Kid Congo Powers’ new memoir details a personal life story in which rockstar dreams come true against all odds. Powers grew up in East L.A., a queer Chicano guitarist whose passionate fandom (he was the West Coast President of the Ramones Fanclub) led him on an incredible path, filled with some despairing lows and more impactfully, many incredible highs. Playing with three of dark music’s most influential bands: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Cramps, and The Gun Club, Kid Congo is a name any fan of punk, glam, goth and early alternative rock should know, and his story is one that they will want to read, too. His book “Some New Kind of Kick” (named after The Cramps classic) comes out today, Oct. 19, with a launch party at Stories Bookstore in Echo Park. He shares two excerpts with LA Weekly readers here.
Passages below excerpted from Some New Kind of Kick: A Memoir by Kid Congo Powers with Chris Campion. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Joining the Cramps and the first LA shows
“What would you sacrifice to be in the Cramps?” said Poison Ivy.
She and Lux Interior had come to see me at the Wilton Hilton shortly after they’d moved to Los Angeles from New York, in the late fall of 1980. They were short a guitarist after Bryan Gregory had abruptly left the band. Kristian Hoffman and Bradley Field had recommended me as a replacement and told Lux and Ivy they should check me out, playing with the Gun Club.
I guess you could say I was a friend of theirs, but I was still more of a fan and willing slave. A fan-slave, if you will. I was also very in awe of them. When the Cramps would come to LA, Pleasant, Marcy, Trudie, and I were always the welcoming party who would escort them around town and suggest places to go, the same role we’d adopted for the Ramones. That’s how we got to know the band offstage and became friendly with them. Lux and Ivy always seemed so much older and more worldly.
This wasn’t a friendly visit, though. Lux and Ivy came with a purpose.
“We want you to be our guitar player,” they said. “Do you want to be in the band?”
I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more, but I was so taken aback at being asked, completely out of the blue, I was almost too stunned to answer.
“Yeah, of course,” I said. “Don’t I need to audition or something?”
They just looked at each other, looked at me, and that’s when Ivy asked me what I would sacrifice to be in the Cramps. It was a perfectly reasonable question, but not one I’d given a whole lot of thought to. That I would ever be asked to join my favorite band seemed so out of the realms of possibility, it had never crossed my mind. Even so, now that Ivy had put the idea into my head, she might as well have asked, “What wouldn’t you sacrifice to be in the Cramps?” The answer was nothing. And everything. Other than the Ramones, there wasn’t a band I loved more.
“Do you mean you want me to quit my band?” I wondered aloud. “Relocate? Quit school?”
“No, nothing like that,” said Ivy. “I mean would you sacrifice something like . . . a finger. Would you cut off a finger to be in our band?”
I had to think for a second. It seemed quite drastic. Not least considering they wanted me to play guitar. But what the hell, it was only one finger. I had ten. The upside was . . . I’d be a Cramp.
“You know,” I said, “I think I would.”
“OK,” said Ivy, “then you can be in our band.”
It was that easy. They even let me keep the finger.
After many months of initiation rituals, both musical and aesthetic, the time came for me to play my first shows with the Cramps in LA. All my friends were going to be there. On the first night, my parents came to see us play. Lux pointed out my mother, Beatrice, from the stage, introducing her to the audience by the Cramp name he had assigned her, “Allura Monsanto,
the Mexican vampire actress.” My mom proudly took a bow. What vampire actress doesn’t love applause?
If I wanted to make an impression on the hometown crowd, then the show on the second night would not be forgotten in a hurry. Halfway through our set, we’d play Lux and Ivy’s song “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” which would segue into a version of Dwight Pullen’s “Sunglasses After Dark.” While the audience was hypnotized by an assault of feedback, rhythm, and flashing strobes, Nick Knox would duck down behind his drums to retrieve a pair of dark sunglasses
and put them on, and Lux would yank his out of his pants, giving him an opportunity to do one of his favorite things onstage—expose himself. Ivy and I would turn our backs to the audience and walk toward our amps, on top of which we had votive candles and our prop sunglasses. Then we would all turn around again and reveal ourselves, cast in shades.
That night, I leaned just a little too far over my amp to fetch my sunglasses. A spark leapt up from the candle onto my hair, and, whooosh, it all went up in flames, igniting the Aqua Net Extra Super Hold hair spray I’d used to make my Ronnie Spector hairdo even more voluminous. The whole outer shell of my hair was now alight, like a flaming wig-hat. Except I didn’t know I was on fire because, one, I couldn’t see the top of my head, and two, I was wearing sunglasses.
Girls in the audience started screaming. Wow, this is so great, I thought. Who would know the Cramps would inspire something like Beatlemania in LA? Seconds later, Bradley Field, who was tour-managing for us, put a damper on things by running out from the wings and showering me with beer. Then Nick Knox jumped over his drums and beat me on the head with his sticks. Wait a minute, I thought. Was I playing that badly? What did I do to deserve this?
By the time I realized what was happening, the flames had been extinguished. The smell of burnt hair lingered, wafting through the entire venue like a funeral pyre of human flesh. The screaming turned to cheering. Without missing a beat, Lux, great shaman that he was, announced to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, the days of miracles have not passed. We present to you Kid Congo . . . the burning bush.”
Birth of The Gun Club
One balmy evening at the beginning of August 1979, I was standing in line outside the Whisky a Go Go to get into a Pere Ubu show. I was on my own and had adopted the appropriate antisocial stance for a solitary, awkward, self-conscious teen—head down, face to the sidewalk—when I spotted somebody moving toward me out of the corner of my eye. I looked up slowly, not really wanting to engage with anyone at all, and saw this truly eccentric-looking individual standing directly in front of me.
The punk scene in LA had grown to the point where there was a touring band passing through most nights of the week. At every show, you’d see the same gang of punky types, dressed identically in torn clothes, plastic trash bags, black on black on black, and leather, leather everywhere. The person in front of me looked nothing like a typical punk. He couldn’t have been more atypical if he tried. He wore an oversized Debbie Harry badge on a white vinyl trench coat belted tight at the waist. He had ribbons and bows tied into his hair, and black-and-white saddle oxfords on his feet. It wasn’t meant to be drag—at least, I didn’t think so—but it was certainly confounding. Wow, I thought, who is this completely strange creature? Soon he had a name. “Hi, I’m Jeff,” he said.
Jeff may have looked like an alien, but he wasn’t alien to me. I’d seen him before, browsing through the racks of reggae imports at Bomp!, the record store gig I’d landed after quitting my job at Licorice Pizza. Bomp! was a record emporium much more attuned to my taste. The store was owned by Greg Shaw, a baby-faced, die-hard music enthusiast with a blond bowl cut, who had curated the store into his own treasure trove of rare vinyl, mostly from the 1960s. These were stored in the back and sold by mail order at collectors’ prices while all the latest British punk and reggae imports and rockabilly and R&B reissues were racked up at the front of the store, where I worked. That’s where I first saw Jeffrey Lee Pierce, my creative partner in The Gun Club, the band we would form that night at the Pere Ubu show.
We never really spoke at Bomp!, beyond the kind of small talk record buyers and record store employees usually engage in. But I did become aware he had run a Blondie fan club, much like the one I ran for the Ramones. He seemed a lonesome figure when I saw him there, almost lost as he browsed the racks in a kind of dream state. But when I saw the albums he brought up to the register, I knew he had taste. They were all reggae twelves, things like Burning Spear, which was an obscure choice in LA in those days.
Despite his outré appearance, when we got to talking that first time outside the Whisky, he was very polite and soft-spoken. 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, something indefinable, a weird mix of things. But I couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was from the way he dressed. He had four different looks going on at once. That was another plus for me. I liked confused identities.
He offered me some alcohol out of a brown paper bag. As we passed it back and forth, each taking a swig, we struck up a conversation about music and almost immediately discovered we had something in common. 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 even tried to start his own band. And while reviewing reggae releases for Slash magazine, he’d gone to Jamaica to experience the music at its source.
The line started moving, and we filtered into the venue. That seemed to be a cue for Jeffrey. Apropos of nothing and entirely out of the blue, he said, “You should be in a band with me.”
“But I don’t play any instruments,” I said sheepishly.
That wasn’t about to dissuade him.
“Well, you could be the singer,” he said.
My immediate thought was No, I absolutely do not want to be the singer, and told him so in the most definite terms.
“OK, well, I’ll be the singer and you can be the guitar player.”
“I don’t have a guitar,” I said. “Or play guitar,” I added, just so there could be no misunderstanding on his part.
He was like, “I have an extra guitar.”
I said, “Well, OK, why not.”
Jeffrey said he could teach me an easy method to play, open E tuning. “That’s how blues musicians play slide guitar,” he explained. “You can play chords with one finger.” It sounded easy enough.
Jeffrey had one other trick up his sleeve to convince me to fall in with him and start a band. “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. Free drinks? Sold!
We went into the club. Pere Ubu blew our minds to smithereens. My brain was whirling with all the possibilities open to me, having taken the decision to form a band with my new friend. The idea of being in a band, rather than just seeing and listening to them, crossing over from fan to musician, was not something I’d ever considered, even though I had a lot of musician friends. But the way it had been proposed, so matter-of-factly, and Jeffrey’s confidence in me, even though we were total strangers, made it seem entirely possible. I didn’t exactly know how, but I was committed.
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