Friday, May 06, 2016

Kid Congo Powers: interview, plus thoughts on the Cramps' Psychedelic Jungle

I'm not good at lists. They're a popular thing on the internet - the "ten best" list, or the slightly more subjective "ten favourites" list, but I've seen so many movies, heard so many albums, that I can barely get started on either count. Ten favourites is a bit easier than ten best, but even still, any such list often reveals more about the limits of ones knowledge, by virtue of what's excluded, than anything about the items on it. Like, if someone is still putting Led Zeppelin 4 on their ten best/ favourite list, it's likely they're either still a teenager or else that they haven't dug very deep into the world of music. I'm self-conscious about revealing my own limitations, that way (since I'm so keen to judge other people by theirs...).

All the same, sometimes there are albums (or movies) that you know would HAVE to go on the list (best, favourite, whichever). Like, Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, I think, would definitely go on a top ten favourite movies list, if I had one (not sure I'd make an objective "ten best" claim for it, unless the list was very narrow - best Pacific Northwest cinema, say, though there's a lot of that I have not seen yet, so it wouldn't be a very meaningful list. Still, I'm very excited about the upcoming Reichardt retrospective at the Cinematheque, and will be doing some writing on that).

...And I know that if I had to write a list of the ten best (or my ten favourite) punk albums, I'd put the Cramps' Psychedelic Jungle on it, for sure. In fact, it's one of the only albums I know would be on it.

There are a bunch of reasons. First off, personally, it was one of the first five punk albums I owned. Growing up in Maple Ridge in the 1980's meant being pretty much deprived of access to punk. Once I heard Never Mind the Bollocks, I was crazy to hear more of this music, liking it so much better than the heavy metal and classic rock I'd been making do with, but it took months before I could track any actual slabs of it down. Then I saw, somewhere in my searches, that the record store in Maple Ridge's own Valley Fair mall - the name of which I have long since forgotten - had Psychedelic Jungle, and I bought it barely even knowing who the Cramps were.

Truth is, back then, I didn't entirely get it. For one thing, at age 13 or 14, when I first acquired it - unlike most teenagers in my suburban wasteland - I hadn't done ANY drugs; I was weird enough, alien enough without them, and didn't take an interest in altered states for years to come. And I had no deep appreciation for the music of the 1950's or early 1960's - rockabilly, garage rock, or so forth - which was the Cramps' lifeblood. I wasn't even sure if it was a punk album, when I got it; it didn't sound much like the Sex Pistols, or that first Dead Kennedys album I owned. It took a big-haired Goth girl I knew, who was big into Skinny Puppy, to help me appreciate the Cramps' aesthetic (she would later be the one to drive me to see them, the only time I did, and give me a place to crash afterwards...).

But now, years later, I can put everything in its place. I actually think - and I know I'm not alone in this - that it's a better album, more groundbreaking, than the earlier Cramps' releases. Whether it's a matter of production, or of the band having matured, or if, maybe, I just like Kid Congo Powers better than Bryan Gregory, there's a warmth to it that makes it very pleasing to listen to, even on its most abrasive tracks, like "Beautiful Gardens." Songs the Lord Taught Us is a great album, too, no doubt, but there's something kind of thin, kind of stiff, to its production; instead of texture, it has a sort of noisy, tinny echo to it, which makes it edgy and distinctive, but not organic, not warm, not entirely comfortable. Psychedelic Jungle is for me, the Cramps' masterwork, like bathing high in a swamp of hot muck, with frogs and salamanders all around. And because of its complex relationship to its musical forbears, which it digests and re-presents in a thoroughly fresh way, it also seems to be objectively one of the greatest accomplishments of the genre, doing for punk what the Harry Smith anthology years before did for folk and blues and bluegrass (and so forth); this, I guess, could be said for earlier Cramps releases as well, but none did it quite so effectively as this album, which digs as far back in musicological history as to offer us a cover of the prohibition-era hit "Green Door." Don't imagine a lot of punks back in 1981 knew that song (though I did, thanks to my older-than-usual parents; it was the only cover on the album, in fact, that I had heard before).

Kid Congo Powers, in my West Ender interview with him, has another take on why the band was so important - a simpler one: "there was not really a psychedelic rockabilly band before the Cramps," he says. It's a nice, succinct way of putting it - they're the roots of psychobilly. And as many antecedents as they had - garage rock, Link Wray, surf, psych, "Shombalor," what have you - he's dead right; no one band combined all the elements quite so successfully, to say nothing of serving them up hot to an audience who could maximally profit from them. It would be decades before I realized just how much intelligence and musical knowledge went into a band that at times I took, almost, for a novelty act...

Kid Congo, for those who don't know, is the guy on the far left of the album's back cover, wearing the hat; I actually asked him about the hat, and present that below, as one of my outtakes from the Westender article (there will be more to come in a future issue of Big Takeover). Actually, there's plenty of stuff for a pretty good interview all to itself... so here it goes...

AM: There's some really amazing footage of Lux out there. From the "Tear It Up" clip in Urgh! A Music War, it's amazing to see how, uh, carried away he could get. 

KCP: Well, I think we were all carried away. It was all one big feeling. For me, I'd seen wild people, I'd seen crazy things on stage. Mostly you're doing, though - you're not thinking about what was going on. It's all very visceral, as well as physical, than mental. And, y'know, the Cramps as a total vibe, besides figuring out I'm going to play these three notes on time... that was more what my concern was! There's actually a really funny Youtube clip at the Channel in Boston - it's a really great piece of Lux - well, the Cramps, but especially Lux - doing that Hasil Adkins' song 'She Said.' You should look this up, it's great. He knocks me down - you can tell it's an accident, because he's just going crazy and playing around and stuff - and then he picks me up by the hair. And as we're getting to where we're going offstage, you see me push him off the stage! So... things like that, it was all in fun. I never felt safer, actually.

The only time I saw the Cramps, at the Thunderbird Arena at UBC, it seemed like Lux was actually kind of at odds with the audience. It had come out over the radio that he had stripped at his last show, and the whole audience, when it came time for the encore, was chanting, "strip! strip!" I really don't think he liked being expected to go there.

I don't think anyone would! I don't think anyone likes being told what to be, and what's expected. That's a lot of the reason - I say this about the Gun Club a lot, and I know it's true: the minute people tried to pigeonhole us, Jeffrey wanted to do something completely else. That was a reason to do something completely else, even moreso than being a creature of whim, and doing something different, it was more, 'oh no, they can't say that we're a country goth band,' or whatever people were expecting at the time. Who would like that pressure? 'Kill yourself, please, kill yourself!' They're not going to be happy unless there's a death. But I'm sure Lux stripped many times after that show... I'm sure it was just a momentary reaction.

It reminded me of something Screamin' Jay Hawkins said to Nick Tosches, once - he was complaining about how people didn't want to see him sing, they wanted to see 'the monster.'


But you were in the band when Lux
wanted to be the monster.

Ooh, yeah!

Let me ask you about the hat you're wearing on the back of Psychedelic Jungle

It's your general Spanish bolero hat, not anything special. It was part of the look - a look was needed. I can't remember any emotional attachment to it or anything other than that it looked cool and it helped create the look. You know, the Cramps always had custom-made clothes. Everything was. You know, you didn't have to make your own clothes, but don't wear clothes that everyone else has.

Like your Lansky brothers gold blazer. [Kid Congo had told me previously about a gold silk "teddy-boy-looking blazer" that he got at a shop in Memphis famed for outfitting the King himself; when he first saw the Cramps on a teenaged pigrimage to New York, he made an impression by wearing it]. I think I might have actually seen it on Youtube, I saw a clip of you wearing a gold shirt or something...

That was a different shirt - I remember I bought that in Paris, at a rock'n'roll store, a very convoluted rock'n'roll store, that sold clothes where a lot of it was made out of pieces of Harley Davisons and tires. It was a very high concept rock'n'roll store, but they did have a gold lame shirt.

Did you guys ever get Nudie suits? 

I would have loved to! That would be great, but it was not to be.

How did you end up leaving the Cramps, anyhow? 

I think it was a natural ending to that. First of all they ended up getting a bass player after I left - I think they did one more tour with a guitar player, the Smell of Female tour. But... you don't really know. There was a point in the Cramps where they were in litigation with IRS records and a lot of stuff was not happening, and it actually created a very uncreative time. There wasn't a lot going on. There was some playing live - we played live, and made the Smell of Female live record. But there wasn't a lot of studio work, and not a lot of new songs from that. The band was being heavily bootlegged, and there were all these people reviewing records in the paper that were bootlegs. So things just changed. I think also they were just looking for something new to do. There wasn't a lot going on, and I was getting antsy and Jeffrey, we were like, "maybe I should just make a solo record.' Like I told you before, the Cramps were very off-limits with side projects. But so we had started thinking of that, and it just happened that Jeffrey needed a guitar player to come to Australia. I told Ivy, I want to do this... and she's like, "yeah, we don't know what we're doing." It was amicable. And I was fucking up a lot, too - a lot of drugs; they were probably sick of me, but they never came out and said, 'We're sick of you." But when I said, oh, I want to go do something else, she said, Oh, I think that's the best thing. She didn't have to fire me! So it was kind of good, and that's good, because I ended up remaining very good friends with them, up to the end of Lux's life, and I remain friends with Ivy to this day. It turned out good.

In the liner notes for Destroy the Country (a Gun Club bootleg turned legit release, that is, by the way, the best-sounding live Gun Club album I've heard), you describe the tour of Australia as kind of hellish...

It was crazy. We got a pickup rhythm section, and we had another guitar player, and when he imported me, Jeffrey just said, let's just keep Spencer P. Jones, of Beasts of Bourbon and another band called the Johnnys. And also the drummer from the Johnnys, Billy Pommer. So we ended up going on this whole Australian ten day tour, and we just made something out of what we had. It was just wild, chaotic at its most extreme, kind of way.

Were some of the songs from The Las Vegas Story on that tour? "Walking with the Beast," "Bad America?"

I think so. They were early songs when I rejoined the Gun Club. I remember "Eternally Is Here" was there.

They're on
Destroy the Country...

That was Italy. I think that was directly after Australia. And I think Terry [Graham], who had quit before Australia, was back in the band! It'll be in the book coming out, he'll tell you about it.

Everyone's got a book coming out! 

Everyone's gotta have their say.

I wanted to ask you about self-destructiveness, when it comes to rock music. There seems to be plenty of references to drugs and other forms of self abuse in Gun Club lyrics...

There's a lot of talk about heroin and addiction and obsession. Actually, I was telling you about that fanzine, Back Door Man? One of the main editors was Don Waller - a journalist and authority on rock music. And Jeffrey said, like, one of his biggest influences was Don. He was like, 'What do I write a song about now,' and Don told him, 'Tell them what they don't want to hear.' And he took that to heart and made a career out of it. So something like "She's like heroin to me" or "I'm hunting for niggers down in the dark," these were things that people don't want to hear. Jeffrey often said, he could have said something like, "'She's like psychotic love to me,' but that's not very good or very strong." You say, "she's like heroin to me," everyone is going to go like, "What!?" It's going to put everyone on the defense, y'know? So a lot of it was a literary choice, to be so extremely offensive, but yet be poetic at the same time, and not be dumb about it. To put it in a context that's still literate but also very base, as well. And shocking! It was definitely meant to provoke - he was a provocateur, onstage as well.

When I was a teenager, one of the arguments I used to have with my Gothy Cramps-fan friends was whether "Garbage Man" was about heroin...

I doubt any Cramps songs were about heroin. Sincerely, no. They might be about LSD. There's definitely references, like in "Drug Train," there's Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes, it's obvious it's opium and cocaine... but...

But, I mean - he's singing about talking about "the real junk," and in the video, he's waving around a syringe! 

But that's more about a blood transfusion! (Laughs) It could be from rumours of Bela Lugosi shooting formaldehyde up. It was for effect. I don't think in the music there was a lot of that - it was more speedy or psychedelic.

I've had the impression from my own past that, whatever the negatives, one of the most positive things about drugs - any drugs, even nicotine, having a smoke out in the parking lot with someone - is that they bring people together. There's an intimacy, a way of entwining with other people that you can't quite access otherwise, your defenses are down, and... I mean, I don't want to trespass, but I imagine that's true for a lot of the bands you've been in...?

Drugs definitely brought people together, and specific drugs brought specific people together. It's almost like, 'How daring are you? How far out are you?" And I think a lot of it came out of the romanticism of the drugs, but definitely, drugs brought people together.

I was wondering in particular about Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Nick Cave, how they came together the first time?

Nick was in LA for a little while, doing some things. I know he made that "In the Ghetto" video there. We were all nomadic and just, wherever things could happen, we went. And the Birthday Party had played in LA, and at that time, you met everyone. And he and  Jeffrey clicked - I think they admired each other's work a lot, and found a like-mindedness. And who else would hang out with these people? Who would want to hang out with us? No one! It was just too far gone, to want to know people who are as selfish and horrible as us! Maybe from the outside you'd want to, but if you got close, you wouldn't want anything to do with us. It's probably not a lot of fun - you'd probably end up being severely ridiculed and treated horribly. So I think they found a bit of kindred spirits, in their obsessions... I remember very well that we were kids who read a lot, and we were into film, and we fancied ourselves artists. And different kinds of music - we were into jazz, and the Beats, we were looking at it all - at the history of it all - and like I said, we romanticized things greatly and took it to heart. We didn't think it was a flight of fancy or anything. We were going to experience it all the way. So going to the extreme with these obsessions, romantic, or druggie, or otherwise, was just the way you were going to get inside of it and know it. You thought you have to live it to know what you were talking about. I mean, you're talking about much younger versions of ourselves. So the romanticism was very real to us, and very justified, and we weren't thinking about consequences down the line.

Kid Congo Powers plays the Rickshaw on Saturday

Kid Congo Powers with the Cramps, 1981, backstage at the Commodore Ballroom, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission. Incidentally, bev has other TERRIFIC photos of Kid Congo from this show (but they've never appeared anywhere so I'm not going to post them here!). 

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