Returning to the supposedly troublesome 'Miami'
If nothing else, the presence on Miami of the mutant-country “Carry Home,” a succinct storm-threat with swing, alone justifies its existence. And in a handful of others—“Like Calling Up Thunder,” “The Fire of Love,” and “Mother of Earth”—Pierce’s absorption of all those influences, his near-assimilation by the prevailing ancient creepiness of American roots music spliced with the then-still-novel exuberance of punk, allowed him to hunker down and create something not only timeless but seamless, as if Johnny Cash, Johnny Thunders, and Johnny Rotten had dropped all their differences in order to embrace whatever nameless idolatry secretly united them.
At this point, Jeffrey was a musical archaeologist; he even began to dress on stage like some squat Indiana Jones, at once furtive and feral, his search for something priceless within the buried sediments of ages almost a holy one. He was digging. Digging into layers of hopeless desperate acts, excavating strata for singular sacred artifacts, aching to merge the atavistic with the advanced. No mere nostalgia—nothing so comforting. The future was acknowledged, however grimly envisioned. He seemed to yearn unfocused, like a naked thing belched from a reeking swamp some fog-smudged night, all EC comics, AC current, and sleazy intent. Almost beyond language. And speaking of language, I’ve tried to avoid it, but his last name even rhymes with fierce.
He was the “rock star” Ian Astbury wanted to be. He was a one-man southern death cult, a bad Indian. If he inspired Jack White musically (and he did), he more readily recalled Jack Black, physically ... while embodying, in his own agitated head at least, Jack on Fire. Springheel Jack. Whitechapel Jack. Stack O’ Lee. Fucking, murdering, leaving (“I will fuck you ‘til you die / Bury you and kiss this town goodbye”). Emptiness and defiance. Sexual rage. The scourge, the deep scar tissue, of racism. The confluence of tragedy and a type of bleak, resigned comedy. This stuff goes beyond appraisals of coolness or even value—it’s like attempting to evaluate the worth of a tornado—and suddenly, we’re asking the wrong questions. Perhaps, indeed, there are no right questions.
His relationship to the blues, in particular, is complex. When he formed The Gun Club, he wanted to destroy everything. They were “trying to come up with something that was so anti-everything it would piss everyone else off.” Few escaped their scorn initially. Not even Elvis: “I hate Elvis. I want his head cut off and his brain taken out. He represents the Americana I hate.” So Chapter 1: Verse 1 in the Punk Bible, then. And yet, subject matter aside, there is nothing nihilistic about the effect of their music. It can be trashy, even cheap trash, but never worthless trash. It’s counterintuitive, and often, at its most abject, unforeseen beauty lurks. My sense of why this is rests on Pierce’s deep familiarity with many musical forms, not least the blues. Beneath the attitude, there was always a sweetness, a reverence.
Reviews of Fire of Love usually cite Son House and Robert Johnson as touchpoints, which is understandable given their choice of covers/thefts, but I believe Jeffrey’s true musical soul mate (blues mate?) was Leadbelly. In fact, “For the Love of Ivy” appropriates a couplet almost immediately (“Well, jawbone eat and jawbone talk / Jawbone eat you with a knife and fork”). Furthermore, his cover of the traditional outlaw ballad “John Hardy” on Miami is eerily similar to a Leadbelly version (on most compilations, the accordion-less 3:13 cut). And finally, if you dig up the latter’s “How Long,” the version with Sonny Terry on harmonica, you will be struck not only by the unloved outcast yowl toward the end, but by its chilling kinship with Jeffrey’s own airless planetary howl as well.
Of course, we can play the influence game forever—we have to mention Howlin’ Wolf as well as a 1959 album by Marty Robbins called Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, particularly the song “The Master’s Call.”
But it’s important to remember it goes both ways. The Gun Club have themselves informed and inspired many artists, including The White Stripes, Screaming Trees, Calla, The Pixies, Henry Rollins, and PJ Harvey. Not to mention the dark cross-pollination between Pierce and good friend Nick Cave’s many projects. The odd thing is that although they are understandably pigeonholed with fellow haunters of the gothic margins such as Cave and The Cramps, they were also different. They were deadly serious, for one thing. There was very little funny about The Gun Club, certainly not intentionally (Although Pierce’s bitter comment about Cave attending a better class of rehab than himself could be seen as humorous if you squint hard enough.)
As fierce as he was in his own way, and I don’t mean this in a disparaging sense, Lux Interior was pure premeditated camp, a character, a cartoon; whereas Jeffrey Lee Pierce was a regular-Joe name attached to a genuine anguished soul, rock and roll cliché made flesh. By initially flirting with it, he accidentally ended up inhabiting it. I realize I’m straying toward an authenticity-rockism I don’t even believe in here, but I ought to note that however much I admire and even love Jeffrey Lee Pierce as a musician/artist, that by no means extends to any equivalent esteem for the train wreck of his personal life. The Gun Club—and perhaps this more than anything explains their continued marginalization—were rarely if ever fun.
It still pains me that I completely missed the next three albums. To this day, I still haven’t heard either Pastoral Hide & Seek (1990) or Divinity (1991), and only listened to 1987’s Mother Juno relatively recently, which in itself is almost unforgivably neglectful since it was produced by another of my ‘80s musical touchstones, the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie. Turns out it’s arguably their most intriguing album, too. In my defense, my own life was undergoing plenty of upheaval, both outwardly (a migration to Canada, which required my relinquishment of every piece of vinyl I owned at the time) and inwardly.
It’s fair to say that the band fell almost completely off my radar at some point after 1985 (having picked up, and loved, that year’s excellent solo release Wildweed, one of my emigration casualties, sadly), so the news of Jeffrey’s death at age 37 of a brain-hemorrhage on March 31,1996 eluded me entirely. While Jeffrey was slipping into a coma and dying, I lived (totally oblivious) on 16 acres of unfarmed flood plain surrounded by mountains alongside my common law partner, my baby son, two big dogs, a Manx cat, a rooster. and a flock of chickens. At night, the coyotes would howl as the moon rose over the peak to the east, and occasionally, a lone cougar would descend from the hills. We had two channels on our TV and a wood stove for heat, the wood-splitting axe a necessary companion. Outwardly, I might have been a character in a Gun Club song, thankfully absent all the mayhem, betrayal, and sex killing. Not that I was free from my own special demons. A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression was still half a decade in my future, but the low-grade torment had already begun. Perhaps the severing of any ties to that troubled music was a gift from my subconscious.
Toward the end of his life, Jeffrey Lee Pierce increasingly embraced a more traditional blues, as if he’d lost interest in the future altogether. The 1992 album Ramblin’ Jeffrey Lee & Cypress Grove with Willie Love was in effect his final paean to that musical style, from acoustic Mississippi Delta to electric Windy City. As excellent as it is in isolation, it’s nonetheless a little sad in context. There’s a clip out there of him performing “Alabama Blues” by Robert Wilkins, which seems wrenchingly poignant to me, the woe writ large on his face, the naked self-deprecation at the end after he stumbles, the hollow weariness when he looks right into the camera, even his apparent lack of awareness at the questionable spectacle of a white man singing “Brownskin women, gonna be the death of [me].” Perhaps he no longer cared. About any of it. The blues had provided the kindling, punk the flame. Here, the latter was almost out. He looks plain lost. And without the fire to shore us against the cold, the sadness can simply be overwhelming.
This is what The Gun Club and Jeffrey Lee Pierce at their best managed: they showed us that all the loneliness of the world can be—if for only a song length, for a propulsive drum beat, for the wail of a slide guitar, for the few precious seconds it takes for a defiant and fleeting shriek to disperse into the night—all that apparent abandonment by the world can be momentarily defeated by spirit, by the fire spirit, by Jack on Fire, by “the Indian wind along the telegraph lines.” (“She’s Like Heroin To Me”.)
Which is why—13 years after his death, a loss I only discovered on an Internet forum somewhere around the turn of the millennium—Jeffrey Lee Pierce deserves this long-overdue eulogy-apology for reminding me that, sometimes, for love’s sake, in the face of the night’s chilly indifference, the only thing left for us is to shriek and cavort and kick the campfire sparks and temporarily lose our minds in the music.
The fire of love is burning deep
The fire of love won’t let me sleep ...
But hey, you’re sleeping now, JLP.