Punk Was Always Gay: Kid Congo Powers on the Genre’s Queer Beginnings

Popular culture hasn’t just whitewashed the story of punk; it’s normalized it for hetero audiences, too. Kid Congo Powers will assure you that “punk was very gay in the beginning.”

That’s not unknown to everyone, of course. That plenty archetypal punks were people of color isn’t a secret, either. Those schooled in its history know that back then, as the gay liberation movement and punk culture emerged as newly against-the-grain efforts, that commonality bred a mutual appreciation and acceptance. The mainstream version of punk’s inception is lacking, to say the least, but it truly was inclusive at first — and Powers lived it.

A principal figure of punk’s formative late 70s and early 80s stretch, Powers (née Brian Tristan) helped found the iconic blues-punk group The Gun Club. He also played in the pioneering psychobilly band The Cramps, then returned to The Gun Club intermittently in the years after. Powers also put in nearly a decade with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; he joined in 1986.

After that, “punk definitely got away from it. [Being gay in punk] became its own thing, queercore and that. It became very specialized; it just wasn’t in the general world of rock. But now it seems to be a little more general. It’s wonderful,” he says.

Powers is bigger than a rock ‘n’ roll relic: Last April, In the Red released La Araña Es La Vida, his fourth album as Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds. He’s got today’s rock ‘n’ roll and punk underground championing him now for both his trailblazing days and his more recent primitive, swampy jams.

When we talked over the phone, Powers was in France, only days into a month-long European tour. He reflected on the tragedy in Orlando, and related how he went from anti-stance punk to incorporating activism into his life and music.

On the Pulse Nightclub Shooting

It hit on a very primal sort of level, you know. It is almost like PTSD for me. Because I’m 57 years old. I went through AIDS the first time, then there was, in the 90s, a second round of it. You think there is so much progress, and there is, but you know, this kind of a mass shooting at a gay club, it just really hits on a very primal, primal level. I have gone through my entire conscious life thinking I’m going to be killed because I’m gay, in some way or another.

“Punk was very gay in the beginning.”

I’ve been very out and I’ve been very active in Act Up and different things. Again, it just feels like PTSD. It just shook up a whole world I thought that was kind of over for me. Here I am – I’m a 57-year-old adult gay male, married, it’s legal, blah, blah, blah. It really just makes you feel vulnerable and horrible and sad.

On the Fact That It Was Latinx Night

It was a Latin night, so it was mostly Latinos and those who love them there. Even more, it hits you on a much more primal level. It’s horrible when any mass shooting happens, but when it becomes personal, and it brings up so many issues for gay people and for gay Latin people. It’s horrible.

On His 2014 Essay in the Huffington Post About Being Gay in Punk

I got asked to write something. They said write anything, just write about being gay for the gay page, and that’s what I came up with. I started being like, “I’m going to write about being gay in rock ‘n’ roll.” I thought on a deeper level what that meant and my experience – about how punk was very gay in the beginning, and gay bars were the places punks went.

Kid Congo with The Gun Club in 1983
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That’s not even in just Los Angeles, but in England — the first punk rockers, the only people who would accept them were the gay clubs. It just made me think about that, of course, then AIDS happened shortly after punk. It seemed to be the thing to talk about and I really felt like early punk people were not politicized for being gay. In fact, it was an anti-stance against anything, any labels, any organized thing. Even the gay kids, the gay punk rockers, were not interested in the gay culture of…disco or that side. The solace was more in the leather bar scene and stuff that accepted the punks.

Related: 7 Queer Latinx Punk Icons You Should Know

On How the AIDS Crisis Led Him to Activism

I hadn’t really been too interested in before, you know? I was just a rocker – a glam rocker and a punk rocker. To be punk rock, you clash with people who are being outright political – political political. I knew of just one super political gay band in San Francisco, this band called Grand Mal at the time. They became a band called The Offs, a ska band, and the singer was Don Vinil. But they were an in-your-face punk rock band…I met and hung out with Don a lot. And had an affair with him, of course. [laughs] A short but torrid affair. They were political, more in-your-face, and this is pre-AIDS. When AIDS happened though, it became impossible to be quiet or ambiguous or even a separatist against that. You had to join forces because it was too big of an issue, and it was happening to everyone you knew.

“I’m trying to make music that is pure and thoughtful but still fun and sexy and joyful.”

On Politics in His Music

It was more activism for me. I was still a rock ‘n’ roller, and yeah, my first thing is music. But activism in that — I started a group called Congo Norvell with a female singer, Sally Norvell. We met through a mutual friend who died of AIDS – a female. And we started the band because we were introduced through her and her husband, and we started the group as a kind of result, for an AIDS benefit but also a way to grieve that was musical. And it wasn’t an angry, again it was a different…we were looking for beauty and relief. And, you know, telling stories. That was how that became my activism, because I was (am always) a big believer that the personal is incredibly political. I approach things on a more personal level…than an outright political statement.

On How Activism Filtered into Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds

The Pink Monkey Birds became more of a dance band. But it’s in there, I think, just by always by embracing the more disenfranchised, really. Love songs for the disenfranchised. The audience I have and the person I am and the friends I have are all not disenfranchised — because we’re proper adults and stuff, but we are artists and outsiders and gay people and Latin people and trans people. They’re all part of my friends, family, so those are the stories I tell often. I don’t come out and…well, on the new album I do, I have a song that the first line is “I knew your name was John when you thought it was Jane, but honey, we’re all the same.” So you know, it is there.

Kid Congo with The Cramps
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On Chicano Rock Influences

It’s been a thing since the Pink Monkey Birds have been a band was influenced a lot by my early fascination with Chicano rock and Thee Midniters. I have older sisters and cousins who were all into music and would go to dances when I was 10 years old, and they would be getting ready to go to a dance to go see Thee Midniters, the East L.A. band. I was just a 10-year-old, like, “I don’t know what Thee Midniters is. I know it’s a band, but whatever is making them so excited, that’s what I want.” It wasn’t until later that I realized that these records are incredible and this is an incredible band. And you know, it was a source of pride that they were from L.A. I grew up in La Puente, California, which is the San Gabriel Valley, and they were from Whittier, not far down the 605 freeway. So it was a source of pride, for me to have a Chicano band that was really cool.

On Why He Didn’t Learn Spanish Growing Up

Kiki Solis, the bass player – we realized it’s coming up on 10 years we’ve been playing together. He’s Chicano; he grew up in El Paso. He grew up in a Latino culture. He’s like, “Oh, you California Chicanos are so lame. Every Chicano in Texas speaks Spanish and all you L.A. ones, you don’t speak Spanish.” You know the words, you have the accent, but you don’t speak the language. I’m like “Well, you were on the border, you were right there.” It’s also just a geographical difference, and I think a lot of people I know, Chicanos I know (Jeffrey Lee Pierce of The Gun Club being one of them) who grew up in El Monte just right near where I lived, our parents wanted us to assimilate. My parents were both born in Los Angeles. They grew up in the Depression and post-Depression era, but their families, their parents and grandparents, were immigrants from Mexico. And the idea was assimilation – to teach us English.

Kid Congo Powers
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On His Inspiration for La Araña Es La Vida

There was a definite theme going. The “La Araña” song was kind of the first thing, then I started reading about the spider goddess of Teotihuacan. She was a spider goddess that guarded the pyramids in the city and she sprouted hallucinogenic morning glories and…was the guardian of the underworld, the pyramids. That’s incredibly like what I feel our band is. We come up with the dreams for people and I’m trying to make music that is pure and thoughtful but still fun and sexy and joyful and spreads light as opposed to darkness. People somehow think we’re dark, but we’re actually about light.