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  • Writer's pictureChester B Simpson

Punks in a mental institution

"the punks, the band and the mental patients were all going nuts"

My friend Howie Klein assigned me to photograph the Cramps and the Mutants at a free concert for patients at the California State Mental Hospital in Napa. Howie was a well-known rock journalist in San Francisco and would be writing the article for the New York Rocker magazine. I'd be supplying them with the pictures for the article.

That sounded like a crazy assignment, so I asked Jeff Good, my friend and fellow photographer if he’d like to join us. He agreed and soon we were off on our way to a mental hospital.

Howie was asked by a hospital employee to organize and host a music concert to entertain patients at the mental hospital. So he lined up the Cramps and the Mutants and asked Target Video to come along and record the show.

The mental institution was located in the country near dairy farms and vineyards and housed about 250 people with an average age of 30 years old.

Jeff and I had attended the San Francisco Art Institute where The Mutants, a San Francisco punk band got their start. They started the show in an open-air enclosed courtyard while The Cramps, a New York City punk band closed the show.

When we arrived we were told by a hospital employee, that we couldn’t photograph the faces of the patients as this was a violation of the patient's privacy. Only the backs of their heads were allowed to be included in my pictures of the performance. We were also informed that there would be no alcohol and no smoking, but they never mentioned LSD. We agreed as we knew this would be a fun show.

We recognized several familiar faces of San Francisco punks, who also had made the journey to witness and be a part of this unique concert. We knew a few of these punks had eaten some LSD, which worked out as Jeff and I had done the same not even 30 minutes before we arrived.

As the Mutants started the show, the punks and mental patients started dancing and pogoing. I remember the dancing was very original, rather unusual looking. It seemed sort of contorted a mix of twisting around and arms flaring with blank gazes. It was an interesting start as the Mutants performed their song, “Insect Lounge.”

“Anyone got any pot?” the Mutants asked the crowd. Someone yelled back, “We got Thorazine!”

Near the end of their performance, the audience had overran the stage dancing and singing into the microphones with the band.

At this point, there was no way I could take pictures without some patient faces being shown. That rule went out the window as I kept documenting this chaotic concert.

During intermission, before the Cramps performed, Jeff and I went out the side gate to smoke a joint. While smoking, I saw two patients bolting out the gate, running down the highway. I had forgotten to close the gate behind us. I went inside and pointed the two inmates out to a guard, but he seemed unconcerned. He told me not to worry about it, "it will be dinner time soon, they'll come back."

Next up was the Cramps and their lead singer Lux Interior kicked things off with, “We’re the Cramps, and we’re from New York City, and we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people.”

The crowd reacted in kind, “Fuck You!” they screamed back.

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

They began their first song “Human Fly” and not too long after, Lux stage-dived into the audience. The inmates helped him back up to the stage, some of them singing along with him into his microphone.

There was no differentiating the crowd that night, the punks, the band and the mental patients were all going nuts. Everyone was dancing around and singing their hearts out.

This was an eye-opening, jaw-dropping, wild experience that is one of the most legendary concerts that I have ever witnessed in my life.

Check out images from this story and more: Rock-n-roll Photography

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