Jack on Fire: Jeffrey Lee Pierce, 1958–1996

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.

Returning to the supposedly troublesome ‘Miami’

So returning later, at some point before I left the land of my birth, to the supposedly troublesome Miami, whose admittedly thin Chris Stein helmed production is nowhere near as problematic as history has decreed, I discovered a perfectly fine album. Perhaps not their fever-dream best, but neither do I wish to damn it with faint praise — any other band and we’d probably be talking minor classic. When the singing is this ferally on, you can forgive the slight reduction of everything else in the mix. It’s like we had this idea that the band would repeat Fire of Love ad infinitum and we’d all go home happy, so when expectations were dashed, much of the critical world scowled petulantly and turned away, never to turn fully back. Interestingly, Pierce himself preferred Miami, saying about Fire of Love: “I can’t even remember making it. What can you say about a record that you cut for 2500 bucks in 48 hours, on speed? It was just punk rock.”

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.

David Antrobus is a former youth worker and a writer (for PopMatters, Trouser Press, Flak Magazine, the Georgia Straight) who has lived long enough to have found a way to reconcile his contradictions, you would think.