first round game
(4) the cramps, “human fly”
(13) the cranes, “starblood”
and advances to the second round
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 2.
joe bonomo on “human fly”
1. “Some guy had just climbed the World Trade Tower and the headline in the Post that day was ‘Human Fly Climbs Tower.’ I was out walking along the street at about six in the morning. It felt like Night Of The Living Dead the way all the people were wandering around. Somebody had jumped off the roof of the building next to ours and they were scraping him off the sidewalk. All of that made me go home and write the song.”
2. In 1972 Erick Lee Purkhiser and a buddy picked up a woman hitchhiking near Sacramento State College, in California. Erick and the woman, Kristy Wallace, later ran into each other on campus in an “Art and Shamanism” class. They hung out, soon fell in love, and commenced indulging mutual obsessions with early American rock and roll, B-movie imagery, and trash-pop aesthetics. They wanted to start a band and play rock and roll, so Purkhiser snagged a stage name from an automobile ad—“Lux Interior”—while Wallace received “Poison Ivy” in a visionary dream.
Lux Interior and Poison Ivy moved to New York City, following a two-year stop in Lux’s hometown of Akron, Ohio. The Cramps were hatched on The Bowery in 1976, with Lux on vocals, Ivy and Bryan Gregory on guitars, and Gregory’s sister Pam “Balam” on drums. They’d change drummers a couple of times (Miriam Linna replaced Pam; Nick Knox replaced Linna) and, when their lineup settled began playing regularly in the burgeoning NYC street rock scene. (Several personnel changes would occur over the following decades.) They stomped, growled, and grooved at CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City, and other area venues, celebrating horror movies and junk culture, mutating R&R and blues-based garage punk and rockabilly into something uniquely theirs: raw, morbid, and difficult to categorize. Lux dyed his jagged hair night-black and, often half nude, writhed onstage in high heels wearing daring, painted-on low-rider black leather pants, pushing his body past its limits, fellating the microphone when in the mood, hiccuping, moaning, yelping, howling. Ivy sported a flame-red teased-up hairdo, fishnet stockings, and go-go boots, on other nights a form-fitting dress or tight red-latex pants or a mini, wielding her guitar like a talisman. Eyeliner ruled the night. The Cramps mesmerized audiences with their “sexed up, swampy cocktail of swagger and spook.”
3. They cut a handful of songs in October, 1977 at Ardent Studio in Memphis, with Alex Chilton producing. Among the batch was Lux’s “Human Fly.”
“It’s not easy to get that sound—that ‘on the edge of distortion’ sound we had on ‘Human Fly’,” said Lux. “The trick is to use bad microphones.”
4. In 1958 20th Century Fox released The Fly, a science fiction horror film about the dangers of playing God. André Delambre (David Hedison), a brilliant scientist in Montreal, is working on a molecular transporter. He’s buoyed by early, successful experiments, and is eventually able to transport a piece of pottery by reducing it to its atomic level and then reconstructing it in a receiver across the laboratory. Delambre attempts to teleport himself, but a common fly enters the transporter during the process. Delambre’s and the insect’s atoms combine, and when André emerges from the machine he has the head and left arm of a fly. The fly, in turn, is cursed with Andre’s miniaturized arm and head, and burdened with André’s self-awareness.
André keeps the disaster from his wife Hélène (Patricia Owens) for as long as he can, though she eventually learns of the incident. She and her son, who’s innocent of his father’s ghastly transformation, attempt to catch the fly—identifiable by its tiny white head—in order to try and reverse the teleportation process, but they fail to do so.
Aware of the impossible fact of his mutated self, that he’s a creature never to be understood or accepted, a mutant fit only to be destroyed, André convinces his wife to help crush him to death in a hydraulic press.
5. “I’m a human fly / I spell F-L-Y / I say buzz buzz buzz / and it’s just because / I’m a human fly / and I don’t know why”
“Human Fly” is a song about a man who’s part insect. Or is he fully man-insect? (A mansect?) No origin story is offered, as he’s buzz-buzz-buzzing at the start, and though the song’s sinuous and sexy, there’s menace beneath the surface: he/it is a self-described “reborn maggot using germ warfare,” and his self-worth is made clear as his “garbage brain” drives him to the brink of madness. The winking reference to his “unzipped fly” and to ? and the Mysterians’ classic “96 Tears” (“I’ve got 96 tears / and 96 eyes”)—
—elevates the mood a bit, as does the guitar’s trebly-surf leads and the fuzzed out rhythm section which turn the freak’s lament into a dance floor jam: rock and toll transmogrifies into rockabilly mutating into psychobilly.
6. How do we categorize The Cramps? They waded through the muck of Garage, R&B, Surf, and Link Wray rawk over the course of their career, but early on popularized the term “psychobilly,” which stuck.
Ivy: “We never meant [psychobilly] as a style, different from rockabilly, it was just like a dramatic word. ‘Rockabilly voodoo’ is a phrase that we invented too. All it means is the magic of rockabilly.”
Lux: “That’s one of the prime ingredients of rockabilly, is that it’s got to be psychotic to begin with.”
Ivy: “The really good, lesser known and obscure rockabilly from the fifties was very psychotic in its day and really stands up as being psychotic by today’s standards—so all good rockabilly was psychobilly originally.”
Lux: “I've always thought of us as surrealists, right from the very beginning. I think anytime anybody gets too comfortable or decides to cleverly pigeonhole ‘the way things should be’…an artist is going to come along and turn the whole thing upside down. That’s always healthy. That means people are thinking; they’re not just doing what they’re told. It means they’re being moved by a spirit…. Gauguin said there are two types of artists: revolutionaries and plagiarists. We’re revolutionaries.”
Gothabilly? Punkabilly? Hellbilly? Ivy: “We’re the Kings and Queens of Rock and Roll.”
7. In an early experiment, André attempts to transport the family’s beloved cat, but the test goes horribly wrong and the cat vanishes into thin air, suspended bodiless and unseen, its cries echoing in the laboratory.
Later, André confesses to his wife, explaining that the cat “disintegrated perfectly, but never reappeared.”
“Where’s she gone?” an appalled Hélène wonders.
André sighs, gazing at the ceiling. “Into space, a stream of cat atoms,” he replies, adding, “It’d be funny if life weren’t so sacred.”
8. The tagline on The Fly’s movie poster was “The Monster Created By Atoms Gone Wild!”, which could’ve been the name of a Cramps song.
9. Are the Cramps too comical for Goth? They trade on kitschy sex and cartoonish evocations of mid-century horror and sci-fi imagery with a half grin and a wink against the gloom. Some find it hard to take the Cramps all that seriously given that their humor’s so out front and over the top, no matter how ghoulishly presented. There’s little that’s foreboding or sorrowful in the Cramps’ songs, and what’s feels ominous is usually leavened with camp. Representative song titles from their twenty-five year recording career: “Garbage Man,” “I Was A Teenage Werewolf,” “Goo Goo Muck,” “Don’t Eat Stuff Off The Sidewalk,” “Can Your Pussy Do The Dog?”, “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns,” “Two Headed Sex Change,” “It Thing Hard-On,” etcetera. (Sample lyric: “You got good taste, you got good taste, you, come here, sit on my…lap.” Borscht Belt Voodoo.) The band does earn a full entry and a mention in the “Gothabilly” note in Encyclopedia Gothica, though editor Liisa Ladouceur acknowledges that for some Goths the Cramps are too much fun.
Lux: “If people think that we’re funny—I kinda 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.” Elsewhere, asked if rock and roll must be dangerous to succeed, Lux remarked, “We like the unexpected. Dangerous almost means that someone's gotta get hurt or it’s not rock ‘n’ roll…. Rock ‘n’ roll’s supposed to be fun. It isn’t supposed to be: See what kind of damage you can do to yourself or others. We’re asking [people] to come and be crazy and they never stop thinking up new ways to be crazy.”
Ivy: “We don’t take life seriously, we take ourselves seriously, and what we do, we’re just totally committed to it."
10. “I think “Human Fly” is an anthem—an anthem about being a human monster.”
11. The other victim of André’s tragic experiment—the tiny fly with the scientist’s head and arm—evades capture by Hélène and her son, only to inevitably fly into a spider’s web, where, immobilized, it waits in terror as the spider moves slowly toward it. “Help me!” it screams, so faintly to our ears that it sounds like nothing but a buzzzzzz. “Help meeee!”
12. Lux: “All my life people have told me I was a pest, something that looked ugly, smelled bad and ought to be gotten rid of, something that spoiled everybody’s planned-out fun.”
13. In April of 1978 the Cramps, armed with two hundred bucks, produced a promo film for “Human Fly” that went unseen for decades, acquiring legendary underground cult status. Allegedly, neither Lux nor Ivy possessed a copy. The video surfaced online in 2015.
Filmed on a rainy Saturday morning by Alex De Laszlo, it’s superb lo-fi horror, Nosferatu meets MTV. De Laszlo was a high school student who’d made a few 16mm experimental films, one, using Velvet Underground on the soundtrack, shot in “stark black and white, with jagged imagery and very much in the tradition of adolescent surrealist mischief,” De Laszlo recalls, adding, “The din of the Velvets soundtrack only added to the generally robotic and disturbed narrative.” A friend introduced De Laszlo to Steven Blauner, the Cramps’ first manager. De Laszlo was already a fan of the band, having dug them several times at CBGBs in late 1977 and early ’78. (He remembers Lux whipping out a TV Guide from his back pocket, whereupon some wag in the crowd asked, “What’s on TV tonight, Lux?” and he’d read a listing for a “4am, bottom of the barrel, z grade, low budget horror film, complete with a lurid TV Guide description.”) Blauner arranged for De Laszlo and Lux to speak on the phone, and “he talked about the movies he had made as a kid, his love of cheap horror movies, and how he wanted the film to look,” De Laszlo remembers. “He conveyed to me an aesthetic which I already appreciated and understood, having seen them perform and having been raised on a steady diet of surreptitious Late, Late Show TV viewings of The Incredible Crawling Eye and Attack of the Mushroom People.”
De Laszlo borrowed a Bolex 16mm camera and a couple of movie lights, and from MERC, a nonprofit film collective for independent and student filmmakers, snagged some mid-century military surplus film stock. Not only was this film cheap, but it approximated the lousy reception on a black and white TV. “The excessive age of the film stock meant taking a risk,” De Laszlo says, “but once Lux heard ‘1950’s,’ ‘low definition,’ and ‘grainy,’ he was all for it.” De Laszlo met the Cramps at their rehearsal space near the Bowery, and went to work. In the film Lux injects himself with serum that turns him into a monster; a transistor-radio-bopping Ivy accidentally trespasses Lux’s underground lair—cue the dangerously descending opening guitar line in “Human Fly”—where he and the other Cramps emerge from the shadows and initiate her into their dark ways. “Most of the footage was shot in very dank, dark, and close quarters, very little in the way of set design was required,” De Laszlo remembers. “Four hours later, we had our footage.” The film dramatizes the threat inherent in the song, but in B-movie irony. The glimpse of an Alfred E. Neumann poster on the wall says it all: this is terrifying stuff, but it’s also the Cramps.
1. Qtd. in Journey to the Centre Of The Cramps, Dick Porter
2. Qtd. in Encyclopedia Gothica, Liisa Ladouceur
3. Qtd. in Porter
6. Ivy qtd. in “Fasbinder 62’s Collection of Quotable Cramps Quotes,” T. Tex’s Hexes and in Porter; Lux quote via Jim Sullivan, former Boston Globe music critic
9. Lux and Ivy quotes via Sullivan
10. Lux qtd. in Porter
12. Qtd. in Porter
13. De Laszlo’s comments to the author
Joe Bonomo's many books include Field Recordings from the Inside (essays), Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band, and Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found. His new book No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing is out in May. Find him at @BonomoJoe and No Such Thing As Was.
gabriel palacios: 1991-1993: A STARBLOOD TERROR ON CASSETTE
Cranes come from Portsmouth, the only island city in the UK.
“Starblood” is not so much a song as it is a descent.
It seems obvious to me that the speaker in this song doesn’t really possess any actual “starblood” with which I can be kissed. It’s an empty threat that happens to strike terror in me. To be terrorized is to be stunned with the possibility of immense harm.
I’ll kiss you with my starblood
I’ll kiss you with my starblood
Often when I hear music, the kind of music created by groups of people together, I try to visualize the players arranged in a room. I place the musicians somehow in an acoustic space and the psychotic reverberation of “Starblood” really throws my imaginary depth of field. That voice belongs to Alison Shaw, the sound of an undrownable child ghost: it taunts me from a boarded-up well, or comes ripping across a hellish underwater battlefield of drums and guitars, like that guitar guy on wheels in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” As I listen to it now, this terrible submersion more than anything else bodies forth the squelched fidelity of the cassette tape format. This is a song that should be listened to only on cassette, and when I say cassette I mean played on a tape deck with unclean heads, a warped belt and considerable wow and flutter. Do cassettes actually sound good? This is a useless question making the rounds in our current cultural moment, and to hear the Telegraph tell it, no, the cassette is “a hipster trend too far.” Still, the cassette offers a warm, fuzzy counterpoint to the icy separation of compact disc audio, and no other format has achieved the durability, the convenience factor, the Teddy Ruxpin mind-body integration of the compact cassette. Wings of Joy, the album “Starblood” belongs to, arrived in September 1991, a long year in which punk broke, as they love to remind us. “They” of course refers to the shadowy government cultural ministry that subsidizes the careers of Maroon 5 and Jennifer Lopez in perpetuity. They fail to memorialize this year as one in which the compact disc overtook the cassette (in regions other than my bedroom, where I would spend several more years in the toil of coaxing mylar ribbons back into plastic shells). The centerpiece of my adolescent bedroom was a dual-tape karaoke machine, a Christmas gift, from the first American blush of that fad. There were two knobs on the machine: volume and a crude digital reverb that made a wickedly pleasing hiss.
My wound is deep and may never be mended
You never received the love that I sent
I’ve experienced Cranes in live performance exactly .5 times. It was only as I, along with my sisters, my cousins, and our parents (minigoths under close supervision), made our way to upper-tier seats in the America West Arena, to see the Cure on the Wish tour. What I heard was only what ping-ponged through the concrete hallways. More recently, I managed to avoid John Legend in exactly this way, when I was really there to see Sade. But I was sorry I missed the Cranes—I’m still sorry, though maybe I didn’t, in fact, miss anything. This uncrossable distance, this trail of an echo with no origin, through which I heard Alison Shaw, the here but not really, is exactly what Cranes achieve on this recording, and it’s worth pointing out that this song in its haunting aggression and gothic terror is not so representative of the Cranes catalog, which tends more toward the haunting and less toward the aggression and terror of “Starblood.”
Our love is mortal and it seems so short
And it feels no dream
In the Wish tour program (programme? Do they make these anymore?) Robert Smith (along with the other members) contributes a list of favorites: favorite TV, movie, music. Some of this stuff reads now as charmingly pretentious peak-Cure (Robert’s likes: sea, twilight, dreams, silence, understanding) and certain references may have been too aggressively British for me to penetrate, but it was my bible that year. I can still recall Robert’s favorite bands of 1992 by heart. For shoegazing, it was a very good year: Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Curve, Cranes, Star Turn, Mazzy Star. Dinosaur Jr. was in there, too. I immediately sought out and loved each one of them, with the exception of Star Turn, for whom the only trace that exists online is a Discogs entry for a UK disco 45 credited to “Star Turn on 45 Pints.” Favorite book, favorite place—here’s one: favorite item of clothing. “Baggy black jumper & tight black dress.” I understood next to nothing. I was such a poser that I claimed it all.
I could believe it's no dream
But it seems it's getting shorter
You could make the argument (I will make the argument) that I’ve been a poser in all aspects of my participation in life. The terror of not being quite as advertised is a defining terror. Terror of the first night at home from the hospital with my firstborn, whole person I’m supposed to know how to care for. Terror of showing up to work year after year at the call centers and pretending to be somebody’s boss, unable to muster a single fuck more than anyone I ever fired, even those ones I most secretly admire: that breed of new hire who doesn’t even bother to ingratiate themself, only there to collect paid training until the criminal background check comes back. Terror of snapping in and out of writer headspace to perform whatever ad hoc adulthood for the people who depend on me before it’s too late. Terror of being addressed by a stranger in Spanish, knowing that I probably won’t be able to suitably respond. Terror of covering one eye to peek at the poem submissions on my Submittable page, terror of imagining who I thought I was when I wrote those poems months ago.
Still I could believe it's no dream
I spent the summer before 9th grade reading Robert Smith’s favorite books. Siddhartha was a struggle, Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar stayed in rotation. I supplemented this reading list with Cure interviews. Suffice it to say I’d picked up a couple whilsts along the way, along with some colourful, superfluous u’s, for which I traded in all upper-case letters e.e. cummings-style. I also played fast and loose with punctuation (ellipses for no reason) to the point that when I entered 9th grade, Mr. McCarthy, my English teacher sat me down in private to let me know that he had picked up on some difficulties I was having with the basic mechanics of the English language and perhaps I could benefit from some extra help. I had been accepted into University High, an “accelerated public high school” where I would barely last the year, because their thing was requiring effort, and the ongoing maintenance of that charade would only have wrecked my health. Mr. McCarthy thanked me for the meeting and offered me a little brownie square from his adult lunch. I wonder if he read my surname on the class roster and mistook my ugly Anglophile phase for a Mexican-American bilingual confusion. Later that year, he would devote a class period or two to his lyrical interpretation of Brian Adam’s “Summer of 69.”
Cos it gleams on the water
Yes it gleams, yeah it gleams
Cassette tape, of the pre-recorded type, usually wasn’t any good in the audiophile sense, because it didn’t have to be. The media most often available was cheap, cheaply produced, but rugged, and it continued to generate profit clear up to the Willenium. That said, blank tapes of higher quality were available, provided you had hi-fi equipment that could record onto metal and chrome media.
Still, even on the shabbiest of tape (and you could always place masking tape over the anti-piracy tabs of prerecorded cassettes and reuse them) the home recording was always where tape-culture lived, the idea of tape as reflection of the way we were, and did our voice really sound like that. It was a democratic archive for anyone to register their story, either for fun or to be used as evidence. Last weekend, my eight year old son scored an old dictaphone at the swap meet. It came with a micro cassette inside, recorded upon by whomever had purchased it new. Soon enough, this recording became a source of disturbance to his young imagination, and maybe we parents felt creepy, too, to have eavesdropped on the young-at-one-time voice on the tape sing disco-era songs in a strange voice and talk at some length about their parents’ divorce.
My wound is deep and may never be mended
But my love is deep
And I'll kiss you with my starblood
The first known recordings of the human voice were phonautograms, recorded on the phonautograph. On this machine, the voice could be recorded, but only analyzed, not played back. To listen must have been too terrifying a proposition.
“Starblood” is less a song than a descent.
Cranes come from Portsmouth, the only island city in the UK.
Gabriel Palacios is not the hypnotist you're likely to encounter when googling the name Gabriel Palacios, sad to say. Instead, he is an MFA candidate (poetry) at the University of Arizona, where he has taught composition and poetry to undergraduates. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in West Branch, Territory, Spoon River Poetry Review, Bayou Magazine, Typo Magazine, and The Volta.