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No Way to Cramp Their Style : Band's Founding Couple Share a Love for '50s Kitsch, Roots Music and Women's Clothing

June 30, 1995|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Somehow, it's hard to envision the Cramps enjoying a vacation in a South Seas island paradise.

After all, the band's founding couple, singer Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschack, are famous for their mutual pallor and for their mutual interest in using punk-greased rockabilly music to explore those two things that go bump in the night: kitschy horrors and human sexuality.

A vacation in tropical Fiji (where they stopped recently for rest and relaxation after the band's tour of Australia) seems somehow unlike this noir-inclined band.

Ivy helpfully tried to allay an interviewer's cognitive dissonance as she spoke over the phone this week from the home she and Lux share in Los Angeles.

"It used to be called the Cannibal Islands, so it's not that out of line" from a Cramps perspective, she noted.

"The natives never quit mentioning that they were cannibals a hundred years ago," Lux added. " 'Come up and join the fun. We won't eat you--anymore.' "

The two principal Cramps, who will top the main-stage bill at Saturday's roots-rock oriented Hootenanny Festival, say they don't go out of their way to project a decadent image. The pasty complexions, Lux's cross-dressing penchant for frilly and clingy things and high-heeled pumps--these things come naturally, they say, and were part of their personal styles before they decided, in the mid-1970s, to start a rock band.

"It's just a fetish, a personal fetish," Ivy said. "It's just a quality of skin we like. Too much sun isn't good for anybody. It withers you. We like tender skin."

Lux, said Ivy, was a 6-foot-3 (without heels) Alice Cooper fan who already had that androgynous flair when he first gave her a ride when she was hitching a ride in her hometown of Sacramento.

"Before we had a band, I was not concerned with whether I was wearing women's or men's things," said Lux, who long ago stopped thinking of himself as Erick Purkhiser, his given name. "I'm more interested in glamour than any kind of gender mind [game]. I don't care what anybody thinks of me. All I want to do is enjoy a life of glamour."

Glam-rock was one foundation for the Cramps' sound: Ivy (nee Kristy Wallace) and Lux saw a lot of New York Dolls shows when they were living in his old hometown of Akron; when they heard about the underground rock scene gathering around CBGB in New York, they got some equipment, thought up a band name and headed to Manhattan in 1976.

"We were arrogant enough to think, 'Let's move to New York and play at CBGB,' " Ivy recalled. In fact, they flunked their audition-night tryout at CBGB, but the booker of a rival club, Max's Kansas City, liked their act and gave them a weekly gig.

Besides absorbing the influence of garage-rocking punk-precursors such as the Dolls and the Stooges, the Cramps had plunged themselves into '50s music, which they discovered together.

*

Record collecting was their keen interest before they started the band, and they sometimes made special excursions to Memphis to raise their stock of old R&B and rockabilly singles. In 1978, when the Cramps cut their first singles, they did it at the same Sun Records studio where Elvis Presley had gotten his start.

This, Lux explained, was not motivated solely by a sense of history. Their producer, Alex Chilton, had met them in New York and suggested they come to Memphis, his hometown, because he could get them free studio time.

Lux said the randy and swaggering spirit of much Cramps music derives from the band's determination to keep alive--with some characteristic Cramps twists--the erotic spark and spirit of wildness that motivated early rock 'n' roll.

"We're not trying to shock anybody. We're trying to write songs that we like," he said. "We're constantly described as being sleazy and gross and words like that, and I don't think any of our songs are [that] at all. They may be too sexual for some people who are repressed, but there's nothing unsavory about them."

At the Hootenanny Festival, the Cramps represent a mix-and-match approach to roots-rock and rockabilly, while others on the bill hew more closely to the original sounds.

*

The Cramps--who also include the pseudonymous Slim Chance on bass and Harry Drumdini on drums--often cover old rockabilly obscurities and regard their use of rockabilly roots as a form of homage. No parody is intended, for all the outrageous trappings.

"We love this [roots-music] stuff because it's really good music and it comes from people who are really sincere about it," Lux said. "When people start making fun about Elvis and forget all he did to change the world and just concentrate on the fact that he got fat and wore a white jumpsuit, it's really sad and shallow."

Ivy said that the Cramps are friends and fans of some of the tradition-leaning acts on the bill, including Orange County's Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Boys.

"That's a labor of love, that's how they want to do it," she said of Big Sandy's traditionalism. "With us, [roots and garage-rock influences] get filtered through our acid-casualty minds, and that's the way it comes out."

* The Cramps play Saturday at 5:45 p.m. at Hootenanny Festival, which runs from 11:30 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. at Oak Canyon Ranch, off Santiago Canyon Road, just southeast of Irvine Lake. $19.50. Taped information: (714) 991-2055.

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