[26 October 2009]
Some people think artists shouldn’t cover a song unless they put an entirely unique spin on it. The late Jeffrey Lee Pierce of Los Angeles swamp-punk legends the Gun Club was one of those people. Miami (1982), the Gun Club’s second album, features two covers: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” and the traditional folk song “John Hardy”. The latter sounds nothing like any of the myriad arrangements it has been given over the last century by artists from Leadbelly to Uncle Tupelo. And the former takes such pains to distinguish itself that it scarcely shares any lyrical content with the original.
Pierce’s take on “Run Through the Jungle” starts off in a fairly straightforward way, with the familiar riff created by John Fogerty and Co. (Remember when Fogerty was sued for plagiarizing “Run Through the Jungle”—that is, plagiarizing himself—with his 1985 solo tune “The Old Man Down the Road”?) But don’t start singing along yet, because Pierce has other ideas, as was usually the case for this misunderstood visionary. The chorus is the only thing that ties the song lyrically to the original, although instead of “Better run through the jungle / Oh and don’t look back”, Pierce sings “I will run through the jungle / And I won’t look back”.
“Some are coming by passenger / Some coming on a freight / Others move by walking / But none have the time to wait…I get out of these waters / Before they start to rise / I never been no Christian / I don’t want to be baptized…”
The first two verses seem in keeping with Fogerty’s murky warnings of Biblical sorts of danger: “They told me don’t go walkin’ slow / Cos devil’s on the loose… Two hundred million guns are loaded / Satan cries, ‘Take aim!’” But Pierce throws in a curveball at the end that takes the song in a noir-like direction: “As I kill my woman / She lay across the bed / She looks so ambitious / Took back everything I said”. So where we started out with Deliverance, we end up with Body Heat. Only a Gun Club song could pull that off.
When Jeffery Lee Pierce died in 1996, we lost not only the original material he would have gone on to produce, but his incredibly inventive take on the work of artists he revered. It’s covers like “Run Through the Jungle” that separate the artform from pointless mimicry and make it something more than merely homage.