When the Cramps Played the Napa Psychiatric Hospital

This is an excerpt from a new novel, WannaBeat by David Polonoff, published by Trouser Press Books and available here and here.

Danny and I drove up to the town of Napa, north of San Francisco, where the Mutants and the Cramps were performing for the patients at the state mental hospital. I had seen a few posters for the show and thought it would make a good break from our numerous treks to and from Sunnyvale, where Danny had been helping me take my boxes for “temporary” safekeeping. We stopped at a 7-Eleven along the way and stocked up on Cheetos and Hostess DingDongs, planning to tell whoever was policing the door that we were the groups’ snack roadies.

We arrived at the small courtyard where the bands had set up, just as the Mutants launched into their club hit, “Insect Lounge,” and playful pandemonium erupted.  The chorus of the song included Sally and Sue rhythmically repeating syllables, which I could never quite make out, that sounded like “cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep” and struck a resonant chord with the mental patients, who immediately started hopping around like grasshoppers, pouncing like praying mantises, wriggling like caterpillars in time to each repetition. Infused by the lyrics and beat, the whole audience was miming what it would look like to “go down to the Insect Lounge,” as the song urged them all to do.

“Does anyone have any pot?” shouted one of the Mutants.

“No, but we got Thorazine!” answered one of the schizophrenics in attendance.

Everyone was laughing as the Mutants burst into their signature song, “New Drug,” a paean to the experience of the New and a demand for its reinvention. “What we need is a new drug, something that we’ve never had before,” they sang. 

And the audience continued to deliver just such an experience. They went completely wild, everyone doing their own individual dance, an amalgam of all the dances from the last 25 years of rock and roll, disco and sock hops, not to mention jogging in place, jumping on and off the stage, grabbing the Mutants’ mics to sing along and helping themselves to the beer that the group had brought along with them. Any distinction between the audience and performers had dissolved. Everyone was part of the show and watching in wonderment at the same time.

In the face of this joyous abandon overflowing the boundaries of institutional and physical inhibition, Danny’s normal reserve melted away. Usually, he would step back from the action judging whether the mentality it manifested bore any conceivable connection to his own.  Feeling fundamentally ostracized from his peers’ assumption of well-being and immortality, he measured each activity by how much of life’s precious time it devoured. But among these beatific souls, each one separated from the mass of humankind by some perceived defect of brain wave or manic sensibility, he stepped into the moment, embraced the immediacy and soon was jumping around with the rest.

I, on the other hand, wanted to fade into the background.  Only a handful of loyal fans had made the trip north with the Mutants. As a fringe aficionado of their scene, I felt like an interloper, my face recognizable enough to be seen as not belonging. I huddled with an enclave of paranoiacs, taking a timid break from Group to see the show. But when the Cramps took the stage like a demented fantasy emerging from the other side of a fun house mirror, not even paranoia could provide a refuge. Rhythm guitarist Bryan’s long triangular face, black-and-white-dyed hair hanging over one cheek, gave a Frankenstein ballast to Lux Interior’s frenetic Elvis-meets-Igor psychobilly spasms, while Poison Ivy unflappably strummed her lead guitar smirking like a mad scientist at the monster she’d unleashed.

“Somebody told me you people are crazy,” shouted Lux. “But you seem alright to me.” There was a cheer. “The way I walk is just the way I walk…” sang Lux, diving into another sonic blast.

Everyone was now in motion. Following suit. Moving the way they moved. Dancing the way they danced. Jumping, rocking, squirming, twitching, twisting, strutting, bumping, leaping on the stage, plunking down on its steps just the way they did these things. All very intent, but with no purpose beyond itself. A perfect spectacle of unsynchronized synchronicity. 

A stout black-haired woman climbed on Lux’s back and wailed into the microphone, as he sang about getting dropped off by a UFO and nonchalantly tried to dislodge her. Inspired by her example, several audience members climbed on each other’s shoulders, as if preparing for “chicken fights,” a childhood game where piggy-backed pairs try to knock each other over. Danny gave me a let’s-go-for-it nod— we’d played this game as kids. He got up on my shoulders, but instead of rushing into combat with the other teams, we all joined in a makeshift hora circle, leaning on one another and trying not to topple over as we danced back and forth. Eventually we all landed on the ground. Laughing. Happy. Free. We were kids again. No past to regret or future to fear. Just brothers in an endless now.

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