Photo: Martina Fornace
Kid Congo Powers grew up Latino and gay on the mean streets of La Puenta, California, before falling in with the glam and punk street kids of LA and New York.
Heavily influenced by The Ramones and The Cramps, he picked up a guitar and became one of the most influential counter culture icons of the 20th century and beyond, through his work with The Gun Club, The Cramps, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and now, Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds.
Powers is affable and amusing throughout our 20-minute chat – which is barely enough time to scratch the surface of his fascinating career. First though, he wants to talk about Australia, where he toured in the early ‘80s before a 25-year absence from our shores until returning a few years ago when he again teamed up with The Bad Seeds. He’s since toured with The Pink Monkey Birds and plans to keep coming back.
“The first times I can't hardly remember,” he admits. “I just seemed to have made so many friends from the ‘80s tours in Australia and I find the ones who are still in Australia are very vital and great and very much the same. Rock and roll people are rock and roll people. Some of them now just have grey hair and less teeth!” he laughs again.
“There’s a certain sense of humour, I think that goes a long way. A certain earthiness, you know? I feel very comfortable there.”
Kid was drinking in the alleyway behind Rodney Bingenheimer’s legendary LA English Disco aged 14, but it was a trip to New York which cemented his obsession, and landed him the position as president of The Ramones Fan Club.
“It's incredibly true,” Powers confirms. “I was 16 years-old, so it was exciting to me. When The Ramones came out, I just couldn't believe it. I was already a seasoned rock fan by then, and concert goer. I just started going to concerts when I was very, very young, and I saw The New York Dolls and I saw The Stooges, but I thought when The Ramones came out... at 16, it felt like that was my thing, and they just distilled all of the things I really loved up to then.
“I was a Los Angeles kid obsessed with New York - Lou Reed and Andy Warhol and everything. When The Ramones came out it was just faster, dumber, more hilarious, more harder than anything. It was sexy and dangerous as well. All those elements came together for me. I thought, ‘this band has to be the biggest band in the world’. I was going to do whatever I could, at 16, to make it happen… so I rallied the troops with our self-addressed stamped envelopes and xeroxed newsletters about the comings and goings of The Ramones on the West Coast.
“This was '76 '77. The Ramones loved it. All of that fanzine writing stuff was just becoming something, it came out of punk. There were fanzines before that but the punk fanzines, they saw that it was actually a communication. And so we got all of the publicity department at the record company and the managers and everyone - they loved us - they gave us all the swag and all the information and we'd just go to the office and they'd photocopy our leaflets. It was great – they got a lot of free publicity out of it.”
The Ramones were a huge influence on Powers, but as of this point, he’d still not picked up a guitar.
“Oh no... they were definitely an influence. I think they made guitar playing seem much simpler, much more basic than anyone. It wasn't tough solos or anything. But, they started a whole revolution of music with their playing. I wasn't playing guitar at the time, though, I was strictly a music fanatic, and it wasn't really for some years later that I was finally forced to play guitar by Jeffrey Lee Pierce of The Gun Club. Definitely, they were a template for what was later to come out in music.”
From there Powers travelled to Europe on a school trip and immersed himself in the music of The Slits, The Clash and UK punk. There seemed to be an ever-present aura of danger and drugs and violence about the scene in those early days. Was Powers drawn towards that?
“I was drawn towards it and I ran as fast as I could towards it and into it!” he laughs enthusiastically. “I was someone who... I wanted proof of everything. I was a sceptic, cynical, and I thought if I didn't experience it, I couldn't know what I was talking about.
“It’s also very romantic when you're young. That kind of danger can be very romantic. It depends who you are - that thrill-seeker gene, the daring… in a way it was seeking, exploring – archaeology. You were seeking to get yourself out of yourself as much as possible, as far as you could. Danger was.... the direction of caution was just merely a suggestion! But here I am!”
Powers says he wasn’t very involved with the recent 40th anniversary of punk celebrations around the world, apart from doing a few interviews, but at the time he was on his own journey of self-discovery, writing his memoir of the time.
“I'm fond of that time, and it was really good to take a look at that and... I guess what I really did find out was there was something familiar-minded about music from my childhood, and then punk came… it was obvious I was going to go all the way with it. I've always been a rock’n’roll lifer. I believe in the magic of rock’n’roll. I believe in the alchemy of collaboration in rock’n’roll and I believe in the hope that rock’n’roll gives me.
“I kind of wonder about my lessons through music. Music and films and books have been my education. After high school I didn't have any formal education. Everything I learned, I learned a lot from music, by paying attention to and listening to the things that influenced Iggy Pop and, obviously, Little Richard and Elvis Presley were an influence. With someone like Patti Smith, her literary influences were an uplift to that. I learned from rock’n’roll, everything in life - and that's what I found out from writing the book.
“It was a case of, ‘I'm going to write this and I don't know what it's going to say but it will tell me at the end, when it makes sense’. I'm still waiting for that final word,” he declares.
Young Brian Tristan, having formed The Gun Club and promptly been poached only a year or so later by The Cramps, was quickly rebranded by Cramps cult-leader Lux Interior. Legend has it that Interior had a packet of Santeria candles called The Congo Kid, bearing the catchphrase, ‘if you light this candle, Congo powers will be revealed to you.’ ‘There’s your name, right there’, said Lux.
Was it important to have that alter-ego persona to aspire to or was it more of an aesthetic thing?
“It became, in part, really the aesthetic thing, because to be in The Cramps, you had to have the Cramps name,” Powers explains. “Trust me, you couldn't be Joe Blow – though I guess that would be a good name, wouldn't it?” he laughs. “Lux was someone who always assigned roles to people - he even assigned a character for my mother. She would come to see us play, and he would introduce her from the audience and say, ‘she's a famous Mexican vampire actress named Aurora Monsanto. Please, everybody, give a hand to her’. My mother loved it. She took the role on herself.
“Joining the Cramps, I'd really only been playing guitar for one year. I was still completely a greenhorn, trying to fumble my way through, and I was shocked at all that I could play guitar, much less be in one of my favourite bands!
“So it gave me a chance to make a character and an alter ego, and it became a thing where I don't know how much was alter ego and how much was me, my own ego. I like character building - it was part of creating the world of the Cramps. I understood that it would take someone playing that role to replace Brian Gregory, the guitar player before me. I was a huge fan of his and a huge fan of the band. I knew I had to step up to step into his high heels, so to speak, and make something happen - and I didn't think I would be long for the band if I didn't make something happen. It's trial by fire and hang on by the seat of your pants to make it work. And I made it work.”
How much of that alter ego was informed by being Latino and gay in a society that was dominated by straight whites?
“I think it had a lot to do with it,” he confirms. “It was very much informed by that and it gave me a lot of licence to indulge in both of those aspects, to become an androgynous, weird creature with the long Specter hairdo and androgynous black plastic clothing and jewellery and make up. It gave me a freedom and I always thank The Cramps for being such proponents of sexual celebration. They saw that it was nothing taboo. It was just take it and celebrate your sexuality as much as you can. Live your life. Live the hell out of your life. For that, I'm incredibly thankful.”
Kid Congo Powers performs at Mojos on Wednesday, May 9, supported by Thee Loose Hounds and Catzilla. Full details via www.facebook.com/events/400609753700846/