THE CRAMPS RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS TELL-TALE HEARTS SAN DIEGO 1984
I have no idea how many shows I’ve seen and played in my now 30 plus years of involvement in the Indie, Punk, Metal, Noise, Art, Experimental…Rock…let’s just say MUSIC world. I’m sure I’ve seen thousands and of those thousands many were excellent bills made up of great players and performers giving it their all. I am happy to have had the privilege of sharing these experiences with a huge cast of human beings of every shape, size, look, and disposition imaginable.
Having said that, I can tell you it really means something when a memory of one of these shows keeps bobbing up to the surface of my sea of recollections.
This show is one of those shows.
It doesn’t hurt this memory’s buoyancy one bit that I happened to have a teenage heart beating in my chest at the time I encountered this night of music. My own wide-eyed, hormonally turbulent state was only one factor that made this one stick out though. Just as important was the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time. I mean just look at the line-up! It’s enough to make any self-respecting music freak start tinkering in the garage on a time machine.
Keep in mind this diverse line-up wasn’t happening on the Monster Energy Drink Stage at some alternative rock festival. This was a Punk Show on a Friday night inside the dingy Adams Ave.Theater in the old Normal Heights neighborhood of San Diego. Back before the place was the fabric store it is today it was the main Punk venue in town and held maybe three or four hundred people. On the night of this show the place was at capacity.
The opening band The Tell-Tale Hearts were one of the best, and probably the most popular band in San Diego’s big, very vital Garage/Psych/Mod scene. That scene operated like a parallel underground universe to the Punk/Hardcore scene I was enmeshed in. These two worlds very rarely crossed over, come to think of it, I can’t recall one other show where they did.
I had a lot of exposure to this alternate paisley reality because my girlfriend at the time, the very cute, very stylish, Marta Brandes, was the little sister of The Tell-Tale Heart’s frontman and Psych-scene king Ray Brandes. Through Marta, Ray, and their middle sister Claudia, I got the best intro I could hope for into that world.
They were the coolest. All of them had impeccable 60’s punk style and possessed a deep, scholarly knowledge of even the most obscure corners the genre. I liked that stuff a lot too. The 13th Floor Elevators, The Pretty Things, Mouse and The Traps, Nuggets, all of it was and is awesome. The Tell-Tale Hearts themselves were a pitch-perfect distillation of all those influences. They had the gear, they had the look, they had the sound, and most importantly they had attitude and could really play.
I saw them a lot and went with Marta to a bunch of other Garage/Psych shows as well. I found going to these shows provided a welcome respite from the tiresome brutality that often accompanied the Punk shows I went to every weekend. Plus there were a lot more girls at the Psych gigs, the bands were often pretty good, and everyone looked cool. The rare fight that might go down at one of these shows would be between two skinny dudes with bowl cuts and Beatle boots punching each other over a girl who looked like Twiggy. Nothing to get worked up about.
I sometimes wonder why I didn’t hang up my leather jacket, grow my hair out, buy some peg-leg pants and wrap-around shades. I mean why not?
Looking back I think the reason I couldn’t make the leap into that scene had a lot to do with the revival aspect it was all predicated on. The whole thing was about the past. The Mods and the Garage Rockers were all about clothes from the past, guitars from the past, bands from the past, and records with covers and a production style that looked and sounded old.
Sure it sounded and looked good but ultimately it rang hollow and failed to inspire any deep passion in me. Whatever danger, dumbness, and bad art came along with the Punk scene, at least it was about now and now happened to be where I was living at the time. If a Punk band borrowed from the past or from another genre you could be sure they’d update the sound and put a new spin on it. I liked this about Punk.
There may have been a much greater chance you’d get your nose, or even your neck, broken at a Punk show but at least you had the consolation that you might have your mind blown as well, this made it worth the trouble for me. Not to mention, as much as it could be about style and affectation, Punk also offered a moshpit of competing political, social, and spiritual philosophies to go along with the spikes and hair dye. I don’t think same could be said for any other youth subculture flourishing at the time with the exception of Hip Hop, a scene I followed but which only existed on vinyl for me, experientially speaking.
The middle act this night The Red Hot Chili Peppers had only been together for about a year before this show but they came down from L.A. with a reputation that already preceded them. They’re such mega-pop cultural fixtures today it’s probably hard for anyone younger than I am to imagine them as a brand new band on the scene but that’s exactly what they were and I gotta tell ya, not to get too poetic, they kicked serious ass.
The idea of blending Punk Rock energy with a surrealistic, fun, funky bottom end was not a new one. The Big Boys from Austin, TX. had been doing just that for years and Gang of Four had preceded them by a few years more doing thier own funky, punky thing albeit with a colder, arty, political tinge to it. I loved both those bands, especially The Big Boys, who were one of the best live bands going at the time.
The Chili Peppers took that flag and raised it that much higher and waved it that much harder. Seeing Flea cut loose for the first time was madness. There were a few virtuoso punk musicians, Bad Brains come to mind, but it was and still is rare to see someone come so complete with crazy athleticism, enthusiasm, and world class skills. Flea was the complete package and the rest of the band was good enough to share the stage with him which is saying something.
I remember talking to Flea before the show, he had a tattoo (ONE tattoo) on his shoulder that was a perfect portrait of Jimi Hendrix and I asked him who did it, he looked at me with a shitty expression and said “Bob Roberts” then he walked away. “…typical L.A. rockstar douche-bag bullsh-t…” I thought to myself. I didn’t know how right I was about the rockstar part. As for the douche-bag part, his performance that night pretty much made up for the crappy ‘tude he’d flung my way.
The Cramps were the headliners. I’d seen them before and I saw them several times after this show and every time I did they were nothing less than brilliant. Their performance this night however is the one that moved me most profoundly and it is the one that defines them in my mind as one of the best live groups I’ve ever witnessed.
First of all they looked amazing. They were grown-ups. They looked just like they sounded: loud, wiry, thumpy, and creepy. They were the very definition and embodiment of visionary Punk Rock cool.
Lux wore painted-on black leather pants that rode so low on his hips they couldn’t have stayed up had they been any less tight. He was corpse-pale, super tall and skinny with no shirt and his black bird’s nest of a pompadour piled high on his head. On his feet he wore sparkly black drag queen stilettos. You tell me what kind of style that is…I call it bad ass.
Poison Ivy was her usual gorgeous, icy, mysterious, totally unapproachable stage-self. Big red hair, tight sparkly gogo shorts, caked on foundation, blood red lips, vintage guitar. The rest of the band held up their end with her and Lux both musically and stylistically. They were killer.
The thing I remember most about their set in addition to the tense, pounding, pumping and plodding dark-heart sound of their psychedelic, swamp-rock classics was the look of it all happening under hot white lights. You might imagine a band like them playing with a lot of dark lighting and colored filters but I don’t remember anything but bright whites. This just made it all so much more visceral and immediate. You could see every drop of sweat glinting and glistening on Lux’s bare chest as he writhed, stuttered, and howled.
Poison Ivy, on the other hand, didn’t sweat at all.
Toward the end of the set, after something was thrown at Ivy from the tightly packed, sweaty, dance floor, Lux jumped into the crowd to exact punishment on the evil doers. I remember fists flying as the stage hands tried to reel in the mic and Lux along with it from out of the whirlpool of mayhem on the dance floor. As all this went down the band didn’t miss a note or skip a beat. They just kept on pulsing and pounding and the crowd kept churning.
I’ll never forget the look of utter disinterest and detachment on Ivy’s face as she kept the groove going while watching like a cat as her life-partner-in-crime did battle with the leather jacketed San Diego drunk-punk thugs. Talk about cool. If Poison Ivy’s countenance had been any cooler we all would’ve been seeing our own breath!
By the time Lux was finished giving as good as he’d gotten he landed back on stage as the song was still creeping and crawling along with a merciless thump, thump. After the microphone rematerialized in his hand, he went straight back to singing like a man possessed as one perfect dark rivulet of blood ran down his white face from a gash hidden in the blackness above his hairline.
..I, I’m a HUMAN FLY…uh, and uh DON’T know WHY…I’ve got 96 tears in 96 EYES…
That’s the image forever etched in my hard drive: one perfect crimson line with a shiny bead of blood on the end, running down Lux’s pale sweaty brow, glistening under the hot white lights, while the band played on…
When I look up “Rock-n-Roll” in the encyclopedia of my mind’s eye I’m glad to say that’s the image I think I’ll always see.
R.I.P. Lux Interior and Hillel Slovak
Cramps, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tell-Tale Hearts flyer from the web.
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