Steve Metz photo


Poison Ivy Rorschach, lead guitarist, songwriter, arranger, producer and sometime vocalist of one of the greatest bands in the universe, the Cramps, which she co-founded with her lifetime partner Lux Interior (RIP), has yet to get her crown. Well, PKM has decided the time is right for her coronation, in the week before Halloween. Ingrid Jensen tells us why this is an altogether fitting and proper thing to do.

“Nobody ever talks to me about music or guitar,” Poison Ivy Rorschach, the lead guitarist of the Cramps, once said, frustrated by the lack of serious attention given to her musical chops by the pop press. “I’m the Queen of Rock n’ Roll and for this to not to be recognized is pure sexism.”

“Tear It Up” – The Cramps live in L.A., 1980:

But, despite her position as one of the finest guitarists in rock and roll and the co-founder of perhaps the most fascinating cult band of the 20th century, she was rarely asked questions about music, which was her job, her passion and her life.

Most interviewers spoke directly to her civil partner, Cramps front man Lux Interior, and largely ignored Poison Ivy, whose guitar work on her famous hollow-body Gretsch was the backbone of the Cramps sound. Not only was she the lead guitarist and occasional bassist, she also produced the majority of the band’s thirteen studio albums and co-wrote all of the band’s original songs.

“She’s faceted like a diamond,” Lux said admiringly in a 1998 interview with the Independent.  “There’s a million sides to Ivy and I just love all of them.”

You know she’s special just looking at a photograph of her: in an image snapped at a gig sometime during the 1990s, her usually wild red tresses are calmed into a silky Forties starlet pageboy, her eyes made enormous by Egyptian kohled lines. She wears a velvet leotard and fishnets, stepping forward with her guitar slung fretboard-first toward the camera like an automatic weapon, her pale pointed face hovering ghoulishly above.

Onstage, she exuded a kind of cool menace that seemed to stem from her focus on playing, her prowess of the instrument, and her previous work as a dominatrix. Offstage she was soft spoken, witty and thoughtful, but always ready to launch into the sex-goddess “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns” mode that she portrayed in so many Cramps promo videos.

Poison Ivy Rorschach was born Kristy Marlana Wallace in San Bernadino, California, on February 20, 1953. Love of music was in her blood (her grandfather was a violinist who had played with John Phillips Sousa) and she demonstrated her musical leanings early on. “When I was very little, I was especially fixated on a stompin’ 45 my brother had, ‘Martian Hop’ by the Ran-Dells. He would play it when his friends came over because they got a big kick out of watching me jump and fly around the room and off the furniture every time I heard it…”

Ivy’s family moved nine times before she’d graduated high school. Such a nomadic lifestyle made it difficult for her to make friends, so she created her own amusements. She obliterated Barbie dolls with firecrackers in the backyard, dressed the family cat in doll’s clothes, and learned the basics of guitar from an older sibling before she began teaching herself: “My brother played some guitar and he taught me how to do the ‘Pipeline’ riffs and some chords, but other than that I’ve never had any lessons. I just started picking out songs on my own.”

She was rebellious in high school, smoking in the girl’s bathroom, haloing her eyes thickly with shadow and liner, teasing her curly red hair into a dramatic cloud. She was smart, but disinterested by typical classroom learning, preferring subjects such as dancing, art, music and the study of various of spiritual and religious disciplines.

Seeing Bo Diddley live in Sacramento was a big factor in inspiring Ivy to move towards music as a lifestyle. Diddley performed with a female second guitarist called, “the Duchess,” and seeing a woman onstage playing rock n’ roll was a major moment for Ivy. Over the years a number of female guitarists held the position of “the Duchess,” usually playing rhythm, moving along in the traditional choreographed box-steps with Diddley and the rest of the band. Ivy had a pair of gold lame pants made to mimic a pair the Duchess had worn onstage, as a sartorial tribute.

She met Lux Interior, the man with whom she would form the Cramps, while they were both attending Sacramento University: “We met up in a class called Art and Shamanism. The textbook for that class was called The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, and the subject of that book is how the real topic of the Bible is the Amanita muscaria mushroom and that Christ is a metaphor for this magic mushroom.”

Of course, at the time, Lux was actually called Erick Purkhiser, and Ivy was still called Kristy Wallace, but it didn’t take long for the friends-turned-soulmates to assume new names and new personas in the pursuit of a life devoted to rock n’ roll. Lux toyed with calling himself “VipVop” and “Raven Beauty,” before settling on Lux Interior, a name he lifted from a car ad. Ivy fasted for six days and then took mushrooms, upon which she received a vision in which she was given the name ‘Poison Ivy Rorschach,’ which she immediately began using.

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.”

Tamaris Rock Festival, 1992 by Demed

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 Blondie, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television and the Dead Boys.

“We set out to become a patchwork hybrid with a life of its own—a rock n’ roll Brides of Frankenstein,” Lux said. 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, doowop, and “wicked instrumentals.”

In Lux’s words, rock n’ roll is music, “…that should horrify adults and please teenagers,” and the Cramps never failed in their mission to embody this statement. The band’s image and stage presence were heavily molded by the couple’s love of 1950s B horror movies, and Lux’s childhood fascination with camp Midwestern DJs and TV personalities like Pete “The Mad Daddy” Myers and Ghoulardi.

“Human Fly” – The Cramps, with short promo film by Alex de Laszlo, 1986, “starring” Poison Ivy and Lux Interior:

When the Cramps began doing live gigs, Ivy was playing a solid body guitar, a rare Canadian model called a Lewis, that she found in a shop on 48th Street in 1976. In 1985 she acquired a 1958 Gibson 6120 hollow-body and fell in love with the sound of the massive, heavy instrument, which became one of her signatures.

Ivy’s distinctive playing was the backbone of the Cramps psychobilly sound. “My most identifiable influences would be Link Wray and Duane Eddy…the simplicity of it…the stark chords of Link Wray and the stark single-note thing of Duane Eddy.”

“I Was A Teenage Werewolf” – The Cramps: 

Of Link Wray in particular, she said: “He had the most apocalyptic, monumental sound I ever heard—real emotional and so simple and so violent. That stands for rock n’ roll, which is supposed to be violent and dangerous and have this dangerous sound…No matter how long I’ve been doing this, I hear something new when I listen to him. Maybe because I’m not the same person, maybe I know more from playing longer. He’s just so…it’s like guitar at the end of the world. So austere. And so much drama. You know, he makes the most out of the least for sure.”

The band’s image and stage presence were heavily molded by the couple’s love of 1950s B horror movies.

“I think some guitarists get into an ego thing where they want to perform in some technical way, which even if you can it’s not always the best thing to choose to do. I still like the idea of playing for the pure euphoria. My favorite thing to play, still, is rhythm.  It’s just so euphoric that I really get high playing it. Certain things I play don’t even feel like it’s me playing it, and that’s my favorite kind of playing.”

In an interview with Vintage Guitar magazine done in 2003 (the year the band released Fiends of Dope Island, their 13th and final studio album), Ivy discussed her favored axes, amps and recording techniques. It was one of the rare occasions she was questioned about the technical details of her playing. When asked by the interviewer about the differences in her approach between live gigs and recording in the studio, Ivy said:

Poison Ivy by Minervasteel, via Creative Commons

“They’re totally different, but both very important – like sacred events. Live is instant, and there’s a visual impact. What may seem amazing when you were there might not come across sonically if you hear the recording later. One thing about playing live is that you can never be that loud in any other situation. It’s just a license to scream and you can be as loud as you want. So, it’s kind of exhilarating to be in front of these loud amps, with the monitors pounding, where you can feel the subwoofers under your feet while you’re on the stage. It’s spontaneous and thrilling…”

“Psychotic Reaction” – The Cramps live in Norway, 2006:

“Records are so magical because it’s this little mechanical thing. It used to be vinyl and now it’s a CD, but it’s still amazing that this little thing reproduces a universe of sound. It’s cool figuring out how to get all the dynamics reduced down to this mechanical thing. It can take someone who’s been dead for 30 years and then make them alive again. So, making one is a very sacred event.”

“… when we record, we remind each other to play things like it was the first time you’ve ever played it because the worst thing that can happen would be that you get on auto pilot and you aren’t putting all your thought and emotion into it, or really feeling it.”

“My most identifiable influences would be Link Wray and Duane Eddy…the simplicity of it…the stark chords of Link Wray and the stark single-note thing of Duane Eddy.”

For 13 albums and 33 years of live performances, Poison Ivy remained the idol of girls who ate, slept and breathed rock ‘n’ roll, girls who wanted to infiltrate a predominantly male industry and show that women deserved a place at the table, too. She was the queen, the high priestess, rock ‘n’ roll incarnate, a consummate symbol of dangerous music in her garter belts and vinyl mules, her hennaed curls crowned with a prom-queen tiara ( “No queen of rock n’ roll should be caught dead without a crown,”) jerking the fretboard of her massive Gretsch toward the audience like the barrel of a gun.

“What’s Inside A Girl” – A Poison Ivy Tribute – The Cramps:

The Cramps had a long succession of drummers, bassists, and second guitarists, but Lux and Ivy always remained at the helm, the Morticia and Gomez of punk, the reigning monarchs of all things debauched and scary, carrying the banner of rock high when younger bands failed to channel its energy.

“I think rock ‘n’ roll’s been in bad shape…” Ivy said in a newspaper interview circa 1990. “I think what passes for rock ‘n’ roll isn’t, and it’s alarming how many people respond to mechanical kinda dance music that’s not very sensuous or human-sounding.” As long as she played, she helped keep the real stuff alive.

The Cramps had a long succession of drummers, bassists, and second guitarists, but Lux and Ivy always remained at the helm, the Morticia and Gomez of punk, the reigning monarchs of all things debauched and scary, carrying the banner of rock high when younger bands failed to channel its energy.

After Lux Interior’s death in 2009, the Cramps disbanded, and Poison Ivy retired from music. It’s safe to say that her influence will be felt by generations, and that the material the Cramps produced will be studied and mined for content by young artists for decades to come. Ivy stands out, not only as an inspiration for an entire generation of Riot Grrrls and women in rock, but as an atomically talented guitarist, a witty lyricist and a consummate performer who understood the draw of image and the importance of the unabashed use of a vivid imagination in the face of an ever-changing and uncertain brave new world.

Great interview with Poison Ivy and Lux Interior in 2004: