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Shit Got Crazy: When The Cramps and The Mutants Invaded a Mental Hospital

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By Phil Barber

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All photos via Ruby Ray.

The courtyard is small, improbably small if you know its history. The stage isn’t really a stage, just an elevated concrete patio maybe ten feet deep and 30 feet wide. Backing the platform is a cartoonish mural depicting six musicians, painted by patients with guidance from hospital staff.

The setting is eerily still, but that is by design. I have been allowed to visit the Central Program Services (CPS) courtyard at California Department of State Hospitals—Napa, or Napa State as most locals call it, only with an escort, and only when the patients are elsewhere.

“Secured treatment area” is the operational phrase.

The quadrangle is enclosed by offices, by a large multipurpose recreation room, a barber/beauty shop, an occupational therapy clinic, an art studio, a room for the processing and inspection of mail. My hosts, information officer Jaye Vanderhurst and chief of rehabilitation therapy services Camille Gentry, tell me the rec room is probably decorated just as it was 36 years ago.

Despite such vestiges, it’s hard to imagine this sleepy courtyard as the site of a legendary rock concert.

But it was here, on June 13, 1978, that The Cramps and The Mutants played a punk show at a mental institution. This was a performance seen by almost no one—about a dozen devoted punkers who drove up with the bands from San Francisco, and perhaps 100 or 200 patients, plus a scattering of hospital staff.

The show might have been forgotten entirely, or consigned to the realm of myth, were it not for about 20 minutes of footage of The Cramps’ set shot by a small operation called Target Video, which documented the event using an innovative Sony Portapak camera.

Maybe you’ve seen the video. If so, you haven’t forgotten it.

The black-and-white images are distorted and poorly lit. The audio is rough. It’s a transfixing spectacle. The Cramps make no attempt to pacify their mentally ill admirers. Nor do they wink at some inside joke. They just rip.

Frontman Lux Interior, may he rest in peace, preens and screeches and writhes. Guitarist Bryan Gregory, who died of a heart attack in 2001, smirks through the entire set, a cigarette pinned to the corner of his mouth. It could be the Mabuhay Gardens or Max’s Kansas City, except the audience participation is even weirder.

After the band plays “Mystery Plane,” Lux tells the folks, “We’re The Cramps, and we’re from New York City, and we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people.”

“Fuck you!” someone yells.

“And somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that,” Lux continues. “You seem to be all right to me.”

Watching the video, it can be hard to distinguish between the residents and stoned friends-of-the-band.

“A couple patients told one of the girls, you’d better tone it down or you might wind up being there with them,” says Bart Swain—and more on him in a minute.

I became sort of obsessed with this video, partly because I live in Napa—known for its mental institution more than its fine wines until the past few decades—and pass the hospital frequently. But also because it begged several questions that are really all the same question: What the fuck? How did this happen? Who would OK a punk rock show at a mental institution?

The answer is Bart Swain, who is retired now and still living in Napa.

In June of 1978, Swain was a recently hired activities specialist in the CPS unit. One day he got a call from a guy named Howie Klein. Well known in the San Francisco punk scene, Klein wrote for zines and helped Dirk Dirksen book outside bands for the Mabuhay Gardens, and he had a proposition. Klein said he had a band, The Readymades, sort of a proto-new wave group, that was willing to play for free at the hospital.

Swain leaped at the chance. When the musicians arrived in Napa that day, though, it wasn’t The Readymades. It was The Mutants and The Cramps. Klein, who would go on to preside over Reprise Records and now pens an activist blog called DownWithTyranny, doesn’t remember the circumstances, but figures he was simply adjusting on the fly.

For The Mutants, a fluid band made up mostly of people with no musical background, this show was another chance to push the envelope of live performance. They once performed inside of big cardboard boxes. Another time they played at a school for the deaf. The kids came out in pajamas and held inflated balloons to “feel” the music.

When The Mutants set up their equipment and began to play in Napa, Swain immediately worried he’d be fired.

It had nothing to do with the band’s raucous performance. Swain points out that he booked all sorts of music for the hospital—violins, blues, Van Morrison’s daughter and, yeah, a local punk band. A Vietnam War draft resistor with a nursing background and a humanist approach, Swain was eager to give his “clients” a wide range of experiences.

What troubled him were the cameras, still and video, that seemed to be pointed at residents as they interacted with band members. This was an obvious violation of patient confidentiality.

Looking back, Swain says he probably would have shut down the concert from the start were it not for the presence of his boss, Alan Beals. Since Swain was new in his job, he hung back and watched for Beals’ reaction. The boss let it ride.

The musicians don’t recall many details of the show. Most of them describe a brief feeling of trepidation or awkwardness that quickly fell away as the music poured out.

“Really, the only thing that stands out is the unreality of that situation,” Mutants guitarist Brendan Early says. “People who would laugh unexplainedly if you said something, or who couldn’t maintain eye contact for more than a minute without looking away. Some had very obvious problems. It was like going to Mars, in terms of the interaction with the audience.”

But if this show started as a lark, it wound up feeling like more. The fenced-in mental patients were starved for stimulation. The musicians gave it to them. All of them were outsiders in their way, and they formed a connection.

“It was a beautiful, beautiful thing,” says Jill Hoffman-Kowal of Target Video. “What we did for those people, it was liberating. They had so much fun. They pretended they were singing, they were jumping on stage. It was a couple hours of total freedom. They didn’t judge the band, and the band didn’t judge them.”

Hoffman-Kowal says she and Target founder Joe Rees probably debuted the movie on the half-hour public-access TV show they hosted out of San Francisco once a week. They may have projected it onto the wall at a show or two, also.

Target didn’t sell any of its videos until the 1990s, Hoffman-Kowal says, and not many even then. Most people who have seen the Cramps-in-Napa video have done so on YouTube. Long before that, the tape became an underground sensation.

To this day, mysteries remain. The most contested is why Target Video shot The Cramps and not The Mutants.

Easy, Hoffman-Kowal says. The Cramps played first, when the light was good. It was too dark to video The Mutants. But given enough time, memory performs interesting gymnastics. It’s clear from the lighting in the images captured by photographer Ruby Ray, and in the Target video, that The Mutants opened for The Cramps, and not vice-versa. That was how Klein originally wrote it up for the zine New York Rocker. So why shoot just The Cramps? No one seems to have an answer.

“I was angry at Joe,” says Fritz Fox, who went by Freddy Mutant back in the day. “He put out a DVD or a CD with the Cramps. Man, that should have been us!”

Napa State used to be a relatively mellow, almost pastoral setting for people with mental health issues. Now it is dominated by “forensic patients,” those sentenced to an institution for committing crimes. Sometimes violent crimes.

Thirty-five years ago, Jaye Vanderhurst told me, forensic patients accounted for less than 20 percent of the hospital’s residents. Now they are more than 80 percent. Napa State Hospital has become a dangerous place. A psychiatric technician was strangled on the grounds in October of 2010. Two months after that, a rehabilitation therapist sustained multiple skull fractures at the hands of a patient. Hence the razor wire and the sally port I entered to reach the CPS quad.

Napa State still brings music to its patients. But it will never host another show like the one The Mutants and Cramps staged there in 1978, a concert that just may be the definition of punk rock—even if it didn’t seem that way at the time.

“I thought every day of punkdom was like that,” says Ray, the photographer. “It was like an epic period.”

Phil Barber is a Napa-based writer. Follow him on Twitter - @skinny_post

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