Back in the ’80s, music was pathetic. There are very few exceptions — the world was obsessed with MTV, and artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna dominated radio, and if you didn’t like it, there was always yacht-rock captains like Christopher Cross. There was also new wave, which to some was an attempt to make punk more acceptable, more popular. I bought many records that had guys wearing makeup on the cover and playing weak-sounding keyboards on the record. Then one glorious day, I bought a strange record with a slightly ominous-looking cover photo.
Songs the Lord Taught Us was the Cramps’ first full-length record, and its murky, crazed songs had a big effect on me. There’s not a sufficient way to describe songs like “TV Set” or “Garbageman” or their cover of the Sonics’ “Strychnine” or their cover of Johnny Burnette & the Rock and Roll Trio’s “Tear It Up,” or any of the others. You have to listen to them. They were so wild, so frantic, in that age of staged weirdness, where you know everything is so calculated to be “out there.” When you saw a performance of the Cramps (wherever you were so fortunate to see such a thing in the pre-YouTube days, maybe on MTV’s 120 Minutes), you were focused on the lead singer, stuffing the microphone in his mouth, flailing on the stage, still singing. It seemed like genuine dementia — not something rehearsed, but something really wrong.
That was Lux Interior (born Eric Lee Purkhiser), the perfect guy to lead this perfect band. Along with guitarist/vixen Poison Ivy Rorschach, Lux led the Cramps through a dozen or so records, never compromising the band’s sound: raw rockabilly mixed with R&B and punk, with dark themes, even cartoonishly dark themes that seemed to be drawn from midnight b-movies and monster magazines. The Cramps’ Gravest Hits and Psychedelic Jungle were thick with tribal rhythms and Charlie Feathers-like vocals.
But maybe the clincher, the moment when you knew that the Cramps meant business is their performance at the California State Mental Hospital — a live show thankfully captured on video. The performance actually feels dangerous. It was dangerous for the band, who endures patients wandering onto the stage and hijacking the mic; for the patients, whose fragile conditions may not have been able to handle either the band’s performance or material; and for the activities coordinator who scheduled the performance, who must have been looking for a new job within a week.
Lux apparently died today, and the first indications are that it was the result of a heart problem. It was a well-used heart — he put all of it into the music he made, and I’m very thankful for that.
RIP, Mr. Interior.