“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 fanclub. Then he took off for 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 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.”
Some New Kind of Kick: A Memoir by Kid Congo Powers is published 20 October on Omnibus Press.
This content was originally published here.