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From Glam Rock To The Cramps' Goo Goo Muck: Kid Congo Powers' Memoir Showcases A Life As A Queer Chicano During The Heyday Of Punk

A man with a medium-dark skin tone stands against a green wall wearing a lightly colored pink striped suit with his hands together. He has medium-length hair, glasses, and a mustache.
Kid Congo Powers' life story is a road map of punk rock in Los Angeles and beyond
(Luz Gallardo
/
Courtesy of Hachette Books )
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If you’ve caught the viral dance scene from the Netflix show Wednesday, you may have been focused on the weird jerkiness of Jenna Ortega, the Latina actor who stars as the titular creepy-kooky daughter of Gomez and Morticia Addams.

But the music she’s dancing to is just as memorable. Director Tim Burton soundtracked the dance to the 1981 tune Goo Goo Muck, by legendary psychobilly punk pioneers The Cramps, then based in L.A. The song's signature strident guitar riff is played by none other than queer Chicano rock icon and hometown hero Kid Congo Powers.

Ortega thanked Siouxsie Sioux first, among others, for the “help” and inspiration for her wacky self-choreographed solo performance in the scene. A few days later, Powers responded with his own tweet:

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He then posted a link to a YouTube video showing a young Kid Congo rocking out with Lux Interior and Poison Ivy.

It’s excellent, if unintended, timing for Powers, whose new memoir, Some New Kind of Kick, is out now, taking readers on a ride through the U.S. and European punk and post-punk rock history of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

It chronicles Powers’ rise from a queer kid growing up in a city named after a “sexually ambiguous bridge” — his description of his city’s name — to teenaged fan club president to punk rock-n-roller, and all the sex, drugs, and shenanigans that come with the territory.

On a Wednesday night in mid-October, an overflow crowd packed Stories Books and Café in Echo Park to greet Powers, best known as the former guitarist of the Gun Club, the Cramps, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

A book cover featuring the image of a medium dark-skinned man where black clothes with black hair over his eyes. His shirt is unbuttoned and his right reaches inside as he touches his bare chest.  The green and black lettering of the book title to the right.
Kid Congo's memoir "Some New Kind of Kick" maps out a punk rock history well-lived
Hachette Books)

Currently, the La Puente-raised Powers lives in Tucson, Arizona, and continues to play music and tour with his band, The Pink Monkey Birds, and other collaborations like Wolfmanhattan Project.

While his punk-rock stories form the core of Powers’ memoir, Some New Kind of Kick does more than simply narrate his musical life from band to band. “It’s not a rock-n-roll tell-all,” says Powers.

Rather, Some New Kind of Kick is a coming-of-age and coming clean story. It’s a story of fandom and its power to propel a life’s work and infuse it with musical, artistic meaning and purpose. It’s a story of finding community, seeking out “your people” who are seen as outcasts, fighting addiction and finding recovery, and dealing with trauma and loss due to a fast life.

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LA Stories

At the book signing, all kinds of Kid Congo fans showed up for his reading and conversation with Ian Svenonius, a Washington, D.C.-based author and musician from pioneering acts such as Nation of Ulysses and The Make-Up, who currently fronts the group Escape-ism.

Aging punk rockers who knew Powers from the scene back when he was still going by his birth name, Brian Tristan, sat among new-generation fans clutching vinyl copies of Gun Club, Cramps, and Pink Monkey Bird records for him to sign.

Fans filled folding chairs, stood along the side walls, and spilled out to the rear parking lot, all to hear Powers recount tales of his adventurous youth and wild days of playing in Los Angeles, New York, London, and Berlin with some of punk and underground music’s most influential bands of the 80s and 90s.

“It’s astonishing to me,” says Powers of the overwhelming response to his book. “It’s different from the kind of response to a record, where my personal life might be woven in a way that’s veiled in the lyrics.”

The memoir, rather, is raw and personal, a life laid bare in words for anyone who wants to read about it.

A black and white photo of the band The Gun Club performing on stage. The lead singer stands center stage with his hands wrapped around the microphone stand, while a woman to his left holds a guitar. A man on his right, also holds his guitar, as the audience watches below the stage.
A 1987 performance from the The Gun Club, with Jeffrey Lee Pierce (center) on lead guitar and vocals, bassist Romi Mori (left) with with Kid Congo on guitar (right)
(Courtesy of Jens Jurgensen )

There’s a teenaged Brian Tristan, all by himself in girls’ platform shoes, boarding a bus from La Puente to Hollywood to attend Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, “ground zero for every switched-on 70s glam rock kid in L.A.,” as he writes in Kick. There he is, a Bassett High School senior taking on the role of The Ramones' West Coast fan club president in the wake of the tragic death of his dear cousin, Theresa.

“Punk music was a way to deal with grief,” says Powers. “When you’re young, you don’t know you’re dealing with grief. I didn’t know how big of a trauma it was to lose my cousin to random violence.”

“Those subcultures give voice to the unseen—the punkers, glam rockers, queers, Chicanos.”

At the Stories reading, Powers reiterated the power that punk, glam, and underground rock music held for him as a balm and something that gave him purpose.

“My fandom went insane at a young age,” he told the Stories crowd. The Ramones fanzine he published and distributed at school and shows in Hollywood was the start of a budding community built out of a devotion to all things Ramones, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, and David Bowie, which then led to new musical connections and opportunities with kindred spirits.

Mapping Music Scenes

Some New Kind of Kick takes its title from a 1981 song by the Cramps, “New Kind of Kick,” a raucous, thumping song that prominently features Powers’ driving, fuzzy guitar riff. “The way the track was mixed, the guitar leaps out of the speakers, grabs you by the throat, and doesn’t let go,” he writes. “It remains one of my proudest achievements from my time with the Cramps.”

Similar to the song, the memoir leaps off the page, grabs you by the eyeballs, and refuses to let go. From the opening chapter’s provocative gender-bending take on his hometown’s name, “La Puente,” to the final chapter about Jeffrey Lee Pierce, his Gun Club band-mate, soul brother, and “alter ego.”

Much of the time, Some New Kind of Kick reads like a map of the times, places, and spaces of the various subcultures and music scenes that Powers bore witness to and helped to shape. He shows us the “burgeoning community of freaks [he] was a part of in the nascent punk rock scene” of Los Angeles and Hollywood in the 1970s and early 1980s when Powers went from fan club “prez” to Gun Club guitarist.

We read about life during the storied eras of New York and London when Powers played with the Gun Club and the Cramps. We see him as a Bad Seed in Berlin when the wall came down in 1989.

Two men sit in front of a brick wall painted that is red, yellow, and orange.  Taped to the wall is a large piece of white paper with a crudely drawn map. The man on the left has medium-dark skin and is wearing a brimmed hat with glasses, a mustache, and all-black clothing. He's speaking into a microphone with a toothy grin on his face. The man to his right has light skin with dark black hair and is wearing a black dotted scarf while listening.
Kid Congo Powers wowed the audience at Stories in Echo Park, including his conversation partner Ian Svenonius, with his tales of punk rock lore.
(Monica Hidalgo
/
LAist )

The book-as-map played out on stage the night of the Stories reading when Ian Svenonious hand-drew a map of “Kid Congo’s L.A.'' during their conversation that night. The fun exchange became an audience participation moment, with people calling out names of places for Svenonious to mark on the crowded piece of paper.

That moment illustrated the important archival work of Powers’ memoir, which serves as a record of the particular places and contexts that inform the making of music and culture on the margins.

We Were There

For UC Riverside professor Ricky T. Rodriguez, Powers’ life story represents an important example of outgrowing the dominant culture’s expectations for the kind of music Chicanos and Latinos are supposed to like.

His new book, A Kiss Across the Ocean: Transatlantic Intimacies Of British Post-Punk And U.S. Latinidad, explores the mutually informative relationships between U.S. Latino fans of British post-punk bands, including the Pet Shop Boys, Adam Ant, and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

“Kid Congo Powers was an early example of a kid listening to music that exceeded the norms of what’s expected of Chicanos in that era,” said Rodriguez. He points to Powers’ stories in the memoir of traveling to Europe and New York City as a teenager and how formative that was to the musician he would become.

To have a Chicano kid there to witness these scenes and introduce them to kids here, that’s an example of how we’ve been involved in these punk-glam music scenes that we weren’t expected to be in,” Rodriguez said.

To underscore this connection, when Powers tweeted about his part in Goo Goo Muck, he might have also tweeted a photo of himself with Siouxsie Sioux from a 1982 visit to Disneyland. In A Kiss Across the Ocean, Rodriguez writes about these photos taken by Donna Santisi. The photographs show “Kid and Siouxsie, with their almost identical big, black manes, and recall [Banshees bassist Steve] Severin’s comparison of the Banshees and the Cramps. In this instance, though, the Cramps are represented by this Chicano from [a] Los Angeles suburb” in the San Gabriel Valley.

Making A Memoir

Chronologically, Some New Kind of Kick ends on October 22, 1997, the day Powers “got clean and never looked back.” But the book’s final chapter is a story Powers first wrote in 2008 about Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Powers recalls a visceral dream he had about his old friend and Gun Club partner of seventeen years. It inspired “He Walked In,” a 14-minute song on Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds’ 2021 EP, Sean De Lear.

Powers started writing down more stories over the years, unsure what they would become. “This could have easily become just a book of lists,” Powers said, something he wanted to avoid. He took a memoir workshop and writing classes at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., when he was living in D.C.

“I took 10 of my juiciest pages, and I wanted to know if I have a story besides a punk-rocker tell-all,” Powers said. After workshops and feedback, he realized his story was more than that. “Rock-n-roll was there, but it wasn’t the whole story. I had stories about youth and place, confusion and weirdness as a queer and Brown kid.”

Ultimately, Powers succeeds in telling the story of his personal life on his terms, “no disclaimers, no moralizing. I wanted readers to be in my head and in my feelings. I wanted it to be like a dream you were flowing through.”

 Want to hear more? Kid Congo Powers will be in conversation with Dr. Ricky T Rodriguezon Feb. 3 at Riverside Arts Museum

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