Aloha From Hell: Lux Interior Turns 75

Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on his years in conversation with the dearly departed Cramps frontman

Lux Interior of The Cramps would have turned 75 today (Image: Wikipedia)

It was 1994, and Lux Interior and Poison Ivy — longtime husband-wife team and co-leaders of the Cramps, purveyors of the politically incorrect well before it became a hot-button issue – were guest hosts on MTV’s Sunday night alternative rock showcase 120 Minutes.

Both clad in tight black vinyl and high heels, singer Interior and guitarist Ivy seemed a tad uncomfortable in the “alternative” world into which they’d been thrust. Interior introduced videos in a disinterested monotone; Ivy rarely spoke. This video-crazed, public image-mad world was not their world.

“We hadn’t seen any of the videos at the time,” Interior told me, a little later on the phone, explaining their lackadaisical MTV demeanor. “Actually, some of them I had seen. But, I dunno, most videos are pretty gruesome. Not rock ‘n’ roll.”


VIDEO: The Cramps on MTV’s 120 Minutes

The Cramps were rock ‘n’ roll. Lux Interior – born Erick Lee Purkhiser -would have turned 75 Oct. 21. As it happened, he died from an aortic dissection Feb. 4, 2009, putting a final nail in the coffin of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s best live bands. Their last gigs were in November 2006.

The Cramps never calcified and never cratered. They remained agitators and outsiders always. As Lux sang, he was always looking for “a new kind of kick – something I ain’t had/I want a new kind of buzz/ I want to go hog mad.”

Some people didn’t get it and thought the Cramps were a goof. “People that think we’re funny — I kinda feel sorry for them,” Interior told me, “because it means that they think it’s a joke. We’ve spent our lives searching out incredibly wonderful things that most folks just don’t know about yet.”

Interior called what they did “a rallying point for certain kinds of people to come together and for certain kinds of people to stay out.”

Their first album was 1980’s Songs the Lord Taught Us, produced by Alex Chilton. Seven more studio albums followed, ending with 2003’s Fiends of Dope Island.

The Cramps A Date With Elvis, Enigma 1986

The Cramps – with various drummers and guitarists cycling in and out over the years – persevered through bad record deals and nasty lawsuits, critical misconceptions and public indifference. As with the Ramones of the mid-to-late ‘70s, you’d never have then pegged the CBGB-spawned Cramps as the bands that would survive, prosper — and still kick out the jams – into the 2000s. 

Their sound was called psychobilly, a mix of psychedelia, psychotic and rockabilly – or that was my interpretation. They loved exploitation and horror movies. They covered a lot of forgotten subcultural rockers and completely made them their own – one of their best was Hasil Adkins 1964 lunatic song, “She Said.” Another was Ronnie Cook’s song from 1961, “Goo Goo Muck,” where Interior purred, “The city is a jungle and I’m a beast/And I’m lookin’ for something that is nice to eat,”

Interior and Poison Ivy wrote sleazy songs that sounded timeless, could have been written years ago: “All Women Are Bad,” “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns,” “You Got Good Taste, “Faster Pussycat (Kill, Kill),” “Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs” and “I Want to Get in Your Pants” — pretty much the Cramps idea of “Stairway to Heaven.”

Were the Cramps songs sexist?

“We have been accused of being sexist,” Poison Ivy told me, in a joint interview with Interior. “They don’t comment on our music at all, or the fact that maybe what I play is unique and I’m not mimicking some male guitarist — that this is original. I co-write the very sexual ones. All I see is our songs have to do with, from the male point of view, being intrigued by the power and mystery of females. I think it’s a great tradition in blues songs and I think we’re in a good tradition there, too. He [the protagonist] is loving being overpowered by women and turned on. And a lot of people just confuse being turned on with being sexist — like it’s not OK to be flat-out horny over someone else. That’s really pitiful, but that happens to be the way things are right now. It’s a fear of sex in general, sex and power.”

Added Interior, with a chuckle: “I’m always trying to make this less sexist than it is, but every time I do Ivy starts smackin’ me around and it hurts.

One of my favorite one-two punches was “Drug Train” and “Let’s Get Fucked Up.” Interior both pumps up and dumps on the drug culture. “We try to present both sides,” Interior said. “In ‘Let’s Get Fucked Up’ we say, `Tomorrow you’ll feel like you were hit by a truck.’ But these people that dismiss drugs as bad, period, for everyone and that’s the end of that . . . that just kind of glamorizes it to a teen-ager, that just makes ’em run for it.”

The soft-spoken Interior’s explanation as to why, despite numerous personnel changes and career reversals, he and Ivy never gave up on the Cramps: “Probably we would have if we knew something else to do that was as fun. We’re damn fools.”

If ever there was a contest between the greatest contrast between on-stage and off-stage personas, Lux Interior would win it hands down in my book. Polite, engaged and courteous, he was in the dressing room post-show or on the phone pre-show.

On stage, Interior was often shirtless, sporting low-slung black vinyl pants and red high heels, He was not afraid to strip down to his red panties or to take Lil Lux out for a ride, Interior was the most commanding – one might even say intimidating, of front men. Completely in control, and completely uninhibited. Interior — was a towering lean man with a shock of black hair who courted confrontation, a la early Iggy Pop. In Boston, I saw him punch out one stage diver who tried his act one too many times. (He did give the gent fair warning before rendering a one-two.)

During one interview, Interior was matter-of-factly telling me about the start of the previous night’s gig, not an atypical show, mind you. “I went through three microphones and two mic stands on the first song, `Dames, Booze, Chains and Boots.’ And the drum monitor fell over and smashed the plugs on both of Ivy’s amps.” 


VIDEO: The Cramps “Surfin’ Bird” Live 1998

They’d often play a highly chaotic, torn-and-tattered version of “Surfin’ Bird.” At that disjointed moment, Interior might suck the mic into his mouth, pour a bottle of red wine down his chest, climb atop the speakers and hump them. Poison Ivy would look upon him, as distant and diffident as ever.

As for the group’s wild live shows, in the ‘90s Interior told me, “To us, it just seems normal. Last time we were out, people said `Oh, what are you gonna do? How are you gonna shock people now that Marilyn Manson is around?’”

Answer: Marilyn Manson “doesn’t care anything about music. We started this because we love rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues. If it’s shocking, we’ve never tried to shock people. If you’re going to try and shock someone, you must be trying to shock squares, and we really couldn’t give a damn what squares think. If people are shocked by us, that’s fine for them, maybe it’ll help them have a better life or something, but that’s not what we’re aiming to do. We’re just aiming to have a rock ‘n’ roll band and be ourselves.”

Were they dangerous?

“Danger is kind of an unfortunate word,” Interior said. “We like the unexpected. Dangerous almost means that someone’s gotta get hurt or it’s not rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll’s supposed to be fun. It isn’t supposed to be: See what kind of damage you can do to yourself or others. We’re asking {people} to come and be crazy and they never stop thinking up new ways to be crazy. … I don’t like people that pretend to be `great’ artists. I’m kind of more of a Marcel Duchamp, destroying the art world instead of being a part of it.

“I’ve always thought of us as surrealists, right from the very beginning. I think anytime anybody gets too comfortable or decides to cleverly pigeonhole `the way things should be’ . . . an artist is going to come along and turn the whole thing upside down. That’s always healthy. That means people are thinking; they’re not just doing what they’re told. It means they’re being moved by a spirit. Gaugin said there are two types of artists: revolutionaries and plagiarists. We’re revolutionaries.”









Latest posts by Jim Sullivan (see all)

 You May Also Like

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

2 thoughts on “Aloha From Hell: Lux Interior Turns 75

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *