Why did the death of the Cramps’ lead singer Lux Interior seem like the unanticipated punch to the gut? Maybe it’s because the Cramps were the band from the early days of punk that had the feeling of a staple, like the exotic jelly in your fridge—or that old stash—that you dip into once in a while: surprisingly, it never goes bad and you actually enjoy it whenever you bring it out.
They occupied a place of constancy in the panoply of punk rock as they lingered for decades in the background with their sex-vamp kitsch fueled by Poison Ivy’s (and others’) Gretsch guitar lines and Lux’s lips-on-the microphone singing and howling. While other “punk” bands burned out, evaporated or mainlined into the early ’90s “grunge” commercialism (or were created by it), The Cramps (or Lux and Ivy anyway) just kept going, seemingly unconcerned with reinventing themselves.
Lux Interior and his soul-mate Poison Ivy, who had relatively boring real names and came from the Midwest and the Central Valley of California, moved to New York in the ’70s and became regulars at CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. They met randomly but shared a counter-cultural outlook that stemmed from their distaste for both hippies and the baby-boomers, whose culture had become a kind of hegemony by the late ’70s. Their brand of “psychobilly” was the “genre” that referenced alternative Americana a la Roger Corman, B (or Z) horror movies, extreme pin-ups, S&M, and a host of other strands of culture that went back decades but were really on the fringes until sort of embraced in the ’80s. Their stage was full of lurid sexuality (Lux was always near nude and showing his junk on stage while Ivy’s stiletto/see-through outfits elicited lusty pangs from males and females of all ages even as she sauntered on stage into her ’50s). The Cramps found a sub-genre and a few of their songs made it into college playlists and all that. But, thankfully, they were just too strange and balls-out to ever really attract a commercial endorsement in the ’90s (when even acts like the Butthole Surfers got into something via the dotcom hipster boom).
Of course, there was also the possibility that they had a kind of vaunted mediocrity over thirty years that earned them respect as punk tried hard to reinvent itself, even though “real” punk might have been dead 28 years ago. You didn’t have to be an obsessed fan of the Cramps to understand and appreciate what they meant—in fact, obsessed fans were few and far between. The band was too old and those that hung on every concert, like most bands around for decades, were probably wing-nuts of some sort. Lux’s death hurt because they were the band you took for granted if you were the sort and age listening to alternative sides in the 80s who went through periods when those songs defined your rebellion.
There’s a famous video, now on YouTube, shot in 1978 in old washed-out early videotape format, where Lux and Ivy and the rest of the Cramps at that time played a show at the California State mental institute in Napa. Before a near-perfect rendition of “The Way I Walk” (they were always a tight live band no matter where and when), you see Lux, in his early ’30s, exclaiming, “We drove 3,000 miles to play for you people. Someone told me you people are crazy. But I’m not so sure about that. You seem to be alright!” Various adult patients are then seem jumping up and down next to Lux, trying to sing along, gyrating, as he entertains them, looks into their faces, gets close to them, not as estranged lunatics, but as peers of some kind.
Maybe that’s what punk rock is all about.