BEST HALLOWEEN MUSIC EVER
("I'm not afraid... are you, Bimbo?" - tell me what exactly this is from & win a free treat in your real/not cyber mailbox!)
You want to know something really weeiiiiird? I was in New York when the Cramps started the tradition of playing varying spots in the West, and proximate states, on October 31st. Although I didn’t know about the band’s Halloween appearances, about 17 years ago I determined that recordings that are supposed to be scary (creaking floorboards and whatnot) pale in comparison with the Cramps, so for trick-or-treaters I started playing Lux Interior & Co. at an ear-splitting volume, i.e.: There’s no improving on the Cramps for best scary/funny-music-party-in-your-ears.
While I could sob over missed Halloween shows, I did see three or four of the band’s first East Coast tour stops, at which point guitarist Bryan Gregory was still in the band. As far as I’m concerned, this trumps EVERYTHING. I also saw them several more times over the years, and my ex and I used to blast the Cramps while driving through dark woods (well, the dark woods of Balboa Park), or the neighborhoods of hapless, need-to-get-up-at five a.m.-people, when we were in our cups. Nothing else could satisfy us when we were that many sheets to the wind – nothing, that is, but Howlin’ Wolf or maybe Link Wray. And a couple people have told me they find the Wolf’s voice scary–one even said “demonic.” I thought that friend needed to take a chill pill, and that he was missing the point somehow, or focusing too much on just part of the point–actually, he wasn’t a friend, he was this guy that I almost married–who, as it turned out, had such hideous psychological problems, my life with him was at times truly a horror movie – as he’d come stomping up our front stairs, I’d cringe, realizing, “Here comes Mr. Hyde.” Or “Heeeere’s Johnny!”
I was going to try and come up with a bone-freezing ghost story, but I think that last little anecdote is more than enough. Candy corn, anyone?
Lux Interior’s unexpected death last February crackled like an electric shock through an army of rock ‘n’ roll fanatics. Rather like John Lennon, or Elvis Presley, Lux embodied much more than a band. Hard as it can be to describe audio and/or live experiences, Halloween just screams for a fractured history of the Cramps (for a complete history, go to New York Rocker or Rue Morgue).Through Indian Eyes is a photography study. Discussing a huge group shot of women in saris, author Judith M. Gutman complains that she can’t find a focal point. That’s kind of like the back cover of The Cramps’ Gravest Hits. Guitarist Poison Ivy is in her stock pose at stage left and Nick Knox’ s deadpan visage can be detected behind the drums. You have to squint to make out the supine figure of second guitarist Bryan Gregory. With the help of a magnifying glass, you realize Lux Interior’s the gawky guy clambering over the third row. Determining who’s onstage, who’s in the audience and what anyone’s up to would probably give Ms. Gutman a headache.
Since that late ‘70s Cramps pic was taken, retailers and concert promoters have attempted to contain, normalize and market outrageousness (fun as it can be, Hot Topic is a good example). I’m trying to imagine being too removed from the beginning to understand – hearing that The Cramps are amazing, then choosing from a bewildering plethora of recordings featuring various male/female bassists/second guitarists and campy, semi-pornographic covers. Maybe this person goes home with the hit-and-miss Big Beat from Badsville or Flame Job. Later they sag on the sofa, muttering, “I guess I’m not so cool after all, ’cause there’s something here I’m just not getting.”
This poor, hypothetical person just wouldn’t have turned the right keys. While the band didn’t make an album with half the first few releases’ magic in nearly 20 years, live appearances continued to leave audiences shaken, feeling the release associated with sex or primal screaming. Since the last time I saw them, the only performer to similarly satisfy has been the late Link Wray, whose influence, not incidentally, helped shape the Cramps’ form and focus.
Since it’s no longer possible to see the Cramps, I’m going to invite you to take a little trip. Imagine being among about 150 others in a medium-sized, Washington, D.C. theater in the late ’70s. Although lot of alcohol was being guzzled, a semi-scientific comparison of Cramps shows with those by other outstanding bands has taken this into account. There is nothing to explain the altered state I entered that night (probably at the Hall of Nations, but memory fogs over with a smear of “1st” shows and events, especially since I was out seeing music several nights, most weeks). Among others, Dave Arnson (of D.C.’s fuzz-surf band, The Insect Surfers) remembers it similarly.
The Cramps moved me in a way that went beyond the altered state sometimes resulting from multiple hours on dance floors; those infinite moments when you forget yourself, and everything else, and are simply in the beautiful moment, which is shared with every other atom in the place. I rediscovered a bloodcurdling yell I’d forgotten I had in me. I don’t remember anyone sitting down. The band and audience were one. There were no fights over space because everyone was moving intuitively around and against each other in a sort of parallel universe. Hardly any skinheads, posers or wannabes had found the scene yet; there was a “everyone who’s here is meant to be” vibe.
The warped, humorous ferocity of “Human Fly,” “I Can’t Hardly Stand It,” “The Way I Walk” and “She Said” dowsed us in buckets of something I’d always craved – I’d just never been able to catch it for long. Bits of it had surfaced in “Woolly Bully,” “Muddy Water,” “Mystic Eyes,” and almost everything by the Blues Magoos and Question Mark and the Mysterians.
The Modern Lovers and John Cale dipped their toes in it with “Pablo Picasso,” CCR caught some of it, especially from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and it’s all over the roots rockabilly of Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio. Somehow Lux and guitarist Poison Ivy had gone deeper than any of that, trawling the shadowy realms of late-night radio, rockabilly, raunchy B-sides, and Grade B horror and Sci-Fi.
These realms had yielded rich lodes of material that were stirred, then thrown on the fire so that The Cramps managed to facilitate something I’ve never heard anyone mention regarding this band, and that’s transcendence. There’s something about the musical tones and registers they achieved on the first few records (and that were unreal live) that just transports me. Even more than is usually the case, a (moving) picture is worth a thousand words:
A few other keys will unlock the ultimate chaotic transcendence. Scarce for years, and now available on DVD, is The Cramps – Live at Napa State Mental Hospital. While the audio is primitive, the film displays the band’s willingness to endure absolute uncertainty, going way beyond what many would call the edge.
The recordings to get before cranking your speakers: Gravest Hits, Songs the Lord Taught Us, Psychedelic Jungle, and, if you didn't nab the British singles, Bad Music for Bad People. While there are bursts of heat on many of the others (Stay Sick registers pretty high on the fun meter), these four burn hottest. These albums, along with my other must-have, Psychedelic Jungle, include a number of indispensable tracks: "Sunglasses After Dark," “Garbageman," "I Was a Teenager Werewolf," "Mad Daddy,""Mystery Plane,""Beautiful Gardens," "Rockin' Bones," "Can't Find My Mind," and "Caveman."
Although this is far from a complete rundown (which would include more on drummers Miriam Linna and Nick Knox), I feel it important to say a few things. Re: Bryan Gregory: his charisma, menace, and creative input, along with a roaring wall of second guitar “id” and spontaneity, seemed irreplaceable (although he died in 2001, he left the Cramps after their first few albums). But the guitarist who followed, “Kid” Congo Powers, “got” Lux and Ivy’s sensibility, as well as adding production nuances that helped fashion Psychedelic Jungle into a creative peak. Additionally, this released Ivy from her chronic role as half the group's metronome, as witnessed by her Elmore James-ish explosions on "Under the Wires."
Lux had this comment about the Cramps’ sound: “Rock ’n’ roll has absolutely nothing to do with music. It’s much more than music. Rock ’n’ roll is who you are. You can’t call the Cramps music. It’s noise, rockin’ noise.” And this is what he said “She Said”:
Rather than go into the history of Howlin’ Wolf, I’ll just say he had a pivotal influence on Chicago/electric blues and a lot of the rock that followed. I’ll thank heaven and hell for his synchronous association with brilliant songwriter Willie Dixon and guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Then I’ll suggest reading Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf. And I’ll testify: I’ve never been the same since hearing “Smokestack Lightnin’” on a jukebox some time in the ‘80s. Since I can’t access any video that does justice to that recording, I've thrown on another smokin' track, above:
Recommended albums: Moanin’ in the Moonlight (Chess); Howlin’ Wolf: His Best (Chess Anniversary Collection).
Recommended tracks: “ Howlin’ for My Darlin’,” “Back Door Man,” “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Spoonful,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Moanin’ for My Baby.” (If some of the names seem familiar it’s cause a lot of these, especially the Dixon songs, have been covered by bands including Cream, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and the Yardbirds.)
The last artist I’m going to share popped onto my radar after answering my enquiry about his albums. The Slow Poisoner promptly dispatched a large mailer, the front of which was covered by a cartoonlike drawing of a swamp. Out of the swamp rises a torso wearing a Little Lord Fauntleroy-type jacket and string tie and, in place of a head, a large hand with an eyeball in the middle. On the back of the mailer are rubber stampings of skulls and bones. This reminds me of the mail art I used to exchange and of all the cool stuff passing through postal workers’ hands back when underground actually meant underground (record labels, wiccans, artists, insurgents). I remember, on some dreary days, chuckling or howling all the way back from the mailbox. These are very, very good things.
The Slow Poisoner does other good things. There’s plenty of roots-of-rock riffing (recalling Buddy Holly and original rockabilly). There’s a lot of guitar reverb and a pretty varied assortment of songs about things that matter, and that don’t get enough coverage, like how people really originated at the bottom of a muddy river, and that the “Wood Full O’ Witches” can mean all kinds of odd occurrences, and lusting after a “Swamp Gal.” “The Shriek!” features at least three blood-curdling screams. The Slow Poisoner evens warns us, to galloping gospel, of the “Thundering Fists of the Lord.”
I even like the feel of TSP’s Magic Casket CD cover – a smooth, shiny digipak with his irresistible, Halloweeny graphix, The only problem is his location, San Francisco – he seems so So. Cal. – and there is already enough wonder and creativity by the Bay. Also, I might not like his CD as much if he hadn’t had the sense to keep it at 11 three-minutes-or-less tracks. I need to write something concise about the magic of restraint (and restraints).
His website is almost illegally fun: www.theslowpoisoner.com
I don’t know about you, but my original plan to share the best Halloween music since the dawn of time is starting to fade, especially as "technical difficulties" (whoo-oooo...) have been dogging my toil on this installment since yesterday - I'll just blame the spirits for any font inconcistencies, etc...
Thanks for sharing this ride with me! Now, kids, put your hands in that bottomless bag... the last treat is one of my favorite old cartoons… ever.