KID CONGO POWER – ” Some New Kind of Kick: A Memoir “

Posted: October 23, 2022 in MUSIC

“We set out to destroy music as much as create it,” says Kid Congo Powers talking about the Gun Club, a riotous punk-blues band he co-founded with Jeffrey Lee Pierce in 1979.

Powers also went on to be a guitarist for the Cramps and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a journey he documents in his new memoir, Some New Kind of Kick: a juicy and humble account of a joyful yet traumatic life spent in three of the most beloved alternative bands of the 1980s. As well as a nod to a Cramps track, it’s an apt title for a man who spent much of his life in perpetual search of endorphin-spiking kicks. “Finding excitement was my holy grail,” he says. “The crazier and more fun, the better.”

Powers never set out to be a musician. First he was just a zealous fan. Growing up in a Mexican-American family in La Puente, California, he would take the bus into Hollywood at age 15 to go Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, a mecca for glam rock. As a young gay man who wore customised platform boots with rhinestone lightning bolts on, it was a haven. “Bowie and glam rock was my rebellion,” he says. “It was also a window into my budding sexuality. It gave me freedom. Being something that parents and mainstream America thought was so outrageous – androgyny, bisexuality, aliens from outer space – it was perfect for me.”

However, it was during this formative period that he also experienced a life-changing tragedy. In 1976 his cousin Theresa, along with her friend, were murdered: shot in the head and found in an alley with no clear motive. The case remains unsolved. “It was a major turning point,” he says. “She was my confidant and one of my best friends. It changed my entire family. It made me think life is not worth much, and I have to take matters into my own hands and experience everything.”

Music, partying, drugs and sex were intertwined in his quest to extract all life had to offer. Living with members of the electro-punk outfit the Screamers, he paints a picture of an inclusive and experimental scene. “Sex was great. Love was dumb. Sleaze was paramount,” he says. “There was no shame involved. We were very open-minded about our otherness, and each other’s otherness.”

His rabid fandom, which he writes about with endearing charm and adolescent zest, led him to become president of the Ramones fan club. Then he took off for New York. He lived with Lydia Lunch of the new wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and was so broke he ate out of dumpsters and would scour the floor for change at CBGB’s. When New York finally defeated him he returned to LA. There he met Jeffrey Lee Pierce – another superfan, who ran the Blondie fanclub – who invited him to join a band. “I had no excuse not to, except that I couldn’t play,” says Powers. “If someone believed in me that I could do it, I was going to give it a try.”

He describes their act as a mix of “entertainment and punishment”, with Pierce a wild and antagonistic frontman. Powers’ unique style of playing – which he describes as “bulky” and “like blocks of sound rather than smooth transitions between chords” – caught the attention of the Cramps, one of his favourite bands. When their guitarist Poison Ivy asked what he would sacrifice in order to join the band, Powers, ever the teenage fan, offered to cut off a finger. He got the gig without having to amputate. Would he actually have done it if asked? “I certainly would,” he says without hesitation. “I played slide guitar, so I thought, well, I could just put a slide over it.”

It was a perfect fit. “The moment I saw the Cramps, I saw my tribe,” he says. “They let themselves be free. There was no limit to sexuality, no judgment, just encouragement.” Despite being a gifted and versatile player, Powers is modest and credits others as being his inspired tutors. “Ivy told me I should play the guitar like it’s a horn,” he says. “Squawking, honking and punctuating. Then every once in a while you get let go and wail. I thought that was genius.”

During the making of the band’s second album, “Psychedelic Jungle”, they forced sleep deprivation upon themselves “so our animal minds would drive our creative impulses”, he says. Pushing himself as far as he could go became both a personal and creative mantra: “The more chaos, the more magic.”

But when they became locked in a bitter royalties battle with their record label, the Cramps refused to write new songs. With tensions mounting Powers grew frustrated and returned to the Gun Club in 1983. Drink and drugs had always played a role in that band but things began to escalate. “We were very likeminded about drugs,” Powers says of him and Pierce. “They were a part of our relationship. Alcohol was a big part too. Getting as drunk as possible to let the spirits takeover. That was very important.”

Today, with decades of sobriety now behind him, Powers feels he was masking the pain of Theresa’s murder. “It was trauma,” he says. “So part of my ‘I’m going to experience everything’ attitude turned into things like alcoholism and drug addiction. Adventure and wanderlust was just self-medicating. Drugs, especially heroin, at the beginning, were freeing for me. I was a shy kid. I was a traumatised kid. I was in and out of the closet at any whim, so there was confusion, and drugs calmed everything down.”

Seemingly a magnet for chaos, pulverising noise and unpredictable drug addicts, Powers soon found himself in the Bad Seeds. It was at the peak of Nick Cave’s heroin addiction, when he was living in Berlin and could often be found strutting around with a handgun. Powers played on the albums “Tender Prey” and “The Good Son“, with the former an especially torrid time. “Professionally I was on the up but everyone was in a downward spiral and crashing,” he says. “When I started writing about this period I was like, ‘Wow, that was fucking awful.’” He writes about an afterparty that ended up in his hotel room where “people were fucking and shooting up”; the police raided the hotel after Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubauten started throwing glasses into the swimming pool.

Soon Powers’ spiritual home, the Gun Club, was calling again. “I was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” Powers writes. “Between Nick Cave and Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Both immeasurably brilliant and tortured artists, both extremely fucked-up, high-maintenance individuals.” When Cave’s then girlfriend Bunny OD’d and died, it proved a moment of clarity for Powers. He entered Narcotics Anonymous. Bunny’s death, he says, “brought back all the feelings of senselessness, frustration, and anger that had overwhelmed me when Theresa was murdered”.

The Gun Club finally petered out in 1995 and a year later Pierce died of a brain haemorrhage, age 37. Powers ends his book in tribute to Pierce, even skipping over the band he’s fronted since 2009, the excellent garage-rock groove outfit the Pink Monkey Birds.

“The main thrust of everything was my relationship with Jeffrey,” he says. “There are many ways people look at Jeffrey: drug addict, own worst enemy, talented, tortured, all somewhat true, but he was also an incredible friend, teacher, dreamer and amazing visionary. I felt privileged to be in his company while he was on earth. I owe everything to him. I miss him. Just from our fandom, we created magic.”

The songs below epitmise everything Kid Congo Powers Some New Kind of Kick is a memoir about my experiences growing up as a queer, Mexican-American kid in Los Angeles in the ‘70s, and how I found freedom and community through music. Many of these songs have deep personal significance for me, and I hope you’ll be able to find some significance in them too.

“Declarate Inocente” – Lucha Villa

My sense of the dramatic was forged early by hearing the music my parents listened to, especially the rancheras songs of Lucha Villa. I didn’t know Spanish at the time but from the emotion in her voice I could have guessed the lyrics:

“Light me on fire if you want me to forget you,
Put three bullets in my forehead,
Do with my heart what you want,
And then for love’s sake, declare yourself innocent”

“Moonage Daydream” – David Bowie

David Bowie gave license to be free with my secrets of being a queer teenager. His alien like androgyny made so much sense in puberty, growing awkwardly into my body, experimenting with drugs and sex. A bisexual rockstar from Mars was a perfect analogy for my conflicted queer teen years.

“Piss Factory” – Patti Smith

I mailed away for this 45 from the back pages of LA fanzine Back Door Man. My first peek into what was to become the punk beatnik literary mashup of Patti Smith. Attitude and dreams of escaping small dead end factory job for the bright lights of the city and becoming something or someone else really spoke to me. Just piano, guitar, voice and guts.

“53rd & 3rd” – The Ramones

The Ramones shocked me out of a deep depression after a murder in my family rendered me dead inside. The Ramones replaced it with hope, humour and a leather jacketed buzzsaw noise. What I needed at the exact right time. Started a fan club. My life was saved by rock and roll.

“Christmas Weather” – Student Teachers

In 1978, I took a Greyhound Bus from LA to NYC and was befriended by the teen members of Student Teachers and The Blessed. Wild nights at Max’s and CBGB ensued. I crashed in their crash pad. 45 years later, I am still a family with these ones.

“Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)” – Siouxsie and the Banshees

In 1978, while on an acid trip, me and my friend Pleasant heard this song and decided the atomic bomb was going to drop so the only recourse was to dig an underground tunnel to a liquor store and wait it out, wearing bright clothes from Fiorucci naturally. What could go wrong?

“Gun Slinger” – Bo Diddley

In 1979, a weird kid named Jeffrey Lee Pierce asked me to be in a band with him as the guitarist. I told him I didn’t play guitar. Not to be deterred, he loaned me a guitar and gave me a cassette tape with this song on it, exclaiming “It’s only one chord and it’s great!” I played along for hours every day. The Gun Club was formed. I was now a guitar player!

“New Kind of Kick” – The Cramps

This 1981 release was only the second time I had been in a recording studio. I was now named Kid Congo Powers and a member of The Cramps. I love the wild guitar solo and the lyrics by Lux Interior, “life is short, filled with stuff, don’t know what for, I ain’t had enough, I want some new kind of kick” summed me up!

“The Las Vegas Story / Walkin’ with the Beast” – The Gun Club

By late 1983 I was back in The Gun Club with my friend Jeffrey Lee Pierce. We recorded the album, “The Las Vegas Story”. The sessions were done at Ocean Sway studios at the same time Stevie Nicks was in recording something, and Ry Cooder was recording the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas soundtrack. We borrowed Ry’s whirly whirlies.

“Paralyzed” – The Legendary Stardust Cowboy

Not even working with the intense ones, Lux Interior or Jeffrey Lee Pierce could prepare me for the anarchy that was playing guitar for The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, whose real name is Norman. It was like chasing a wild feral cat! Almost impossible, but could be so cute and cuddly, if only you could catch him!

“From Her to Eternity” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

In 1987, I moved to Berlin Germany to play with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. My first recording with them was recreating a “live” version of this song for the Wim Wenders’ film “Wings of Desire“. Had recording with Ry Cooder’s gear on my last album put the good juju on me to be in this wonderful company of Wim Wenders? We are even in the film. What an honour!

“The Weeping Song” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

From my last recordings with The Bad Seeds in Sao Palo, Brazil in 1989.

“Lullabye” – Congo Norvell

By 1992, I had left both The Gun Club and Bad Seeds and moved to Los Angeles. I started a band with singer Sally Norvell called Congo Norvell whose mission was to pay tribute, in song and sound, to those touched by the AIDS epidemic. An epidemic so cruelly ignored by the United States government. Sally had also played Nurse Bibs in the Wim Wenders’ film , “Paris, Texas”. This Wim Wenders thing is getting spooky! Or more to the point, Wim has excellent taste in music—on that we can agree!

“He Walked In” – Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds

Many years after the death of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, he still visits me in my dreams.

Some New Kind of Kick: A Memoir by Kid Congo Powers  is a guitarist and singer-songwriter best known for his work with The Gun Club, the Cramps, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. He is currently the frontman for Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds. He lives in Tucson, AZ.

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