Monday, September 04, 2006

The Cramps ... Again

The Cramps were the first band I ever reviewed. I was working at Variety in Hollywood as a copy editor, spending more than a little time repairing poorly written reviews of operas and ballets. It dawned on me that I could do at least as well as the waxworks whose choppy prose cluttered our pages, so I convinced Managing Editor Pete Pryor that even if he hadn't heard of them or seen them on the charts, the Cramps were the Next Big Thing. He believed me.

I was happy to get free tickets and a modicum of special treatment at the venerable Hollywood Palladium, a former ballroom then as now given over to a rotating cast of alt-rock would-bes and has-beens and estrellas Latinas. That was before we called it alt-rock.

It was July 1986. I went on to review about a hundred shows over the next few years -- Frank Sinatra! R.E.M.! Guns N' Roses! Luther Vandross! -- until I so thoroughly detested reviews and reviewing that I stopped. By then, I was getting free tickets and music anyway, and was happy to attend shows where I didn't have to take notes and plan paragraphs.

Tonight, a balmy late summer evening two decades later, I saw the Cramps again for the first time in at least 15 years. I think -- and this may be the degenerative effects of age on the brain -- they were just as good. Maybe better. They've certainly had a lot of practice playing their horror-movie-influenced "psychobilly." Way back when, Lux Interior, the tall skinny ghoul who fronts the band, was a nice-looking young man who made a lot of faces and howled and pulled his pants down more than almost anybody could have wanted him to. That was then. I wish I'd seen them a few times in recent years, so I could have seen him growing into the look he seems always to have wanted. When he was 30, those scary faces he made went away when he stopped making them. Now, like a terrifying illustration of mommy's warning that if you don't stop, that face will stick, it has. They don't. Go away. Once he played at Grand Guignol -- now he's the Grandest Grandee of the Guignol in Gotham, as I might have written 20 years ago. He's still tall and rail-thin, but he looks like Dorian Gray's portrait. Or, as my friend Don wrote just yesterday, the blonde rinse (on a head that's been covered in jet-black hair as long as anyone can remember), makes him look "like Christopher Walken reincarnated as a particularly dissolute vampire." That's no stretch. But the steel caps on his teeth? He's grown into himself in his mid-50s. And yet his longtime partner, Ivy Rorschach, seems hardly to have changed at all. Her face isn't as taut as it used to be, but whose is? In the plus column, she laughs a little more now than she used to -- but not so much that she comes completely out of character. And that enormous auburn mop must be a wig ... was it always? Does it matter? The ersatz and the genuine are as entwined in their act as their act is in their life.

So why did I hie myself down to the former Limelight, now the Avalon, still a deconsecrated church on the edge of Chelsea, to see a band I liked when I was a teenager? For reasons unclear to me, I started hearing their songs in my head a few months ago. Just like that, they started playing. I think I read about this phenomenon in the Times a few years ago. It's a function of faulty wiring. It might have been the bike riding that brought it all back. Or hearing their song "Garbageman" in the moderately funny movie "The Matador" this past spring. Whatever caused it, the music wouldn't go away. One night I was in Kim's Mediapolis near Columbia and there they both were -- the band's first and second LPs, even including their first singles -- all shrink-wrapped and waiting for me. I took them home and haven't been able to stop playing them since. That was more than two weeks ago. Imagine my delight at discovering the band itself was coming to town.

Did you imagine it? Good. Now imagine the ambivalence that followed, when I considered the grim reality of standing in a crowded club for two or more hours, jostled, breathed on, view blocked, toes stomped ....

Okay, you can stop. That all happened, but it was a great show and I didn't much care about the inconvenience of it all. I used to be used to it. It's like riding a bike. And whooo, what a show. They even started with the very song that was crowding my head on the way downtown, "Mystery Plane." How'd they know?

The next song was an Arthur Lee cover, which Lux outroed thusly, declaiming: "That song was dedicated to Arthur Lee! One of the greatest rock singers ever! He's dead! But I'm not! And I'm not chopped liver either!"

Because I don't write reviews anymore -- now that everyone does, who needs it? -- I'll just say the show was well-paced and energetic, drawing from several eras and albums, punctuated with comical asides, and enlivened by exciting tricks with a bottle of red wine. (Lux would clench his metal teeth around the bottle's neck, tilt his head back, and blow a bloody geyser of wine and wine vapor out the sides of his mouth. The red would run down his chin and soak his shirt, as if he'd just torn someone's neck open with his fangs. Caution: Dissolute Vampires at Work. May Cause Pandemonium.)

Near the end, up in the balcony, one of the hundreds of tattooed girls pulled her spandex top down to show off her perfect breasts. She and her even more tattooed boyfriend simulated sex and more for a good ten minutes on the rail, her pocket camera at arm's length recording their digital antics, until the band left the stage, whereupon she demurely hiked her top back up.

Then the bottle blonde and the fright-wigged drag queen who'd introduced the band returned to the stage to say more incredibly useless junk ("Was that amazing?" "Amazing." "I mean, the Cramps!"), and I slipped out the side door to cross a long line of future revelers waiting on the sidewalk for my place on the dance floor.

I'm going kayaking in the morning. Endless summer.

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