(10) the chameleons, “swamp thing”
(4) the cramps, “human fly”
and play in the elite 8
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 16.
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”)—
From Detroit's 'Swingin' Time', 1966. *Watch 2011 performance here*: https://vimeo.com/user283485 If anyone wants to know who "Bill" is, the Disney character and link to this video is on this page: https://www.reddit.com/r/gravityfalls/comments/315yoy/im_bill_cipher_i_know_lots_of_things_ask_me/
—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.
BERRY GRASS ON “SWAMP THING”
I mean, he isn’t called Marsh Thing. Too gentle for what was originally a 1970s horror comic about a man dying in a laboratory explosion & chemically bonding with plants, becoming a chlorophyllic, existential facsimile of a human. So is Fen Thing, and even Bog Thing sounds silly. What is it about the wetland word swamp that holds our collective darknesses? Swamps are essentially just flooded forests but we’ve imbued them with our fears, as if everything that we aren’t—or everything we’re afraid that we actually are—lurks beneath, waiting to consume us. What makes it scary to acknowledge one’s reflection in the muck and the murk?
In the seminal trading card game, Magic: the Gathering, most cards feature italicized text found at the bottom of the card that conveys character or symbolism or story about the card itself. This is called flavor text. For example, the flavor text to the Magic card “Mind Sludge,” which makes an opponent discard cards from their hand, reads as follows: When you get into the swamp, the swamp gets into you.
Ambiguity is the hallmark of the goth aphorism. After nearly 5 minutes of delicate atmospheric construction—jangly guitars and propulsive drums and synthesizer keys held down making an eerie wind—the mood breaks and the melody sounds triumphant and the bass grooves with glee. It is at this point, the song winding down, that Mark Burgess, singer & bassist for The Chameleons, cries out over and over, “Now the storm has come...or is it just another shower?” The two being, apparently, not the same kind of rainfall. The Storm, then, capital S, must be for Burgess something rare, something important. Unraveled still by the looping twang of guitar strings, I can’t quite tell if the Storm is the nourishing kind, the prayed-for kind, or if it’s the Big One, the inevitable threat, The End.
In Magic: the Gathering you can’t escape the swamp. The most commonly played card in Magic are Basic Land cards, which generate the in-game currency, called mana, that players use to play creatures and sorceries and enchantments. The Basic Land card that generates black mana is called Swamp. Calling upon the swamps, extracting their resources, allows you to cast spells that embody (according to the developers of the game) “Parasitism, Amorality, Selfishness, & Paranoia.” Black mana’s creatures tend to be the undead or demons. Its spells evoke plague, vampirism, zombification, Faustian bargains, necromancy.
We’re all thinking it here: President Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp.” He was referring to Washington D.C., both the city and the political climate there. For the GOP, which is as close to a political embodiment of the values of black mana as can be, this slogan means that to drain the swamp would be to siphon out the mud and dreck of civil liberties protections & financial regulations to leave a useable crater to be filled back in with defense contractors and oil lobbyists and christofascists. You know, sturdier stuff. Ironically, when Democrat majority leader Nancy Pelosi was campaigning in 2006, she also used the slogan “drain the swamp,” and for her then the Wall Street tycoons and health insurers and roadblocks to campaign finance reform so beloved by Trump were the aspects of D.C. that needed removal. It’s often said that Washington D.C. was itself built on a swamp—not metaphorically, but on literal swampland. People point to the nearby mashlands of Maryland, and the fact that D.C.’s summer humidity is chokingly intense, but it’s an urban legend. The town was built on dry riverbed & woodland hills. Swamp somehow makes space for our collective ideas of rot. But far from decaying, the foundations of the city, much like the ideas of white supremacy and settler colonialism that make up the foundations of the American project, have been stable this whole time.
I know what waiting for the inevitable feels like. When your mom has a cancer recurrence, when her cancer cells are metastasizing throughout her upper body, every ache, every sneeze, every skipped meal might mean the Big One is finally here. A routine trip to the doctor because of a lingering cough might mean the last hospital admission she ever has, might mean, like a sudden, violent downpour, the thing you couldn’t see it coming even if you knew it was always coming.
A comprehensive review of 189 wetland studies cited in the academic journal Marine and Freshwater Research found that the Earth has lost 54-57% of its total wetland area compared to pre-industrial totals, almost entirely owing to human drainage projects.
You tell me what the common thread is here. I had a childhood where, in assorted parts, I spent time obsessing over: Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles” series; walking around graveyards; trying to accrue as many extra lives in video games that I could; heavy metal bands; playing as the Necromancer class in “Diablo II”; the concept of séances & actually trying to perform them; Magic: the Gathering decks that brought creatures back from the dead; a band I was in that I named “Phoenix Down,” after the item in the Final Fantasy series of role playing games that gives a character the infamous revivifying qualities of the eponymous firebird; my favorite professional wrestler, who has always been The Undertaker—a supernatural lord of the dead, who began as a zombie gravedigger controlled by a mortician with an occult urn, who was killed, literally buried [un-]alive multiple times, who always came back from out the dirt months later with increasing consciousness & independence & preternatural power over light and electricity, who always came back to compete at WrestleMania to defend his undefeated streak of victories, who always came back.
The closest thing to a conventional chorus in The Chameleons’ song, “Swamp Thing,” contains, in part, the lyrics: “Look around, look around./All around you walls are tumbling down./Stop staring at the ground.” I spend more days than I’d like to admit doing nothing. My depression and my executive dysfunction tag-teaming me into missing deadlines, not returning emails, underpreparing for work. It takes hours some days just to leave the bed in the morning. I skip meals simply because putting my body into motion is too daunting. I am not special in my struggle, I know. Many people feel the frustration of illness interfering with their capability or ambition. Feel like they are wasting time. My mental health is at its poorest after I read about how little time we all probably have left. Every week is a new report that ecological collapse is happening faster than even aggressive climate models were projecting. Every week we learn how fast the coral is acidifying, how drastically in decline is the world’s insect population, what year within the next twenty or ten that millions upon millions of people will be displaced from their coastal homes and become climate refugees, holding out a desperate hope that they will not be killed at the border of a neighboring country even as, right now in the year I am writing this, the world is already obsessing over the ideas of nationalism and border control and citizenry and ownership and hoarding resources and the world is already forgetting about the concept of mercy. Humanity has only a Hail Mary pass of a chance to keep global warming levels right under 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures (above which point the rate of warming is thought to increase exponentially in a way that we won’t be able to prevent), and it’s going to require a global rejection of capitalist models of resource and labor distribution as soon as possible. The bleakest climate models tell us that it’s already too late. I sit around, failing to write, failing to think, failing to do the dishes, trying to process that this is the best my life is ever going to be. That I know what waiting for the inevitable feels like. It feels like this.
The thing about swamps is that we pour into them what we fear will harm us. The thing about swamps is that so does the Earth. Swamps and other wetlands take in atmospheric carbon, sink it deep within themselves. Swamps remove carbon from the air and turn it into plant tissue, which in turn collects & stores more carbon. Swamps act as a buffer for storm surge and rising water levels. If we could increase the total amount of wetlands on Earth, restore or refresh or repair them, we could dramatically fight back against the carbon crisis while helping mitigate some of the damage that we’ve already caused to our climate. It’s a cruel truth: that what we’re scared of, be it socialism or swamps or decolonial solidarity, is what will actually save us.
I’ve been trying get this essay to come together not by draining its excess but by addition, by flooding the page with associations. It’s gotten messier and messier as it has resisted saying the thing I’ve been trying not to say. I’ve barely written about my mom’s death because I’ve felt that some things deserve to be privately held. But what you feel is good for you is not always good for the art, so I think I need to show you what I’ve kept submerged so far.
Before she died, my mom had signed a Do Not Resuscitate form that was [arguably] violated by workers at the hospital she eventually passed away in. I’ll refrain from specific names so as not to get bogged down in a legal complication (I didn’t even intend to use a wetland pun there, but so hazardous & inscrutable is the justice system that it’s cliché to compare it to dark depths). They revived her body, keeping it alive on life support. It was midnight by the time I flew in & made my way to the hospital, right in time to see the nurse attempt to see if my mom still had active brain activity. It’s called an apnea test—turning off the respirator, flooding the lungs with pure oxygen, and seeing how the gasses in the blood respond. Ten eternal minutes went by with no change, then, quite suddenly, seemingly as if in response to my voice—“I’m here, your daughter Berry is here,” I said; the very first time I referred to myself as my mom’s daughter -- my mom’s arms raised themselves up for the first time in two days and her hands moved towards her face. In the part of me where I thought hope was the most radiant I thought she was trying to communicate. I thought through my presence alone I was bringing her back, but to place your hope in Black Magic is by design a selfish hope. What actually was happening was an autonomous response, her hands trying to pull the breathing tube from out of her throat. It was not a conscious movement. There was no indication of brain activity when her arms raised up for what would be the last time. In 14 hours from that point, my brother and I would decide, easily, to remove our mom from life support & she would pass, her brain at peace if negation can be said to be a kind of peace, into waters uncertain. It was an easy decision to make. She signed that DNR form because she had no interest in being kept, technically, alive by a machine. No desire to live as a scientific shell. To have put my hope into the impossibility of her mental consciousness returning to her would have been actually, I think, hopelessness. The difference between my mom and Swamp Thing is that Swamp Thing had to deal personally with the existential crisis of being alive but no longer human. With my mom, that same existential crisis instead belonged to me, my brother, everyone in her life.
I think what I’m feeling here is that I need to learn how to hope unselfishly. Hoping to be saved, that it will all work out, is selfish, like waiting around for the inevitable storm, when what is required is action. Unselfish hope is active. It’s working for and with other people. It’s collective action against Parasitism, Amorality, Selfishness, Paranoia. I think hope is about not staring at the ground. I think it’s about overcoming fear.
From the flavor text to the Magic: the Gathering card, “Tendrils of Corruption”:
“Even swamps need sustenance. We will give it to them, and in turn, they will sustain us.” —Ezrith, druid of the Dark Hours
Berry Grass has lived in rural Missouri, Tuscaloosa, and Philadelphia. She is the author of Hall of Waters (2019, The Operating System). Her essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Territory, Barrelhouse, and Sonora Review, among other publications. Her favorite bit of Goth street cred is that in high school she convinced her mom to let her paint her bedroom walls black.