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Life lessons from Kid Congo Powers, punk legend

As he prepares to step up to the NGV for the Friday Nights series, one of punk's grandaddies shares some important life lessons

Rick Marr

Kid Congo Powers is a US punk-rock legend. He's a founding member of the Gun Club, was a bassist for The Cramps, one of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds and now fronts his own punk, psychobilly, rock’n’roll-riot outfit Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds. Here's just a snippet of what he's learned on life's rock highway.

Movies shape impressionable young minds
Think carefully before planting your baby bro in front of the box: they take in more than you’d think. My parents were Mexican/American, very middle class, very normal, but somehow we ended up going to the local drive-in to see really strange movies,” Powers says. “The first time I went to a drive in theatre was to see Olivia de Havilland in a movie called Lady in a Cage, one of those ’60s movies about freaks out for kicks. Then I saw The Trip with Peter Fonda. I was just a little kid. I kept thinking later in life that my parents probably thought that I wasn’t even going understand any of this, but it was all completely fascinating to me. When I was eight or nine years old I was thinking, ‘one day, I’m going to take a trip too'. My milieu was set early." 

It’s more fun when you don’t know what’s coming next
Lux Interior, The Cramps’ late and wild frontman, was known to wrap the mic lead around Power’s legs and drag him about like a prisoner behind a stage coach. Can you prepare yourself for something like that? “We had a lot more energy back then,” Powers says. “Youthful exuberance and other stimulations helped, but it was magical. We never knew what would happen on stage – usually something wild and it was always on the edge of being a riot. Lux would be naked or go out into the audience and come back on with a girl’s skirt and top on. How did that happen?" 

If it’s not going to cause civil disobedience, what’s the point?
Powers DJs his fine collection of 45s. His musical leanings are diverse, but there’s a defining thread. “My question when I pick a record to play is, ‘Is it going to incite a riot’?” he says. “I love that about rock’n’roll. You can see old Bill Hayley concerts where people go insane and rip the theatre seats out. Rock’n’roll is entertainment, a release of all frustrations and the burning life up in a good way. It’s not hurting anyone. When all that’s combined with a primitive beat and loud guitars – it’s a great magical ritual.” 

Be yourself – you can’t be anyone else anyway
Powers bucked against being a lead singer, so how did he come to run his own outfit? “The real peace came the last time I saw The Cramps play,” Powers says. “I hadn’t seen them in ten or more years – I was watching them and it felt like the first time I saw them. They were so totally free to be themselves and Lux was as magical as ever. His clothes stayed on but he was way out there. So, I saw that and the penny dropped. That was the moment I realised, 'ok, you don’t sing like Nick Cave or Jeffrey Lee Pierce or like Lux Interior, but you’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to be you'. And I didn’t even have to go to therapy to find that out.”

Catch Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds when they shake things up during the NGV Night Series on Fri Aug 26.