JEFFREY LEE PIERCE AND THE GUN CLUB
by Sylvie Simmons
We’re walking down Hollywood Boulevard, it’s December 1981, one in the morning on the coldest night of the year. Men lean out of passing cars, whistling or hurling abuse. The object of their attention is my companion, a scarlet-lipsticked, 23-year-old platinum-blond: named Jeffrey Lee Pierce, the self-styled “Marilyn Monroe from Hell”.
Actually he looks more like a mini Divine. Bandana on his forehead, bells jangling on his wrist, one cheek sporting a painted crucifix, he struts along the Walk of Fame, pointing out Gene Vincent’s star, which he and a pal once got drunk and pissed on, and the place where he and John Doe from X set a pile of Christmas trees alight. A black guy in a toga miming to opera from a cassette machine looks over and nods, recognising when he’s been upstaged.
“People here”, says Pierce, “have got nothing else to do but lose their minds.
Pierce’s band, The Gun Club, walking a pace or two behind, have just played the Cathay de Grand, a show like Howlin’ Wolf backed by The Damned. Jeffrey howled, crawled and drank his way through Sex Beat, Ghost On The Highway, For The Love Of Ivy (Pierce’s paean to The Cramps) and Son House’s Preachin’ The Blues, mining a primitive, genuinely transgressive rock’n’roll spirit. This is a band to be spoken of in hushed tones by future scuzz/blues enthusiasts including Jack White and Mark Lanegan. But tonight, just one year old, The Gun Club’s audience could be counted on two hands.
We’d been looking for a warm place to talk (for Sounds, the UK weekly; as Jeffrey stated, “People don’t really like us in L.A), but all the bars were playing Wings records or worse. Heading back to the club, Jeffrey spots an unlocked car – no-one knows whose – and we all pile in, except for bassist Rob Ritter, who’s entertaining two young women at the club door. At appropriate moments his current bandmates – Jeffrey, Terry Graham, Ward Dotson – whoop and blow the horn.
“I’ve never been dedicated to this band.”, says Pierece.”I just figured I had nothing else to do. Because what am I going to do. Work?”
“It was ’77, ’78, we were very young punk rockers,” recalls Gun Club founder guitarist Kid Congo Powers. ” I was drawn to him because he looked such an odd character. White vinyl trench coat and white cowboy boots. Like Blondie meets Sly Stone. Jeffrey was obsessed with Debbie Harry… in all kinds of ways”.
Pierce ran Blondie’s fan club; Powers ran The Ramones’. On the day they met, Jeffrey told Kid “you should be in a band with me. And you should be lead singer’.” When Congo replied he had no interest in singing, Pierce taught him open-E, one-finger guitar instead.
Pierce already had one band under his belt, playing his sister’s boyfriend’s drumkit in The Precisions, fronted by LA scenester Phast Phreddie. They could only play one song, Oobie Doobie, and only performed for an audience once. “We called up this house where we knew there was a party going on,” Jeffrey recounted. “They passed the telephone around and we played on the phone. And then we broke up.”
Jaded by LA (“the whole thought of the Tropicana just made me want to kill myself”), Pierce embarked on what Powers describes as “a search for the Holy Grail of music”. It took him to New York, where he managed to get himself regularly beaten up and even thrown into Bellevue mental hospital. He handled Blondie’s fanmail, wrote for fanzines, dabbled in bands, then moved to Miami, where he would claim Haitians taught him voodoo. Then there was Jamaica…
“I got beat up there too,” he told me. “I never talked to the rastas much – there was this religious thing I could never get past. I’d meet these cool kids on the street and buy them drinks, feeling horribly guilty because I was in this hotel.”
Via New Orleans and San Antonio, he returned to LA with a Greyhound ticket back hustled off a girlfriend. There, he would write reggae album reviews (under the name Ranking Jeffrey Lee) for the fanzine Slash and form a band named Creeping Ritual – soon renamed Gun Club by Pierce’s flatmate, Circle Jerk Keith Morris; Jeffrey loved its “deep Southern lyncher feel”- with Powers, Don Snowden and Brad Dunning.
“I gave them their first gig”. Dave Alvin laughs. Back then he played guitar and handled bookings for The Blasters. “I got us a Saturday night residency at [Chinatown punk club] the Hong Kong Café for a month or two, then I got this phone call from Jeffrey. He was trying to scam me – ‘that was Creeping Ritual’s gig, there was a fuck-up’ – even though they’d never played a gig. I enjoyed that he was so brazen, so I said, ‘You can open.’ So he got what he wanted, but had a very dramatic way of getting it – which was very Jeffrey.'”
Where Creeping Ritual was informed by The Slits and Bo Diddley – “Those are the two records Jeffrey gave me to learn from”, Congo says – The Gun Club went deeper into the roots. Creedence, The Band and Dr John, led Jeffrey to Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson. He became obsessed with one- and two-chord drone blues.
Powers: “There were other influences too: freeform jazz, literature, Lowry, Burroughs. We intellectual, narcissistic. Too far too arty for rock people, far too rock for arty people, too cuckoo for the blues crowd and too American for punk. We had friends in the scene – we could play with The Blasters or X – but we weren’t a band you could put your arms around and cuddle.”
Dave Alvin puts it more pithily. “At the shows there would be 10 or 12 people counting me, my girlfriend, John Doe and Exene of X. And Lux and Ivy from The Cramps with a tape recorder, taking notes. Because Jeffrey did have an interesting vision. More interesting than anything else going on out there.”
Gigs were shambolic but mesmerising, depending on how hungover or how high Jeffrey was. “Our drugs of choice were speed and heroin – great combination – and alcohol,” recalls Powers. “But we could take it, we were young, full of energy, and no-one had ever heard the word ‘rehab’. We kind of made a career out of being the craziest, drunkest band going. It became a trap we were all too glad to step into.”
Then The Cramps offered Powers a job, and he quit just as The Gun Club went in to make their debut album. Recorded, claimed Pierce, “on speed, in two days, for two thousand dollars” the result, Fire Of Love (Slash, 1981) put The Gun Club on the map.
Alvin: “Jeffrey became more and more theatrical as he started morphing from this scruffy Slash writer to Brando in One Eyed Jacks combined with the Robert Mitchum character in Night Of The Hunter – that whole Southern travelling preacher thing, in leather pants, long black undertaker’s coat and stovepipe hat.”
In early shows Jeffrey was essentially a punk Howlin’ Wolf, Jeffrey writhing on the floor or slithering across the bar. As confidence grew, it became more dangerous. Like the gig they opened for The Blasters – “80% rockabilly crowd and a line of huge black security guards”, Alvin recalls. “Then they started doing Love Of Ivy, which had the line I always thought was stupid but Jeffrey thought was very William Faulkner, ‘I was hunting niggers in the dark’. The band, which always had great dymanics, goes way down low, and I’m thinking, ‘No Jeffrey, don’t. If those security guys kick the living shit out of you, I will not move one inch to protect you.’ And he changes the line to, ‘I was hunting rockabilly assholes in the dark’. Saved himself from being killed by security, but the audience rushed the stage to kill him.”
The Gun Club went to New York to record Miami (1982). Jeffrey’s beloved Debbie Harry provided backing vocals (as “D.H. Lawrence”), Chris Stein produced, and Blondie’s label Animal released it through Chrysalis. Its critical acclaim brought offers from bigger labels, but Jeffrey would always contrive to sabotage a deal. “He wanted to be a star but on his terms,” says Patricia Morrison. “He was his own worst enemy.”
Morrison, then known as Pat Bag, co-founder of LA punks The Bags, heardMiami before its release. Rob Ritter, who was The Bags’ guitarist before he was the Gun Club’s bassist, played it to her before announcing that he’d had more than he could stand of Jeffrey and was quitting. Soon came a call from drummer Terry Graham – another Bag-turned-Gun-Clubber – saying that Jeffrey wanted a girl in the band.
Morrison: “I knew he had a difficult reputation. Actually the first time I met him I had a go at him. My resounding memory is him making baked beans in one of my pans and scraping it with a fork and ruining it. But the songs on Miami were amazing, so I decided to have a go.”
Gamely she lasted four years, providing an anchor as musicians (Graham, Ward Dotson, Jim Duckworth, Dee Pop) came, went and sometimes came back. After one Jeffrey diva fit too many, all but Morrison split as the band was about to board an aeroplane to Australia in 1983. On arrival, Jeffrey put in a long-distance call to Kid Congo.
Powers: “The Cramps thing had come to its natural conclusion and Jeffrey was living with me around that time. It was the right chemistry again. Something was changing – I think in a weird way we were growing up – and when we made The Las Vegas Story (1984) we had this real hunger for literature and music. That was one of the times when I saw Jeffrey shining really bright.”
Before it all got out of control?
“Exactly. Before he moved to London.”
Ronald Reagan had just won his second term in office; The Gun Club’s album had done nothing in the States bar end their deal with Animal. Jeffrey decided to leave America on a six month European tour then move to Britain, where his band were afforded some kudos in the press.
Morrison: “It started well, even if Jeffrey was so drunk he wouldn’t come out from under the drum kit. All the bands came to see us – Killing Joke, everybody.”
Congo: “But by the end of the tour, no-one was speaking to anybody. Terry had left, we had a pick-up drummer. It was a nightmare.”
Morrison: “There were so many things. We would have to do everything for him, carry his equipment. He didn’t talk to you, he talked at you. He would annoy the hell out of people. I spent my years in the Gun Club with people coming up to me and saying, ‘This is a great band, get rid of the singer. But we’d say, ‘He is the band.’ Because Jeffrey was totally in control. His saving grace was his undeniable vision and talent. The Gun Club should have been massive, but they weren’t – because of Jeffrey. In the end I said, ‘This band isn’t going anywhere, I’m out.’”
When the tour stopped in Christmas ’84, so did The Gun Club. Japanese fan and future Gun Club bassist Romi Mori saw the penultimate show at Camden’s Dingwalls.
“He was incredibly drunk, very lonely I thought. He came to talk to me after the show, kissed me and slipped some acid in my mouth without my knowledge. We went clubbing, out of my mind, and I woke up in his bed.”
Mori became Jeffrey’s girlfriend, and Pierce started work on a solo album,Wildweed (1985), recruiting former Clock DVA rhythm section Nick Sanderson and Dean Dennis. There followed a disastrous three-month-trawl around America – the Pierce band reduced to playing salad bars and pizza restaurants – which ended in California when the tour manager did a bunk with the takings.
Sanderson: “We had no money, so Jeffrey had to play this guy’s 19th birthday party in Sacramento. It was all the beer you could drink and fifty dollars, enough petrol money to get us back to New York. I’d had enough. I was absolutely fucked.”
But Pierce was still making plans, including recording a collection of murder ballads. Says Congo, “I definitely think Jeffrey and Nick Cave had an influence on each other” – though others MOJO spoke to rolled their eyes and implied that the influence went more one way than the other. Congo at this time was living in Berlin, working with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, but a phone call with Pierce in ’87 led to a change of plans. The pair hatched a new Gun Club with Mori and Sanderson and a new album, the eclectic, excellent Mother Juno, took shape at Berlin’s Hansa Studios, produced by the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie. “The sound went back to a real, raw, almost garage rock idea”, says Congo, “and the band stuck around and became strong and super-tight. Jeffrey had lostweight and let his hair go its natural colour and we were really strong. We blew people’s minds. For us it was triumphant.”
Sanderson remembers otherwise. ““He was absolutely off his trolley, A lot of gigs he’d collapse in the second song. We’d play instrumentally a bit, it would peter out and everyone would demand their money back.”
Never a svelte individual, Pierce would offset his health-threatening booze intake with a unique fitness regime.
Mori: “He’d sit in the pub in this incredible pink jogging suit and have three large white wines before running around Holland Park a few times. I used to go with him. Once he was running in that pink jogging suit past three blokes sitting on a bench. I guess they recognised him ’cause they said, ‘Alright Jeffrey!’. He got really embarrassed.”
His health took a dip. His eyes puffed up to the extent that he looked permanently beaten up .
Alvin: “I was in London one when Jeffrey decided he wanted to be a boxer. Said he had been beaten up by soccer hooligans. I knew boxers so I knew Jeffrey would last maybe 1.7 seconds, but he got real into it, and boxing became a passion for a few months. He was a funny cat, he’d grab onto things and try to build up a persona so that people wouldn’t think he was just this kid from the San Fernando Valley.”
Congo: “We grew up in next-door L.A suburbs – Jeffrey’s mother is Mexican-American, as my family is – and we had a real love-hate relationship with almost everything, including where we came from, which fuelled a lot of the inspiration for the band.”
Pierce was first diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver back when they were making second album Miami.
But abstinence brought its own problems. A sober, less confident Jeffrey inclined to neglect his singing and hide increasingly behind a guitar. The final two Gun Club albums – Pastoral Hide & Seek (1990) and Lucky Jim (1992) – suffered accordingly. Mori puts it bluntly: “He’d lost the edge.”
Worse, medication for a throat condition prescribed during the making of Pastoral Hide And Seek had reawakened a dormant thirst for smack.
Mori: “I think one of the reasons we recorded Lucky Jim in Holland was so that he could just go to the station to buy it. I didn’t know he was on it, I thought he was just really, really ill. He was always drowsy. We went to Thailand, obviously in retrospect because he could buy. People were looking at him like he was a monster. I was shouting at everyone, ‘Stop looking at my boyfriend! He’s not well!’… I was a fool.” Confronted about an enormous, pin-pricked blister on his forearm, Jeffrey claimed to have run into a rose bush. When Mori found a syringe, she left.
Pierce lingered in London, until an incident in 1995 where an argument in a Kensington pub led to Jeffrey brandishing a samurai sword while police helicopters wheeled overhead. He was deported.
Back in LA he bleached his hair again and cooked up outlandish schemes: a new Gun Club, plus something he called “Rappanese”, a planned fusion of Japanese music and hip hop. Henry Rollins’ publishing house had commissioned an autobiography (Go Tell The Mountain), and in March 1996 Pierce was at his father’s house in Utah, writing, when he collapsed into a coma. The hospital diagnosed a blood clot to the brain, a complication arising from his cirrhosis. He never came round.
Powers: “We had been talking on the phone about making another Gun Club project and he was reading me all these crazy passages from his book. He’d been in bad health, but he sounded up. Then – this was odd – by chance I called his mother’s house, and she said, ‘Oh, you’ve heard?’ I said ‘No’ but I knew what was coming, even though I couldn’t believe he would die. I mean, after all he had lived through before, I thought he would last forever. He was my brother and I’d lost him.”
More than the usual mass of rock star contradictions, Jeffrey Lee Pierce charmed the pants off all-comers then made them want to kill him. Fixated on stardom, but mired in self-destruction, he was sent off in a buddhist ceremony to which Nick Cave and members of NWA were invited. They didn’t turn up. Subsequent cult status notwithstanding, the nearest he’d come to being a hit was as the subject of a song Blondie wrote for him on their 1999 comeback album No Exit.
“What I remember most about Jeffrey were his weird obsessions,” recalls Sanderson fondly. “He was fascinated by dinosaurs. He’d have two books on the go – Proust and a colouring book of dinosaurs. He went so see Jurassic Park five times. He went through this Blue Velvet obsession, endlessly quoting it. World War II, that was another…”
Smiles Romi Mori, “He was like a boy underneath, couldn’t deal with bills, didn’t know anything, other than what was on telly or at the cinema or what record to buy, or playing guitar.”
Sanderson: “Jeffrey felt a certain pressure to live up to this idea of being this bloke who was going to die for rock’n’roll, but on the other hand not wanting to be that. ‘Course, he’d play up to it sometimes. And ultimately it fucking killed him.”
The sardonic, babyfaced blond in the misted-up car on Hollywood Boulevard would have found this ending far too maudlin. “Originally Kid and I played guitar and everybody ran, we were so noisy and gross. The best part was people would try to interpret it as art. They’d say, ‘I really loved that, that was an incredible statement you were making, that this is what the world’s like, and noise is really all that means anything,’ all this shit. And we’d go”, Jeffrey grinned, ‘Yeah, yeah, buy us a drink.’”