The Cramps 1998

In commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the death of Lux Interior, here is a review I wrote for the Japan Times of a Cramps concert that took place some time in 1998 at Club Citta in Kawasaki, Japan. 

The decision to have Japan’s most famous amateur rock guitarist, Guitar Wolf, open for the Cramps at their Tokyo area shows is understandable, since both artists channel early American rock and stake their professional reputations on outrageous stage antics.

Stage antics can’t always hide musical incompetence, and in Guitar Wolf’s case they aren’t meant to. I have his album. I’ve even listened to it twice. But I didn’t recognize a thing he played at the June 13 show at Kawasaki Club Citta. What I heard was thirty minutes of the same three chords augmented by the standard vocabulary of rock epithets and the kind of stage moves perfected by everyone who was ever a Ramone. 

But the clincher, the move that sealed Guitar Wolf’s fate as last year’s weird Japanese rock act, was when he pulled a guy out of the audience, strapped his guitar on him, and prompted him to continue the song already in progress. The kid didn’t know how to play and since the song didn’t suffer for it we in the audience are supposed to realize that it isn’t the music but the spirit that matters, which is, of course, a load of crap. I’ve seen him do this before and I know he does it at every concert. Spirit has nothing to do with it.

So Guitar Wolf was a poor choice for an opening act, since his example served as a reminder that the Cramps, in addition to plugging the same glam-trash rockabilly and Nuggets-era psychedelia for more than two decades, have done the depraved sex thing on stage thousands of times. On the back of their latest album, “Big Beat From Badsville,” there is a warning to “proceed with caution” because the band “that dares to be different” has come up with “more music of anti-social significance designed with the fiendish in mind.” No matter how ironically you put it, insisting that you’re still shocking after all these years will strike some as a bit desperate-sounding.

After all, lead singer Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach, who formed the band during New York’s peak punk period in the mid-seventies, have reached that age when physical decadence goes beyond being an aesthetic statement and becomes an everyday fact of life. 

Ivy, dressed in a striped one-piece bathing suit, large-mesh black stockings, and vinyl stiletto boots, still looked pretty good, but Lux exuded every one of his forty-odd years and then some. Set below dyed black hair, his pale complexion and deep set eyes gave him the appearance of the ghouls he often sings about. On top of that there’s the lean, abused body and the grossed-out sissy convulsions that come in waves as he sings. If he ever quits the Cramps he can probably make a career as the Emcee in touring productions of “Cabaret.”

The rhythm section of fey blonde bassist Slim Chance and notably normal-looking drummer Harry Drumdini maintained a reliable throb throughout the ninety-minute performance, while Ivy set the tone with her standard battery of I-IV-V chord progressions and familiar 50s & 60s riffs (Duane Eddy twang, Link Wray rumble, Standells freak-out).

Lux took the stage in a long, black coat, gag sunglasses (the ones with eyes painted on the lenses), and sheer black gloves. The band moved swiftly from “Cramp Stomp” to “Love Me” to “Garbageman” before Lux finally threw off the coat to reveal a shiny skin-tight black ensemble. It looked pretty hot, and I don’t mean style-wise.

Once the coat was gone, the music picked up. “Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon” and “God Monster” provided a one-two punch of Lux’s favorite reference — B-grade monster movies (the new album is dedicated to the late Cleveland TV schlockmeister Ghouldini). This was followed by “It Thing Hard-On,” one of the better songs from “Badsville,” which describes perfectly the singer’s ideal badass rocker. “Well, the doctor pulled me out and smacked me in the can/Wiped me off, took a look and said ‘It’s a man’.”

On the raunchy and slippery “Goo Goo Muck,” and the even less inhibited “Hot Pearl Snatch,” Lux prostrated himself before the temple of Poison Ivy, while the guitarist rewarded his attentions with icy indifference, an attitude that never changed the whole evening. “The city is a jungle and I’m a beast,” he screamed, but rather than sounding like a statement of purpose the humiliating posture revealed it as an admission of unbearable sexual frustration.

Even when effecting youthful cool on “Teenage Werewolf” (which Drumdini played with oversized femurs) and “Sunglasses After Dark,” Lux came off as an adolescent in a state of denial about his miserable sexual prospects. The low-down style that the band values has less to do with the demimonde chic of the New York Dolls — the band that first inspired them to form a group — than it does with the juvenile garbage culture of Mad Magazine and “Big Daddy” Ed Roth. 

For those who had come to rock out, however, the Cramps’ thematic carryings-on didn’t make up for what was in the end a monotonous musical attack. There was a knot of fans in front of the stage who boogied the whole show, but everyone else held back and looked merely curious. During the 10-minute destructo encore of the Trashmen classic “Surfin’ Bird,” the crowd perked up, but it had nothing to do with the song. 

Like Guitar Wolf’s audience participation gambit, Lux’s violent post-set behavior has become an obligatory signature flourish. After swallowing the microphone whole, climbing the speaker stacks and jumping off, rolling around in agony, and then pulverizing the mike stand, Lux peeled off his costume and exposed the sad source of his creative inspiration. Most people had to strain to see above the heads in front of them, a few laughed, and everyone forgot about the music.

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