Music

Jack on Fire: Jeffrey Lee Pierce, 1958–1996

David Antrobus

He was as unlikely a candidate to don the mantle of rock and roll cliché as anyone; he was just a child's drawing of abject gloom, a stocky fireplug frame, dark, insomniac eyes skittering beneath the damp straw tangle of his anime-angular hair, an upside-down sorrow-mouth.

I've waited 13 years to say goodbye to Jeffrey Lee Pierce. And now, because frankly it's weird talking to dead people, I'm casting around awkwardly for the right words, so maybe just some facts for now.

Jeffrey Lee Pierce was an American punk, and a bluesman -- lead singer and guitarist for that most contradictory of bands, The Gun Club, whose erratic embers smoldered and sputtered fitfully during the '80s and the first half of the '90s, rarely if ever catching fully in fame's spotlight, yet illuminating the margins with a deep fire that, since their passing long ago now, feels richer and more blood-red the older we all get.

Their problem was that they bamboozled everyone, including themselves in all likelihood. Labeled by many as psychobilly, they repelled the punk dogmatists; as blues-punk, they lost the traditionalists; as country-punk-blues, pretty much everyone else who might have been sympathetic turned away -- it was the genre-war '80s after all. In fact, as ragged a fit as it is, the closest they came to a "scene" in the UK was probably goth (which, again, couldn't have exactly helped), especially as they weren't really a goth band either, outward appearances notwithstanding. Speaking of the US/UK divide, The Gun Club never really found much traction in their homeland. By fusing the fetishistic "old, weird" roots music of the mythical American West (and South) with the raw punk modishness of the late '70s, music fans in Europe and later Japan took to them far more easily.

At the center of everything was Jeffrey -- Texas-born, Los Angeles raised -- a music fanzine writer, an obsessive Blondie stan (as a teenager, he was president of their fan club and was fairly regularly ousted from hotel rooms by members of the Blondie contingent for overstaying his welcome) with an unscratchable reggae itch and a compulsion for Delta blues as well as country murder ballads. Musically, most of the pieces were in place very early. Physically, however, he was as unlikely a candidate to don the mantle of rock and roll cliché as anyone; he was just a child's drawing of abject gloom, a stocky fireplug frame, dark, insomniac eyes skittering beneath the damp straw tangle of his anime-angular hair, an upside-down sorrow-mouth. Something born mewling reluctant from the bayou mud.

Yet don it and suffer it and die from it he most certainly did.

The maddening part for me is that I missed most of it. In the early '80s, emerging from the sombre aftershocks of a Manchester recently bereft of another driven, misunderstood boy -- Joy Division's Ian Curtis -- and beginning to discern, through the Mancunian perma-drizzle, welcome hints of light via that band's enigmatic progeny New Order, I inexplicably uprooted and moved south to the nondescript town of Northampton.

The Gun Club's 1981 debut Fire of Love was rarely off my turntable in those days. Still, the most critically lauded of their albums, it roared out of ramshackle blocks we hadn't yet built even in our imaginations, an inconceivably twisted fusion of blues, punk, and country, a mixture of Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, Huddie Ledbetter, the Blasters, X, Black Flag, Blondie, The Sex Pistols, Burning Spear, Smokey Robinson, Canned Heat, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, and Hank Williams. At the center of this storm was Pierce's voice. Actually no, somewhere off-centre of it all was Jeffrey's voice, for he rarely cleaved to the melody back then, quavering in a tremulous howl mostly sharp and occasionally flat, which further served to heighten the tension of his themes, which were, somewhat predictably: sex, pain, intoxication, and murder.

To this day, however, that voice still causes the hairs to raise, the hackles to rise in fight or flight. Imagine hearing the opener for the first time "Sex Beat," that post-traumatic explosion of damaged purity if indeed purity can emerge from such mongrel ferocity (which of course we all know now it cannot. Or can, I forget which). The propulsive downstruck open-E chords: F, A, E, G. The echo-twang of the rockabilly substratum, the trebly punk veneer, cockroach legs skittering on pockmarked concrete.

Hell, right off the bat you almost recoil from the light in Shirley's lips, fleetingly grasp the tiger in Debra Ann's hips. And move! And for sure, when you get to the part where "we can fuck forever but you'll never get my soul," you either embrace such electrifying defiance or refuse the abandon unconditionally, absolutely. Many did. Refused it, I mean. At no point did The Gun Club ever really break into the broader public consciousness. Bluntly, they never quite got famous enough to sustain themselves in the down times, of which there were many. Probably even The Cramps were better known. Certainly the two bands share an intertwined history, not least thanks to Kid Congo Powers, the scrawny primitive-intuitive guitarist who initially joined Pierce after getting drunk together at a Pere Ubu concert before defecting to his idols once they summoned him (with Jeffrey's magnanimous blessings). Not that you can blame him, given Pierce's increasingly erratic substance-augmented behavior.

Let's cut to the chase: there's a fuck of a lot of life experience that has to occur between "She's like heroin to me / She cannot miss a vein" and "Your body don't get me off no more / It takes a lot of smack to do that," and quite frankly, not much of it is pretty. The former couplet is from Fire of Love and the latter The Gun Club's 1993 curtain call, Lucky Jim. At the point that final album dropped, his wife and bassist Romi Mori had left him for his then-drummer (Nick Sanderson), and Pierce had probably realized how indifferent the wider world had become to his music, let alone his pain. So bookends of sorts: one darkly prosodic, the other starkly prosaic: one running frenzied from the swamp-demons of the past, the other recoiling in vain from the keening horror of an unspeakable future. The gulf between the two records is grimly fascinating. Dissonance on the former ("Black Train") becomes plain ugliness on the latter ("Day Turn To Night"), while Fire's haunted and unhealthy lyricism ("Ghost On The Highway") is tempered by Lucky Jim's sonorous melancholy ("Idiot Waltz"). "Sex Beat," their introduction to the world, we've already discussed, but contrast it with the band's final song "Anger Blues," and we can see the parabola of their musical journey, an ass-backwards shedding of raw punk attitude for ... well, the actual blues. The wild-eyed voodoo child that is Fire of Love will probably always be considered the band's masterpiece, although the fatally wounded zombie Lucky Jim deserves more accolades, assuming you can stomach the festering core of abject sorrow and regret that beat within its infected frame.

Between these two lies a solid body of work, though.

Having somehow missed their sophomore effort Miami completely, I next encountered the Gun Club in 1984, with the release of The Las Vegas Story, an album as remarkable and as perplexing as anything in their catalogue. I was fortunate enough to catch them live at Loughborough University in late October, featuring -- if not their greatest line-up, certainly their most iconic -- Pierce on vocals and guitar, Kid Congo Powers on guitar, Patricia Morrison on bass, and Terry Graham on drums (Throughout the band's life, Pierce's unpredictability led to constant disruptive personnel rotations.)

Long before anyone coined the term "mosh pit," my enduring memory of that concert, aside from its sheer mesmeric ebullience, is of the ripe full-body bruising I got to gingerly explore at my hungover leisure the following day. But this isn't the place for either masochism or specific reviews, even of the thumbscrew/thumbnail variety, so I'll merely hint at an entry point: go listen to a song that didn't make the cut originally, only showing up on the reissues, "Secret Fires." Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, at first glance it's a boilerplate country-folk waltz that pits an open-sky acoustic strum against the mating-cougar wails of a lap steel, all dry arroyo echo-sketches, yet within its weary concision it exemplifies the wild mercury allure of the best Gun Club music, transient and indelible as the ozone dance of summer night lightning. Here is Jeffrey's improbable vibrato barely hanging from the melody line: a moth caught on a wire, fluttering and occasionally thrashing, allegedly aloof from human concerns yet hinting of things preferably buried; razor blades and dead fathers; dust, blood, sand, heat, wounds ... and tenderness. Yes. Somewhere in that bled-out hellhole there is room -- however small and cramped -- for actual love:

I took my place in the hills

Jagged with the secret fires

I called you through the valley

Down among the wires

With dust upon my eyes

Came the first day of the year

I saw a house where no one lived,

On the black land and under the red sky

You washed my hair and body

Beside the firelight

So, touch me through your screen door

I want to remember you

We struggled

The year we lived in the secret fire.

Really, this is what the Gun Club achieved as they crawled westward, south-by-southwest, the recurring astonishment of beauty amid the horror, running from "flashlights on the back roads," a New Mexican mirage, an Arizona dream, as if the murderous pedophile Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian had abruptly renounced his appalling ways, emerging gore-soaked and penitent from the heat shimmer one day, proceding into a new life of domestic contrition. Such an accomplishment, in a world mostly devoid of magic, is damn near miraculous, quite honestly.

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