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

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). A quick Wikipedia search outlines many of the salient points (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?

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. To illustrate this I’m going to tell a story – not the story; I haven’t gotten that far – of the Gun Club in eight parts and two 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, even if only in bits and pieces.

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 also 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…”

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 “Ghost on the Highway” or “She’s Like Heroin to Me,” 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. “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,” Pharoah Sanders’ “The Master Plan,” 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: “My Dreams,” “Bad America,” “Secret Fires”).

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 biethnic 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. “Thunderhead” (live in San Diego, 1988) – In the mid-to-late 80s, Jeffrey Lee Pierce did some solo work (the pop-rock album Wildweed, featuring “From Temptation to You” and “Sensitivity” among other excellent tracks, was released in 1985) and by my estimates it was sometime in 1986 when he 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.

6. “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.

7. “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 probably the single best example 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.

8. “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. 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.

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

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