How You Get Excitement
First thing Kid Congo Powers even says: "It's all true!" Then he laughs like a TV horror host. "I did everything," he says, and truly he did. Except scout Jamaica for on-the-spot reggae scene reports (Jeffrey Lee Pierce did that) and play at the California State Mental Hospital in Napa (Bryan Gregory did that) and visit Tiananmen Square when the tanks were rolling in (but that same year he was in Berlin when they pulled down the wall, mixing a Bad Seeds record while the streets below clogged with people) and write a book, which he is working on right now in Washington, D.C., his home-in-exile after years in New York City. As fiction it would be Zelig-on-45 but this is factual heroic biography: teenage Kid Congo went from Ramones fan club president and Screamers newsletter publisher (he lived/typed in their walk-in closet) to guitarist in Gun Club, Cramps and the Bad Seeds, three bands with some of the longest silhouettes in their generation, and sideman to history beside Wim Wenders (in a remake of Wings of Desire) or Michael Gira (in Angels of Light) or Ian Svenonious (Make*Up tour support and he gives Svenonious' new political tract to this cheerful review: "Great crackpot theory with underlying truth—hysterical and then you realize he's right!") plus record collector (he gave "The Crusher" to the Cramps) and record producer (Starlite Desperation and more) and world traveler and more but he still sounds so rested and ready on the phone today. "I'm saving it all for you!" he says, and laughs like a horror host again. His newest band Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds flaps out on tour tomorrow. Try to find time to mention that, he asks politely. We can't just stick to the past—but Kid, there's so much of it!
"Every lament," he says, "is like 'I was born in the wrong time.' I feel I was born in the right time—I feel like I was exactly where I wanted to be."
Little Kid Congo—then Christian-named Brian, and then growing up in La Puente, which then may have been boring but seems at least adequately exciting now. Cool rock & roll neighbors had a high school band that covered Mott the Hoople and other cool rock & roll things and one day they took baby Kid to go see the Mothers of Invention. This also may have been the same neighbor who took baby Congo to go see Pink Flamingos at the drive-in. ("Who knew what was brewing in La Puente in all those suburban homes?" says Kid, possibly arching an eyebrow.) And that popped it: baby Kid was bored to high grades in high school but he knew he was going nowhere, and though like many kids he was sure he belonged in New York City and even told his parents as much, baby Kid actually pulled together the $69 for the bus trip ("Couldn't afford the $100 plane fare!") and with a bunch of LA proto-punk friends (Trudie and Hellen Killer and Mary Rat!) on the Greyhound they fermented ("Who was sleeping? We were on so many drugs! We raided our family medicine cabinets!") until they got to New York and no wave/CBGB's/that whole deal crawled right into his lap. Congo doesn't remember how long he stayed: "Months, years, who knows?"
One day he was somehow back in LA and he made friends with also fearlessly rootless Jeffrey Lee Pierce, who showed him how to play guitar with an open blues tuning, and that started Gun Club—The Birth, The Death, The Ghost. And then the Cramps moved to LA and got him out of Gun Club—Psychedelic Jungle. Then back to Gun Club: The Las Vegas Story, Mother Juno. Then Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Tender Prey, The Good Son. Back and forth and in between: piles of vinyl more, none of which Congo says he could much stand until later ("I can't listen to anything after I make it—'shoulda pushed that knob up there,' or blah-blah. Usually I just need to make another record and then not listen to that one!") and most of which pitches and spins around Congo's singularly screwy guitar style: post-punk in the truest American way, a '76-by-way-of-'56 concatenation that lops the tops off every weirdo guitar crank woodshedder you'd want. Coulda played with Sonic Youth, coulda played with the Seeds, coulda played with Charlie Feathers, and now plays with Pink Monkey Birds where Congo sings! Like Ninotchka with GARBO LAUGHS! Except for Fur Bible's noisy Jesus-And-Mary-Antecedent 12", Congo usually let his guitar carry the conversation. But on Philosophy and Underwear, his vox: part Richman's ". . . the girls would turn the color of an—AVO-CADO!" and part Reed's ". . . ya hit me with a FLOWW-er!" plus a lot of one of those dissipated French swooners (Jacques Dutronc?) for a record that's Transformer just drooling noise and sarcasm. What range, say the Berliners!
But that's the beauty, says Congo: "You do your history and your excavations and you find out how all these things connect. I started from whatever turned me on as a teenager and went backwards from there—from Iggy Pop and the Stooges and finding out he probably liked Little Richard and Elvis Presley—this is the record collector mentality—and then finding what they listened to, and that's blues and be-bop in the '40s, and from the '40s back and back to a cornfield somewhere, someone in a cornfield with a microphone," he says. "And you apply it all in some new kind of way. And finally you destroy it! Mash it up! Punk was when everyone was so bored and the only thing to do was find out what was exciting—how do you get excitement?"
And, well, you know, I asked him back: so how do you? "Stop at nothing!" he said. "Really!"
KID CONGO AND THE PINK MONKEY BIRDS WITH WHITE (MEMBER OF GREEN ON RED) AND THE LEGENDARY SWAGGER AT DETROIT, 843 W. 19TH ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 642-0600. THURS., NOV. 9. $6. 21+.
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