Lost on the Highway: The History and Mystery of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and the Gun Club

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For a while I’ve been considering writing a series of posts about image, identity and media. I wanted to find a way to include topics I’m interested in that won’t necessarily result in writing movie reviews. Then I had to ask myself: who’s going to read these posts? I don’t recall receiving a lot of feedback from my various adoring tributes to Wim Wenders, Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard (except via reblogs on Tumblr), etc. If the German New Wave of cinema and Australian post-punk music don’t reel the readers/listeners in, where do I go from there?

I don’t have an answer at the moment. So I press on.

This is a story about a band, the Gun Club. There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of them unless you’re deeply invested in L.A.’s rock scene from the early 1980s. The band didn’t have any hit singles – although some of their songs have become cult favorites – so it’s a fair bet that you haven’t come across the name of the band’s lead singer, Jeffrey Lee Pierce (1958-1996).

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Jeffrey Lee Pierce with his mother, Margie.

A quick Wikipedia search outlines many of the salient points of Jeffrey’s life (lived fast, died young, did some wild things in between), but that doesn’t tell you the whole story. To determine that you have to listen to the songs and watch the performances; think of this post as a beginner’s guide. I’m no expert on the Gun Club, so rather than being a note-perfect history it is an effort on my part to map out their history and put my feelings into some words that might make sense. How did the shiny-faced kid photographed standing on Debbie Harry’s left in 1977 turn into one of the most remarkable psychobilly/cowpunk/blues punk/any kind of punk performers of the 1980s anyway?

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JLP photographed by Laura Levine, 1983.

Alternately described as “Elvis from Hell” (from Pierce’s lyrics to the Gun Club song “For the Love of Ivy”) and “Marilyn Monroe from Hell,” comparisons which immediately marked him as an icon on a path to self-destruction, Pierce’s obsessive love for Blondie singer Debbie Harry manifested physically in his dyeing his hair platinum-blonde, as well as lyrically (see: “Kisses for My President,” a what-if scenario dreamed up by Pierce, who had been the founder and president of the Blondie fan club in the 1970s). Standing 5′ 6″, occasionally stockier than the typical rock star (though every ounce the fashion plate) and often sporting a Debbie Harry badge on his jacket, Pierce was an unusual and enigmatic character among the many who populated the L.A. punk scene.

In 2009, LibraryThing writer Ben Waugh described Pierce as “the only true genius of pop (or ‘roots’) music who came out of the southern California punk rock scene – maybe out of the 80s music scene as a whole. […] The haunted sound of the delta blues was incorporated into the band and the soul of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. He was the real thing, like Howlin’ Wolf or Tommy Johnson (whose yodeled delivery was favored on quite a few of the early songs). He lived the blues, as they say or once said, with a tragic authenticity. In concert, he came across as a sort of deep-south voodoo shaman – frantic, absorbed, intoxicated by the music (and the heroin, and the wimmins and the whiskey). He was capable of giving voice to homicidal rage, tenderness and death-welcoming sorrow… a screeching punk tirade like ‘Death Party’ could yield to a mournful country ballad like ‘Mother of Earth.’ A Gun Club show was the closest thing to a Doors concert anyone born after 1960 could have attended.”

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JLP onstage at Waterpop (Wateringen, Netherlands), 8/20/1988.

To illustrate this post I’m going to tell a story – not the story; I haven’t gotten that far – of the Gun Club in twelve parts and three codas. From Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s early years growing up in a Mexican-American household in El Monte, California to his last days in Salt Lake City, Utah, it’s a narrative that deserves to be remembered and retold.

1. “Mother of Earth” (1982) – To begin somewhat near the beginning, the first Gun Club song I ever listened to was this downbeat, darkly bluesy song from their second album, Miami. It’s an impressive song in the way that all truly great songs are: you hear it and you immediately think, “I wish I had written that.” (Or at least that’s how I reacted.) The song’s imagery of rivers, weeds, highways, motels and endless open country remind me of a number of movies I have seen in the past month, including Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Kings of the Road (1976), The Loveless (1981) and Paris, Texas (1984), which is fitting since Wim Wenders once described Jeffrey Lee Pierce as “one of the greatest blues singers of all time.” “Mother of Earth” is a song that has lived on; Pierce’s idol, Debbie Harry, performed the song with Blondie at the second-to-last CBGB show in 2006, while ex-Birthday Party musicians Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey performed it in solo concerts and on studio recordings. Original Gun Club guitarist Kid Congo Powers – in the context of the band’s and Jeffrey Lee’s Pierce’s combined histories, it bears mentioning that KCP is also Mexican-American – performs the song often with the band that he now fronts, Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds. Like all great music, “Mother of Earth” has an enduring legacy. Perhaps it’s only the verbal connection in the titles, but I find myself thinking of Dinah Washington’s soulful “This Bitter Earth”: “Today you’re young, too soon you’re old/But while a voice within me cries/I’m sure someone may answer my call…”

Added later: two months after this post was originally published, Leonard Nevarez wrote a piece for Vassar College’s Musical Urbanism blog called “In Exile: The Rootless Cosmopolitanism of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and the Gun Club,” in which he made several cogent points about how Pierce’s family background and upbringing in a specific region of Los Angeles County influenced his identifications with race and culture:

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For better and worse, these complicated and sometimes contradictory experiences informed Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s worldview throughout his life and music.

2. “Sex Beat” (live at the Hacienda in Manchester, UK, 1983) – Originally appearing on the Gun Club’s first album, Fire of Love (1981), this song exemplifies what made the group exciting for the punk subculture in California. Unlike the more “rockabilly” atmosphere of “She’s Like Heroin to Me” or “Fire Spirit,” there’s nothing but punk energy in “Sex Beat.” In the Hacienda show Pierce, modeling his ratty mop of bleach-blonde hair (“he could’ve been mistaken for a Muppet who just raided a thrift store,” according to one concertgoer in 1981), cuts quite a figure onstage. There’s something magnificent in the screechy, possibly drunken spectacle.

3. “Ghost on the Highway” (1981) – This is my favorite track on Fire of Love. It is the epitome of the early Gun Club sound, a frenzy of punk and blues that is exhilarating and yet also a raw, bleak slice of Americana.

4. “The House on Highland Avenue” (music video, 1983/1984) – From what I can tell the Gun Club didn’t make many music videos so this clip used to promote a song from the band’s 1983 EP, Death Party, is a rare treat. Not much happens – there’s a seedy motel where Pierce and then-girlfriend Texacala Jones (of the band Tex & the Horseheads) lounge around; a TV shows Frankenstein; there are shots of Pierce covering his face with reddish-brown makeup – but there’s a message in there somewhere about “what kind of monster you’ve become,” commentary about personal demons that could have as much to do with Pierce’s biracial identity as it might have with the dangers of a rock-and-roll lifestyle or the nature of having to shoot a video to make your music more popular.

5. “Run Through the Jungle” (live at La Edad de Oro in Madrid, 1984) – The Gun Club played covers of some distinctly un-punk artists who had influenced Pierce: Robert Johnson’s “Preaching the Blues,” Jody Reynolds’ “The Fire of Love,” George Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The clip above of “Run Through the Jungle,” which is a 1970 song by the blues rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival, showcases the skilled guitar work of Pierce and Kid Congo Powers and the ferocity of Patricia Morrison’s bass-playing. This particular performance in Madrid was part of the tour for The Las Vegas Story (1984), which is my favorite Gun Club album and which has some of their best songs (see: “Walkin’ with the Beast,” “Eternally Is Here,” “The Stranger in Our Town,” “Bad America,” the haunting “Secret Fires” and the next song in the post, “My Dreams”).

6. “My Dreams” (“live” on British TV, 1984) – Even when lip-syncing, the Gun Club looked and sounded cooler than nearly every other American band. (To me, anyway.) I love the brightness of the guitar and the way that Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s voice soars in this song, which I consider the crown jewel of The Las Vegas Story. “My Dreams” might well serve as JLP’s defiant manifesto: “You can’t take my dreams/You can’t take my dreams/You can’t take and steal from this body.”

7. “Hey Juana” (“live” in Germany, 1985) – In the mid-to-late 80s, Jeffrey Lee Pierce did some solo work, putting out the pop-rock album Wildweed in 1985. It features “Love and Desperation,” “Cleopatra Dreams On,” “From Temptation to You,” “Sensitivity” and “Hey Juana” (which namechecks Nick Cave and drops some Spanish – “Que pasa esta noche?” – in the lyrics), among other excellent tracks. Again, this particular clip is a lip-synced performance, but it’s so much fun to watch that I couldn’t possibly mind.

For a review of Wildweed, AllMusic critic Quint Kik noted some of JLP’s recurring artistic motifs: “In July 1996, Tom Engelshoven of Dutch music magazine Oor described Jeffrey Lee Pierce as the missing link between the Eagles and Kurt Cobain. Four months after the Gun Club frontman had passed away, the article labeled him as the true victim of what Engelshoven interpreted as ‘the American disease.’ Among the symptoms were a strong identification with violence and death and a clear notion of American society being imbued with it. Pierce’s lyrics testified of his awareness of America’s earliest history, a nation established at the barrel of a gun. Obsessed with an inevitable apocalyptic destiny, he took his lowlife background as an explanation for a feverish longing for decay. Sex, booze, and drugs all claimed their share in a self-destructive lifestyle, culminating in an early death at the age of 37. Wildweed was the first of two solo albums Pierce made in between his Gun Club albums. Following in the footsteps of remarkable statements like Miami and The Las Vegas Story, the material presented here isn’t all that different. The violence theme practically drips from the album cover, depicting Pierce with a dreamy look and a shotgun slung over his shoulder. Standing amidst what could be the last true vestige of an unspoiled, rural America, it’s a fair bet that he’s ready to shoot anything even slightly disturbing — upon which he probably will utter one final howl before putting himself ‘to rest’ as well. Plenty of those howls are scattered through Wildweed…”

8. “Thunderhead” (live in San Diego, 1988) – By my estimates it was sometime in 1986 when Jeffrey Lee Pierce stopped coloring his hair. A promo photo for the Gun Club’s 1987 album Mother Juno shows Pierce appearing remarkably different than how he had looked for the previous five years. Thanks to YouTube you can watch an hour-and-a-quarter-long set that Gun Club did in San Diego in support of Mother Juno, displaying a band newly reformed with Romi Mori on bass and Nick Sanderson on drums; the performance in the clip above demonstrates the kind of show that the Gun Club could still do, an event as “exciting” and “inspiring” as New York Times music critic Robert Palmer once described in a 1984 review of a Gun Club concert. Mother Juno isn’t all fire and brimstone, though; “The Breaking Hands” and “Port of Souls” sound more like 80s rock and dream pop, particularly the former’s Dream Academy-type style.

Incidentally, this interview from a Dutch television show in 1989 is worth your time. You get to see Jeffrey Lee Pierce discuss his influences, perform some stirring blues melodies on acoustic guitar and interact with Debbie Harry backstage either before or after a concert.

9. “St. John’s Divine” (music video, 1990) – After the 80s, American interest in the Gun Club waned, although even in the earlier years there had never been a huge fan base since they weren’t chart-toppers or MTV darlings, nor was the band’s style easily categorized. Despite these issues, Pierce and the Gun Club continued to make terrific music, as evidenced in “Divine” and “The Great Divide” from Pastoral Hide & Seek (1990) and the sort-of-trip-hoppy “Sorrow Knows” from the Divinity EP (1991). This was definitely the right time for some funky alternative rock; it was, after all, the age of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik album.

10. “A House Is Not a Home” (live, 1993) – Considering how receptive the early-to-mid-90s era was to all kinds of rock music, it’s disappointing that the Gun Club’s final album, Lucky Jim, couldn’t find much of an audience. “House” sets the story of the Gun Club’s ever-changing lineup (“We used to be forever partners/We swore we’d never separate…”) against a catchy, uptempo alt-rock theme, while “Cry to Me” features exceptional blues-inspired guitar and organ and the ballad “Idiot Waltz” laments lost dreams and bad choices. “Anger Blues,” which closes the album, is one of the best examples of Pierce’s abilities as a blues singer and guitarist. In addition to the shift away from punk, maybe Pierce’s shaggy dark hair and Lennonesque glasses were the collective last straw for fans who preferred him in his younger, more glamorously blonde days.

11. “Go Tell the Mountain” (live in Salzburg, Austria, 5/25/1993) – This, I dare say, is the ultimate blues performance made by Jeffrey Lee Pierce. I presume that the song borrowed its name from James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (and by extension from the Biblical tale of Ham, which begat the phrase), but more critically for Pierce’s career it’s also the title of his posthumously published memoir, Go Tell the Mountain: The Stories and Lyrics of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. I’ve read it, and it’s both strange and compelling.

A review that appeared in The A.V. Club in 2002 snarked at the book’s shortcomings: “Pierce was a good songwriter and musician, but his prose left a lot to be desired—although, from a music fan’s perspective, Go Tell the Mountain is often fascinating. The book delivers the voyeuristic appeal of vicariously walking with the beast, and the company Pierce kept—Debbie Harry, Nick Cave, William S. Burroughs, Darby Crash, Will Shatter, and more—is a Who’s Who of punk and post-punk fringe characters. That aspect is fascinating, but it’s also tawdry and sensationalistic. The main problem is that Pierce talked and wrote a whole lot of shit. He seemed to fancy himself a contemporary of such gangsta rappers as Eazy-E and Snoop Dogg, slinging it deep about his sexual appetites, firearms, and preference for Asian women. Also like gangsta rappers, he tended to gloss over details which might have offered more depth or insight into the music.” Sure, all of this is true – the diary entries and short stories that Pierce chose to share are every bit as weird as you imagine – but for a Gun Club fan, Go Tell the Mountain is essential.

One of my favorite paragraphs in Go Tell the Mountain is this messy yet poetic set of observations in the chapter “Osaka, November, 1995” (p. 99): “I strolled upstairs and looked around for Miyuki. She also looked a little older, but better. Less the little girl, more the woman. But the shock was Keiko. Keiko, the student nurse, could be a professional model. So beautiful. I suspect she knew more about womanhood than the entire hospital. She swayed when she walked. She leaned against the wall like an actress. She understood the meaning of all my efforts. I became shy. I wanted to run away. What could I offer this girl? I’m a good dancer. A good DJ. A good musician. That’s all. That’s nothing. I can also act. I’m a method actor. History, law, I understand these subjects. But really I’m a Mexican who grew up with gangs and Blacks and knows a good girl when he sees her. I am a human. I too want happiness. A girl like Keiko would be a new life. I guess she is Japanese after all. Never underestimate the power of the Japanese woman. They are grounded like rocks and roots into the earth. They understand the heartbeat of the sun, moon, and stars. They hold their men up. And the men go to war to defend them and their children. They get me every time.”

12. “Alabama Blues” (late 1995 or early 1996 [later edit: or was it 1992?]) – Filmed a few months before he died, Pierce performs an acoustic version of this blues standard. Had Pierce lived – although from what I’ve read there wasn’t much chance of that, given that he had cirrhosis and hepatitis and he was HIV-positive – he might have gone on to do more and more thought-provoking material. His last recording released in his lifetime was a formidable rap cover of Tom Waits’ song “Pasties and a G-String” (very different from the original) for the tribute album Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits (1995), a track described by writer David Smay as “one of the most daring and innovative of Tom Waits covers, revealing all of those Waitsian elements that work as rap: wordplay, street scenes, sleaze, sonic dirt, rhythmic drive.” According to Pleasant Gehman in an obituary she wrote for Pierce, at the time of his death he was in the midst of trying to combine Japanese (which he had worked hard at learning) with rap and hip hop to create something called “rappanese.” Who knows what direction he might have gone in next?

Coming full circle: When Blondie reformed after their lengthy hiatus, the 1999 album No Exit featured the song “Under the Gun,” a tribute to their late friend and devotee. If you listen to the studio recording, the “ready to die” line toward the end of the song is a sample of the Gun Club’s cover of the folk song “John Hardy” from Miami (1982), an album which was produced by Blondie guitarist Chris Stein.

More recently Debbie Harry has been performing “Lucky Jim,” the title track from the Gun Club’s final album, in shows during her March-April 2015 residency at New York’s Café Carlyle. Harry’s version of the song is so beautiful, so ethereal, that it is often pointed out in reviews, although neither The New Yorker nor The Hollywood Reporter mentioned Jeffrey Lee Pierce by name in their write-ups. (The YouTube commenters don’t seem to know who originated the song either.) More irritating is Stephen Holden’s New York Times review, in which he notes that Harry is “allergic to sentimentality” as a performer and that her voice was “so consistently off-pitch that the songs nearly disappeared under her struggle to sing the notes.” Who cares if a person sings in tune? What matters is the emotion that the vocalist puts into the song and I think that’s obvious from Harry’s cover of Pierce’s song, both in the performance and in her personal connection to the lyricist. Pretty sentimental, if you ask me. Besides, as Nick Cave once said about Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s oft-questioned vocal tendencies: “He was very genuine… and I think he was a great songwriter. And had a great unique voice. The way he sung up high like that and slightly off key was enough to tear your heart out.” That should be the only thing that matters with regard to any artist: his or her effect on the listener.

I’ll end with “Into the Fire,” a long-lost song written by Jeffrey Lee Pierce (found after his death on an old cassette tape of demos), recorded by Nick Cave and Debbie Harry in 2014 for an ongoing series called “The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project.” It’s an incredibly lovely song. Any songwriter who could craft such a gem couldn’t possibly be overlooked or ignored.

This piece has been about a musical history – a life – that shouldn’t be forgotten.

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