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Music

Exploring the morality of The Cramps' gig at Napa State Mental Institute

Ever in pursuit of controversy, New York punk pioneers, The Cramps were never far from scenes of depravity, horror and excess – as are the expectations of any self-respecting 1970s punk group. The subject matter of their music often touched on bizarre and gruesome imagery befitting nightmares and horror movies. As leaders of all things macabre in music, they decided that it would be fitting for them to play a concert in a working institution.

On June 13th, 1978, The Cramps found themselves doing just that. On arrival in California with fellow punk band The Mutants, they travelled up to Napa State Mental Institution to play one of the most controversial gigs in history. Using a raised patio platform in the courtyard of the institute as a stage, the bands played their sets as passionately as ever in the notably surreal environment. The gig was only played to a small crowd of a dozen devoted punks who travelled with them from San Francisco, approximately 150 patients and a handful of staff. 

The gig might have therefore been lost to the winds of time, but fortunately, a small reel of footage exists from the strange affair in a fittingly pixelated black and white picture. Patients meander across the courtyard, some engaged and enthusiastic about the show, while others seem almost oblivious to their surroundings. As seen in the footage below, some of the patients wandered onto the stage with the band to dance a jig.

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The band played as they would at any other show with full enthusiasm, with guitarist Bryan Gregory sporting an amused grin through the entire set, a cigarette stuck to the close of his lips. During the set, frontman Lux Interior can be heard yelling: “We’re The Cramps, and we drove 3,000 miles from New York City to play for you.” Someone then yelled back: “Fuck you!” Interior later added, “Somebody told me you people are crazy… but you seem alright to me.”

Now clearly, such a riotous band wouldn’t be allowed to show up and expect to be allowed into a high-security institute in this day and age. On such premises, some of the patients can be particularly reactionary to the overstimulation caused by loud music. Furthermore, the patients aren’t in a state of mind to be able to consent to such a physical and aural invasion and those rights aren’t as easily waived in modern society. 

Bart Swain, the institute’s newly hired activities specialist, was responsible for allowing the gig to go ahead. Earlier in the year, he was called by Howie Klein, a punk journalist and manager. Klein asked if a new wave group called The Readymades could play a free gig at the institute. Swain jumped at the opportunity, thinking it would make for a unique activity for the patients. However, when the day came, it was The Cramps and The Mutants who showed up. 

The Mutants were a group with limited musical skill and thrived on strange and controversial performances. They once performed from within big cardboard boxes, and another time, they played at a school for the deaf. The kids came out in pyjamas and held inflated balloons to “feel” the music.

Swain recalled booking a wide variety of softer acts such as violinists, folk and blues musicians and on one occasion Van Morrison’s daughter. But what made the occasion so controversial and made Swain fear losing his job was the presence of photography and film cameras. The footage was taken by Target Video, who stood with the two bands’ groupies and showed some of the patients in a clear breach of patient confidentiality regulations.

Jill Hoffman-Kowal of Target Video, who was responsible for the filming of the performance, insisted that the show had a positive impact on the patients. “It was a beautiful, beautiful thing,” Hoffman-Kowal said. “What we did for those people, it was liberating. They had so much fun. They pretended they were singing, they were jumping on stage. It was a couple hours of total freedom. They didn’t judge the band, and the band didn’t judge them.”

The concert has gone down in history as one of the most iconic moments in the timeline of rock music. If The Cramps and The Mutants performed for free solely to provide entertainment for the patients, then the act seems morally tolerable.

However, the presence of film cameras gives the impression that the bands had a more egocentric motive. I suspect The Cramps and Mutants were in the institutional setting primarily for the rock ‘n’ roll shock factor, exploiting the patients’ misfortune for personal gain in popularity. From the perspective of 2022, the breach of patient confidentiality was not only against regulation but a morally corrupt publicity stunt. 

Watch some of the footage from the iconic gig below.