The pioneering influence of Poison Ivy, The Cramps’ queen of rock and roll
One of the legendary bands to surface during the first wave of American punk was The Cramps. Rooted in Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach’s strong and ever-evolving friendship, the band won hearts for three long decades beginning in 1976. Typically, most people undermined Ivy’s musical accomplishments and showered all their attention to the more visible male member of the band, Interior. “Nobody ever talks to me about music or guitar,” she once said. “I’m the queen of rock n’ roll and for this to not to be recognised is pure sexism,” said the uncrowned sovereign of The Cramps. So let’s take a look back and rediscover Ivy as a musician and a radical figure in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
Kirsty Marlana Wallace, AKA Poison Ivy, was born in a family in San Bernardino, California, where music was carefully handed down from her grandfather, who was a violinist accompanying John Phillips Sousa, to her brother and then, finally, Ivy. Reminiscing her childhood days, Ivy said: “When I was very little, I was especially fixated on a stompin’ 45 my brother had, ‘Martian Hop’ by the Ran-Dells. He would play it when his friends came over because they got a big kick out of watching me jump and fly around the room and off the furniture every time I heard it.” Living a nomadic life, the only constant in Ivy’s life was music. By the time she graduated high school, her family had shuffled places nine times that left young Ivy with no friends and no place she could call home.
Born a rebel in every sense of the word, Ivy spent her teenage years breaking the rules and making new ones. From wearing heavy eye makeup to smoking cigarettes in the girls’ bathroom, she showed utter disregard for every single school rule. Although a bright student, she was disinterested in typical bookish learning and sought a deeper understanding of spiritual and religious disciplines along with dance and music. It was around this time that she picked up the guitar to keep herself amused: “My brother played some guitar, and he taught me how to do the ‘Pipeline’ riffs and some chords, but other than that, I’ve never had any lessons. I just started picking out songs on my own.”
It was Bo Diddley’s Sacramento live that inspired Ivy to consider music more than just a pastime. It was actually ‘The Duchess’, the woman who played the guitar with Diddley on stage, that filled colour in Ivy’s dream. Ivy even bought a pair of gold pants, identical to the Duchess’ performing costume, to mimic her in the way of tribute. The American guitarist maestros Link Wray and Duane Eddy also left an everlasting impression in Ivy’s mind. “My most identifiable influences would be Link Wray and Duane Eddy…the simplicity of it…the stark chords of Link Wray and the stark single-note thing of Duane Eddy,” said Ivy. Adding enthusiastically about Wray, she said: “He had the most apocalyptic, monumental sound I ever heard—real emotional and so simple and so violent. That stands for rock ‘n’ roll, which is supposed to be violent and dangerous and h; I this dangerous sound…No matter how long I’ve been doing this, I hear something new when I listen to him… He’s just so… it’s like guitar at the end of the world. So austere. And so much drama. You know he makes the most out of the least for sure.”
While these musical influences were welding inside Ivy together to form something new and special, Ivy met her partner in crime, Erick Purkhiser, a figure we all recognise more commonly as Lux Interior. There are many versions of this story, some stating that they met at a party at the Sacramento University and others saying that Lux saw Ivy walking down the road, hitchhiking in her ripped shorts and fell for her instantly. But the version that Ivy narrated seems the most likely: “We met up in a class called Art and Shamanism. The textbook for that class was called The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, and the subject of that book is how the real topic of the Bible is the Amanita muscaria mushroom and that Christ is a metaphor for this magic mushroom.” Not only their love story but also their balance in professional life is something to be looked up to. “I think we kind of brought each other up, we’ve been together so long,” said Ivy. “Getting together made us think of things to do, being partners in crime. Whereas alone, we might have just been nameless drifters. God, I do love a happy ending.”
The Cramps was their love-child. The couple stayed briefly at Lux’s hometown Akron, Ohio, which was the hotspot of the punk movement and reared musicians such as Chrissie Hynde and Devo. Then they moved to New York City and founded the band with guitarist Bryan Gregory and drummer Pam Ballam. The members of the group were tossed continuously throughout the years, sparing Ivy and Interior. Exploring the darker side of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, the band pulled a vast number of followers within a short span of time. Playing at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City side by side with Blondie, the Ramones, Patti Smith and the Dead Boys, they “set out to become a patchwork hybrid with a life of its own—a rock n’ roll Brides of Frankenstein,” according to Interior. The “hybrid” he’s talking about is “psychobilly”, a unique combination of rebellious rock ‘n’ roll and rural country with a hint of blues.
Starting out with a solid body guitar, a rare Canadian model, Ivy shifted to a hollow body 1958 Gibson 6129 and fell in love with its deep, heavy sound. It was Ivy’s distinctive style that shaped the Cramps’ psychobilly music. After moving to Los Angeles, Ivy even served as the bassist of the team for both live performances and studio recordings. Apart from her sensational guitar work, Ivy also co-wrote all of the band’s originals with Interior. However, Ivy couldn’t care less about token achievements. To her, the thrill of playing music was above everything else: “I think some guitarists get into an ego thing where they want to perform in some technical way, which even if you can, it’s not always the best thing to choose to do,” she once commented. “I still like the idea of playing for pure euphoria. My favourite thing to play, still, is rhythm. It’s just so euphoric that I really get high playing it. Certain things I play don’t even feel like it’s me playing it, and that’s my favourite kind of playing.”
A former dominatrix, Ivy was a sex symbol of her times. With a wardrobe of latex garments and pin-up costumes, she manipulated fashion to highlight the dark side of pop culture and its relation with sexuality. The line notes in the album How To Make a Monster read, “We wanted to be as shocking, sexy and original as the great culture changing rock and roll pioneers were during the ’50s and ’60s.” In other words, her bold style sketched the bands aesthetic and challenged the single-faceted stereotypes of womanhood.
With the disbanding of the Cramps in 2009, following the death of Interior, Ivy’s status became more and more obscure. But as the old proverb “actions speak louder than words” goes, Ivy’s actions were too grand to be ignored. Not only did she subvert the 1970s stereotypes around the lack of female musicians, but did it in her own way, excreting her free will, dressing up however she wanted without bothering to conceal her sexuality. She dared future female musicians to live their dreams.