In his new memoir, Kid Congo Powers tells all

click to enlarge In his new memoir, Kid Congo Powers tells all
(Luz Gallardo/Contributor)
Kid Congo Powers reads from his memoir, “Some New Kind of Kick” at MOCA on Thursday, Nov. 17.

Named after The Cramps’ classic banger, Kid Congo Powers’ new book “Some New Kind of Kick” with co-author Chris Campion is a confidential, coming-of-age memoir.

The illustrious guitarist formerly with The Cramps, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and The Gun Club details the exploits and misadventures of a young, queer Chicano kid, set against the hedonism and revolutionary spirit of the 1970s and ’80s underground music scenes. 

Born in La Puente, California, in 1959, Brian Tristan was later christened Kid Congo Powers by Lux Interior and Poison Ivy shortly after joining The Cramps in 1980. He found inspiration in the invocation on the label of a Santeria candle. 

Powers is a second-generation Mexican American. He describes his early childhood as prosaic. 

“Life was pretty good. I had a great mother and father and two sisters. At the time La Puente was a brand-new suburb in the San Gabriel Valley. Lots of kids around. I was never at a loss for friends and neighborhood trouble.” 

But the normalcy of suburban life would not last. 

Raised in a Catholic family, Powers went through experimental phases. “During junior high and high school, I was more of a ‘weirdo’ into rock than a queer kid.” He was president of The Ramones fan club and ran a fanzine for the first wave of LA electro-punks The Screamers. 

Being queer was not talked about at home. 

“I could hide my queerness in things like glam rock,” Powers said. “Music gave me license to be free, to be flamboyant and the desire to explore what was going on inside me.” 

During this formative period, Powers found a confidant in his beloved cousin Theresa. She was his age and understood. They shared secrets. “She was one of the first people who I said, ‘You know, I could maybe be bisexual.’” 

With her he found acceptance. 

Tragically, Theresa was murdered in Boyle Heights. The case remains unsolved. 

“I was about 15 years old when it happened.” 

For Powers the Earth shifted axis. 

He did not receive much in the way of guidance from the adults. “They were in their own grief and maybe didn’t know how to explain it to a young kid.” 

He was left to find his own ways to cope. 

“The walls went up, and the gates went down,” Powers recalled. “No one (in my family) was going to talk about it. I had to take things into my own hands.” 

What ensued was a heady period of experimentation mixed with nihilism. 

“I decided that I was going to experience everything,” Powers stated. “Because life is not worth much. And it can be over at any second.” 

Powers found escape in the changing musical tide. Glam rock was an explosion that resonated deep within his soul. 

“David Bowie stood as a teenage dream,” Powers reminisced. “The Ziggy Stardust character provided an amazing analogy for a teenager, being a sexually ambiguous alien lost in outer space.” 

The timing was perfect. 

Identifying with a group of people bored with convention, Powers found the way to deal with the depression after losing a family member to gun violence. 

“Finding excitement was my holy grail,” he said. “The crazier and more fun, the better.” 

Glam rock created a safe space. 

“It gave me a sense of liberation. I could have queer feelings or not. I could dress up and be ambiguous or not,” Powers added. “Very much like what’s going on with trans kids today.

“I was about 14 or 15 when I started going to Rodney Bigenheimer’s English Disco, in LA.” 

For a misfit searching for identity, the legendary Sunset Strip den of iniquity, that catered to the glam rock movement, proved to be a place where Powers could mark his own identity. 

The glam scene interwove seamlessly with the gay disco scene, during that time. The Other Side and The Odyssey nightclubs were frequented by the English Disco crowd. The Paradise Disco was also a regular haunt with glam rockers. “You could always buy quaaludes there,” Powers said. 

“I couldn’t afford expensive designer clothes, so I actually made my own clothes. I got into sewing because I was like, ‘Oh, I have to make this satin outfit or suit,’” Powers recalled, fondly. “I would put glitter on my platform shoes. I could be completely flamboyant, primping around, prancing, dancing and romancing.” 

Yet, music is a fickle art form. And change is the only constant. 

“This was also the beginning of bands like the Runaways. They formed a bridge that spanned between glam rock and punk, that was more hard rock.” Along with seminal proto-punk acts like a dog-collared Iggy Pop and The Stooges and The MC5 — meting out a raw, at times vicious, brand of rock ‘n’ roll — this advance guard rapidly gained notoriety. 

Rooted in ’60s garage rock, punk as a reactionary movement — against what punks saw as bombastic forms of heavy metal, progressive and arena rock — exploded in the United States and England by the late ’70s. 

“Patti Smith, in 1975 when ‘Horses’ came out, completely changed my whole idea of performance.” And opened yet another door of exploration for Powers into Beat poetry and literature. 

“Perfect for the ‘Catholic kid’ was the first line from Smith’s first album, ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.’” From that moment on, Powers found a new religion, worshiping at the feet of the Godmother of Punk Rock. 

During this time Powers met Jeffrey Lee Pierce — who unbeknownst to him at the time would become his consort in The Gun Club — while standing in line at The Whisky a Go Go, queued up to see Pere Ubu. 

“He just struck me. He didn’t really look punk. He was dressed in an homage to Deborah Harry: a white trench coat, a big Deborah Harry badge, weird ribbons in his hair and two-tone saddle Oxford shoes.”

“‘This guy’s a real weirdo,’ I thought. ‘But I like him.’ He was neither a slick city guy nor a hard punk rocker. He was something else, I like confused identities.” 

Intrigued, the two spoke, as they drank from a brown paper bag. 

The music fanatics discovered they had common ground. 

“We had both been gripped by a desire to search out new music, sounds, scenes, and people. Like me, Jeffrey had been to New York, where he had tried to start a band. And while reviewing reggae releases for Slash magazine, he’d gone to Jamaica to experience the music at its source,” Powers enthused. 

The conversation culminated with Pierce proposing that they should start a band together. 

“Well, I don’t play anything,” Powers replied. Despite having a lot of musician friends, being in a band was something he had never seriously considered. 

Undaunted, Pierce said he could teach Powers an easy method to learn guitar, using open E tuning. “‘That’s how blues musicians play slide guitar,’” he explained. “‘You can play chords with one finger.’ He made it sound easy enough.” 

Despite Powers’ reluctance to take the blind leap of faith, crossing over from fan to musician, ultimately, it was Pierce’s confidence and insistence that persuaded Powers to embrace the do-it-yourself spirit of the times and jump. 

“‘We’ll get free drinks and get into shows easier,’ he said with the glee of a carny who’s hit on a surefire scam. If I was feeling trepidation before, I was all in now,” Powers said with verve. “Free drinks? Sold!” 

The next day a nascent version of The Gun Club was born. 

“We made something out of nothing.” 

Pierce, ever ambitious, hoodwinked their first gig opening for The Blasters at The Hong Kong Café; an infamous Chinatown venue host to numerous early West Coast punk rock shows during the late 1970s and early ’80s. 

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m not ready to play.’ We had just started rehearsing.” 

“Everyone (on the scene) was just making up new sounds and creating a new language,” Powers recalled. “That’s what The Gun Club was doing.” 

“We set out to destroy music, as much as create it.” 

“The more chaos, the more magic,” served as the band’s unwritten manifesto. 

And that is where Powers’ story begins.   

Kid Congo Powers reads from his memoir, “Some New Kind of Kick,” followed by a Q&A and book signing
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17
WHERE: MOCA: Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson, 265 S. Church Avenue, Tucson
COST: Free admission
INFO: 520-624-5019
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