Without the Cramps, Jim Heath might still be playing in blues bands, and without the Cramps, Ronnie Dawson might still be languishing in unwarranted obscurity. Yes, the Cramps, the band that has managed to exist for more than 16 years on a steady diet of trash, novelty, and rockabilly (novelty in itself), has touched the lives of Dallas', and perhaps the country's, two preeminent rockabilly cats--one, a revivalist who comes to the tradition through punk and the blues (Jim "Horton Heat" Heath); the other, a survivor who was there when the tradition was being invented (Ronnie "The Blond Bomber" Dawson).
As Heath tells it, when Poison Ivy, Lux Interior, and the rest of these New Yorkers-by-way-of-Cleveland came through town in 1980 at the now-defunct Bijou, he was forced to choose between his "heavy-metal redneck" past--one filled with guys who had "pickup trucks and their super-clean long hair, feathered at the top, you know, with the rock and roll clothes and their bleached blond girlfriends"--and a wide-open punkabilly future. The show that night, a distorted pastiche of fuzzed-out blues and trashed-out renditions of "Surfin' Bird" and "Ubangi Stomp," and the parking-lot rumble that followed "changed my life," Heath recalls. "I just decided that I was not going to be a heavy metal redneck," he says. "I thought, 'I'm going to go out and buy a Cramps record tomorrow.'"
And Dawson's resurrection did not begin just a couple of years ago: rather, when the Cramps included Dawson's '50s local hit "Rockin' Bones" on their Psychedelic Jungle album in 1981, they turned on a generation (unwittingly or not) to the exotica of Texas-bred rockabilly, a sound as much influenced by the blues as by country as by rock.
The Cramps have forever straddled that imaginary line between camp garbage and rock genius; whether it's a put-on (or strap-on, with songs like "Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?" and "The Hot Pearl Snatch") or lifestyle or one finally merging with the other after all these years of wearing the leather, Lux and Poison redefine disposable till it becomes something quite worth keeping, if only on the back of the shelf away from the little ones. From the Gravest Hits EP in 1979 through last year's Flamejob (the Cramps are beginning to show their age, but so is Iggy Pop and Joey Ramone), they have defined rock and roll as one big orgy organized by Elvis and Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson and John Lydon; the Cramps just like to watch.
The Cramps perform February 2 at Trees.