During a 1978 tour, psychobilly punk band The Cramps created one of the strangest moments in the history of both rock n’ roll and psychiatry when they played a gig inside Napa State Mental Hospital.
It’s hard to believe it actually happened. The story sounds more like an exaggerated rock legend than an account of a real concert, but no suspension of disbelief is needed. Someone filmed the gig.
We can only guess how the band got permission to play inside one of California’s biggest mental institutions, but play they did, to a few supporters and a fired-up crowd of psychiatric inpatients.
The footage is grainy, black and white, and chaotic, and we immediately see the band launch into a high-energy version of Mystery Plane.
The onlookers look bemused at first, a few start dancing, a few just wander.
As the first song fades, the lead singer, Lux Interior, addresses the crowd: “We’re The Cramps, and we’re from New York City and we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people.”
“Fuck you!” a patient yells back.
He cracks a smile. “And somebody told me you people are crazy! But I’m not so sure about that; you seem to be all right to me.”
The gig ascends into pure punk rock chaos.
Patients jump on stage and pogo like they were Saturday night regulars. Lux suddenly duets with a member of the crowd who grabs the mike and adds her own improvised lyrics to the mix.
One song finishes with the lead singer sprawled on the floor with two female members of the audience. One of them shouts “I got the Cramps!” Lux replies “That’s your problem, honey. I got ’em myself, and I can’t do anything with ’em, either.”
As with Johnny Cash’s landmark concert, played a decade earlier in Folsom Prison, it would be easy to assume that the onlookers are intended to be part of an ironic publicity stunt.
But one thing is striking from both of these shows: the audience wouldn’t have looked out of place at any other date on the tour.
Cash and The Cramps are unlikely bedfellows, but both took their music to the marginalised and hinted that we’re not so different from those we lock away.
OK, so The Cramps didn’t hint. Punk isn’t like that. But then again, the fans have hardly been known for their conformity either.
Link to YouTube clips of Live at Napa State Mental Hospital.