Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Sum of the Interior

I love the Cramps. At least, I think I do. What’s not to adore about a band steeped in doo-wop, rockabilly, psychedelia and glam black leather? Lux Interior, the Cramps’ lead singer, died Tuesday of heart failure. Two days later, the Cramps broke Yahoo’s top ten searches of the day, easily their highest chart position of anything during their career. I found this a little odd, considering I know very few people who own Cramps records and those that do hardly blast their canon with religious fervor like AC/DC fans. My first Cramps record “Smell of Female” was purchased in 1994. One song stuck out: “Psychotic Reaction”. When I played it for my friend, Klink, he stated, “That’s pretty good, but the original by The Count Five is better.” Turns out, Klink was right. I bought a compilation with the Count Five version and it was superior. Later that same year, I played Klink a song from the Cramps CD “Psychedelic Jungle/Gravest Hits”, “Green Door”, which I thought rocked. Klink gave a similar response, telling me the original by Jim Lowe was much better. His parents even owned it! It took me a few years, but eventually I procured the 1959 “Green Door” by Jim Lowe, which again proved my friend right. Before Interior’s death, I was grooving to a 9-disc compilation called “Lux and Ivy’s Favorites”, compiled from decades of songs referenced in interviews by Lux Interior and his wife/guitarist, Poison Ivy. I realized this week that I’ve listened to those CD’s more in the last month than I had Cramps material in my entire life.

Lux Interior was a rare breed of rock and roller, the kind that would rather spend hours playing his favorite 45’s than discussing his own career. Along with Poison Ivy, I can think of very few musicians with the depth, passion and knowledge possessed by Interior. Kurdt Cobain, Paul Westerberg, Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher come to mind. Most musicians are concerned with discussing the profoundness of their own mediocre material. In the 1980’s, listening to Nikki Sixx wax poetic on Motley Crue classics like “Girls Girls Girls” and “Dr. Feelgood” was more humorous than Sunday morning’s “Bloom County.” Despite performances filled with more sexual references than the entire “Crue” catalog, listening to Interior discuss music is akin to a collegiate lecture. For further evidence of Interior’s and Ivy’s knowledge, I recommend Re/Search #14: Incredibly Strange Music Vol. 1, featuring an extensive interview with the duo.

It is unknown what really qualifies as “dance music” except that a song has an innate ability to compel humans to bounce and flail around in an uncontrollable fashion. To quote Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves, it’s “the plague that makes your booty move.” Interior was fascinated by this type of music, the kind that made you dance but you really don’t know why. Three songs compiled in Lux and Ivy’s Favorites, Volume One, exemplify this theory. “Shombalor” by Sheriff and the Ravels from 1959, has been described as doo-wop, rockabilly and rock n’ roll but nobody really knows what it is. There’s no actual definition of what “shombalor” the word even means. All I know is that you’re supposed to move “left-right-left-right-left-right”, “swing-ding” and a whole bunch of other moves that I guess you’re supposed to improvise. The rhythm is definitely contagious and falls into the old rock theory that the more confusing the words are, the cooler the song is. Similarly, 1956’s “Rubber Biscuit” by The Chips makes absolutely no sense except that it compels you to move. Subsequently covered by the Blues Brothers, it is a celebration of sped-up doo-wop confusion. I’ve probably played the original song fifty times in the last three weeks, although it would be far cooler blasting from a 1957 Chevrolet than a 1999 Ford Winstar. The last song on the CD, 1958’s “Jennie Lee” is by Jan and Arnie, who later changed their name to Jan and Dean. It is straightforward doo-wop with several differences. It is relatively unproduced, and has one of the deepest echoes of any song in the era. The lyrics are also somewhat unintelligible. In an era where anyone can become their own personal Phil Spector, Lux Interior loved songs that weren’t quite ready for prime-time radio.

A few weeks ago I offered to give a copy of Lux and Ivy’s Favorites to one of my music buddies, Vladimir. “No Cramps,” he said.
“Are you sure? This stuff’s really good,” I replied.
“No Cramps. No Cramps.”
At the time, I wondered why Vladimir felt this way. He likes many of their punk contemporaries like the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and the Misfits. After Interior’s death, I began to understand his reasoning. For all their depth of knowledge and exhibitionism, the Cramps didn’t have many great original songs. Personally, I can name six I consider great rock and roll songs: “Human Fly”, “The Mad Daddy”, “Goo Goo Muck”, “Surfin’ Dead”, “The Creature From the Black Leather Lagoon” and “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns.” Cover songs excluded, much Cramps material sounds like songs that Lux and Ivy thought Cramps records should sound like and be about, which is different than the material that influenced them. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against artists writing songs suited to their audience. KISS did it for thirty years. Every so often, Gene Simmons complains about KISS’ exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, arguing the band’s massive popularity is enough to warrant induction. Stage performance aside, KISS has about as many great rock songs as the Cramps, which is honestly not enough to jam out with Neil Young and David Bowie.

Lux Interior probably didn’t care about being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He never expressed envy when his contemporaries Iggy Pop and the Ramones were inducted. Interior truly loved touring and playing up the band’s psychobilly, sci-fi and S/M image. If he turned on fans to any of the obscure yet fabulous music he adored, he was happy. His on-stage persona was a gateway to another reality. A world filled with B-Movies, zombies and vampire vixens. He encouraged fans to come along and participate in the Cramps’ celebration of decadence. I don’t know anyone who went to a Cramps show and did not have a great time. Although he may never gain the recognition of Iggy Pop, Lux Interior resides in those ever-dwindling record stores. He’s in the Sonics 45’s, the gigantic wall posters, DVDs of “Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!” and on the lips of anyone who gets asked the ambiguous question: “Can you find me something cool?”

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