Monday, September 18, 2006

The Cramps (Hollywood Palladium, 3500 seats, $15)

I generally assume that no one I know reads this thing. But every once in a while, a post excites reaction, and friends surface to offer compliments, comments, even corrections. The last item, my hastily assembled reflections on a recent Cramps show, was just such a post. B up in the verdant fields of Vermont said it was the best thing I'd done in a while, while A in Brooklyn both praised my prose and contended that Lux Interior is in fact about 70. Holy cow. That would make the man on stage still pulling down his pants almost my dad's contemporary.

From A's email:
    As far as Lux's age goes, I have repeatedly heard that he was 39 in 1975 when the band first started; thus the assertion that he is now (you do the math) either 69 or 70. Knowing his propensities, I'm sure he's been waiting to be 69 for some time. BTW (as the kids say), the Cramps are the only band I ever got autographs from. I've met a lot of rock-star types, but I never wanted souvenirs from most of them. Lux was probably the nicest rock star I ever met .... The fact that he is closer in age to Duke Ellington than to Glen Danzig must mean something, but I'll leave it to wiser minds than mine to figure out what.
Thanks to that email, I went to see A play his own guitar this evening at Manitoba's, a downtown club. As my bike and I rolled along the lettered avenues of the East Village profonde, it occurred to me that had I not wanted to write about the Cramps that night 20-some years ago, I might not have gone into music reviewing and thence into music trade journalism and artist management and, and, and ... well, who knows? I did, and I did, and I did, and here we are.

But where were we? Here. Here, in all its jejeune, prolix prose, both constrained and inspired by the clipped weirdness of vintage Daily Variety style, is the first review I ever wrote, retrieved from a dusty drawer by She Who Shall Remain Nameless (my mom).

And now to, as the DJs say, set it up (and split an infinitive), with a little history:

In 1986, Daily Variety was still an intensely scruffy, family-owned operation slapped together five days a week in a one-story cinderblock structure surrounded on Cahuenga Blvd. by auto repair shops. A few years would elapse before global publishing powerhouse Cahner's bought the paper from the founder's descendants, moved it out of Hollywood proper, and glitzed it up to leverage the equity inherent in so powerful a brand. As the kids say.

Yep, it was quaint. Sales and editorial were divided by an actual wall, and we the ink-stained were discouraged from socializing with the well-groomed toothy types on the other side of that wall. Copy editors used to edit hard copy with Ebony pencils and then use antique manual typewriters to hammer out headlines on half-sheets of yellow paper. These we'd attach to the first sheet of each article with a few deft brushstrokes from our individual mucilage pots before handing off the marked-up, restacked sheaves of copy to our editorial betters for fine-tuning. Lest readers think such systems were common then, they were not; our methods were already absurdly outdated. The paper was simply run on a shoestring by two parallel dynasties: the Pryors, who controlled editorial, and the Silvermans, who had inherited the publisher mantle.

The paper was then full of "characters," but perhaps the most memorable was our drama critic, a gray-haired fellow well-known for the following habits at the theatre:

1. Sitting in the front row
2. Knitting (loudly)
3. Falling asleep.

Though I went on to see many concerts, I never knitted at any of them. Not once.

This piece was my first in a national publication, and it ran on page 18 on July 15, 1986, right next to a short, unbylined squib entitled "CBS Records, Liberace Pact." Speaking of bylines, reviewers didn't merit them at Variety way back in the Pre-Cambrian Era; we went instead by weird little four-letter abbreviations called "slugs." Three- and five-letter slugs were not allowed.

For my efforts, an extra $7.50 per review graced my meager biweekly paychecks. As it happened, by volunteering to lend the music editor this reviewing assist, I invented the rock "stringer" position at Variety; the paper soon added other byline/slug sluts to round out a small corps of underpaid music critics. I ran into Publisher Michael Silverman one afternoon outside the building and mentioned how low the reviewer fee was compared even to the tight-fisted L.A.Weekly's per-word rate. Cornered, he pled impotence (not his term), but within a month, all freelance fees rose to something approaching the low end of market rate. And yet, no plaque commemorates my achievements. *Sigh*

Though I labored over this review, it was edited, of course, which annoyed me to no end but today lets me blame any rough patches on that other guy. Now that I'm a much better editor than he was, I can laugh at how at sea he must have been in the face of this weirdness, not only to let me switch tenses and refer to the singer by his first name, but worse, to let me wax so damned long-winded. I'm tempted to cut this relic by half, but that wasn't the point of reproducing it here. Let's do the time-warp again.

    The Cramps
    (Hollywood Palladium, 3500 seats, $15)

    In their first L.A. show in two years, The Cramps turned in a crowd-pleasing madhouse of a show, spotlighting new material and their trademark versions of trash-rock classics.

    Four-piece combo plays driving unclean garage rock. Its style derives from sources like country and rockabilly music, horror and porn pix. Having dwelt in voodoo, psychedelia, madness, monsters and junk culture in recent years, emphasis now is on sex, with much fine earlier material unaired this outing.

    Singer Lux Interior, his powerful deep voice echoplexed, handles audience rapport alone, in total command of an ecstatic crowd. Two girl guitarists, longtime mainstay Ivy Rorschach and new addition Candy Del Mar, sport guignol sneers of disgust throughout. Drummer Nick Knox is consistently poker-faced behind his skins and sunglasses as he rivets the guitars onto a strong percussive frame.

    Not a band given to stagy warmth or endless jam sessions, members barely acknowledged each other from far-flung corners of the stage. Occasional sloppiness dovetailed nicely with trashy musical intentions.

    The show started on the good foot, Lux taking the stage in a gold lame suit for high-energy original "She Said."* Shedding the jacket within minutes, he spent the rest of the show bare-torsoed, posing his long skinny body dramatically. With his Gene Vincent-meets-Godzilla vocal style and striking physiognomy, Lux is a captivating performer.

    After several fast numbers, band slowed for a tremolo-heavy version of the late Ricky Nelson's "Lonesome Town," played dirge-like and alienated.

    Cover of a Presley beach pic tune, "Do the Clam," was a nod to band's surf music influences, and the dedication of "Hot Pool of Womanneed" to Johnny Cash further staked out sources.

    The drily satiric "Good Taste," followed, laughably, by band's latest single, in an opposite vein,** raised the mostly teenage crowd to a fever pitch as the band sank into gut-crunching guitar hell.

    Version of the Human Beings' old hit "Nobody But Me" traded the original's brash '60s confidence for a hollow exultation more in tune with the era and the audience. Echo ranting and massive fuzztone bass, sounding like a bulldozer in fourth gear, carried the version effectively without the original's backup shouters.

    Encore consisted of showcaser standard "Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen. Band hurtled through the one-chord tune with stops all out, pausing only at the midsong vocal excursion for much highly unnatural microphone abuse. Tune ended in chaos, band members leaving in disgust as Lux, trouserless, writhed and moaned in a pool of blood-red wine. He finally had to be wrapped in a bathrobe and carried away -- twice! -- tights around his ankles in a cloud of Knox's cigarette smoke.

    Band's cartoon aspect, an in-joke in the Gotham punk scene nine years ago, is now an institution, and the dementia and menace so refreshing in the late '70s have long been a series of contrived, if uncompromised, poses.

    Though the Cramps have grown older, their audience has become younger, with the result that everyone's basest impulses are indulged in a show that actively pursues the lowest common denominator and makes it irresistible.


* An error. As longtime L.A. music journo Chris Morris informed me that week in a gracious hand-written note, "She Said" is not a Cramps original; it was written by rock 'n' roll wildman Hasil Adkins. I was mortified, but went on to become friendly with Chris, who might otherwise never have contacted me. You can hear the original here.

** That unnamed song was "Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?" but Variety's unofficial Standards & Practices Dept. deemed such raciness too blue for the godless showbiz audience.

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