And, of course, there was the paranoid meltdown and departure of the aforementioned Bryan Gregory, the guitarist whose “misdirected sheets of noise” had provided a baleful backdrop for Ivy’s twangy licks. Visually, Gregory was a masterpiece. “His pockmarked skin,” writes Porter, “had the quality of parchment torn from a book of forbidden lore, while his needlepoint pupils glinted from beneath a flick of long brown hair, arranged to cascade down one side of his face in the style of Veronica Lake.” Gregory simply disappeared one night in the middle of a tour, annoyed that the band remained stuck in the 1950s. “He was just a money-grubbing creep,” declared Lux, who imagined that one day Gregory would end up at “the bottom of a pool somewhere.” Instead, Gregory faded into the fringes of the music biz, dying at 49 of various health problems. Some of us thought he’d died years earlier, perhaps lashed to a witch’s altar.
Yet, the band persisted. There were appearances on the Conan O’Brien show, a shot at writing tunes for a John Waters movie, and even a strange cameo by Lux on Spongebob Squarepants. It wasn’t exactly the career they’d imagined back at CBGB, but they outlasted most of the bands they’d started out with in the 1970s. The Cramps, at least, endured.
Despite Porter’s experience, his prose all too often falls into the sort of jejune hyperventilating that I remember from old issues of Creem and Zig Zag. There’s too much tripe about “sucking at the sweet nectar of rock and roll,” and his assertion that Ivy was “one of the finest guitarists of her generation” is a major stretch. He’s no help critically, describing each new Cramps’ album as “one of the Cramps’ best”, or “up there with their best”, and Porter’s opening rapture about the early days of rock and roll includes howlers like “At a time when the motions of Elvis’ hips were subject to moral panics and seat-dampening enthusiasm in equal measure, Little Richard represented a loudly ticking timebomb.”
Porter should’ve dispensed with the redundant rock rhapsody and focused on the subject of his book. For instance, why did Lux start wearing women’s clothing? How did that play into his relationship with Ivy, who had once earned money as a dominatrix? And when Porter quotes Lux about one of his songs being autobiographical, there’s no follow-up. In what way was it autobiographical? Porter mentions every last Cramps bootleg recording, but he doesn’t dig deep into Lux and Ivy. Part of this could be because the pair spent more time talking about their collection of obscure records than themselves, but there’s also a feeling that Porter wanted to write a book without doing any heavy lifting. Instead, we get endless quotes from Ivy and Lux about how much they love old rockabilly records.
The book falls short as a full-blown biography, but there are just enough gems to make it worth a read, especially when Porter depicts the adoration Lux and Ivy had for each other. As Ivy put it, the pair were “karmically entwined.” They stuck together, even as their dream of rock stardom seemed, as Lux once said, “just out of reach.” One sad little scene involves the pair being denied entry to a Disneyland theme park because Ivy was wearing too much makeup.
“I guess they already had their quota of crazy people in there that day,” said Ivy.
Substitute the music business for the theme park, and you’d have a handy metaphor for the band’s entire, frustrating career.
I met the Cramps once. They did a meet and greet in a small record store in Boston. I was a shy kid from the suburbs who had enjoyed their first album, ‘Songs the Lord Taught Us’. I especially liked ‘Garbageman’, which was the best piece of throbbing rock sludge I’d ever heard. Unfortunately, the band was so stoned they could barely stand up. Somehow, they shambled forward and autographed my shopping bag. I lost it years ago. But I do remember that Ivy took a moment to talk to me about recording in Sun Studios in Memphis. She was a tiny thing, wearing dark glasses and hailing the virtues of tube amps. “The equipment was old,” she said, “but sounded great.”
Yes, exactly. Sometimes the old way is the best way. That’s why, despite the book’s imperfections, it’s fun to read about the Cramps again. They didn’t turn the world into a bunch of cool rockin’ daddies, but it was beautiful to watch them try.
- Don Stradley