Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Songs The Cramps Taught Us: She Said

Like Flies On Sherbert was recorded, mostly, over three nights in 1978, mixed over the year that followed, and released to an unsuspecting world in 1979 by Selvidge's Peabody label. While it takes only three minutes to record a song, Chilton emphasizes that sorting it out takes a lot longer, "especially if you cut things that're really crazy." Only five hundred of the album were pressed (a British label subsequently pressed a version), and I suspect that through a series of phone calls over a short time, one could locate the individuals who own four hundred of them. Peabody had little distribution, but Chilton’s ardent fans managed to acquire their copies.

- from It Came From Memphis by Robert Gordon

During high school, I suffered from an extended case of insomnia. I spent most nights watching bad horror films on TV and listening to Nuggets-style garage rock, punk and 50s music. During my sophomore year, at the behest of my good friend, Bill, I bought Songs The Lord Taught Us by The Cramps. This took some convincing, I am ashamed to admit, as I was skeptical of any band that wouldn’t have a bass player. Anyway, when I finally listened, I heard songs that mixed Nuggets-style garage rock, punk and 50s music with lyrics about insomnia and horror movies. It was as if some sick pranksters had recorded a platter especially for me.

I became, and remain, a Cramps fan.

At that time, Lux & Ivy's last "real album" was 1981's moody Psychedelic Jungle. Since that creepy crawl, they had bestowed upon us a great live EP (Smell Of Female) an import comp (Off The Bone) and a US comp (Bad Music For Bad People) but no new stuff.

Despite being virtually identical to Off The Bone, Bad Music For Bad People was somehow my favorite. It was less expensive, for starters. More importantly, it had some of the greatest cover art of all time. In addition, it arrived on IRS Records, a label I (ahem) trusted. Finally, I got real gone on "New Kind Of Kick" and "Can't Hardly Stand It" -- both became mixtape favorites.

A highlight of Bad Music For Bad People was "She Said," a rockabilly shudder that sounded like the product of a drunken night. Lux Interior hectored listeners through a disposable cup he had lodged in his mouth to give the chanting an appropriately incoherent quality. At the mall, my friends and I would shout its maddening chorus, "Whoo Ee Ah Ah!," at each other like some catch phrase along the lines of "Where’s The Beef?" or "Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls."

Around this time, (I'm not sure of the exact date) a compilation entitled Rockabilly Psychosis & The Garage Disease marched in on Big Beat Records It contained original takes of songs later covered by The Cramps, such as "She Said," "The Crusher" and the unbalanced "Love Me." Shards like The Legendary Stardust Cowboy's infamous "Paralyzed," The Sonics' "Psycho," and a cool number by The Gun Club made the disc all the more enticing. The coup de grace (coup d'etat?) - it held within its vinyl etchings, The Cramps, themselves, performing "Red Headed Woman" alongside Jim Dickinson, who I may or may not have heard of at the time. I have to assume "Red Headed Woman" was done by the group during a sojourn to Memphis to record with Alex Chilton. It's a fun song, and it features the the very talented Mr. Dickinson on lead vocals - but, darn it, I wanted Lux.

Still, I played the record to death.

With that...

"She Said" startled me. It was dramatically different than the version on Bad Music For Bad People that I had become used to. The Cramps' rendition, while obviously screwy enough, at least sounded like it was taped in a studio. There were discernible guitar parts and somebody had taken the time to set up a drum kit. This "She Said" however, as played by somebody named Hasil Adkins, sounded like a field recording of a mentally ill man. The Whoo Ee Ah Ah! bit, instead of being fun and catchy, was raspy and feisty - an evil whoop. There was no way of recognizing the instruments. Instead, I caught a simple rattling behind the lyrics that I assumed was intentional. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before.

I examined both versions of "She Said." Over and over. One against the other. As if by voodoo, I began encountering mentions of Hasil Adkins in magazines. He was some Appalachian nut who lived in a disused bus and howled about "hunching" and hot dogs. A basic misunderstanding of the recording process led Mr. Atkins to believe that most rock & roll musicians were one-man-bands who played guitar and percussion at the same time, which is precisely what he learned to do.

I quickly realized that the punkabilly and psychobilly I had been listening to for the past year represented fairly refined, or at least distilled, versions of maniacal sounds which had emanated from a vanishing America.

I figured I should hear more.

I learned about Hasil Adkins from The Cramps. I learned about a masked, musical polygamist who recorded under the alias "The Phantom" from The Cramps. I heard about Irving Klaw and Russ Meyer. I found out which numbers Carl Perkins was alleged to have recorded while tanked.

That's the effect The Cramps had on a lot of listeners. Lux & Ivy were infinitely hip people - always a few steps ahead of their audience. By listening to their records - which, frankly, there are too few of - we got a brief view into their unique world. Enticed by those flash glimpses, we always wanted to see more - they were magnificent carnival barkers; we were suckers stumbling by. We flatfoots knew our world could never be as wild or as groovy as theirs, but they inspired us to try.

The late, great Lux Interior and his brilliant partner, Ivy Rorschach, fired up a generation of oddball kids to search for the real and the campy and the artificial and the ugly and the beautiful and to find something/anything that rolled them all up into one fun, scary mess.

I miss him already.


Pete Bilderback said...

Guy, thanks for the great post. I think you really hit on many of the great things about The Cramps that I have been trying (not very successfully) to articulate.

Peter Hennig said...

I saw Hasil back in '91 or '92 in Baltimore -- I remember being really psyched to see such a legend. Unfortunately it wasn't what I expected.

He could barely sit up and it was just 20 minutes of false starts. He never got more than 30 seconds into the song before he'd stop and start again. Eventually someone helped him off the stage. I gathered this wasn't the first time it had happened(and I'm sure not the last).

I filmed it, but decided to throw the film away and never developed it. It just seemed like such a low was sad to witness it.

But his records are great and will live on.

BTW The 'cup in the mouth' vocal is another reminder of how the Cramps never took themselves too seriously and were always fun.

Great post!

Pete Bilderback said...

I guess that makes sense. After all that is how you find yourself in a situation like the one described in "She Said."

Poor Hasil was intentionally run down by a teenager on an ATV, which led to his death a few years back.