It's been said that Kid Congo Powers (born Brian Tristan) has one of the most impressive resumes in rock. He was a founding member of the hugely influential LA band, The Gun Club, and a member of The Cramps and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. But in reading his brief but moving memoir, Some New Kind of Kick, you realize that such a back-of-the-napkin assessment misses the magic of his full story.
Some New Kind of Kick begins with Kid's childhood in La Puente, CA. The first few chapters paint a vivid picture of the early experiences that will come to define the themes of his life (and the rest of the book). First is the gender fluidity of the name La Puente. Puente means "bridge" and should take the masculine article El. La is feminine. The feminine bridge (the title of the first chapter). Oh, and there's no bridge in La Puente. Young Kid, who knows at an early age that he's queer, finds perverse pleasure in a hometown that's not sure if it's a he or a she.
From the roof of Kid's home in Feminine Bridge, he can see the screens of two drive-in movie theaters off in the distance ("projecting movies in direct moral conflict with each other"). One theater is partial to Disney and light family fare, the other shows adult, psychotronic films. From the rooftop, he watches both at the same time (The Love Bug on one, The Gruesome Twosome on the other). The high weirdness found in the oscillations between these two media feeds–good and evil, innocence and decadence, comfort and disturbance–becomes another lifelong leitmotif.
Then comes the scarring trauma of loss. Kid loses several people close to him in his teens and the shock and pain sends him into the mosh pits of the burgeoning LA punk scene and the numbing embrace of drugs and alcohol.
His first junior career in punk rock is as a fan club president and zine publisher. He dreams of being a rock journalist; he has no interest in playing music. He becomes the president of the West Coast chapter of The Ramones fan club (and then for The Screamers). In these early years of punk, The Ramones coming to town means Kid and fellow fan clubbers find themselves driving the band around to comic book and record stores and hanging with them at house parties.
This will become a reoccurring theme of the book: right place, right time. Some New Kind of Kick reads like a twisted punk rock fairy tale. Over and over again, opportunity presents itself and Kid is there to seemingly effortlessly grab the brass nose ring.
The Gun Club, one of the most influential and acclaimed bands in punk rock history happens after a chance meeting in line at a Pere Ubu show with a strange, out of place character named Jeffrey Lee Pierce (then president of the Blondie fan club). After chatting, Pierce asks Powers if he wants to start a band. But Kid admits he doesn't play an instrument. Jeffrey says he could be the singer. Kid doesn't sing. Then he can play guitar. But he doesn't know how and has no guitar. Jeffrey agrees to loan him one and teach him. And that's that. The Gun Club is formed.
From there, the book is a hold-on-tight roller coaster ride through The Gun Clubs' early years, Kid being asked to join The Cramps (who give him the name Kid Congo Powers), leaving The Cramps, re-joining The Gun Club (multiple times), endless concerts, tours, house parties, drugged out craziness that seems too insane to be real (it's real), and the creeping horrors of heroin addiction. Along the way, we're treated to an absolute who's-who of late 70s/80s punk rock (you come away realizing that Kid knows just about everybody and seems to have worked with half of them).
We get a break from this vertigo-inducing montage when Kid decamps to London, gets sober, unplugs from music, and begins working in a rock n' roll T-shirt factory. A chance encounter with Mick Harvey of The Bad Seeds (again with the magical timing) and Kid is back in a band, this time, the pinch-me assignment of rhythm guitar for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And over the edge in a barrel we go again, with a heroin relapse and all the death and depravity that goes with it.
Beyond the big three bands we associate with Powers, we also learn of his many and varied other projects, such as Fur Bible (with Patricia Morrison of Gun Club and Sisters of Mercy), appearing with the Bad Seeds in Wim Wender's Wings of Desire, touring with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, a short-lived dance music project with the Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie, and Congo Norvell, a duo with LA chanteuse Sally Norvell.
Some New Kind of Kick is a deceptive book. While there's tragedy and loss in the early part, it's told in such a gentle, almost childlike manner, that the reader is lulled into certain expectations. Then, wham!, the journey gets far more complicated and perilous as Kid's life and career march forward. Even though it's a slim volume, at 250 pages, and only covers his career up to the death of Jeffrey Lee Pierce in 1996, there is so much emotional turbulence and countless moving parts here. When you're done, you feel like you've been along for an almost heroic journey, from odd child to rock super fan to fake-it-till-you-make-it musician to musical legend, and all of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that such a hero's quest entails. In the end, Kid finds redemption as he fully embraces sobriety and grows into a greater and more positive sense of himself. Throughout, there's his intense and unwavering love of music, as both a musician and as a connoisseur.
Of course, being a book about music, with so many mentions of so many amazing artists and recordings, you want to fall into the rabbit hole of all it celebrates as you read. This is aided by a playlist that Kid put together to accompany it.
Some New Kind of Kick is beautifully produced, with perfect cover photography and fun internal dingbat illustrations (done by Kid's husband, artist Ryan Hill). The book was written with the assistance of music journalist Chris Campion (Walking on the Moon: The Untold Story of The Police), and a potent introduction by none other than Jon Savage (England's Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock).
There's a reason Some New Kind of Kick is popping up on a lot of Best of 2022 lists. And, with a new spike of interest in The Cramps, thanks to "Goo Goo Muck" appearing in Tim Burton's Wednesday, hopefully Kid Congo Powers will finally get the exposure and respect his "languorous sleaze" (Nick Cave) deserves.
Below is a Henry Rollins interview and a few gems from the Kid Congo catalog: