Cramps guitarist 'Poison' Ivy buzzes again
With songs that rumbled and creaked like loose caskets, they created something unlike anything else in modern music. The year was 1977. Punk and disco were vying for the record-buyer's coin, but the Cramps turned their backs on the trends and dug up the grave of an almost-forgotten American musical genre: rockabilly.
Whether their songs were about monster movies ("Human Fly"), sex ("What's Inside a Girl?") or a combination of both ("Creature From the Black Leather Lagoon"), the sound behind the Cramps' wild swirl of camp culture and racy double-entendres always has been rooted in '50s rock tradition. Not in the polite twang of Elvis or Carl Perkins, but in the tube-rattling fuzztone of Johnny Burnette's "Tear It Up" and the amp-shredding overdrive of Link Wray's "Ace of Spades."
At the heart of their signature sonics throbs the darkly reverberant guitar of "Poison" Ivy Rorschach, who co-founded the band with vocalist Lux Interior. Motivated by a mutual love of obscure oldies, the couple assembled an early lineup in New York City in 1975, four years before Brian Setzer formed the Stray Cats. "Rockabilly was what we were into, and we were into it before they were," she recalls. "We weren't looking for a gimmick, it chose us."
Although she'd strummed guitars intermittently since childhood, Rorschach never played in bands before the Cramps. After original member Bryan Gregory left in 1981, she became the band's one and only guitarist, a position she's held ever since, touring relentlessly and maintaining her health with a strict vegetarian diet. "It's not just a hip thing, either," she asserts. "I really believe in not eating cadavers."
But Rorschach generates man-eating sounds with her 1958 Chet Atkins-model Gretsch, strung with heavy-gauge strings ("The only one I know who plays heavier strings is Dick Dale," she notes). It became her primary instrument after its predecessor was broken in a riot following a 1985 gig in Paris. Her gear also includes an arsenal of effects boxes for fuzztone, tremolo and delay. "My newest one is an Echo-Theremin," she says. "It sounds like a heavy echo chamber with a Theremin mixed in."
The Echo-Theremin's sci-fi squeal appears prominently in the song "Dr. Fucker M.D. (Musical Deviant)" on the Cramps' new CD, Fiends of Dope Island, their first album of original material in half a decade. Other highlights include "Fissure of Rolando," dedicated to recently deceased actor John Agar. "It's about his movie, The Brain From Planet Arous," Rorschach explains. "The fissure is a position between two lobes, the only place you can kill the brain. So the song is about splitting a brain open with an ax. The planet's name, Arous, is almost like 'arouse' — but I guess that would be the porno version."
Fiends also includes crazed remakes of several obscure gems, including Jerry Reed's "Oowee Baby," continuing the Cramps' tradition of resurrecting unjustly forgotten songs. "We collected records for years before we started the band," notes Rorschach. "I'd have to say that our antennas are higher and wider than other people's."
Beneficiaries of their attention have included surviving '50s legends Ronnie Dawson, Hasil Adkins and Wanda Jackson, whose careers were boosted when the Cramps began covering their songs. "We played with Ronnie Dawson in London, and we hear that whenever he does 'Rockin' Bones' on stage, he actually thanks us. I also just played guitar on a new version of 'Tunnel of Love' with Wanda Jackson for her new CD," says Rorschach, describing the experience as "a dream come true."
When the roles are reversed, however, and Rorschach is asked which other artist she'd most like to hear doing one of the Cramps' own songs, she gives a surprising answer:
"Well, I'm a big Michael Jackson fan. No, really — it's no wonder he's so misunderstood, because he's so exotic and foreign.
I'd like to hear Michael Jackson do 'What's Inside a Girl?'"