Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Neil Young Archives, Bev Davies photos, and notes on 12 (or so) essential Neil Young releases from the last 8 (or so) years

Neil Young & The International Harvesters, Oct 17, 1984, at the Pacific Coliseum, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

The takeaways today will be, (1), the Neil Young Archives website is really quite something, and (2) his recent output includes abundant terrific new recordings and several solid, fascinating archival releases. Even without considering the ongoing Crazy Horse tour, it's actually a really great time to be a Neil Young fan.

Truth is, Young is always someone who comes and goes, with me. I have never lost respect for him -- but occasionally I've meandered off, trusting that when I came back to him, there'd be stuff I cared about. Probably the lowest ebb came around the time of Living With War, in 2006, where, clearly spurred on by the state of the world, he was aiming for something direct and topical, but it seemed on that album like he was throwing songs out there in draft form, without much craft, kinda taking advantage of his being-Neil-Young-and-all to just put out whatever the hell he felt like.  

Neil Young and his cousin, by bev davies, backstage at the Pacific Coliseum, July 30, 1983, not to be reused without permission

Some people might argue that Neil Young has always put out whatever the hell he felt like, I guess, but when they gripe thus, they're probably thinking of albums that he clearly put a lot of work into. Some of his least well-received albums ("the Geffen lawsuit years") now seem like weird-ass masterpieces, if you want to follow an artist with integrity down a rabbithole where he's putting a lot of care and craft and creativity into something really singular, regardless of whether the public understands or appreciates it. I don't know some of them very well (should I revisit Landing on Water?) but a couple of the albums that people almost regard as jokes have become favourites of mine. Check out "Payola Blues" by Neil and the Shocking Pinks, if you've missed that (I'm providing Youtube links for the benefit of readers who have not signed up for the Archives yet, but all of this can be better streamed, ad-free, on his site). And Trans, especially, is a fascinating record for how much art and vision he's brought to it, and if you understand where he was coming from, trying to bridge the gap between himself and his non-verbal son Ben, it seems a high point of ambition and engagement, an album worth thinking about over forty years later. 

Neil Young with the Shocking Pinks by bev davies, Pacific Coliseum, July 30, 1983, not to be reused without permission

Anyhow, my previous period of engagement with Neil, before the current spurt, started around 2012; I  thought Americana was brilliant, and though I was mildly irritated to find that tickets I bought for the Americana tour turned out to be for the Psychedelic Pill tour, released later that year, with nary an Americana song on the setlist, I thought Psychedelic Pill was pretty great, too, luckily. "Ramada Inn," in particular, was maybe  the most effective jammin'-with-the-Horse tune he'd put out since the days of Broken Arrow in the late 1990s (another favourite, well worth your time if you like the vibe of Young jamming with the Horse; it was enhanced further when that tour was documented by Jim Jarmusch in Year of the Horse). But for whatever reason, I "got off the horse" for a few years thereafter. It wasn't a judgment on where he was at, because some of it I flat out didn't notice. Maybe it was just that I overdid the bingeing on him when I last saw him live? And like I say, I trusted he would abide. 

Neil Young with the Shocking Pinks by bev davies, Pacific Coliseum, July 30, 1983, not to be reused without permission

Because Neil Young abides. That's actually an understatement, considering has released something like 28 live, archival, and new studio albums since 2016. It could be quite intimidating, but take my advice: it's worth the plunge. And the Archives are a great way to do it. I only signed up to the Archives -- or, rather, got my wife to sign me up as a birthday present -- so we could get a pre-sale code for the Deer Lake Park shows. Then I looked into the "filing cabinet," on the website, which features streamed versions of almost every official Neil Young release, along with abundant outtakes, official boots, and rarities. It's a bit more user-friendly on the desktop site than the Android app, which requires a bit more time scrolling to find the specific album you want to hear, but for about $25/ year, you can stream all the Neil Young you could possibly want for as long as you want. It's kind of like standing in a record store listening booth, putting on album after album, to see if you dig it, only there's so much material to hear that a physical record store would close down around you before you made up your mind what to buy. It didn't take long to figure out that I needed to check out SEVERAL of the albums I'd ignored since 2012... 

So I did. And damn, there are some fine releases that he's put out since I last paid attention -- much of it archival/ live, but not all of it; and most of it is also available on vinyl or CD (though Neil Young vinyl tends to go out of print quickly and stay out of print, so if you do want this stuff on record, I recommend acting without much delay; ten years ago, when it could be found at any store, I balked at Psychedelic Pill as an $80 triple-LP set, but now it's out of print and unlikely to turn up for less than $200). I've barely looked at the other sections of the website, like the Times-Contrarian (Neil's newspaper!), but this is mostly because the music itself is so compelling. You can even hear streamed versions of his early surf material with the Squires (see below) and the Rick-James fronted R&B group the Mynah Birds!

The top 11 albums I've checked out so far, that have merited repeated plays (and in some cases physical media buys!): 

1-4: Chrome Dreams/ Dume/ Homegrown/ Hitchhiker: Three of these are albums that Young recorded in the 1970s and did not release until recently; the other, Dume, is an expanded session of Zuma, which was one of the high points of his 1970s output, released in 1975.  Some have songs I've never heard ("Star of Bethlehem" is on Homegrown and Chrome Dreams; I have yet to determine if it's the same recording on both albums, but it's a great song that I'd previously missed). There are also early versions of songs that would end up on later albums, which show that Neil did not always favour an off-the-cuff approach, re-working and re-envisioning some songs radically ("Hitchhiker" would ultimately become "Like an Inca," on Trans, but only one verse and a basic chord structure get ported over -- it's 95% different! The Chrome Dreams' version of "Sedan Delivery", meanwhile, has pretty much identical lyrics to the 1979 Rust Never Sleeps song, and the same basic melody, but it is much more plodding and unevenly paced, a staggering stomper that is kind of bizarre to hear, if you're familiar with the 1979 version). "Powderfinger" and "Pocahontas," two of the most timeless songs on Rust Never Sleeps, appear in a couple of different early versions, as does the slightly lesser - but still very enjoyable -- "Ride My Llama." At some point I'm going to sit down and try to sort out for myself what the actual progress of "Powderfinger" was; while the lyrics are more-or-less the same from 1975 to 1979, there's a repeated between-verse riff that seems to be crudely sketched out in the Dume sessions, that gets fully-fleshed out by 1979, but is almost entirely absent from the Hitchhiker version and the Chrome Dreams version, which are shorter, stripped-down acoustic takes (possibly the same one). So it looks like he had his early sketch, played around with guitar parts, decided to jettison them, then decided that there was still something missing and re-wrote and re-worked them, adding new, better guitar parts. "Powderfinger" is one of the very greatest of his songs -- I surprised myself, in reciting the lyrics to Erika, by breaking down weeping, I was so moved. It's really great to get a peek into its evolution, especially since each different take works, seems worthy and interesting in and of itself. 

 Another treat on more than one of these albums is different variants on "Captain Kennedy" and "Little Wing" off Hawks and Doves. There is a reason why that, along with the Shocking Pinks record, is one of the Neil Young albums you're most likely to find used for under $20: all the best material is clustered on one side of it, with the other being on the "Republican" side of Young's spectrum, with the high point ("Union Man") reading as a goofy throwaway. I'd rather hear "Captain Kennedy" on Chrome Dreams...  

The least essential of these four is probably also the greatest of them, Dume. That seems paradoxical, but if you already have Zuma, 75% of the album is exactly the same recordings you hear on Zuma, it's just been re-ordered and re-contextualized with other songs. Of course, if you don't know/ have Zuma, it's the best of the four to start with, as it's a really interesting reworking of the album (including an outtake that appears elsewise in this run of four, "Hawaii," which is another terrific Neil Young song I did not know before I plunged into the archives; it also pops up on Hitchhikerbut I think I like it better with Crazy Horse). It's a fresh look on one of the very best Crazy Horse records. If you already have Zuma, on the other hand, the must-hear/ must get of these four is Chrome Dreams. 

5. Toast. I've seen Neil Young twice, in fact, so another high point of enthusiasm for his music was in, I think, 2001, when I caught him with Crazy Horse at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, At that show, he did a live version of "Goin' Home" (there's footage from I guess the same tour, in Germany). It's got this deliberately cheesy, presumably ironic "Hollywood Indian" riff to it, but whatever you make of that, it's a great song, and is one of the high points of the subsequent studio album he put out, Are You Passionate?, but something goes wrong on Are You Passionate?; it starts strong, but somehow just runs out of energy, runs out of life. Toast is the Crazy Horse version of that material, most of which Neil scrapped, electing to use Booker T and the MGs as his backing band, I believe on all tracks except "Goin' Home," which is still with Crazy Horse. Why did Neil scrap this material? Why did he call the album Toast? Not sure, but it's a really solid Neil Young and Crazy Horse album, worth your time. 

6-8 Way Down In the Rust Bucket/ Fuckin' Up - I have not caught up with all the live albums that Neil has put out in recent years -- there are several, and many from the early 1970s, which is not my go-to window; but I can tell you my two favourites: Way Down in the Rust Bucket is up there with Weld and Live Rust as a truly essential document: four LPs (or I'd guess 3CDs?) of essential Crazy Horse performances with high points from Zuma, Rust Never Sleeps, Tonight's the Night and Ragged Glory as well as some uncommon gems (a version of "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze" that has an alternate lyric about a couple fucking under a Ferris wheel (!); a live jam on "T-Bone," also off Re*Ac*Tor; a live take of the title track off Homegrown; and a song, "Bite the Bullet," that makes me think maybe I need to get American Stars n' Bars, one of those studio albums I have mostly ignored (it's probably third most common in the under-$20 used category after Hawks and Doves and Everybody's Rockin'). There's also a live take of "Like a Hurricane" off that album, too. It's the best all-round Neil Young live presentation, if you're into this period of his work, that you can find -- the material is as strong as Weld, but there's more of it, and while it's not cheap, the LP version is also not an out-of-print collectible yet, if you want physical media (you can get it on Amazon, still, for instance).  

Another really terrific live album is the recent Fuckin' Up, stylized with hashtags and such (Fu##in' Up or something like that), which is also being sent free in CD format to anyone who buys tickets to the current shows. It covers similar ground, presenting a fairly recent Rivoli performance of Ragged Glory material, all of which, except for the cover of Don and Dewey's  "Farmer John," has been re-titled (for reasons I'm not clear on) with lines from song lyrics. Songs like "Country Home" shine in a live setting (I don't see it on Youtube, but here's the Way Down in the Rust Bucket version). My one quibble is they didn't get particularly creative with these new titles, neglecting the most fun/ memorable images from the songs: "Fuckin' Up" should have been re-titled something like "Dogs That Howl" or maybe "Keys Left Hanging," for instance, which capture the Oops-I-Fucked-Up lyrics far better than the (perfectly workable, but not very evocative or relevant) "Heart of Steel;" while "Country Home" obviously should have been called "Someone Else's Potatoes" (vs the dull-as-dirt new title, "City Life"). Potatoes aren't important to the song, of course, but it's a memorable, catchy, weirdly pleasing line ("It's only someone else's potatoes/ if you're digging someone else's patch"). And it stands out way better than "City Life," which could be a song by anyone about anything (but probably not about a country home...). 

Quibbles, though: these are my two favourite recent Neil live albums I've checked out of late. Noise and Flowers has some interesting cuts, as well, but has a bit of auditorium echo to it that makes it sounds like a fan-recorded bootleg. And while Promise of the Real is definitely a worthy backing band, some of the tracks on it, like "Rockin' in the Free World," vary a bit from how Crazy Horse do them. If you crave variation, it might be interesting (their version of that song is also ten minutes long!). 

I'm very curious also to check out the soon-to-be-OOP Songs for Judy, too, for the somewhat jokier take on "Pocahontas," with a spoken intro by Neil about the writing of the song, and added lyrics that put Neil and Marlon in the company of Watergate lawyer John Ehrlichman, for godsake, and a couple of other celebs (Ann-Margaret, for instance). I've always delighted in the final verse of that song -- how Neil, after having fully identified with and gravely commented on the treatment of Indigenous peoples, takes the piss out of himself by positioning himself next to Brando, referencing the Sacheen Littlefeather moment on the Oscars; if you're unaware of that story, check out the documentary Reel Injun on Tubi, and note that there REMAINS lasting controversy about whether Littlefeather was actually Indigenous. The story of the song, the Oscars, and its moment in history is fascinating no matter what your take on Littlefeather is...  

It doesn't seem likely I'll ever interview Mr. Young, but it would be great to know -- especially since I gather that he shared a stage with (very political Lakota AIM-affiliated activist, actor, and songwriter) John Trudell at Farm Aid -- what responses he's gotten to the name Crazy Horse and songs like "Pocahontas" from First Nations peoples... My sense is that he generally gets a free pass, for being so authentic and respectful, but it's kinda interesting that Fu##in' Up is credited only to Neil and the Horse, and that the horse is now riderless... is someone getting sensitive about cultural appropriation, here? 

Also wouldn't mind knowing how people decide which songs get extended workouts, interview-wise: when the band did "Fuckin' Up" at Rogers Arena back in 2012, it was this epic, 12-minute long jam, with abundant lyrical improvisations near the end; the version on Fu##in' Up, by contrast, isn't much longer than the studio take, about half the length of the way they did it here. Why? Who decides, when, which songs get epic-length expansions? Is it a spur of the moment thing? Does it vary from show to show, or just tour to tour? 

Oh, and by the way, if you've missed it and crave vinyl from around the days of Ragged Glory, I see that there is an Official Release Series box set that includes an expanded, 3-LP take on Ragged Glory, plus Weld, Arc, and a 2-LP version of Freedom. It's not cheap, but it comes with nine records, and Ragged Glory alone is  a very pricy item outside the box. 

9-12: Peace Trail, The Visitor, Barn and World Record: So that's all great, but I should also mention four of my favourite recent studio albums by Neil Young. All of this you can stream on the Archives, note: paying the $24.99 membership fee -- I think that's the bottom tier -- is a superb way to preview this material (or consume it without a physical media commitment, if that's your thing). Peace Trail, recorded without Crazy Horse, is a quirky acoustic album from 2016 that feels very fresh. It also feels fairly off-the-cuff, but the songs are quirky enough (try "John Oaks" or "Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders") and the delivery just strange enough that I, for one, am sucked in, find it rather haunting and moving -- my current favourite of his studio output since Psychedelic Pill. 2017's The Visitor is notable in that it doesn't feel much like a Crazy Horse record, because it's not; it's a studio album made with the Promise of the Real, his other main backing band in recent years, but you really feel the difference in approach. The songs still rock, but have a somewhat more jagged, more unpredictable, rawer aesthetic than the fluid feel of Crazy Horse (try the Latin-hued "Carnival" as an example). Barn is much more in Crazy Horse mode, and ranges from the gentle acoustic "Song of the Seasons" to the more overt Crazy Horse rumble of "Canerican." World Record has a similar range, from rockers that are very easy to listen to if you're a fan of "the Crazy Horse vibe," like  "Chevrolet" and "Break the Chain," to gentler items like "Love Earth," which inspired the title of his current tour. None of this is essential for a casual fan in the way Zuma or Rust Never Sleeps are essential, but those albums are part of your DNA and you want something fresh and enjoyable from Neil, they're very fun (and more interesting than, say Before + After, which turns some less famous Neil songs into a quiet album-length suite; I grabbed that for the acoustic take on "I'm the Ocean" and don't regret having done so, but I care about the album as a whole quite a bit less than these other four studio ventures. They're all keepers! (And even Colorado, which on first blush was the least impressive of these new albums, has a great song on it, "Shut It Down." Might be another one that I need to revisit...) 

There's lots else in Neil's output of the last eight-or-so years, lots I haven't heard yet, but the Neil Young Archives is a really fine way to play catchup. He's not kidding when he says that he "Can't Stop Workin'." (Blogger is behaving strangely so I can't properly add a tag to that title, but see here. Fun song, and I know what he means). Find me another artist in his age range who is as busy.  

Neil Young and Crazy Horse missed a couple of shows this past weekend due to illness (they have not said who or what), but let's pray that the July dates go as planned. I never figured I'd get to see him live again, you know? (Or that any 78 year old artist would have such a huge spurt of new releases for his fans, let alone such a huge spurt of really very GOOD new releases...!). 

We're truly blessed. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Mini- concert reviews: Stephen Fearing, Darren Williams

1. Stephen Fearing, May 25, St. James Community Square

I don't remember why I picked up Stephen Fearing's first LP, Out to Sea, back in 1988. I might have read about him in Discorder or I might have done a blind buy at Collectors RPM but I've had that album (in a few different formats) for a very long time. As Celtic-infused folk, it was a bit different from the hardcore punk that I was generally listening to, back then, so it's kind of odd to be that I gave it a chance at all; my 20-year-old self must have been more open-minded, musically, than I remember him being -- but from the outset, I loved a few songs on it, and I've grown to appreciate it even more since. 

Stephen Fearing by Erika Lax at St. James Hall, May 25, 2024

I didn't see Stephen Fearing live until 2011, when I took Erika -- as one of our first-ever dinner-and-a-concert date nights -- to see him at Hermann's in Victoria, where he played with Andy White. It was very enjoyable, and though I had paid very little attention to his post-Out to Sea recordings -- none of his Blackie and the Rodeo Kings output, for instance, a band that I didn't even realize he had been in until that night -- I quickly fell in love with a song he played called "Black Silk Gown." It reminded me in the best possible ways of the New Model Army's driving songs, packed with a tension and romanticism that fit the material perfectly; I think I even sent a link to the song to (New Model Army singer) Justin Sullivan, in the course of a past interview. I decided last week that it would be fun to take Erika to see Fearing for a sort of gig anniversary, yesterday at St. James, and -- having had "Black Silk Gown" in my  head all day -- when Fearing asked from the stage if there was anything we wanted to hear, by way of an encore, I shouted out what my brain THOUGHT was the title of that song. 

"Long Black Veil!" I called. 

Oops. I mean, there are three one-syllable words in each title, with "black" as one of them, but they're very different tunes, there. Luckily, it turned out after the encore -- which was a song about leaving Dublin for Vancouver, as a young man -- that he simply hadn't heard me; I still apologized for the fuckup (though I fucked up my apology, too, now calling the song "Long Black Gown"... I mean, there's a REASON I spend extra time prepping for interviews, folks! I can be pretty clueless off-the-cuff). But my screwup got us talking long enough for me to get my Out to Sea signed, and to mention to him that it would be great to hear some of the songs off it some day (I mentioned "Cain's Blood" or "Welfare Wednesday" in particular). "It's true, I haven't played anything off that in a long time," he acknowledged. "I don't even know if I could play 'Welfare Wednesday' anymore," he said. But before I could establish whether he meant he couldn't connect with the emotions in the lyrics or couldn't manage the actual physical playing of the guitar parts, he was being hugged and gushed over by a female fan (or friend/), so I let the matter slide. 

It was weird that he mentioned his age (61), which made me do the mental math: if he's 61 now, and I'm 56, he was only five years older than me back in 1988, too; he would have been 25 when Out to Sea came out, while I was a mere 20. He looks older than 25 on the album cover!

Mr. Fearing is working on a new album, by the way -- The Empathist. He explained, by way of introducing a few of the songs off it, that he knows perfectly well that there is no such thing as an "empathist" -- "someone who practices empathy is called an empath," he said -- but added that the word "empath" always makes him think of Star Trek

He offered a few more riff around that, Star Trek stuff, and got laughs. He's funnier than most singers, when introducing his songs -- joking about the "plexiglass" years of COVID, offering a tale of the first time he got on the radio (pirate radio, courtesy of a high school teacher he had -- note to my future self, get him to say what the song actually was, if you ever interview him!) and describing a couple of his long-standing crowd-pleasers as "barnacles." (Something else he has in common with Sullivan: an occasional interest in nautical themesnautical themes). I recognized two of those barnacles from Hermann's -- one was "The Big East West," which kicks off his No Dress Rehearsal comp, but I didn't take a mental note of the other. 

Maybe I'll try to talk to him when The Empathist comes out, so I can seize the opportunity to bug him to play some of his Out to Sea material. He apparently lives in Victoria now -- I assume there will be other chances to see him. And so we may: it was a very enjoyable date night!

2. Darren Williams, May 26th, Laura's Cafe, White Rock

Darren Williams by Allan MacInnis

I went to a very different concert today, this time without Erika: Darren Williams, previously interviewed here. From the outset, this was a bit of an insane jaunt, which saw me walking to the Skytrain in the rain at 8:30 in the morning. Darren, for reasons unclear to me, was scheduled to be performing in White Rock at 11am -- which would mean at least an hour and a half's traveling from Burnaby by train and bus. It got even crazier when, after a few pitstops, I arrived at 10:45 at the supposed "venue," the Saltaire Amphitheater, to discover it was no venue at all, but some stairs outside a coffee shop near the corner of the Saltaire building, which they'd been presumably putting a tent over and ironically dubbing an "amphitheater." And not only was the venue no venue, nothing visible was happening there at all when I arrived -- no people, no signs, no nothing. (The cat here steps on the keyboard and types: 5r4tttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt). I circled the Saltaire building and checked various websites and one map. I asked two different passerby, who told me that there'd been a tent up there the day previous; but there was no tent today, no signs indicating where the venue had moved, and no explanations that I could see on the Facebook page for the Casse-Tete festival. Maybe I was reading the map wrong? I finally went into the coffee shop at the Saltaire and mused that it seemed at least possible that I was going to have trekked for an hour and a half from Burnaby to White Rock and an hour and a half back, having seen no concert at all. (I was very grateful that I'd had an errand to do at Redrum Records while I was there; their searchable website allowed me to pre-shop and establish that they did, in fact, have something I wanted to buy). 

Anyhow, I don't know how the morning went for anyone else who turned up at the Saltaire building, but luckily for me, Darren (blameless in all this) had read a Facebook post I'd done and put a comment up, letting me know of the location change to a coffee shop a few blocks away, when the posted location was deemed unmanageable due to rain. Aha! I made it to Laura's Cafe just in time to secure a seat. Darren was at the very least dubious that the morning coffee-house crowd was going to be receptive to the music he makes, but he rolled with it. And while I can't speak for his experience of all this, it ultimately resulted that I had a terrific time, so I'm glad he did. 

Roll with it, that is. A future question for Darren came up, too: was his lying on the floor during "Knee Jerk Inaction: A Composition About Global Warming" strictly a joke, perhaps punning on the idea of inaction -- he's even lying down as he plays it -- or was it like Pete Townshend said of "Dirty Water" in the liner notes to Scoop -- a way of accessing aspects of his range otherwise difficult to reach? (Townshend, if memory serves, lay on the floor in the studio to sing that). 

Actually, I suspect it was the former -- just a bit of theatre. It got laughs, in any case. 

Darren is very witty, in a dry, sly way (see here, for example: he had begun playing when he noticed a passing siren, and shifted his tone to jam along with it, then paused, saying we had to wait for the siren to come back around so he could continue -- which we did not do, but he let the pause linger). And considering my consumption of anything remotely avant-garde is at a low ebb these past few years, I quite like this new material of his. I find circular breathing somewhat awe-inspiring, somewhat unreal, like sword-swallowing or levitation or spoon-bending; it doesn't seem like it should be physically possible to do what he does. I also shot video here and here, as well, though that last song cuts. I enjoyed seeing his set more than I enjoyed either the Peter Brotzmann or Roscoe Mitchell gigs I caught at past jazzfests (but The Thing still reigns supreme). 

Oh, speaking of The Thing, Darren did what I think was a rock cover, but I didn't recognize it. Anyone?

Anyhow, sometimes the hardest-won experiences are the most enjoyable. It's possible that both the ordeal of my commute and the chaos and confusion of the unplanned relocation ultimately added to the experience, underscoring that something was happening where normally there would be nothing; it's harder to take such experiences for granted. I had as much fun -- maybe more -- watching Darren as I did at any of the concerts I've been to this month (and I've been to quite a few -- DOA, IDLES, Violent Femmes, Gustaf... it's been a busy few weeks, but nothing was quite as much fun as this weird little coffee sop experience). 

There was more to the day - a bone-in goat roti, some thrifting (Wilder's, a new location on the corner of Thrift and Johnson), and, weirdly, a visit to a farmer's market where I bought some rather huge farm eggs -- but it's bedtime here at Chez MacInnis-Lax. Catch you later. 

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Kid Congo: Squawkin’ like a Pink Monkey Bird - archival interview from 2016

Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds, 2024 by Luz Gallardo

In 2016, I did a massive Kid Congo Powers interview, which ran in a few places in a few versions, but never saw light on the internet in its complete form. It covers his time in the Gun Club and the Cramps, with a few gestures at Nick Cave and some reasonably candid discussion of his past vices. If you're interested in seeing a print version with all relevant photos, it is in issues 78 and 79 of Big Takeover, which are available for ordering and contain lots of other cool content.  Powers is coming to the Rickshaw November 1st; has other tour dates; a memoir; a new LP, That Delicious Vice (featuring some cool guests like Alice Bag!); and a new homebase in Tucson. There is also a new trio-form lineup, with Mark Cisneros on guitar and sometimes bass and long-time drummer Ron Miller. 

Of working with Kid Congo, Alice Bag -- who has a new album herself, Sister Dynamite -- says, “We go back a long time... When I was doing my book tour, Kid called me and I hadn't heard from him in ages! And he's like, ‘You're coming to DC! If you need me for anything, I'm gonna make some noise with you — I'm in!’"

“It always amazes me how deep those early friendships go," she continues. "You can not speak to somebody for years and years, but if you have punk rock in common, you're my sister or brother forever. So he came out and he played with me at one of my early readings in DC. And then, every now and then I'd see Pink Monkey Birds, but just randomly. Because he was living on the East Coast and I was living on the West Coast, we didn't see each other very often and fell out of touch again.”

Of the recording, Kid Congo adds, “It was actually Alice who said, ‘Well, why don't you just get us together and we’ll do it?’...So we wrote a cheesy lounge act song, which is of course much better than any cheesy lounge act.” 

That's all from the press release. Here's the old feature, with the original intro from part one. Enjoy! 

Kid Congo: Squawkin’ like a Pink Monkey Bird

By Allan MacInnis

When lyrics are abstracted to the point of meaninglessness - Brian Eno being “more dark than shark,” and that sort of thing - I don’t struggle so hard to figure what they might be. It’s a bit of a bad habit for a music journalist, but sometimes bad habits have unexpected payoffs: such as, I now have on tape none other than Kid Congo Powers singing a few bars of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” to me, by  way of explaining his current bandname, Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds. It’s a song I love, but I’d never caught the line at all - “Keep your mouth shut/ you’re squawkin’ like a pink monkey bird.” It could have been “big money Burt” for all I knew. “Is that what he sings there? Really?”

Kid - whose real name is Brian Tristan - chuckles at me a little. He’s a pretty delightful interview, actually.

And Kid Congo, of course, has legendary associations. Flip over the Cramps Psychedelic Jungle, for instance - BECAUSE YOU HAVE THAT IN YOUR RECORD COLLECTION, RIGHT? -  and the guy on the left in the swanky Spanish hat? That’s Kid Congo. He’s on second guitar with Poison Ivy on Smell of Female, too. He got his name from a Santeria candle that Lux and Ivy had, which promised the person who lit it “Congo Powers.” You can even see Lux Interior pickin’ him up by the hair if you do a Youtube search for the Cramps doing “She Said” live in Boston; it comes at the end of the clip, but the whole thing is worth watching (Kid rudely shoves Lux off the stage at the very end, but don’t worry, he remained friends with the band, and still keeps in touch with Poison Ivy, who has stepped out of the limelight since Lux’ unexpected and untimely passing in 2009).

Alternately, if you prefer the Gun Club to the Cramps, whip out their live album, The Birth the Death The Ghost; which documents the formative years of the band, featuring Kid Congo on guitar; he left before The Fire of Love was recorded, with Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s blessing, to be in the Cramps, after Lux and Ivy saw him play an early Gun Club gig and picked him. If you don’t have that album, maybe you have The Las Vegas Story or Mother Juno or Pastoral Hide and Seek, all of which Kid is on.

And then there’s those Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds albums…  

What you might not have yet is a Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds album. You’re forgiven, if so - there’s a lot of music out there these days, and it’s hard to stay abreast of it all - but take heed, both 2013’s Haunted Head and 2016’s La Araña Es La Vida are really worth your time, and very much in keeping with Kid Congo’s resume. Fear not the Spanish title of the latter album; Kid Congo’s exploration of his Mexican American roots has no bearing on that whole “La Bamba” thing - not even close! - but owes more to classic Mexican-American garage rock like Question Mark and the Mysterians (relax, I didn’t know they were Mexican either) or the East LA Chicano soul band Thee Midniters (never even heard of them til I talked to Kid Congo, but they were a big inspiration for him).

Mr. Tristan and I spoke earlier in the spring. We join the interview well in progress…. thanks to Bev Davies for digging up the vintage images! 

The Cramps backstage at the Commodore, 1981, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

I  hate to ask, but I wonder  if you’ve come to terms with Jeffrey’s death, where that sits for you these days.

It’s still affecting me. I’m still a bit lost, really. But yeah, we met pretty early on, we were just goofy suburban kids, y’know. We’d done a few things, but we were still very much on the outside of everything. I was running a Ramones fan club and he was doing a Debbie Harry fan club. We were still very wide eyed and bushy tailed, when we met. And we went through a lot of things, and like I say in my book [Kid is working on a memoir, not yet published], I have the distinction of being the person who played Jeffrey’s first Gun Club gig and I played his last. So I went the whole way with it, and even when I was in the Cramps or the Bad Seeds, we still were close and doing things. And I had spoken to him in the weeks before he died - he was at his father’s, drying out, and that’s where he died of an aneurysm. Everything just failed. And although everyone expected it, no one expected him to live for long, it was still completely shocking. I still find it shocking.


We had a sort of brotherly kind of thing, since he had no brothers, I had no brothers - we both had sisters, but no brothers, and he was brought up by a single mother, most of his life. So our relationship, I think, in hindsight, I realize we were brothers for each other, and that’s why we could work together and stuff even after arguing terribly and never wanting to see each other again, we’d always get together again. Blood is thicker than water. So Jeffrey was family, to me, in a rock and roll sort of sense. He taught me how to play guitar. He forced me to be in a band - I was reluctant. So yeah, it’s a huge thing in my life, but also it’s also the best thing that happened to me in my life.

…Working with Jeffrey?

Definitely. That will get a lot of guffaws from people who worked with Jeffrey! (Laughter). However, I had a very different relationship with him than other people did, because we started out from nothing, and I was hardly ever on the end of his total selfishness and lack of tact in treatment of band members. Which got better in the later years. But those early guys, wow, he really let them have it. But I always knew Jeffrey was worth it and the work in general and the effect the work was having was worth some trouble. Plus I didn’t know any other way! I was in bands with Nick Cave, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Lux Interior and Poison Ivy. Being completely difficult was just the way it is! Why would you expect it to be different?


The idea that these people are difficult, it’s not really that… They’re often complex people, often selfish and egotistical - and let me say this about myself as well. But the reason people find them difficult is that they have, or had, a very, very strong vision of what they wanted to do, how they wanted to do it, how it was to be said, how it was to be presented, and other people on the outside of that have a hard time dealing with someone so strongly committed to their vision. And they are all people who are willing to defend it to the ultimate degree and fight for it in any kind of way and usually just to tell anyone who didn’t agree with them to fuck off.

This seems like a good point to segue into talking about working with Blixa Bargeld.

(Laughing): Oh my God!

Of the people you’ve worked with…

“…maybe he’s the worst?” (Laughter).

(Laughing) What was that like playing second guitar to him?

For me it’s the theatre of Blixa. Blixa is theatre. Very much a Klaus Kinski school of theatre. Me and Blixa always got along completely fine, it was a professional relationship. But I spent a lot of time listening to him yell at sound people… but he’s a great artist, and he falls in the same category. He has a very strong vision of the way things are going to go, and his way to tell people how things are going to go is to scream at them. To me as an artist, and playing with him, I understand what he’s doing. It’s a strange method, to me - one I wouldn’t do; but, y’know, there is a method to the madness of his personality. And yeah, he’s the Klaus Kinski of underground rock.

I love Blixa as well - I mean this fondly. But there’s a story of him playing Vancouver, a small solo thing at Richards on Richards, and after his set he walked through the room to the street. Everyone was apparently trying to get his attention, and he was having none of it, in total prima donna mode, and he walked up to the first cab he saw, got in - and the guy was waiting for someone else, and made him get out. So Blixa had to stand there on the street trying to hail a cab while these snubbed fans who were watching sort of chuckled behind their hands.

Yeah. Equal parts Klaus Kinski and Marlene Dietrich.

How was living in Berlin? How did you end up there? 

Through the Bad Seeds. The Gun Club was living in London - actually, the Gun Club had split up, in yet another implosion, just at the height of our career at the time, and we were just over it. The drummer Terry Graham had left the band in the middle of the tour; we finished the tour with a pick up drummer, which was very disappointing. He wasn’t terrible, but he couldn’t be magical. And it was kinda one of those things where everyone was mad. At the end of that tour, nobody was speaking to anybody. It was not even factions, it was like, everyone didn’t want to speak to anyone. And so I was in London, and I started talking to Patricia (Morrison) again, talking about starting a band that never quite got off the ground. And I was staying at a houseboat in Chelsea, where Mick Harvey was staying, and people would hang out. It was some friends of ours - two sisters from Manchester who had a houseboat, and it was kind of a central for the likes of Bad Seeds and Australian ex-pats and [Einsteurzende] Neubauten and different people, so I ended up there, and they asked me to fill in for tour, for Your Funeral, My Trial; Barry (Adamson) had left the band, Mick was going to go on to bass, and they needed a second guitar player, so they asked if I would do the tour. And then I ended up there for over three years. I ended up going to Berlin to rehearse and falling in love with the city… especially after coming from Los Angeles, which was very industry-driven, with very big expectations, then London - very industry-driven again, a big pop town with the latest flavor on everyone’s lips. And so to go to Berlin - which at the time was West Berlin, the wall was still up, so you were surrounded by the east, in this very artistically-driven town, where immediately, the first thing I did with the Bad Seeds was being in the Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire. [Looks like there's more on this here!]

So y’know, it was very impressive breath of fresh air to be somewhere where all the arts met up, dance, film, music, and everyone was interested in all of it… performance, visual art… It was a very specialized feeling in that town, hard to explain, full of inquisitive, searching people. The conversations would never end. Fuelled by a lot of speed, but - y’know, your brain wanted to explode. There was always a deeper level. It was great, a great learning experience to play in a more experimental situation. The Cramps I had known and I vaguely knew Nick, but Mick Harvey was actually my friend. It was a new situation for me to be in, very exciting, playing a new kind of music. There was a lot of freedom in playing with them, especially the Bad Seeds, in the earlier days; everyone was a person who had their own thing going on, an already formed version of what they wanted to do, so it was like, “add yourself to this mix.”

I assume Berlin has a thriving gay scene? No homophobia?

Oh god. It was very decadent. There are no sexual taboos in Berlin! You would really be on the outs if you were moral about it. Of course, the Bad Seeds were quite macho, though - but I could deal with them, if they could deal with me!

I’ve heard very few negative stories from anyone who has played Germany, but I did talk to Joe Baiza (Saccharine Trust, Unknown Instructors, Universal Congress Of) about an attack that happened to him over there, where he was pretty seriously injured. He was very clear it was a racially motivated attack, a hate crime.

Yeah. I could see that. The arts were very free, but I don’t know about German culture in general. Berlin was definitely a safe haven, but Germany - it’s like here, there’s a lot of racism, you see it more than ever in the States, and they have super right wing governments. But yeah, there’s racism, but I’ve travelled the world, and I know that there’s strong racism everywhere. I lived in London  - terrible! I would get called a Paki all the time! It’s like, “Don’t you know what a Mexican American is?” But I felt for the Pakistani community there, because it was people muttering under their breath all the time. I was never, knock on wood/ luckily, outright attacked, but definitely verbally and mentally…

I think I read you left America in part because you wanted to get away from Reagan?

Yeah. It was a good excuse. It was a good protest, but of course, I came back and Bush senior was in office, so so much for our protest. But yeah, we were disappointed by America. The Las Vegas Story album, Jeffrey was writing a lot about being disappointed with the United States, and he paints quite a bleak picture.

Why was it called The Las Vegas Story?

Why not? The previous one was called Miami… I think it was going to be called Welcome to Las Vegas, at one point. It sounded like a movie title.

A film noir, or something.

And Las Vegas is an iconic American nightmare, dressed in pretty lights. But especially at that time, the mid-80’s, it was still a very downtrodden, sad place with lots of alcoholism and gambling and crime. It wasn’t the Disneyland that it is today.

Is that your proudest moment with the Gun Club?

It could be, yeah. It’s a pretty great one. The album - I haven’t listened to it in ages, but when I have listened to it, it holds up. The songs are pretty great. It’s a success on all sorts of levels - it’s pretty far-reaching, for us, in some ways, for a rock’n’roll band, for an LA punk rock band, to have strings and to do Gershwin songs, or to attempt putting Pharoah Sanders on there…

Pharoah Sanders is on The Las Vegas Story???

Well, he’s not on there, but there’s a cover version, an excerpt of “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” We were giving nods to our influences, saying we’re not just influenced by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.

How do you feel about The Birth, The Death, the Ghost?

Well, my involvement with that record… strangely enough, I wrote some of the lyrics [for songs on that album]. But mostly it was Jeffrey’s. He was the better musician, for one. But there’s some pretty rudimentary songs on that one. We didn’t know what were doing, just one riff over and over, stop-start, stop-start. Those are the ones I wrote!

Which lyrics did you write?

Well there’s a song called “Not That Much,” there’s a song called “Going Down the Red River.” Those two come to mind.

I remember it not sounding that good. Does it hold up?

That album, we don’t even know where that came from. We think it came from the drummer [Terry Graham]. His wife at the time, she recorded everything. I don’t know, because I can’t ask now, but when we came out, it was like, “what?” I think Jeffrey wanted it to put it out, obviously, because it got put out officially, in the beginning, when it first came out. I don’t know why he wanted this document, or if someone else at the record company wanted a document of that time; I think they were trying to tie things together, because I think it came out maybe after Las Vegas Story, when I rejoined the band. I think someone was trying to tie together the Cramps/ Gun Club connection. Those were the days when there were a lot of bootleg records, the Gun Club and the Cramps were bootlegged like crazy, and they were popular bootleg records, people bought them all the time. But people would just put out in any shit, but that was not in our control. But The Birth the Death was, because I know that the artwork was done by our friend Clayton Clark, who was dating Jeffrey at the time. She was a good friend of ours. So that was all very above board.

Is it interesting to hear yourself that early on?

It’s interesting because you can hear me falling to pieces on it! It’s incredible that a band like the Cramps picked me. Or maybe that was attractive to them?

(Interviewer and interviewee both laugh): Right!

 But it’s fun to listen to, and fun to think of the time, because we were making music just to make music, and wanted to make some kind of good music. It was just like, “wow, I found a language to learn, and to speak with.” So that’s very, very exciting. It’s like listening to a birth or something. It sounds like hell, it sounds horrible, and the playing is probably bad, but it’s like a birth. The Birth the Death the Ghost.  It’s just a moment, a small, if you’re interested in the inception. It’s an artifact, more to be listened to once they put it in a museum. It’s a reference, more than anything to enjoy.

Do you know who came up with the title?

I’m sure Jeffrey did. I think this was all happening before I rejoined.

It’s interesting that you mention bootlegs, because in prepping for this, I picked up a couple, including one that was a Gun Club bootleg, and now is an official release - Destroy the Country. I was really trepidatious at first: “do I want to pay $25 for this? How bad will it sound?”

Hah! Another bad sounding record! But that one is good. It’s well recorded - maybe it’s a radio show, perhaps. Or someone with good equipment was standing in the right spot or something. The performance is quite good, too, on that one.

…And then to come back to the Cramps, there’s also Let’s Get Ugly.

What’s that? I don’t even know what it is.

Oh. It’s still a bootleg, but it’s being put out again - I went through this section of Cramps bootlegs at a record store, and it’s like, “It’s Brian Gregory, it’s Bryan Gregory, it’s Bryan Gregory… hey, it’s Kid Congo!” It’s from 1981, sourced off a radio broadcast.

Oh cool.

It’s really good.

I’m sure! That’s good to know. I’m sure the Cramps geeks will know immediately where to find it.

The thing I wanted to ask about that. The photo on the cover, you look very different from the ones  that bev davies took in Vancouver. You look almost like Stiv Bators! You look a lot more menacing.


Was Stiv an influence in your aesthetic?

No, other than being a fan and friend of his. But no. I was more trying to look like Ronnie Spector. Ronnie Spector, the Shangri-Las, mixed in with all those bad boy boyfriends I sing about.

You look like you have a switchblade in your boot.

That was a very conscious effort.

You don’t look that way at all now. You look like you could be a librarian, a university teacher.

Yeah. I have horn rimmed glasses! 

I was hoping we could talk about a couple of photos that bev davies took when you were here with the Cramps, in 1981 at the Commodore. You have a guitar with a bat stencil on it...

Oh yeah - that was an Ibanez Explorer… or maybe it was called a Destroyer, or something like that. It was a copy of a Gibson, that had some kind of biker bat on it.

Kid Congo with the Cramps at the Commodore, 1981, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

That was your guitar?

Yes. Actually, the Cramps had that guitar already, I didn’t go out and buy it, it was passed along to me. And they had a Gibson Explorer, which was the same shape. The Ibanez was kind of the alternative brand of that, and I had that for my duration with the Cramps.

Was it Bryan Gregory’s old guitar?

Y’know, I’m not sure! I didn’t ask any questions, I was, like, 21 years old. I just thought - the Cramps have asked me to play, I’ll take the guitar. I wasn’t so geeked out at that point, I was more amazed and shocked and terrified.

Fair enough, though you look like you fit in quite nicely, you were every bit as terrifying as Lux and Ivy.

Hahaha. Well, that’s why they chose me.

You have some interesting jewelry, too. You have a tooth.

I have one tooth in my mouth!

On a necklace.

I probably had a few teeth necklaces, I had some bone-made necklaces that I actually bought at a Santeria store - a Latino-Cuban-South American witchcraft, that they used, probably, in ceremonies.

Do you know what kind of animal the tooth would have been from?

A chicken? A goat? I dunno.

Okay, all right. With Santeria - I’ve interviewed Chris Desjardins, and we talked about the back cover of Fire of Love, and there’s all these little Santeria bottles. Was Santeria a big thing in LA at the time? You got your name through a Santeria candle, right?

Well, we were trying to come up with a Cramps name for me, because it was still Brian Tristan at the time, and we were coming up with a big list, asking my friends and everyone, what should it be? It was a crazy list - everything from “the Thing” to “Brian Gris-Gris” to “Mr. Tristan.” There were all kinds of things, and we were like, “nah, none of this really works.” And Lux and Ivy had this Congo Chango candle at their house and Lux looked it over - he was always someone who was assigning people roles - and it said, “When you light this candle, Congo powers can be revealed to you.” And he thought, “Congo Powers, there’s your name right there!” It sounded great, and then we added “Kid” because we were thinking of Kid Thomas, who was a crazy R&B singer with a giant jelly-roll haircut. He was completely amazing-looking. And also “Kid” like Johnny Kidd and the Pirates or - it sounded like a boxer or pirate or something. It had a nice ring.

I notice that on the albums you’re credited just as Congo Powers.

Yeah, my Cramps actual name was Congo Powers, and Kid Congo - you’ve gotta keep people movin’, it was informal. Like Ivy was “Poison Ivy Rorschach” but it turned into just “Poison Ivy.”

You have really big hair in these photos as well. Was that a style you were sporting before you were in the Cramps?

I probably had hair, I was always a hairdo person, but as a matter of fact, before I was in the Cramps, there was a band called the Dils from California - an early punk band on Dangerhouse Records - and I was friends with them, and they would often hangout with them, and they used to call me “Brian Haircut.” Because I always had a different haircut. But - y’know, I came formed already, with the Cramps; they wouldn’t have picked me if I wasn’t. I’d always been a stylish kid. When I was in first grade, my sisters dressed me up as the model Twiggy for Halloween. I went to school and I won the first prize! I’ve always been dressing up, and it was good, because I got my drag period over with early. I was no stranger to androgyny.

There was a curious photo I stumbled across of you and Jeffrey Lee Pierce in drag. Was that something the two of you did together, or onstage?

That was actually at a Cramps Halloween show, so we were actually dressed up for Halloween, as Rita Moreno and Debbie Harry, if you really hadn’t noticed already.

I can see Rita Moreno, actually! Were you in the Gun Club at that point?

Well, the lineage goes… I started when I was 18 or 19, I went to New York with a bunch of late 70’s kids who were not going to be left out of the Max’s Kansas/ CBGB scene, so we hopped on a $69 Greyhound bus to New York City and landed there with a friend to crash with and not much else. But we went and saw music, and one of the things I discovered was the Cramps. At this time, I hadn’t known Jeffrey, but I went back to LA, after six months or so, and Jeffrey had been travelling and I met him going to a Pere Ubu gig. We had seen each other before, because I was working at a record store, Bomp! Records, run by Greg and Suzy Shaw, and Jeffrey used to come in there, and although we weren’t friends, he was a friendly enough customer, and we would talk about music and stuff. He was into reggae and bought a couple of reggae imports at the time, in the late 70’s. We would see each other all the time, and at this Pere Ubu show, we were in line together, waiting to go in, going stag, and we just started talking and hanging out and drinking, that night. And at the end of the night, Jeffrey said, “Well, let’s have a band!” So at the time, of course, you say, “Okay! I don’t know how to play anything or do anything, but I’ll be in the band.” And within a short time the Gun Club, the first version, was playing out, and then soon after the Cramps moved to LA and were looking for a guitar player. I had met them in New York and became friendly with them there. They knew me as the guy with gold Lansky Brothers blazer - Lansky Brothers was shop in Memphis where Elvis used to shop. And so they knew that I had this Lansky Brothers vintage gold silk blazer, a kind of long, Teddy Boy-looking blazer, and they were really impressed.

What was their lineup at that point?

They were playing with Bryan when I saw them, and then Bryan left, and when I saw them in Los Angeles they were playing with Julie, who was in-between me and Bryan. [Julien Hechtlinger, AKA Julien Grindsnatch - only joined the band for one tour, but is the second guitarist in the famous Urgh! A Music War clip]. I had already known them by then, I had already had taken LSD with Nick (Knox) and Bryan. We were friendly, and I was very good friends with Bradley Fields who was a good friend of theirs from Ohio. There was a big Ohio contingent in New York - Akron, Cleveland people… the Dead Boys, friends of Pere Ubu, Lux and Ivy had lived an Ohio, and Miriam Linna, who was one of the first drummers for the Cramps. Anyhow, [when the Cramps came to LA] Bradley, and his boyfriend Kristian Hoffman who was in the New York band the Mumps, who I had befriended when they were in LA, they were, like, you should 100% go see this band and get this guy to be your guitar player. I didn’t actually know that they practically made the decision for them. At that point I’d been playing guitar for one year! So Lux and Ivy would come to see the early Gun Club, before there was a record, before more than five of our friends going to see us was our whole audience. And they approached me from there. But me and Jeffrey remained friends of course. I said to Jeffrey, “The Cramps just asked me to be in their band, what should I do” - I felt disloyal, or whatever. And he was like, “are you kidding? Reality check - we’re playing to ten people a night, and you have a chance to be in the greatest band in the world.” So we remained friends. He was like, “I’m going to keep half the band, and just get us gigs!”

(Laughs). Did both bands overlap for a period?

Well, maybe for about ten minutes, but once I was in the Cramps, there were no side projects. That was one of the rules!


Yes! Maybe unspoken, but you really got that idea.

Marilyn Monroe from Hell, and Rita Moreno, Halloween 1981, Cramps show at Devonshire Downs, CA. (found online)

They seem like they might be a full-commitment kind of band. When you met Jeffrey in line at the Pere Ubu concert, did he have the big Debbie Harry hair?

No, he just had dark hair, still. But - y’know, that was a time where punk was still the Bob Dylan polka-dot t-shirt and the checkered tie, and when I met him, he was very strange looking, because he had a belted trenchcoat, and some white, they-could-have-been-women’s western boots on. And a big Deborah Harry badge. So he was a strange mixture of identity crises, or maybe he was sure of his identity… but anything went, you know? I didn’t question it. The weirder the better!

I don’t know if this is known, but was he straight, gay, bi?

He was straight. He always had girlfriends and was very very loyal to them. And then he went through a period where he was infatuated with William Burroughs, where he decided he was bi. It was strange. I didn’t think of him as a particularly sexual person, quite frankly. Where it came out was mostly in songs, where you said, “well, he is, because he knows about obsession and he knows about sex,” y’know? You know from the songs. But as a person… certainly he had girlfriends he became obsessed with. But he never had a boyfriend he became obsessed with.

Do you have an overtly queer side to any of your music? I’ve read the Huffington Post piece you did (“How I Came Out of the Closet and in to the Streets,” in part about how the 1980’s AIDS epidemic emboldened the young musician to become more out and outspoken)… but I don’t know all of what you’ve done, and I don’t know if it enters your music.

Sure it does! I don’t have gay rights songs, but they’re definitely gender neutral, or about men. I have a great song on the first Pink Monkey Birds album, where it goes, “even though your leather is cliché/ I like what it has to say anyway.” To me, sexuality is sexuality - I guess what the young people call “fluid” today.

And glam was a big influence on you, right?

Well, there we go - There We Go! There’s where it all starts. Yeah. And that’s why it was never a big deal to be gay. It only became a big deal when I would make it a big deal, but in my rock’n’roll life, I was 14 or 15 going out to Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in Hollywood, and listening to glam and of course David Bowie. He’s topical lately, but it has to be said - it made it all all right. It was funny, because that scene was a lot of older people posturing to be gay, to get girls. A lot of acts, posturing. But there were a lot of kids around, a lot of teenage boys around that scene, and for us it was completely freeing. The girls were all necking with each other… It was like, “Oh, I can be myself here, in this scene,” and David Bowie and Lou Reed at the time made it quite all right to walk on the wild side and that… and also, that time… I always wonder, how did we all get into a bar every night? There were all these teenagers in the bar. I don’t know what the law was, but it was relaxed…

Yeah, I did the math, when you were in New York seeing the Dead Boys and the Heartbreakers and whatnot, you were underage.

Yeah, but I was very tenacious, I had to be there, I was not going to be left out. There were a few commutes. But a friend of mine, Trudie Arguelles - she was an LA punk rock friend that I knew from the early, early pre-punk days. She had a Jeff Beck haircut and loved the look of James Williamson on Raw Power and fashioned herself after him. She was a tastemaker - I knew this by 1975, 1976. And she had family in New York and had gone, and she wrote me - because there was no internet, we wrote letters - and said “I just saw the most incredible band, my favourite band I’ve seen, they’re called the Cramps. They’re difficult to explain but they’re the best thing ever. Get over here quick, you have to come see this band!”

Was The Birth the Death the Ghost recorded around the same time that the Cramps were seeing you in LA? Was that representative of what they heard?

Yeah, Lux and Ivy were probably in the audience when those things were recorded. And actually, somewhere, there are recordings by Lux - he was a huge archivist, he recorded tons of bands. And I know, Dave Alvin from the Blasters said, “Oh yeah, Lux was at that show and they were taking notes, trying to hide his cassette player under his coat, taping the show.” So that would have been at that time. Because there was an earlier version of the Gun Club called the Creeping Ritual.

Where did that name come from?

Well, it just flew out. It was kind of a Dr. John Gris-Gris “gumbo-ya-ya” influence/ reference. That was a record I was very into at that time, it’s one of the most amazing records of all time. That was big influence on the Gun Club. But our friend Keith Morris from the Circle Jerks, who Jeff was sometimes living with, said “ah, this sounds like this Gothic thing, you should be called” - and he gave us a couple of names. The Gun Club was one. Another one was the Ass Festival. So the Gun Club could have been called the Ass Festival.

Oh jeez. Thank God you didn’t go with that.

And exchange for that, Jeffrey wrote a song for the Circle Jerks, “Group Sex,” which became the title of their first album.

I’m a bit of an outsider to the LA scene, and I see documents, like, in The Decline of Western Civilization, there’s footage of Fear being really, overtly homophobic onstage, but I don’t know what to make of that - if that was normal, accepted, ironic, or what.

An act or real? I don’t know, because I completely ignored them, they weren’t a part of my world or scene at all. I knew them and I thought they were, like, some silly band, or something. I guess I was a bit of a music snob, and I wanted to be around something adventurous and mind-blowing, and to me that was just like, “some louts being loud.” That was just not my scene at all, so it barely registered in my consciousness; I was aware it was something popular, but I was off somewhere else. The scene was small but by the time of Fear it was big enough already that you could be segregated away from that. And that was when hardcore started to happen, and I was already an old fart - I was 19 or 20 by that time, and my view was not just LA. There were people I supported in LA - the Weirdos, the Screamers, the Bags, X of course. There were different bands that I dug. And then there was a whole lot of bands that I didn’t like, that didn’t rate at all.

To talk about the Latin American aspect of things, you were really into Thee Midniters at some point, right? Were they a Chicano band?

Well, they played into my subconscious more than my conscious, and that’s because of my teenage years. I have two older sisters who are into music and a whole gang of very close knit cousins who were all teenagers and musicians. And they were into Thee Midniters, and they would be very excited about going out, and getting ready to go out… and I just remember that they were so excited about it, and it was an electric atmosphere. I just thought, “I don’t know what Thee Midniters are, but when I grow up, I want to go see Thee Midniters. So that’s what that was, and they were Chicano, but we were assimilated. We were born in America and grew up in America, so it wasn’t like we were immigrants. And I think our parents wanted us to grow up American. I didn’t learn Spanish til I went to school; the only Spanish I knew was when my parents were yelling at us! Hahaha… We were very aware of our culture through our grandparents and so forth. But my cousins, they were into Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath. And Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. So I got exposed to a whole mix of things, but Thee Midniters was more of a conduit for teenage excitement, for me, and I knew when I was ten that that’s what I wanted, y’know? So they influenced me very much in that way, and it wasn’t until much later - actually probably until I really started playing music - that I listened to them and realized that they were really exciting, that their stomping R&B stuff is amazingly exciting and kinetic and warm, hot even - the sound, the guitar playing. And also when you grow up in an area - it’s regional sounding to me, that’s reflective of some of the Mexican-American communities.

In La Puente?

They were from Whittier, a suburb or two over where I lived.

Was it a very Catholic community?

Oh yeah! By all means. It’s all about blood and tears - why do you think the Gothic scene is so big in Los Angeles?

Does that have a mark on you?

Sure. Me personally, it was an influence… but I was the youngest of my family, so kind of by the time I was coming up, my parents had tired of the extreme dogma of going to church every Sunday and things like that. But all my cousins went to Catholic school and stuff. I didn’t have a super-Catholic upbringing, where I was forced to pray or read the Bible or anything like that, but I did understand that you were to fear God. And I remember at my grandmother’s house, there was a huge - huge! - print of a Jesus with the crown of thorns and tears, and it was just frightening as a child, to look at it. But from an early age, I always looked at things a bit perversely, where - “Wow, that is crazy, that is strange, and it’s scary, but I like it…” I have been writing a memoir, actually, called The Enjoyment of Fear.

[Actually it's called...]

Did your family know you were called Congo Powers and named from a Santeria candle? How did they feel about that?

Well, my parents knew! And by that point I was off into another world, so I didn’t see my family all that much. My parents were fine with it all. You know, my mother was an artist, she was a painter, a drawer, and my father worked his whole life as a welder, in stainless steel production. But they were open minded. I think they were disappointed that I wasn’t going to school to become something conventional, but they were also supportive. And they met Lux and Ivy early on, and were charmed very quickly by them. Lux was especially very charming! He even assigned my mother a character.

Oh really?

Lux decided my mother should be called Allura Monsanto, because there was a wig ad in an old magazine for wigs by Monsanto, and one of the wigs was called the Allura wig. And so he said, “oh your mother is Allura Monsanto, who was a Mexican vampire actress in the ‘40’s and ‘50s.” When my parents would come see the Cramps early on, he would say, “oh, we have a celebrity in the audience, Allura Monsanto, you’ve all heard of her.” They were fine with it - irrevence…

Is that the same Monsanto that makes chemicals now?

Probably - I’m sure they made a wig out of some chemical or petroleum product.

Kid Congo with the Cramps at the Commodore, 1981, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

I should probably ask you some questions about your solo work… To go back a bit, I was listening to Philosophy and Underwear, and it’s really quite different from what you’re doing now. There’s almost a club vibe to some of it.

It’s a completely separate band and a completely first attempt, and a lot of it was written on the spot, because we went in to record a single and ended up recording an album. But that was a New York thing. I was very interested in New York rock - I saw the New York Dolls when I was a teenager… I never saw the Velvet Underground, because I was too young, but all of that fascinated me from an early age, Andy Warhol and everything. I was a 14 year old kid saying to everyone, “I’m going to move to New York!” And that was my first version of the Pink Monkey Birds, and the emphasis was on New York, rather than anything else. So it was skronky New York style rock, and we did cover versions of “Baby Face” by Lou Reed off Sally Can’t Dance. It’s an older New York influence.

Your vocals are a little louder and clearer.

I think it’s intentional. Pink Monkey Birds is supposed to be more trance-inducing, more “one sound,” a whole, rather than having stuff flying out, sticking out. The new album was so much of an even group effort, not just in terms of the lyrics, but the music - the Pink Monkey Birds has always been a group effort. I’m the source of the style, but they definitely contribute and shape the style.

What are you distorting your vocals with, now?

On the new one? All kinds of things. At a high school, we found a lectern that you speak through, with a microphone attached, a box, so I sing through that a lot. That’s one of our big secret analogue weapons. And different distortions - we’re experimenting all the time. Where you place the mike.

It’s weird, because there’s points where you sound a bit like Mark E. Smith, and I wasn’t expecting that.

Mm, Mark! I’m in one of the Fall’s videos.


Yeah! In the “Hit the North” video, they have a mysterious extra player in the band, and it’s me. I was hanging out and they were like, “oh, come, we’re shooting a video.” Because I was friends with Mark and Brix Smith and Marcia (Schofield), who was my roommate. They were “pick up these wood blocks and start playing them.” They were doorstops or something.

That is really funny. Anyhow, to come back to it… it seems like the new album is self-consciously Mexican American.

It’s an influence we always have. Me, Kiki Solis the bass player and Mark Cisneros the guitarist are all Mexican-American, all Chicano: Kiki from Texas, from El Paso, and me and Mark are originally from the Southern California. So it’s music that is part of our heritage, Chicano rock, and we’re always looking for it. There’s a whole genre of Mexicans - Question Mark and Mysterians is a very famous one, but there’s a whole genre of mostly unknown bands that are a source of pride to people of Mexican descent. 

I wondered about the song on La Araña Es La Vida called “Karate Monkey,” because there’s a culty little kung fu movie called Circle of Iron, where David Carradine has three or four roles, one of which is a.kung fu fighting monkey. I don’t suppose that’s a reference?

Ha ha. It didn’t come from that. The “karate” part is latter day Elvis, and “Karate Monkey” is a skit that is done by LaWanda Page, who is best known as Aunt Esther of the Sanford & Sons TV show. She worked blue - she was a protégé of Redd Foxx, who discovered her, and she was a completely filthy standup comedian. Her records are great. She gets a lot of play in our tour van.

And, say, “Coyote Conundrum” - coyotes for me are associated with people smuggling, but…

The title is because we call our bass player, Kiki, “Coyote” for various reasons, and it’s actually a very difficult bass line. And he could just not get it, so that was the working title for the song. The lyrics have very little to do with coyotes…!

How did you guys arrive at the name the Pink Monkey Birds? I get that it’s a reference to Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” but…

I was just calling the act Kid Congo Powers, solo, and we started doing gigs and playing out and doing songs, and the band one day said, “We want to be called something!” - to be Kid Congo AND something. And I thought, okay, everyone’s working for free, really hard; everyone’s contributing. It’s fine not to be just the solo name, and so I said, “Just pick any name and I’ll say yes to it.” And the next day they said, “We want to be called the Pink Monkey Birds!” And I think they probably thought I’d say no; but I said, “How amazing is that!” And I’m proud to say that it’s from a David Bowie song, since his departure from this planet. Or his body. I don’t know if he’s left the planet, but he’s definitely left his body.

What does a live set look like these days? A lot of stuff off the new album, and Haunted Head… and…?

We have a lot of records now, so we have a lot of material to choose from. And we always play Gun Club or Cramps songs - those change, because we tour a lot, and loads of people come to see us, and we like to mix it up. But we always will pay tribute to Gun Club and Cramps, because it makes us happy, and it makes everyone happy, and it’s a way to keep people aware that it existed at all. It’s a tribute. I don’t play any Nick Cave - he can still play it! But the Cramps and the Gun Club, there’s no one who is playing live now who can play those songs with authority, with a direct connection to it. Ivy’s not playing, everyone else died and none of the main Gun Club people seem to be playing. So I feel a bit of a duty to do that. It’s a way to say hello. “Hello, the work is still going…”