That Time The Cramps Played a Gig in a Psychiatric Hospital

  • TextBen Perdue

When psychobilly rockers The Cramps descended on Napa State Psychiatric Hospital one balmy evening in 1978, the lunatics took over the asylum. And music history was made

Taken from the S/S18 issue of Another Man:

“Now I just can’t identify / With this world so I don’t try,” screams Lux Interior, lead singer of psychobilly band The Cramps, as the distorted chords of Mystery Plane crash around the outdoor recreation area at Napa State psychiatric hospital. Snaking and swivelling like a drugstore Elvis he scans the crowd for the next patient to rush the stage, while Nick Knox’s busted drums shuffle on. Bryan Gregory stalks the concrete patio stage, a fag clamped between his teeth, hosing down the agitated audience with his polka-dot Flying V; Lux’s stony-faced wife Poison Ivy joins the dual-guitar onslaught at the back, surveying the scene aloof from the mob. “Square pegs don’t fit in round holes / And I can’t fit into these clothes!” Lux drops a shoulder and barrels into the dancing mass of psychiatric patients, San Francisco punks and occupational therapists – increasingly hard to tell apart – before darting back onstage under the excited gaze of hip medical staff and the thousand-yard stares of the heavily sedated. Thickset women with untamed frizz or greasy ponytails grip handbags and proceed to pogo and frug. And a young man with Down’s syndrome picks a path to the front in his crisp white shirt, casually sidestepping a marauding schizophrenic in a big cowboy hat.

The end of the song is coming, and one wild-haired patient starts violently proto-moshing and pumping his fists in a neuroleptic homage to Gregory’s playing. Another in a grey polyester suit and tie mimes into his make-believe microphone, jogging on the spot, gleefully oblivious to both the lyrics and the beat. A confused inmate at the edge of the 200-strong crowd asks a nurse if the performers escaped from ward T, the secure wing where they keep the lifers. Roadies wrangle cables, friends of the band venture out from backstage and a filmmaker carrying early VHS equipment joins photographers circling the action. Suddenly the music stops, and Lux addresses the throng: “We’re The Cramps, and we’re from New York City, and we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people.” He’s met with a well-meaning “Fuck you!” from one female onlooker. “Somebody told me you people are crazy,” Lux continues. “But I’m not so sure about that, you seem alright to me.” And the man in the polyester suit mimes away as The Way I Walk kicks in.

When The Cramps played Napa State on the night of 13th June 1978 neither they, nor local band The Mutants who opened for them, expected it to go down as the most authentic punk gig in history. Brainchild of San Francisco promoter, journalist and late-night radio host Howie Klein, and Bart Swain, the activities specialist for the hospital, the idea was as outrageous as it was progressive – a raucous coup for the punks, and a pioneering approach to clinical therapy for the staff. Although later it was lauded as a freethinking coming together of kindred spirits, Klein had some preconceptions beforehand: “Let’s drive up to the funny farm. The Cramps are doin’ a concert for the nuts; should be lotsa yuks,” begins his review for punk zine New York Rocker, before listing the cretins, pinheads and drooling loonies he expected to see there. “What I got instead was the greatest new wave show I’ve ever seen – and this boy’s been to England and seen The Clash,” he writes. “I’ve never seen a show where the audience and the bands and the music and everything were so totally tuned in on the same plane.”

“I’ve never seen a show where the audience and the bands and the music and everything were so totally tuned in on the same plane” – Howie Klein

Amongst the musicians and fans that drove up from San Francisco the mood was tense. Booze and smoking were banned for starters. “We didn’t want to get kicked out! The Mutants were known to be a wild band and we weren’t used to seeing them play in the daylight, so it started off weird,” explains photographer Ruby Ray. “And we had to give the patients a chance to check it out; remember, most people hated punk then.” But when The Mutants played the uninhibited inmates loved it, joining them on stage, joking about swapping Thorazine for pot, touching their strange haircuts and asking the lead singers to dance – personal space boundaries and staff supervision were both conspicuous by their absence. By mid-set a hoedown had started, inmates were dry-humping the concrete and one girl had jumped on Lux’s back and stolen the mic, all to the soundtrack of their kitschy switchblade rock. “A guy in a cowboy hat said he was in heaven because he thought he was going to miss punk rock because he was in Napa,” recounts Poison Ivy in Dick Porter’s biography, Journey to the Centre of the Cramps. “He never thought punk would come to him.”

Playing at Napa looks like bedlam on paper, but the musicians were more concerned with putting on a good show than their personal safety. “I worried about whether my guitar was in tune,” says John Gullak of The Mutants. “But the patients just danced next to us, wandered about or stood and stared. The perfect crowd for us, I loved it.” Thanks to Joe Reese filming the gig on his Sony Porta Pak for Target Video, you can watch the audience participation that defines punk’s ethos actively breaking down barriers between performers and patients, cementing a bond between two groups treated as outcasts of society. Neither side judged the other. The patients provided the punks with a raw and provocative audience, and the punks liberated the patients from the monotony of institutional life with some badly needed stimulation. Maybe too much stimulation if you take into account the mass breakout that followed. “The people that ran the place said: ‘Don’t worry, we don’t have to chase them. They’ll just come back when they’re hungry,’” Lux Interior told Dick Porter. “Those people at Napa Hospital were less unusual than some of the crowds we’ve played.”