Still The Queen: The Cramps’ Poison Ivy Turns 70
Celebrating the career of punk guitar icon
It’s not like Lux Interior and Poison Ivy knew they were the punk world’s Johnny Cash and June Carter, but, y’know, they were kinda.
They were a couple, bound together forever, and they had their stage shtick – and I don’t mean shtick in a pejorative way – down pat. Interior, from Cleveland, met Ivy in California in 1972. “It is very romantic,” she said of their life together. “It’s like a living myth.”
I spent a fair amount of time listening to the Cramps on record, never missing them in concert, and talking with Lux and Ivy on the phone prior to a gig or afterwards in the dressing room.
The Cramps emerged in 1976. Their sound and style puzzled many, even some of the young punk rockers. Including me. I saw them first at Boston’s The Rat and didn’t know much of anything walking in. They were from Cleveland, but relocated to New York. They weren’t like other New York bands, not fast and furious like The Ramones or artsy and angsty like Talking Heads; they didn’t stage epic twisted guitar duels like Television.
They won me over. In fact, Lux and Ivy dined at the same late-night nearby pizza parlor as me and my friends after the gig. It was hard not to gawk.
Me and my friends talked about what we’d seen at The Rat. Were they serious? Were they joking? Where did this sound come from? The 50s? The future? Hell? The Cramps loved Elvis – hey, they called a 1986 album A Date with Elvis – and many more obscure rockabilly icons; they loved the outsider music of Hasil Adkins; they were influenced by the schlock horror and sexploitation movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Russ Meyer. This was a world I only knew in passing, but they knew this shit cold.
Onstage, there was chaos, confrontation, destruction of equipment, bare flesh, and that dangerous, subversive-sounding psychobilly. Rebellion and reliability were mashed together, which is to say the Cramps flirted with disaster but always came through with an A-level show.
A Cramps gig was one of barely controlled chaos. The Cramps took rockabilly – that most stable of forms – and warped it. The Cramps embraced trash rock – “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” “Don’t Eat Stuff Off the Sidewalk” and “Goo Goo Muck” – as glorious rediscovery, investing it with a thick forest of crazed psychedelia and primitive, pounding drum beats. When former Gun Club guitarist Kid Congo Powers was in the band, he and Poison Ivy worked in tandem, building intense layers of sound with manically inverted wrong-way guitar passages, distortion and feedback. Nick Knox pounded out the most basic of beats. From the voodoo rhythm a danceable, dark, entrancing beauty arose. Out in the crowd, everyone was dressed up to get mussed up and messed up.
It was all a knowing romp through good/bad taste, a jaunt through primal ferocity, barely-contained debauchery and rockin’ formalism. During one show, they did “Bend Over I’ll Drive” and Interior howled, “Is this the way Jayne Mansfield died?” (Half the gorgeous actress’ head was severed in a car accident.)
Then, “Goo Goo Muck” (written by Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads in 1962), where Interior warned, “I roam the city and I walk the streets, looking for something nice to eat,” following it up with a curdling, “I want the most but I’ll take the least.” They got extra bad taste credit for the totally un-PC “Blow Up Your Mind,” where Interior aped/parodied suicide by miming a gunshot to the head. Then, there was “Eyeball in My Martini,” “Alligator Man” and “The Crusher” — a total, tongue-in-cheek blowout on a grand order. And in “I Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Gorehound”: “Ashes to ashes/Dust to dust/Easy come, easy go/T’ain’t no big fuss.”
VIDEO: Wednesday Addams dance scene
Sometimes, Interior would take lil Lux out for a brief ride. In “Surfin’ Bird,” during that go-crazy maximum reverb breakdown and vocal whoop, Interior would suck the mic into his mouth and climb atop the speakers, in a sexually suggestive frenzy, Ivy acting as non-plussed as ever.
Christ, it was fun.
Offstage, Interior and Ivy were another story, almost the exact reverse of their onstage personae. Quite well-mannered and soft-spoken. I remember after one gig, he, Ivy and I talked for quite a while though Ivy spent a lot of the time checking the books, to make sure the band wasn’t being ripped off. She was like Johnny Ramone that way. Good for her.
When we talked in 1997, Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (the one with George Clooney as the Caped Crusader) had just come out and Uma Thurman played a character named Poison Ivy. The Cramps’ Poison Ivy was pissed off. “The character in the movie looks like me. I had a lot of people calling saying I should sue these people. I don’t know. I mean, I know I’m the real Poison Ivy. I don’t need confirmation on that.”
Poison Ivy was born Kristy Marlana Wallace and took her nom-du-rock from the old Coasters song. “Yeah,” she says, “it’s because the song, `Poison Ivy,’ is `You can look, but you better not touch.’ ” Initially, she used the surname of Rorschach, taking it from the inventor of the Rorschach test. You know, the famous ink blot one.
Poison Ivy’s job was to look surly, sexy and non-plussed, while whipping out these simple, but oh-so-effective reverbed chords on her 1958 Gretsch 6120 hollow-body pumped through Blackface Fender Pro Reverb amplifiers onstage. She channeled Dick Dale, Duane Eddy and Link Wray. My favorite female guitarist? I think so.
Ivy, with tousled red hair, oft dressed in a black dress and wearing pounds of jewelry or maybe a gold lame top and bottom with plenty of skin between, played Interior’s foil. Diffident and bordering on malevolent, she was seemingly disinterested in anything but churning out blocks of fuzzy chords. But with a subtle sway of her hips or a shrug of her shoulders, she became fascinatingly sensual.
Their last album, Fiends of Dope Island, came in 2003. “Elvis Fucking Christ” led off Side 2. Lux and Ivy had been at home watching a music awards show. And this came out: “The big rock awards / Crowned a brand-new king/It shoulda been me instead / Don’t they know that I’m Elvis Fucking Christ?”
Their last gigs were on the west coast, early November of 2006. Interior died at 62 in 2009 of heart failure. From that point on, the Cramps were kaput. Obviously. And as best anyone can tell, Poison Ivy, who turns 70 February 20, has retired.
There was never any question in Cramps-land that Lux and Ivy were equal partners in crime. “The reason this band exists is because of a love for the kind of music that influences us,” Ivy told me backstage after a show at the Boston club, the Channel. To change would be “like falling out of love with the person you really love. Why would you? Now, you like people with short, blond hair? We’ve been called a parody or a cartoon band that makes fun of this and that, but we don’t make fun of anything.”
The Cramps were interested in the life that crawled underneath wet stones. Though reckless and darkly sinister, the Cramps remained eminently and imminently accessible. Subversive and sly, humorous. But where, say, the B-52s evoked camp humor, the Cramps evoked camp horror.
They found dirty, innuendo-laden songs; they wrote dirty, innuendo-laden songs. “There oughta be a song for everything,” chipped in Ivy. “We had to write it. It’s a dirty job but somebody had to do it.”
So, the Cramps proudly unearthed that turf. Sample titles: “All Women Are Bad,” “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns,” and “You Got Good Taste” to name but three. (Great verse in the latter: “You got good taste/You got good taste/You got good taste/Sit on my … lap.”)
I loved that line. But me being in rock journo mode – and basically using the question as a setup line for them to spring off – I asked if they were sexist.
“We have been accused of being sexist,” sighed Ivy, who co-wrote the songs 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.”
Ivy goes back to the roots, back to Bo Diddley. “His songs make you laugh, but man that’s wicked music. No one would ever say it’s [sexist]. … We’re performing within a rich musical tradition. Yet, we get called sexist and a joke. No one would say that to Bo Diddley: `When’s he gonna branch out?’ ” (Interestingly enough, Diddley often had female guitarists in his band, way before that became a thing.)
They had an anthemic paean to wanton misbehavior called “Let’s Get Fucked Up.” Interior both pumped up and dumped on the drug culture, much as he once did on “Drug Train.” “We try to present both sides,” said Interior. “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.”
To get a little heavier about it, Interior said, “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.”
The Cramps were rock ‘n’ roll. They never calcified and never cratered. They remained agitators and outsiders. For a night, they welcomed you into their kind of club. As Lux sang he was 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,” Ivy scraped the strings and rang out those loud, reverbed chords.
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2 thoughts on “Still The Queen: The Cramps’ Poison Ivy Turns 70”
Exceptional celebration of The Cramps. Happy Birthday Poison Ivy. You are the OG. Will you play again?
Perhaps come across a singer that can go Lux… What say chick?
The Cramps were fantastic, and toured loads for decades. Thier output never got stale, it just changed some over the years.
Ivy is the undisputed queen of psychobilly, and one of the most interesting musicians in any punk-adjacent genre, period. Glad she’s still with us. She’s more than earned retirement, but I’d always be interested in anything else she’s involved with. Happy birthday to the queen!