The Cramps’ frontman was impossible to miss, on or off stage, the perfect foil to his equally striking partner in life and music, Poison Ivy Rorschach. Ingrid Jensen reflects on what made the former Erick Lee Purkhiser, a suburban boy from Ohio steeped in both B-movie subculture and avant-garde art, the rock ‘n’ roll giant he was.
The first time I saw a video of Lux Interior, I freaked out. I thought Benedict Cumberbatch had fallen into a time warp, and I momentarily despaired of getting him out in time to film the fourth season of Sherlock before realizing that his eyes were the wrong color. I was soon to discover that this was Lux Interior, front man of the psychobilly band the Cramps and no less a movie star in his own right.
I bought my first Cramps record soon after, a promo copy of Flamejob that I’d intended to give to a friend as a gift, hoping to infect her with a mad love of psychobilly. I was never able to part with it, for inside was fold-out page of song lyrics accompanied by a photograph of the band beside a Man Ray quote. In a surrealistic red and blue image, Lux looks up at the camera with an intense, appraising stare; Ivy, with one hand on his shoulder, glowers, fierce and smoldering. Next to the image are the words:
“Each one of us, in his timidity, has a limit beyond which he is outraged. It is inevitable that he who by concentrated application has extended this limit for himself, should arouse the resentment of those who have accepted conventions which, since accepted by all, require no initiative of application. And this resentment generally takes the form of meaningless laughter or of criticism, if not persecution. But this apparent violation is preferable to the monstrous habits condoned by etiquette and estheticism.”
–Man Ray, Paris 1934
It’s an extraordinarily apt choice of quote, one that could be the band’s manifesto.
Pale as a ghost and (reportedly) cold to the touch, Interior’s presence was striking, even hypnotic. Over six feet tall and slim as a pike, he cut a dramatic figure with his ragged raven black hair, and tight black leather pants trying heroically to stay up and failing by a margin of inches. Over the years, his sartorial image shifted from a scruffy Elvis-werewolf hybrid in a cabana shirt, to a vampiric half-nude figure with an Egon Schiele bouffant, to a genderless alien with a pixie cut in a latex bodysuit and stilettos, a demure strand of pearls at his throat off-setting the fetishistic gleam of the latex with a weird element of suburban housewife glamour.
As much as we might wonder ‘Where are you now?’ we can also wonder ‘Where on Earth did you come from?’ Now that’s a mystery!” – Poison Ivy
Onstage, he was a madman, oblivious to the limits of physicality, emerging hours later as if from a trance, glassy-eyed and covered in cuts and bruises. Offstage, he was a calm, reserved Ohioan with an impish sense of humor and a soft Midwestern accent, purposefully caressing but modest as a mouse, all the more effective for its juxtaposition with the exceedingly immodest behavior exhibited onstage. His unpredictable, restless antics were the perfect foil to lead guitarist Poison Ivy’s air of detached, feline, cool and the stoic presences of the rest of the Cramps. He tended to lose most of his clothing over the course of the performance and sometimes ended up playing in nothing but black leather underwear. His penchant for performing in stilettos led Poison Ivy to refer to him in a television interview as, “…my tall girl,” patting his head affectionately.
“Mean Machine” – The Cramps, from the Flamejob album:
He was a mass of contradictions, capable of almost viciously carnal stage performances yet adhering to strict vegetarianism. The wild man who sang “Let’s Get Fucked Up,” and “Queen of Pain,” was deeply spiritual in private, with interests as varied as quantum physics, 3D photography, and hypnotism. (He was an accomplished photographer, and shot the cover of the Cramps 1994 album, Flamejob.)
In a 1995 post-show interview with the New Phoenix Times, he said: “From my viewpoint, I feel very strange in real life. I hear this all the time, that I’m just a regular guy and stuff, but I don’t think it’s true. They just don’t know me. I don’t know what people expect, that I’ll start screaming at them when I talk to them or something? It’s usually the average frat boy that says to me, ‘You’re just a normal guy!’ ”
Lux was born Erick Lee Purkhiser, in the suburban town of Stow, Ohio, on October 21, 1946.
Stow is eight miles shy of Akron, the rubber capital of the world: “Where you fall down on the sidewalk and bounce right back up,” as he joked in a television interview in 1990. His dad worked for Goodyear, and the family were strict Catholics. He had two siblings, an elder brother, Ron, who introduced him to the joys of music by playing a rousing rendition of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart,” to him on the piano when Lux was five, and a younger brother, Mike.
“Queen of Pain” – The Cramps:
In Dick Porter’s excellent history of the group, Journey to the Centre of the Cramps, Lux describes his first taste of rock n’ roll rebellion: “I lived four houses down from Stow High School…they had a thing called the Doghouse every Saturday night—this was in the Fifties when I was about ten years old. I’d go look in the window and I’d see all these bands; the Ramblers, who had a hit with ‘Lost Train’—That’s when I decided I wanted to be in a rock’n’roll band. I watched them play, and then when they were coming out and loading their equipment…and the guy was coming out with a cigarette and the cops says, ‘Hey, no cigarettes,’ and the guy just…threw it right at his feet and walked right by—that’s the moment I wanted to be in a rock n’ roll band.”
His unpredictable, restless antics were the perfect foil to lead guitarist Poison Ivy’s air of detached, feline, cool and the stoic presences of the rest of the Cramps.
But to ten-year-old Erick, the intrigue of horror comics, movies and the camp antics of cult Midwestern DJ’s Pete “Mad Daddy” Myers and Ghoulardi were stronger than the lure of rock n’ roll. The Cramps were a band famously obsessed with all things ghoulish, gory and sexed-up, and the roots of many of these images were nourished by Lux’s childhood diet of B horror movies, avant-garde radio, and an endless parade of copies of Tales from the Crypt.
“As a kid, I’d take the bus to these theaters every weekend and see everything. Until The Brain Eaters. My parents wouldn’t let me go see that. I remember my dad saying, ‘The Brain Eaters? I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to let him go see The Brain Eaters. He’s fucked up enough already’.”
“I’m interested in Jungian archetypes, what it is that makes people want to see movies about flying saucers and alien invasions. I’m interested in why someone would write a film like Robot Monster. And why a lot of people would write films that have so much in common–Robot Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space, you name it, all those old horror movies. I think it has something to do with the collective unconscious…like dream interpretations. When I see an old horror movie, it really strikes a chord in me, and it’s because I’m connected to the same thing that the person who wrote the movie is connected to.”
Like his future partner and co-founder of the Cramps, Poison Ivy Rorschach, Lux was rebellious in high school. Influenced by his big brother Ron, who had a penchant for getting into scrapes with the law, young Lux gathered his friends and set about stirring up trouble: “We stole hubcaps. We stole them just to steal them—we didn’t even know who to sell them to. I remember we stole the hubcaps off the local hearse.”
After finishing high school, Lux moved across the country to attend Sacramento University. There he met Poison Ivy (then known as Kristy Wallace.) In a 1995 interview with The Times, Ivy recalled their first meeting: “We were art students…I guess we still are. I was hitchhiking and Lux picked me up. And he’s been giving me a ride ever since.”
She said that in Sacramento, they felt: “…out of place completely there. We would get jeered at from the street…We’d hitchhike together, and Lux would be in drag…we found out we would get rides easier. Guys would say, ‘Hey girls, want to go to a party?’ And I’d do the talking so that Lux wouldn’t have to use his manly voice. We were total freaks. It’s weird because it was kind of a hippie capital, but very uptight, like unless you were kind of a farmer-hippie, like in a T-shirt and jeans, you were out of place. People would just catcall us out of cars. We were just kind of in fear of our lives sometimes…”
Of her relationship with Lux, Ivy said, “I think we kind of brought each other up, we’ve been together so long. We’re both romantic people, which helps. Getting together made us think of things to do, being partners in crime. Whereas alone we might have just been nameless drifters. God, I do love a happy ending.”
In 1975, the couple moved to New York City, and with the addition of guitarist Bryan Gregory and drummer Pam Ballam, the Cramps were formed in the spring of 1976. They cut their performing teeth in the New York punk scene, playing at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB alongside bands such as Blondie, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television and the Dead Boys. By this time, Kristy had changed her name to Poison Ivy—a title she received in a vision—and Erick had toyed with the names “Vip Vop,” and “Raven Beauty,” before settling on Lux Interior, a moniker he lifted from a car ad. New names, new job, new town; the stars were aligning in their favor.
They played a strange new form of rock n’ roll that they dubbed “psychobilly,” a blend of harsh garage rock and punk heavily influenced by Lux and Ivy’s favored sounds of Fifties rockabilly, doo wop, and instrumentals. The band’s image was influenced primarily by 1950s American kitsch, low-budget horror movies, and underground stars like the bondage queen Bettie Page, but the final product was a camp, snotty, rock show unlike any America had ever seen. “Gauguin said there are two types of artists, revolutionaries and plagiarists. We’re revolutionaries,” Lux stated.
In June 1978, the Cramps packed up their gear and drove 3,000 miles across the country from their home base in New York City to the Napa State Mental Hospital in Napa, California, where they had agreed to play a free gig to the inmates. The band plugged in their amps on a small dais set up in the hospital courtyard and played a set that has gone down in rock n’ roll history as one of the weirdest ever staged.
“…somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that,” Lux said at the beginning of the performance. “You seem to be all right to me.”
“We’d always wanted to play in a mental institution because we’ve always had a problem with audiences not being quite what we’d like them to be, and those people just got right into it,” he explained later. “When we played there, 16 of the inmates escaped, and it was a big deal, and other people found out about it and other mental institutions, and we have tried to play some places since then, but it just hasn’t happened.”
Lux and Ivy were a solid writing team, crafting songs that managed to be both hilarious and sexy and gross all at once. Henry Rollins described the lyrics of their song, ‘Garbageman,’ as being, “… smart and cool in the way that Mark Twain was smart and cool.” It’s an apt comparison amongst American writers who managed to project, embody and ultimately transcend the cliches of their respective periods.
The Cramps – “Garbageman”:
Lux explained their work ethic in an interview: “Marcel Duchamp is quite an inspiration… Because he kind of single-handedly demolished all that had gone before, and made a brand-new art. We’re just people who remain ever curious. We’re just attracted to whatever comes in handy. Again, like the Surrealists, anything you run across is actually beautiful; within a single city block, you find miraculous things. It’s a good planet — and good things can happen.”
“People think that we’re funny. I kind of feel sorry for them, 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.”
Whether live or in the studio, the Cramps were a force to be reckoned with. Throughout thirteen studio albums and 33 years of playing gigs, they never lost their edge, or failed to convey the palpable sense of excitement, of sick, ghoulish, glamour, that emanated from the stage to the audience.
“Gauguin said there are two types of artists, revolutionaries and plagiarists. We’re revolutionaries,” Lux stated.
In an interview with the L.A. Times done shortly after Lux’s death, Henry Rollins remembered attending early Cramps shows in Washington, D.C.: “It was kind of scary being in the front row. Lux would find something to swing from—if there were ceiling tiles, they’d all be on the floor at the end of the thing. Lux would somehow find his way out of his pants and be down to a pair of bikini briefs twitching all over the floor. He’s a very large man, very tall and very pale and very sweaty. They (the Cramps) all looked so amazing. Each one could have been a movie star.”
Rollins also recalled a backstage encounter, years later, when he himself was fronting a band: “…we played together at the Pukkelpop festival. At that time Lux was in his rubber pants/high heels/pour-wine-all-over-himself era. So, they finished their set and he’s walking up the stairs with that bouffant, he’s been rolling around on the ground and he’s red from wine, his mascara is running, and I think one heel is broken. He’s this very large man tottering up the stairs, and I said, “Hey, Lux,” and he kind of looked at me and said, “Good afternoon!”
“You get the idea that there was something very decent about them, that there was something almost like your dad about how they were.”
Perhaps Poison Ivy best summed up the phenomenon of Lux in the programs she wrote to hand out to mourners at the “Astral Ascension,” memorial service held following his death in 2009, aged 62: “Lux seemed like a creature from another world, with one foot already out of this dimension. As much as we might wonder ‘Where are you now?’ we can also wonder ‘Where on Earth did you come from?’ Now that’s a mystery!”