Tuesday, August 18, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE CRAMPS...


For some fans of the Cramps, the early departure of guitarist Bryan Gregory cost the band something vital. Hell, some us believed the record company rubbish about him being a devil worshipper. But as singer Lux Interior says in Dick Porter’s Journey to the Center of The Cramps,  Gregory was just “a dumb glue-sniffer from Detroit,” barely able to read a ketchup bottle, never mind a Satanic bible. At least Gregory’s exit gave the band something to complain about. After reading Porter’s book,  my sense is that the Cramps liked nothing better than a good long bout of griping.

The reason the book feels like one lengthy bitch fest is that Porter relies almost solely on old magazine interviews given by the band upon their various album releases. Porter prints these old interviews in what feels like their entirety, which only brings to light the Cramps’ habit of complaining. They complained about being pigeonholed, they complained about other bands, they complained about record labels,  they complained about MTV,  they complained about music producers, and more than anything else, they complained about being misunderstood. Lux, who died unexpectedly in 2009 at age 62, is probably complaining that the afterlife isn’t quite as rockin’ as he’d hoped. 

Lux (real name: Erick Lee Purkhiser) and his long-time companion and co-star Poison Ivy (real name: Kristy Wallace) came of age during a time of cheap horror movies, cars that looked like rocket ships, and of course, nearly fatal doses of rockabilly and garage rock. They met in Sacramento when Lux picked Ivy up hitchhiking. The outrĂ© pair quickly realized they were absolute soul mates, their infatuation with each other matched only by their love of the swampiest edges of American pop culture. 

Undeterred by their lack of musical experience, Ivy and Lux yearned to pay homage to their rockabilly idols. Ivy appointed herself chief guitar picker; Lux  assigned himself the role of ghoulish front man. They landed in New York  just as a new rock scene was mushrooming. Their first gig was on Nov. 1, 1977 at CBGB, the infamous bowery rock club. Their guitars were so out of tune that Ivy recalled “people thought we were doing some avant garde atonal thing.” CBGB owner Hilly Kristal wasn’t impressed by the band’s brutal psychobilly noise, but Lux and Ivy were encouraged by other bands, namely the Dead Boys. Though they rarely received credit for being part of the punk scene, the Cramps were banging it out in New York at the same time the Ramones and Blondie and Patti Smith were in their early primes, a situation that forced Lux and Ivy to learn on the job.

In the ensuing decades, the Cramps  developed followings in England and France, and dozens of bands have since pointed to them as an influence. Still,  fame in America was as elusive as a fly. Ivy became a quality guitarist, probably inspiring many females to pick up the instrument, and eventually stepped into the role of band manager. To Ivy’s credit, the Cramps actually improved their lot once she took control. Yet, band members rarely stayed for the long haul. There was something about the Cramps that sent various drummers and guitarists spinning out, as if from a tornado. One of Ivy’s expressions was “This is it - dig it or walk,” so not many tears were shed over band members who couldn’t hack it. Lux and Ivy forged ahead with their mission to bring old sounds to new people. 

Porter,  a veteran rock journalist with many books to his credit, hits most of the Cramps’ high and low points, including their legendary gig at a mental institution in Napa California, where Lux described the inmates humping each other on the floor and  “doing the weirdest dances you’ve ever seen.” There was  their time in Memphis, when a drunk and deranged Alex Chilton struggled to produce tracks for  their first album. There were tours in support of bands like The Police and The Runaways, where audiences had absolutely no interest in the Cramps’ brand of arcane voodoo rock. 

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 
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