City Paper is not for tourists
When graphic artist Steve Blickenstaff turned the Cramps’ lead singer into a zombie, he created a cult classic.
It’s a long drive to the 9:30 Club for Steve Blickenstaff, but for the Frederick, Md., resident, it’s worth the trip. After all, the Cramps, his favorite band ever, are playing in support of their new record, 1983’s Smell of Female, and Blickenstaff plans to try meeting them after the show. As his girlfriend, Nancy Gardner, drives, he carefully holds a Manila envelope on his lap. A couple of his pen-and-ink drawings are carefully tucked inside as a gift to the band. Arriving early, Blickenstaff and Gardner establish a beachhead at the front of the stage before the crowd arrives. When the crowd presses tighter and tighter into the small space as showtime approaches, Gardner takes the envelope for safekeeping. Once the band starts playing and the slamming threatens to mangle the pictures, Gardner moves out of range, leaving Blickenstaff to hold his ground, mesmerized as Cramps frontman Lux Interior climbs the amps, leaps around,
and generally plays the psychopath, and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach calmly fires her sawed-off rockabilly/garage-rock riffs straight into the crowd.
Kid Congo Powers is on the small stage, too, joining Ivy in slashing out the songs. As Lux slides his low-slung leather pants to the floor, writhing sweaty and naked before a surging crowd of punks and freaks, Blickenstaff plots a way to get backstage and give the band the goods. The first time he saw the Cramps, in 1980 at the Ontario Theatre in Adams Morgan, he was “just blown away.” It was one of the first live concerts he’d ever seen. Onstage, Lux bit a rubber snake in half and threw the pieces into the audience. A backstage pass was circulating after the show, but Blickenstaff chickened out of using it. Instead, he passed an envelope with some of his colored-pencil drawings to a roadie, hoping they’d get to the band.
Tonight is different. It’s easy enough to walk down the stairs at the back of the 9:30 and look through the doorway into the band’s dressing room. And since that first show, Blickenstaff has seen many more; each time, he has come armed with his drawings.
Blickenstaff holds up the envelope and Lux and Ivy wave him in. “What have you got, Steve?” they ask. At the last show, at the Bayou in Georgetown, it was some color work. Tonight, he has some new stuff, something a little different: pen-and-ink drawings he did three weeks earlier, on Halloween. Opening the envelope, Lux and Ivy recognize the drawing style right away: “Hey, this looks like Wolverton’s stuff!” they cry, referring to Mad magazine monster artist Basil Wolverton.
Those are magic words: Blickenstaff’s musical and artistic heroes have come together right before his eyes.
“It was kind of based on [Lux]; it wasn’t supposed to be him exactly,” Blickenstaff says of the picture, rooting through an envelope of drawings in the Frederick apartment of his friend and bandmate Brian Horrorwitz. “The first time I saw the Cramps, he came out and had the tallest hair I’d seen on somebody performing onstage. I just wanted to do a zombie, giving a sneering look like Lux would do onstage, and made sure I put the hair up there really high.”
Blickenstaff pulls out a mouse pad embellished with the cover of the Cramps’ 1984 LP Bad Music for Bad People. The image is instantly familiar: a piss-yellow background adorned with a grinning lunatic with a huge, untamed brush of psychobilly hair who looks vaguely like the band’s leader at the height of onstage frenzy. For most punk-rock fans, it’s an icon, but for Blickenstaff, it’s a special reminder of his meetings with the band.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” the 40-year-old admits now. “I felt kind of intimidated, because [Lux’s] stage presence was so amazing, but they couldn’t be more friendly.” Approaching his favorite singer with what he calls his “goofy monster stuff” was a calculated risk for Blickenstaff, though. “I thought he’d probably like the kind of artwork I did,” he says. “I’d read a little bit about him, and I knew [the Cramps] were influenced by horror movies and stuff like that.”
Indeed, Lux and Ivy both knew exactly where Blickenstaff was coming from, and they shared his love of not only Wolverton but also Graham Ingels, who drew zombies for the classic EC comic Tales From the Crypt. They collected plenty of Blickenstaff’s work over the years, picking up pieces from him whenever he made it to a concert in D.C. or Baltimore. For his part, Blickenstaff was just happy that they remembered him from show to show.
So Blickenstaff was astounded when, one day in 1984, he got a call from I.R.S. Records. The Cramps were putting together a compilation of B-sides and rarities, and they wanted to use one of his drawings for the cover art. The label rep asked Blickenstaff if Lux and Ivy had talked money with him; being green to the business world, Blickenstaff remembers saying, “I gave them the artwork as a gift; if they want to pay me, they can. It really doesn’t matter to me.”
Later, Lux and Ivy were so shocked to learn he hadn’t cashed in that they offered to write him a check themselves. Again, Blickenstaff turned them down. “To me,” he says, “just having the honor of doing artwork that wound up on their cover was amazing to me. That’s something I would have paid for.”
Blickenstaff was born and raised in “Fredneck” and graduated from Governor Thomas Johnson High School there in 1979. While other kids were gobbling up Tales From the Crypt and Swamp Thing comics for the horror stories that dripped from their pages like so much Spanish moss, Blickenstaff was admiring their smallest aesthetic details. He spent his formative years trying to emulate them, making drawings and collecting monster stuff such as the Ugly Stickers that Wolverton and Wally Wood created for bubble-gum maker Topps in the ’60s.
“I just couldn’t believe all the little line details [Wolverton] would put in the drawings, and I would study those things for hours and hours and try to figure out how he did it,” Blickenstaff says. “You look at one of his drawings, and it almost looks like a gray-tone piece of artwork, just because if you held it back, the tiny [crosshatched] lines would make these beautiful tones from dark to light.”
After graduation, Blickenstaff took a brief job with a graphic-arts studio before landing a position in 1980 working in the media-arts department of the Frederick County Public Schools. He’s been there ever since, designing posters, pamphlets, fliers, “and stuff for their TV channel.” In 1993, he and fellow media-arts-department employee Jose Rosapepe founded Frog Farm Graphix to promote their creative work—and occasionally conduct a cartoon workshop for their students. “The kids would eat that stuff up,” Blickenstaff says.
But it’s his extracurricular activities that have mattered most to Blickenstaff, and his resume includes a 1991 cover for Screw magazine, drawings for a 1992 Guitar World article, promotional art for Jess Franco’s Z-grade 1998 horror film Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula, T-shirt designs for Love Tractor and They Might Be Giants, and record covers for contemporary surf and garage bands such as the Fathoms, the Space Cossacks, and the Cave Four. He’s also done artwork for Frederick-based trash-rock outfit the Ubangis, which he joined on theremin and congas back when Gardner (whom Blickenstaff married in 1991) played bass for the band.
Besides the Bad Music cover, Blickenstaff’s biggest brush with fame came in 1994, when L.A.’s Binary Software turned eight of his colored-pencil drawings of monster heads modeled after the Ugly Stickers into “ScreamSavers,” each one animated in a different absurd scenario: Snappy lashes a long, froggy tongue from his gaping mouth to gobble up a flower, laughing maniacally, and disembodied heads Unifreakle and Sideswipe smash each other off the screen in a demented version of king of the mountain, accompanied by copious drooling and hyenalike cackles. The package won an A- rating from Entertainment Weekly and was licensed by Northampton, Mass.-based Kitchen Sink Press, which asked Blickenstaff to expand the ScreamSavers into a series of 72 stickers.
But because the company received too few pre-orders, Kitchen Sink never made the stickers, and attempts to generate ScreamSavers spinoffs in the forms of toys, baseball caps, jerseys, books, and bike helmets—and even an animated Nickelodeon show based on another Blickenstaff project, called Scream’OSaurs—ended up going nowhere. But before it relinquished the properties and went belly-up, the publisher did land one ScreamSaver character, Tooinfro, on a Burton snowboard. And in 1997, California’s Two Fish Design printed some of the ScreamSavers as Mylar stickers on a metal-flake background.
Two years ago, Blickenstaff started auctioning his drawings on eBay. The auctions netted him $30 to $100 apiece and kept him in contact with a few scattered fans, but he stopped them on the advice of Jonathan LeVine, who gave him a show in his New Hope, Pa., toy store Tin Man Alley last year. Blickenstaff sold 22 of the 50 drawings he’d prepared for the exhibition. “It was really cool to have it in that store—they had so many cool toys,” he says. “I was happy because I was making more on those than on eBay, even though [LeVine] was taking half. Just selling a bunch of them at one time was really nice, too.”
LeVine hopes to set up shows of Blickenstaff’s work across the country. Plus, Blickenstaff explains, he wants “to work up some flash art, just black-and-white work on 11-by-17 sheets, that they can display and use as possible tattoo art. He thinks the images I come up with would work pretty well as tattoos.”
In addition to his work with LeVine, Blickenstaff is sitting on a batch of new projects: Producer and writer Ted Bohus, whose 1983 psychotronic classic The Deadly Spawn is coming out on DVD soon, wants Blickenstaff to be one of five artists to create original renditions of the movie’s monster for prints that will be given away in each DVD box. Blickenstaff’s friends in D.C. surf band the Atomic Mosquitos want him to design their CD cover; they’re also bringing him into the studio to play theremin on one of their songs. Blickenstaff will also be participating in a group show at Portland, Ore.’s, Gallery Bink this October.
Meanwhile, the Cramps are only a phone call away. “Whenever they come to town, I give them a call and let them know I’m going, and they’ll put me on the list,” Blickenstaff says. He doesn’t call too much, though.
“I don’t want to seem like I’m calling to pester them,” he notes, “but they’re friendly to me.” CP