The Cramps Legendary Concert at a California Psychiatric Hospital Gets Revisited in the New Documentary, We Were There to Be There: Watch It Online

By Josh Jones

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

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, “San Francisco was a much more conservative place,” says Columbia University’s Lincoln Mitchell in the documentary above, We Were There to Be There. The new film chronicles the legendary 1978 appearance of psychobilly punks The Cramps and SF-based art-rockers The Mutants at the Napa State Hospital, an historic psychiatric facility in the famous wine-growing area. At the time, California’s former governor Ronald Reagan was contending for the presidency after slashing social services at the state level.

There were few political sympathies in the area for those confined to Napa State, as the new documentary above by Mike Plante and Jason Willis shows. Produced by Field of Vision, the film “explores the events that led to CBGB mainstays the Cramps driving over 3,000 miles to perform,” notes Rolling Stone’s Claire Shaffer. We Were There to Be There begins with this crucial socio-political context, remembering the show as “both a landmark moment for punk rock and for the perception of mental health care within U.S. popular culture.”

The doc also explores how the performances could have made such an impact, when they were “seen by almost no one,” as Phil Barber writes at Vice: “about a dozen devoted punkers who drove up with the bands from San Francisco, and perhaps 100 or 200 patients.” Indeed, the show’s memory only survived thanks to “about 20 minutes of footage of The Cramps’ set shot by a small operation called Target Video,” a collective formed the previous year by video artist Joe Rees and collaborators Jill Hoffman, Jackie Sharp, and Sam Edwards.

The show came about through Howie Klein, a fixture of the San Francisco punk scene who wrote for local zines and booked the club Mabuhay Gardens before becoming president of Reprise Records. Napa State’s new director Bart Swain had been staging concerts for the residents. Klein promised to send an early new wave band but sent The Mutants and The Cramps instead, to Swain’s initial dismay. (He was sure he would be fired after the show.)

Released in 1984, the edited Target release opens with a shot of an atomic blast and doesn’t let up. “Maybe you’ve seen the video. If so, you haven’t forgotten it,” writes Barber: “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.”

Target Video toured the U.S. and Europe, screening its politically-charged punk concert films for eager young kids in the Reagan/Thatcher era, who saw a very different approach to treating people suffering from mental illness in the footage from Napa State. The documentary includes interviews with the Mutants, whose performance didn’t make it on film, and fixtures of the San Francisco scene like Vicky Vale, publisher of RE/Search, who provide critical commentary on the event.

Despite its reputation as a bizarre novelty gig, the show came off as controlled chaos — just like any other Cramps gig. “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.”

We Were There to Be There will be added to our collection of Free Online Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness