Off The Beaten Track: Music Reviews and Musings by Mary Leary
You want to know something really weeiiiiird? I was in New York when the Cramps started the tradition of playing varying spots on the West Coast (and several proximate states) on Halloween (if I’m wrong, just correct via “comment” – there were some “lost years,” when I was, per the rock ‘n’ roll order, out of touch, and/or focusing on jazz and experimental music).
Anyway, although I didn’t know about the Cramps Halloween thing, about 17 years ago I determined that recordings that are supposed to be scary (creaking floors and whatnot) pale in comparison with the Cramps, so for trick-or-treaters I started playing Lux Interior & Co. at an ear-splitting volume, like: There’s no improving on the Cramps for best scary/funny-music-party-in-your-ears.
While I could sob over missed Halloween shows, I did see two of the band’s first-ever East Coast tour stops, at which point guitarist Bryan Gregory was still in the band. As far as I’m concerned, this trumps EVERYTHING. I also saw the band several more times over the years, and my ex and I used to blast the Cramps while driving through dark woods (well, the dark woods of Balboa Park), or the neighborhoods of hapless, need-to-get-up-at five a.m.-people, when we were in our cups. Nothing else could satisfy us when we were that many sheets to the wind – nothing else, that is, but Howlin’ Wolf or maybe Link Wray. And a couple of people have told me they find the Wolf’s voice scary–one even said “demonic.” I thought that friend needed to take a chill pill, and that he was missing the point somehow, or focusing too much on just part of the point–actually, he wasn’t a friend, he was this guy that I almost married–who, as it turned out, had such hideous psychological problems, my life with him was at times truly a horror movie – as he’d come stomping up our front stairs, I’d cringe, realizing, “Here comes Mr. Hyde.” Or “Heeeere’s Johnny!”
I was going to try and come up with a bone-freezing ghost story, but I think that last little personal revelation is more than enough. Candy corn, anyone?
Lux Interior’s unexpected death last February crackled like an electric shock through an army of rock ‘n’ roll fanatics. Rather like John Lennon, or Elvis Presley, Lux embodied much more than a band. Hard as it can be to describe audio and/or live experiences, Halloween just screams for a fractured history of the Cramps (if you want an actual history, go to New York Rocker or Rue Morgue).
Through Indian Eyes is a study of East Indian photographs. Discussing a huge group shot of women in saris, author Judith M. Gutman complains that she can’t find a focal point. That’s kind of like the back cover of The Cramps’ Gravest Hits. Guitarist Poison Ivy is in her stock pose at stage left and Nick Knox’ s deadpan visage can be detected behind the drums. You have to squint to make out the supine figure of second guitarist Bryan Gregory. With the help of a magnifying glass, you realize Lux Interior ‘s the gawky guy clambering over the third row. Determining who’s onstage, who’s in the audience and what anyone’s up to would probably give Ms. Gutman a headache.
Since that late ‘70s photograph was taken, retailers and concert promoters have attempted to contain, normalize and market outrageousness. I’m trying to imagine being too removed from the beginning to understand – hearing that The Cramps are amazing, then choosing from a bewildering plethora of recordings featuring various male/female bassists/second guitarists and campy, semi-pornographic covers. Maybe this person goes home with the hit-and-miss Big Beat from Badsville or Flame Job. Later they sag on the sofa, muttering, “I guess I’m not so cool after all, ’cause there’s something here I’m just not getting.”
This poor, hypothetical person just wouldn’t have turned the right keys. While the band didn’t make an album with half the first three releases’ magic in nearly 20 years, live appearances continued to leave audiences shaken, feeling the release associated with sex or primal screaming. Since the last time I saw them, the only performer to similarly satisfy has been the late Link Wray, whose influence, not incidentally, helped shape the Cramps’ form and focus.
Since it’s no longer possible to see the Cramps, I’m going to invite you to take a little trip. Imagine being among about 150 others in a medium-sized, Washington, D.C. theater in the late ’70s. Although lot of alcohol was being guzzled, a semi-scientific comparison of Cramps shows with those by other outstanding bands has taken this into account. There is nothing to explain the altered state I entered that night (probably at the Hall of Nations, but memory fogs over with a smear of “1st” shows and events, especially since I was out seeing music several nights, most weeks). Among others, Dave Arnson (of D.C.’s fuzz-surf band, The Insect Surfers) remembers it similarly.
The Cramps moved me in a way that went beyond the altered state sometimes resulting from multiple hours on dance floors; those infinite moments when you forget yourself, and everything else, and are simply in the beautiful moment, which is shared with every other atom in the place. I rediscovered a bloodcurdling yell I’d forgotten I had in me. I don’t remember anyone sitting down. The band and audience were one. There were no fights over space because everyone was moving intuitively around and against each other in a sort of parallel universe. Hardly any skinheads, posers or wannabes had found the scene yet; there was a “everyone who’s here is meant to be” vibe.
The warped, humorous ferocity of “Human Fly,” “I Can’t Hardly Stand It,” “The Way I Walk” and “She Said” dowsed us in buckets of something I’d always craved – I’d just never been able to catch it for long. Bits of it had surfaced in “Woolly Bully,” “Muddy Water,” “Mystic Eyes,” and almost everything by the Blues Magoos and Question Mark and the Mysterians.
The Modern Lovers and John Cale dipped their toes in it with “Pablo Picasso,” CCR caught some of it, especially from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and it’s all over the roots rockabilly of Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio. Somehow Lux and guitarist Poison Ivy had gone deeper than any of that, trawling the shadowy realms of late-night radio, rockabilly, raunchy B-sides, and Grade B horror and Sci-Fi.
These realms had yielded rich lodes of material that were stirred, then thrown on the fire so that The Cramps managed to facilitate something I’ve never heard anyone mention regarding this band, and that’s transcendence. There’s something about the musical tones and registers they achieved on the first few records (and that were unreal live) that just transports me.
Even more than is usually the case, a video is worth a thousand words:
A few other keys will unlock the ultimate chaotic transcendence. Scarce for years, and now available on DVD, is The Cramps – Live at Napa State Mental Hospital. While the audio may be primitive, the film displays the band’s willingness to endure absolute uncertainty, going way beyond what many would call the edge.
The albums to get before cranking your speakers: Gravest Hits, Songs the Lord Taught Us, Psychedelic Jungle, and Bad Music for Bad People. There are bursts of heat on many of the others (Stay Sick registers pretty high on the fun meter), but these four burn hottest.
A note re: Bryan Gregory: his charisma, fierceness, and early artistic input, along with a roaring wall of second guitar “id” and spontaneity, seemed irreplaceable. But the guitarist who followed, “Kid” Congo Powers, “got” the Cramps’ sensibility, as well as adding production nuances that helped push Psychedelic Jungle to a creative peak. Additionally, he released Ivy from her chronic metronomic role, as witnessed by her Elmore James-ish explosions on “Under the Wires.” And Interior showed new range and technique. My Jungle faves are headed by “Beautiful Gardens,” “Rockin’ Bones,” “Can’t Find My Mind,” and “Caveman.”
Gravest Hits, Bad Music for Bad People, and Songs the Lord Taught Us include “live” songs I’ve mentioned as well as treats like “Sunglasses After Dark,” “Garbageman,” “I Was a Teenager Werewolf,” “Mad Daddy,” and “Mystery Plane.”
Lux had this comment about the Cramps’ sound: “rock ’n’ roll has absolutely nothing to do with music. It’s much more than music. Rock ’n’ roll is who you are. You can’t call the Cramps music. It’s noise, rockin’ noise.” And this is what he said “She Said”:
Rather than go into the history of Howlin’ Wolf, I’ll just say he had a pivotal influence on Chicago/electric blues and thank heaven and hell for his synchronous association with brilliant songwriter Willie Dixon and guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Then I’ll suggest reading Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf. But I can testify: I was irrevocably altered by hearing “Smokestack Lightnin’” on a jukebox some time in the ‘80s.
Recommended albums: Moanin’ in the Moonlight (Chess); Howlin’ Wolf: His Best (Chess Anniversary Collection).
Recommended tracks: “Howlin’ for My Darlin’,” “Back Door Man,” “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Spoonful,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Moanin’ for My Baby.” (If some of the names seem familiar it’s cause a lot of these, especially the Dixon songs, have been covered by bands including Cream, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and the Yardbirds.)
As my editors repeatedly glare at me while drawing their nails across their necks, I’ll spit out the name of a more recent, wacky-fantastic Halloween recommendation, San Franciscan The Slow Poisoner, before sharing a spooky vintage favorite.