyle. He had a bad-boy image, but you can't live up to your image. You get carried away and start believing it and trying to live up to it, but that will just kill you. And what do you want to do, be around for a while and do this and have fun? Or do you want to be a sick old man and hate everybody? Or die young? It's just choices and decisions that you have to make."
And Dawson has decided to stay as healthy and as busy as possible, cranking out albums and doing about 125 dates per year, in punk-rock dives, retro-rockabilly clubs, and festivals across the nation and abroad. That, he says with authority, is what it's all about. "You've got to make the shows as good as you can," he says. "There are nights when things just don't work, but you pull yourself through them. And when we go out somewhere and have a really good show, that'll take us. The momentum from that will keep us going for days. There are just no words for that. You've got to have that energy, and you've got to have that energy coming back at you. It's got to be an experience, man. We don't just want a show, we want an experience."
Ronnie Dawson performs Friday, April 30, at Home, 3841 Griffin Rd, Hollywood, with opening acts the Holy Rollin' Hellfires and the Eighteen Wheelers. The show begins at 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door. For more information call 954-965-0042.