Kid Congo Powers: “The sex was great. Love was silent. Sleaze was paramount’ | Music
“We sought to destroy music as much as create it,” says Kid Congo Powers of the Gun Club, a rambunctious punk-blues band he co-founded with Jeffrey Lee Pierce in 1979.
Powers also became 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, Humble Account of a Joyful but Traumatic Life Spent in Three of the Bands best-loved alts of the 1980s. As well as a nod to a Cramps track, it’s an apt title for a man who’s spent much of his life in perpetual pursuit of endorphinic kicks. . “Finding excitement was my holy grail,” he says. “The crazier and funnier, the better.”
Powers never wanted to be a musician. At first he was just a zealous fan. Growing up in a Mexican-American family in La Puente, California, he would take the bus to Hollywood at age 15 to Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, the mecca of glam rock. As a gay young man who wore custom platform boots with rhinestone lightning bolts, this was heaven. “Bowie and glam rock was my rebellion,” he says. “It was also a window into my burgeoning sexuality. It gave me freedom. Being something that parents and mainstream America thought was so outrageous – androgyny, bisexuality, space aliens – 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, was murdered: shot in the head and found in an alley with no clear reason. The case remains unsolved. “It was a major turning point,” he says. “She was my confidante and one of my best friends. It changed my whole family. It made me think that life isn’t 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 that life had to offer. Living with members of the electro-punk group the Screamers, he paints the portrait of an inclusive and experimental scene. “The sex was great. The love was mute. Sleaze was paramount,” he says. “There was no shame. We were very open-minded about our otherness and the otherness of the other.
His rabid fandom, which he writes about with endearing charm and teenage zest, led him to become president of the Ramones fanclub. Then he flew to New York. He lived with Lydia Lunch of the no wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and was so broke he ate out of dumpsters and scoured the floor for change at CBGB. When New York finally defeated him, he returned to Los Angeles. 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,” Powers said. “If someone believed in me that I could do it, I was going to try.”
He describes their act as a mixture of “entertainment and punishment”, with Pierce a wild and antagonistic leader. Powers’ unique playing style — 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 favorite bands. When their guitarist Poison Ivy asked what he would sacrifice to join the band, Powers, still a teenage fan, offered to cut off his finger. He got the gig without having to amputate. Would he really have done it if he had been asked? “I certainly would,” he said without hesitation. “I was playing slide guitar, so I thought, well, I could just put a slide on it.”
It suited perfectly. “As soon as I saw the Cramps, I saw my tribe,” he says. “They left themselves free. There was no limit to sexuality, no judgment, just encouragement. Although a gifted and versatile player, Powers is modest and credits others for being his inspirational tutors. “Ivy told me I should play guitar like it was a horn,” he says. “Shout, honk and punctuate. Then, once in a while, you let go and mourn. I thought that was genius.
While making the band’s second album, Psychedelic Jungle, they self-imposed sleep deprivation “so that our animal spirits would drive our creative impulses,” he says. Pushing himself as far as he could became a personal and creative mantra: “The more chaos, the more magic.”
But when they found themselves locked in a bitter royalty battle with their record label, the Cramps refused to write new songs. With tensions rising, Powers became frustrated and returned to the Gun Club in 1983. Alcohol and drugs had always played a part in this band, but things started to get out of hand. “We were very close to drugs,” Powers says of him and Pierce. “They were part of our relationship. Alcohol also played a big role. Get as drunk as possible to let the spirits take over. It was very important.
Today, with decades of sobriety behind him, Powers feels he was covering up the pain of Theresa’s murder. “It was a 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-medication. Drugs, especially heroin, at first, set me free. I was a shy kid. I was a traumatized kid. I was going in and out of the closet all the time, so there was confusion and the drugs calmed everything down.
Seemingly a magnet for chaos, pulverizing noise and unpredictable drug addicts, Powers soon found himself in the Bad Seeds. This was during the height of Nick Cave’s heroin addiction, when he lived in Berlin and could often be found strutting around with a handgun. Powers played on the Tender Prey and The Good Son albums, with the former having a particularly hot time. “Professionally I was on the rise, but everyone was on a downward spiral and falling apart,” he says. “When I started writing about this period, I was like, ‘Wow, that was really awful’.” police raided the hotel after Alexander Hacke of Einstürzende Neubauten started throwing glasses into the 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. Immensely brilliant and tortured artists, both extremely fucked up and high-maintenance individuals. When Cave’s girlfriend, Bunny, overdosed and died, it proved a moment of clarity for Powers. He joined Narcotics Anonymous. Bunny’s death, he said, “brought back to me all the feelings of absurdity, frustration and anger that had overwhelmed me when Theresa was murdered.”
The Gun Club finally died out in 1995 and a year later Pierce died of a brain haemorrhage, aged 37. Monkey birds.
“The thrust of it all was my relationship with Jeffrey,” he says. “People look at Jeffrey in so many ways: drug addict, worst enemy, talented, tortured, all kind of true, but he was also an incredible friend, teacher, dreamer, and incredible visionary. I felt privileged to be in his company while he was on earth. I owe him everything. I miss him. Just from our fandom, we created magic.