RIP: Lux Interior's Greatest Shits

The idea that several hundred newspapers would carry the report of Lux Interior's death would likely have left the Cramps' eternally ghoulish lead singer reeling from a mix of amusement and horror -- in other words, he would have occupied an emotional state very close to the one experienced by anyone who had just come across the Cramps' music for the first time.

To say that the Cramps invented garage-punk would be reductive and inaccurate, but also not horribly far off. The Cramps may have been punk rock's greatest historical curators -- if you download more than one Cramps record in the next couple days, the first one has to be Songs the Lord Taught Us (like Ramones, it achieved perfection on the first swing), and the second should be Songs the Cramps Taught Us, the semi-bootleg comp compiling impossible-to-find sides by the band's numerous influences. Lux, born Erick Lee Purkhiser, was a son of Akron, Ohio, and it's possible that he could have developed nowhere else. During Lux's childhood (and my fathers; they're about the same age) the radio dials in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania tweaked the concept of "oldies" -- the then-novel idea of playing rock n roll records that were no longer new to the charts. The market was highly competitive and yet somewhat isolated, and while the rest of the country plunged on into the 60s, in the Ohio river valley wildman DJs hewed to the 50s model, developing their own slang and sifting through dud novelty singles that had grazed or even missed the charts entirely. Songs were hits there that could have been hits nowhere else.

The music that became the Cramps canon -- Link Wray, sure, and the Sonics and Bo Diddley; but more importantly one-off obscurities like the psychotic hillbilly Hasil Adkins or Ronnie Cook's "Goo Goo Muck" -- was only slightly more insane than what you could hear on the radio. By coupling it with an equally vivid affection for forgotten drive-in horror reels, Lux created punk's most enduring reactionary niche: romantic psychos heroically recycling the cultural detritus of a deranged, self-immolating culture. Thereafter, nobody ever quite disproved the notion that a rockabilly band playing songs about zombies is as close as music can come to the truth about America.

The Cramps were still finding entertaining variations on their favored themes into the '90s, when they managed briefly to get major label backing for compositions like "Bikini Girls with Machine Guns" and "Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs." But perhaps no performance topped the one gig that seemed to encapsulate the band's entire career: their show on June 13, 1978, at the Napa State Mental Hospital. It still boggles the mind that mental-health administrators admitted the Cramps -- the Cramps! -- to perform for an audience of certifiable lunatics. But, as the joke goes, it was even crazier that the same people somehow let the band out.

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