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Kid Congo Powers: The Abrasive and the Beautiful 

Ex Gun Club, Cramps guitarist revisits the early L.A. punk scene with Gorilla Rose

Thursday, May 26 2011

Before Kid Congo, there once was a kid named Brian Tristan, who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in a Mexican-American family from La Puente. “I was born in a town called ‘The Feminine Bridge,’ ” he told L.A. Record’s Chris Ziegler in 2009. “It’s grammatically wrong! It’s ‘el puente’ — it’s a masculine term. So ‘la puente’ would be ‘the feminine bridge,’ wouldn’t it? It turned me into a homosexual! Because the name was skewed, I think my whole life, I was gonna see things in a skewed way.”

Tristan was enthralled by the singles his sisters played before getting ready to go out; he developed an early fascination with local Chicano heroes Thee Midniters and the Rolling Stones.

When punk broke in 1976, Tristan would found a Ramones fan club and fell in with the Screamers, the cult L.A. punk band that never recorded an album but influenced everything from hardcore to minimal synth. At a 1979 Pere Ubu show, he met the mercurial Jeffrey Lee Pierce and together they founded the Gun Club. Before their legend could be consummated on vinyl, Tristan left the group to join the Cramps, where he was renamed Kid Congo Powers.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY JIM RUGG - "I've always been a complete eccentric": Kid Congo Powers
  • "I've always been a complete eccentric": Kid Congo Powers

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To say that Kid Congo has gotten around since those early L.A. punk days would be an understatement. He rejoined Pierce and the Gun Club (again and again, riding out the tempestuous waves of the frontman’s moods) repeatedly, went to Europe, thrived in Berlin in the ’80s, joined Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and always carried with him an idiosyncratic, DIY, unmistakable guitar sound.

For a few years Kid Congo has been recording (now for the remarkable L.A.-based In the Red label) and touring with the Pink Monkey Birds, a group of like-minded younger musicians. He also has been working on a memoir about his L.A. days, which has spilled over into a curiously nostalgic album, Gorilla Rose.

L.A. WEEKLY: You claim Gorilla Rose is named after a legendary L.A. punk scene person. But we asked some local punk authorities and their reaction was, “Who?”
[Laughs] He’s obscure! I’ve been writing a memoir for the last few years. The thrust of the book is gonna be the L.A. chapter of my life, and so I was thinking back to the day when I first moved out of my parents’ house and I moved into the Screamers’ house.

The Screamers had just come to L.A. from Seattle, but they came with an entire entourage of people from New York and Seattle and different places. They all converged in L.A. during the first wave of punk music.

There were drag queens, theater people, and it was just this whole family of ... freaks, artistic freaks. Gorilla Rose was one of these people, who was part of this group or scene, weird kids that came from Seattle. Gorilla was around the Screamers constantly and I think he really had a lot of influence, especially on [leader] Tomata [du Plenty] and the lyrics, which were completely hilarious. And if you were there, you knew him. He was part of the scene when it started, but he was not part of the glory, or the fame, or the legend.

Where is he now?
He passed away in the ’80s from HIV. I was thinking of him recently and realized that he had a lot to do with influencing a lot of things, a lot of these people. He was instrumental on the Screamers. You know how the legend is that Bob Dylan had Bobby Neuwirth around him all the time, sparking all kinds of ideas for him? Well, Gorilla Rose was kind of like that for the Screamers — you know, a little spark.

The other thing was that his name was the best punk name ever! Matching the abrasive with the beautiful, which is how a lot of punk stuff, when it started, was about that. That’s the Gorilla Rose story, and I thought I would bring him into the rock & roll conversation.

Where was the Screamers’ house?
“The Wilton Hilton,” it was called. They lived on Wilton between Hollywood and Franklin. The G.T.O.s, the Girls Together Outrageously, the music group of groupies that Frank Zappa put together, were the tenants before the Screamers.

Where are you living now?
In Washington, D.C. I’ve been living on the East Coast for the past 15 years. First in New York and then my partner got a job here in D.C., so we moved here.

I left L.A. in the mid-’80s, when I was in Gun Club; we went on this endless European tour that went on and on and on and then the band broke up in 1984? ’85? And we were in London and we decided to stay there — it was me, Jeffrey Lee Pierce and (bassist) Patricia Morrison, and we were going to stay, and once we decided to stay, we decided to break up the band! [Laughs] For one of the hundred-millionth times!

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