For those of us who would prefer not to have the stuff of legend remain just so – there are exceedingly few of those that said, & that lot is getting exceedingly fewer – we demand evidence.
Even so, when it comes to a double-bill that The Cramps & The Mutants played at California’s Napa State Hospital psychiatric institution on June 13th, 1978, only a rumour is necessary to quench any doubt that it happened. For most people who know what The Cramps were about in terms of aesthetic & ethos, they accept, wholeheartedly, & without evidence, that such an event took place – It’d be a taut stretch of the imagination indeed to hear about it and think: “I don’t buy that The Cramps would ever do something like that!“
But fortunately, for either side of the argument, the gig was recorded – it was filmed & later released by Joe Rees & his Target Video collective, an outfit based in San Francisco who played a crucial role documenting punk shows over the American West Coast after the Ramones took off; & often interviewing the performers as well.
Upon release on VHS in 1983, The Cramps’ set was an immediate underground blockbuster, & became one of the most seminal performances in the history of punk rock.
The footage of The Mutants’ opening set, however, & unfortunately, was lost—but not permanently. It was later found, & Joe Rees remastered not only their set but The Cramps’ set as well from the original videotapes.
Recently Grasshopper Film released the concert in full, coupled with a short 2021 documentary ‘We Were There to Be There’ (directed by Mike Plante and Jason Willis), which covers the gig, Target Video; & the socio-political context surrounding it all. Along with screenings in select theatres to show & promote it.
The event made a stop at the Cinematheque in Cleveland – the Cleveland Institute of Art’s long-running arthouse theatre – so I went to check it out.
Ultimately, & somewhat fittingly for such an occasion, I went to two screenings, but not by choice.
During the first screening, they got through the Mutants footage uninterrupted; but when it cut to the documentary portion, the film just started skipping & stalling like a motherfucker. To the point where the film was glaringly going to be unwatchable any further. Either the projector got fucked up somehow or the print of the film was fucked up upon arrival.
The screening was aborted.
We got our refunds, but I still felt fucking sour about it, though I didn’t swear too loudly.
One of the guards there said: I ain’t never seen that happen the whole time I’ve been here; & it was obvious that he’d been there a long time.
Something was indeed in the air!
There was another screening that Sunday, & this was the Friday screening.
The Sunday screening went off without a hitch, & it was fine & dandy by me to see The Mutants play Napa State a second time.
A typical raw tape in the formative days of bulky video camcorders, shot using a Sony DV-2400 Portapak (unsteady hand, no discernable edits besides zooms, pans, & cuts), the remaster, when played in a well-designed theatre, gives the film a clear life & a roughness that would be unobtainable on a living room VHS player.
It’s what it deserves.
The remaster even makes footage that’s seemingly minutiae or filler – for instance, the long scenes of The Mutants doing soundcheck – tense & necessary. Even something as idiosyncratic & seemingly accidental like twenty seconds of footage of a cashier at a fast-food restaurant in-between the Mutants & Cramps footage comes across as effective & purposeful; an element of the film to note along with the rest of it.
The Mutants were, by then, already mainstays in the San Francisco scene. Chiefly known for their art for art’s sake performances & oddball subject matter, they were also slated to open for Joy Division during their tragically-ill-fated US tour.
Even on the basis of their overly-loose & hodgepodge attire for the Napa State gig, The Mutants might’ve been expediently initiated into a clan of psych ward patients without anything being actually wrong with their heads, as the dress of much of the audience largely converged with theirs stylistically – the patients were able to chain-smoke indoors, too.
Indeed, there were enough patients in the audience – along with a few friends of the bands bought along for the ride – to fill much of the floor of a standard small club of that era. Their movements & participation during The Mutants’ set was erratic & awkward. In addition to being debilitatingly mentally ill & unable to attend a musical performance in perhaps years, it’s reasonable to assume that most of the patients in the audience had never been exposed to punk rock proper.
One of the patients is even captured throwing up a peace sign three-quarters into the set!
As the set progresses however, the audience / patients open up & let loose, in their own, singular ways; as was logical for their own, singular heads.
The documentary that split the Cramps & Mutants sets had an editing style that bore a strong resemblance to some bigger-budget motion comics. While occasionally garish aesthetically, it is rife with insightful & cohesive interviews with former Mutants members, former employees at Napa State, Joe Rees, V. Vale of RE/SEARCH Publications, & others. That not only provide necessary context for the gig; along with Reagan’s time as California’s governor & his presidency; but also the grassroots radicalism in the Bay Area, the commercialized collapsed of the San Francisco psychedelic scene, the invention of the camcorder, & the proliferation of performance art in California (with artists such as Chris Burden especially) before punk rock got its foothold.
While watching the documentary, I was pretty white-knuckled against my seat because this was the segment where the film from the previous screening fucked up, & I was very worried that the same shit would happen again; & I wouldn’t get to see the Cramps footage. It thankfully did play all the way through, & The Mutants’ set was the best possible warm-up for The Cramps.
Very shortly after The Cramps started to play – their always-sharp depraved rockabilly standard of Lux Interior crooning & contorting in a vampire mating ritual; Poison Ivy being instinctually unshakable; Bryan Gregory, no less a vampire, countering Poison Ivy’s ruthless composure with swagger; Nick Knox, naturally, knowing what the fuck he’s doing – the patients in the audience became more animated & willing to participate in the show.
Some would perform loose versions of the tango, carry each other across the floor like rag dolls, get up onstage & snatch the mic from Lux just to scream incoherently in it for long periods of time – in short, the boundary between stage & audience dissolved.
A dissolution organic & almost total, since none of that conduct was established social protocol as it was for formal punk gigs by then.
Lux returned the favor. His stage banter, over the course of the show, mirrors closely to what’s heard over the course of Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison (Columbia, 1968) – coincidentally also recorded in a California state facility.
Lux boasts early on:
“We’re The Cramps from New York City. We drove over three-thousand miles to play for you people.
Somebody told me that you all were crazy.
I’m not so sure about that.
You all seem pretty alright to me.”
Later, he strikes up a conversation with a young blonde with an Audrey Hepburn pixie cut in-between songs, asking her how much she digs The Cramps. She reveals that she’s got literal but unspecified cramps, & she doesn’t know what to do with them.
Lux admits that he doesn’t know what to do with them either.
The Cramps & The Mutants: The Napa State Tapes, whether you can still catch a screening in your city, check it out via streaming; or watch the Blu-Ray, is of indispensable interest not only to aficionados of punk rock history, but also to the history of mental health care in the United States, performance art, & the obscene legacy of Ronald Reagan.
It is also of interest to people who seek examples of deep empathy for marginalized groups & dedication to art in unconventional ways & surprising places.
Check it out if you can!
Thankfully – without the need to get committed yourself.
- The Cramps And The Mutants: The Napa State Tapes – Discogs Entry
- Napa State Tapes (Remastered) Trailer – via Vimeo
- Link to Buy the BluRay Release – via Grasshopper Film
- Grasshopper Film – Instagram
- Grasshopper Film – Facebook
- Grasshopper Film – twitter
- Link to Watch ‘We Were There to Be There’ (2021; Directed by Jason Willis & Mike Plante) – via Field of Vision
- ‘We Were There to Be There’ – IMDB Entry
- The Mutants & The Cramps @ Napa State Psychiatric Hospital, June 13, 1978 – Facebook Page
- The Mutants – Wikipedia Entry
- The Cramps – Wikipedia Entry
- Joe Rees (of Target Video) – Facebook (Personal)
- Jill Hoffman-Kowal (of Target Video) – Instagram
- Jill Hoffman-Kowal – Discogs Entry
- Target Video – Wikipedia Entry
- Jason Willis (One of the Directors of ‘We Were There to Be There’) – Instagram
- Jason Willis – twitter
- Jason Willis – Website
- 2021 Interview with Jason by Scott Macaulay About ‘We Were There to Be There’ – via Filmmaker Magazine
- Napa State Psychiatric Hospital – Wikipedia Entry
- John Gullak (from The Mutants) – Instagram
- Sally Webster (from The Mutants) – Instagram
- Ruby Ray (Punk Scenester & Photographer Who Took Photos At the Napa State Gig) – Instagram
- Ruby Ray – Facebook (Personal)
- Ruby Ray – Wikipedia Entry
- Ruby Ray – Discogs Entry
- 2019 Article by Mark Murrmann About Ruby Ray – via Mother Jones
- 2019 Article by Sarah Nechamkin About Ruby Ray – via Interview Magazine
- Howie Klein – (Punk Scenster & Writer Who Attended The Gig) – Wikipedia Entry
- Howie Klein – Facebook (Personal)
- Howie Klein – twitter
- Howie Klein – Personal Website (Down With Tyranny)
- 2014 Article by Howie Klein About the Napa State Gig – via Down With Tyranny
- 2015 Article by Phil Barber About the Napa State Gig – via Vice
- 2018 Article by Ben Perdue About the Napa State Gig – via Another Man
- 2021 Article by Howie Klein About the Napa State Gig – via Down With Tyranny
- Target Video – The Cramps Live At Napa State Mental Hospital VHS – 1983 Release – Discogs Entry
All images sourced online.