THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT. 3: The Gun Club

Gun Club 1

“A general collective attitude of weirdness”: In which ye olde editor has a memorable 1981 encounter with the L.A. blues-punks, ultimately profiling the band many years later. (Pictured above: the 1981-82 lineup of (L-R) Terry Graham, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Ward Dotson and Rob Ritter.)

 BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: with the recent reissue, by the Superior Viaduct label, of the Gun Club’s epochal 1981 debut Fire Of Love, now seems appropriate to republish my Gun Club interview/feature originally appearing in January of 2005 in BLURT predecessor Harp magazine. At the time, Sympathy For The Record Industry had just reissued the Miami, The Las Vegas Story and Death Party EP records and interest in the L.A. outfit was understandably high even though founder and frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce had passed away nearly a decade earlier. I was a ground zero fan of the band, having fallen under the spell of the album upon its release (I’d gotten a copy from the Slash label and wound up being a de facto street teamer for Slash, putting up album and tour posters and helping in general to get the word out on the label’s artists), so my dedication ran deep and I was eager to talk not only to former drummer Terry Graham but Pierce’s sister Jacqui and Sympathy label head Long Gone John. All were extremely forthcoming in interviews I conducted with them in late 2004.

       Fire Of Love has held up brilliantly over the years and it deserves to be among any serious music fan’s collection. As reviewer Michael Toland put it in his review of the new reissue, “[The album’s] punk-soaked blues and roots rock & roll sound as iconoclastic now as it did in 1981. Newcomers may easily be put off by Pierce’s musical limitations [and] that’s not even counting the usual questions arising from a white guy from a privileged background attempting the blues. But Pierce, buoyed by guitarist Ward Dotson, bassist Rob Ritter (né Graves) and drummer Terry Graham, turns his weakness into strength, utterly ignoring the fact that he can barely play in the accepted manner and simply barreling ahead… The blues is a form given to intensely personal interpretation, from Son House and Charley Patton to Chris Whitley and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The punk-informed approach the Gun Club employs on Fire of Love maintains its power and distinction over three decades on.” 

       Amen to that, Brother Toland. Without further delay, then, let’s dive into the eye of the Gun Club hurricane…

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AAHHRRROOOOUUUUU!!! All heads in a Chapel Hill, N.C. club jerk stageward as the frontman for L.A.’s latest punk export summons up an ear-splitting howl. Part Lizard King, part Charles Bukowski and – with his wild mane of bleached hair-part Deborah Harry-from-hell, Jeffrey Lee Pierce is preachin’ the blues tonight, Gun Club style.

Barely an hour earlier your correspondent was in the bar perched at Pierce’s elbow, marveling at his ability to consume booze at a rate that would flatten a lumberjack. But here he is now, oblivious to blood alcohol content and conjuring ancient spirits as his bandmates – guitarist Ward Dotson, bassist Rob Ritter and drummer Terry Graham – follow him into the maelstrom.

“Jeff was gonna do whatever he did, and pretty much every night we were teetering on the edge of disaster,” recalls Graham now, of that fall ’81 tour. “There was a ‘Jeffrey watch’ in place because we didn’t know what kind of condition he was going to be in when he got onstage. A couple of shows he really, truly lost it. But most of the time he was amazing in his ability to pull it off. Something just took over when we did the show.”

That summer the Gun Club’s debut, Fire Of Love, had appeared on Ruby/Slash, notching press raves everywhere except L.A., where the band refused to bow before the punk orthodoxy or the roots-rock revivalists among whom it was frequently lumped. But the Gun Club had more in common with genre demolitionists the Cramps and Nick Cave’s outfit the Birthday Party, and Pierce, a Slash fanzine writer with a broad knowledge of music history, assembled the band in 1980 intending to rebuild from the ground up blues, country, rockabilly and punk.

Long Gone John, a veteran of numerous Gun Club shows and proprietor of the Sympathy for the Record Industry label, reckons Pierce & Co. did exactly that, observing. “At the time there were plenty of bad hardcore bands and the leftover drippings of the first generation of punk in L.A., and here’s this band following a unique vision. They weren’t concerned about fitting in or being a part of what anybody else was doing.” Drummer Graham, currently writing a rock memoir to be titled Punk Like Me, concurs: “We were able to create a mood, an energy. And at the time, it was all so under-the-radar you could just do a lot of things and not care what people thought.”

Signing with Blondie’s Chris Stein’s label Animal in ’82 the group traveled to New York to make its sophomore platter. Despite a muddy Stein production job, Miami (which featured Debbie Harry on uncredited backing vocals) was the equal of its predecessor: apocalyptic punk blues and voodoobilly swamp-rock swirling around Pierce’s lyric visions of ghosts, succubi and devils. But with Pierce gradually turning dictatorial, both Ritter and Dotson soon quit (Ritter would pass away in the early ‘90s) Following a period of disarray that yielded the import-only Death Party EP recorded with some interim players, Pierce unveiled a new lineup for 1984’s The Las Vegas Story. Featuring Pierce, Graham, future Sisters Of Mercy/Damned bassist Patricia Morrison and guitarist Kid Congo Powers (who’d been in an embryonic version of the Gun Club before joining the Cramps—Graham recalls that he would “try anything and he turned into somebody who really understood noise… really good with sound effects that worked with what we were doing”), the album was sonically slick but, material-wise, as grittily primal as ever.

And as Graham points out, the band was flexing its artistic wings as well. “So there is that person in front, Jeff, plus all that different personality in the band, and it all comes together to create some kind of mood, some kind of energy. It might be dark, it might be bright, whatever. But I think that’s the key: everybody who’s a part of that stands on their own.

“Jeff would come in and say, ‘You know, let’s try ‘A Love Supreme’.’ We go, ‘sure!’ A general collective attitude of ‘weirdness,’ [of] taking risks. And we had a thing where ‘noise’ was an important element onstage, like freeform jazz. We wanted to create a form of chaos and have our songs come out of that.” [Below, L-R, Graham, Pierce, Kid Congo, Patricia Morrison]

Gun Club 3

Pierce’s appetite for drugs and alcohol, however, made “chaos” the operative term, and during a fall ’84 tour of Europe Graham decided he’d had enough and bolted. At the end of the year, Pierce disbanded the Gun Club and went solo before reviving it in ’87 and going on to do the Juno, Pastoral Hide and Seek, Divinity and Lucky Jim albums. He eventually became clean and sober, too, yet tragically died of a brain hemorrhage in 1996. He was 37 years old.

He left behind a fine corpse, though. “There’s nobody more important in L.A.’s musical history than the Gun Club,” states Long Gone John.  “[Labelmates] Rank & File and the Blasters, by contrast, they were pretty serious about ‘stuff’ compared to how the Gun Club was. The Blasters were very fucking serious, and very retro about recreating an era—the hairdos, the clothing, everything. Very religious about their brand of rockabilly. Gun Club wasn’t like that; they didn’t look the part, didn’t really fit the part, they took these elements from here and others from over there, and really created a hybrid genre.”

In addition to Sympathy’s remastered reissues of Miami, The Las Vegas Story and Death Party – Chris Stein gave the master tapes to the Pierce estate as a gift – archival Gun Club projects, including a box set and a DVD, are being discussed. There’s also an official Pierce biography and a Gun Club tribute album due soon. Meanwhile, Pierce’s family is satisfied that the band’s back catalog has been restored to print.

“Jeffrey had this great love for music, and he wanted to teach everyone,” says younger sister Jacqui. “Onstage he’d go into what was, for him, a character, and he wanted interaction with audiences, to test them. But he also was a sensitive, loving person. It’s just that he didn’t show that side to people. It’s like what Klaus Kinski used to always say: ‘Just give them the smut and the shit.’ But like his influences – Jim Morrison, Hendrix, the great blues artists – who had a pure passion about what they were doing, he put his heart and soul into everything he did.”

Mr. Mojo risin’ indeed – aahhrrrooo-ouuuuu!!!

Gun Club 1 by Hank Grebe

[above photo by Hank Grebe]

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THE BAND WHO CREATED A GENRE: INTERVIEW CONTENT THAT DID NOT MAKE IT INTO THE HARP ARTICLE

 Jacqui Pierce (Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s sister)

On early memories of her brother: “I remember him hanging out with me and a lot of my friends, getting crazy. He used to wear a lot of my mom’s jewelry—I used to help him get dressed up! That’s probably one of my mom’s necklaces he’s wearing in the Ruby Records promotional photo of the band.

“Jeffrey was a big admirer of Debbie Harry too—the blonde hair, of course, she really inspired him with that, and this crazy, eclectic look. He liked to create different looks… [later] one night at the Viper Room for example, he came on with a trumpet and a sword.”

On his persona: “Onstage he was totally different from how he was at home. He’d go into what was a character for him and he wanted interaction with audiences. He didn’t want things to be wonderful and happy; he wanted a reaction out of people. But at home he was very quite and he’d read a lot, play his guitar—and then try to annoy me and tease me and test my knowledge of music. He’d play records and say, ‘You should know this band!’ Stuff like that. And I think those who really knew him, knew a different side of him.

“He was always testing people—he’d do the complete opposite of something they were expecting, in a way of introducing them to something different. Like, he’d play these Japanese folks songs before a show. Or going into these R&B songs onstage at London’s Town & Country Club, doing ‘Preachin’ the Blues’ and going into ‘Ain’t That Peculiar.’

“I think he just had this great love for music and he wanted to teach everyone about everything and not just this one small-minded respect. Labels really bothered him, period, when people would slap them on you and assume, ‘Oh, you’re punk rock, you’re this, you’re that…’ He didn’t like that.”

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Long Gone John, of Sympathy For The Record Industry

On Pierce’s voodoo-punk-blues image: “Yeah, I think it was, obviously, a bit limiting. That’s what it began as, but this guy, as a music writer an everything else, he obviously loved everything from Brian Wilson to King Crimson to whatever. I think he just got different bugs up his ass at different times; he’d want to be a jazz guy, then do fuckin’ avant garde, and in his many different interests he didn’t want to be just one kind of thing.”

On early Gun Club shows: “I saw them very early on when Kid Congo was [originally] in the ban, and that was considerably before Fire Of Love came out. It had to be one of their first shows and I saw them completely by accident when they were opening for somebody else. Pretty much a shambles! But it really intrigued me, and it was evident event that early on that something different was happening.

“Nobody saw the Gun Club as many times as I did in L.A. They were really my favorite band, and I drove around a ’59 pink Cadillac with GUN CLUB license plates—I still have those plates, and if I ever have another car I’ll put them on it. They were my favorite band in every single way.”

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Terry Graham, original Gun Club Drummer

On his most abiding memory of Pierce: “Jeffrey liked to talk. He would just talk until you were crying, wanting him to shut up so much! [laughs] But I was hanging out with this guy because I liked him—you couldn’t help but like him! He wasn’t being a jerk; he just liked to talk, and he would just get into the stuff he was talking about. And I liked to listen, so it was a pretty good pairing. [laughs]

On the proverbial Jim Morrison role model for Pierce: “Yes, and it was more than just physical—[Pierce] had a lot of little demons flapping around in his head. Ant at that time, the whole thing being so underground in so many ways, the whole thing just flowered, where people go more than inward upon themselves. So on the one hand, you have some incredible personalities [among Morrison acolytes], but on the other hand, well, there’s a lot of people not around anymore because of that.”

On Pierce’s legendary prowess as a drinker: “He was gonna do whatever he does and it was cool, and we didn’t really have any expectations that he was going to go jump off a cliff—he just liked to drink. So did everyone else around us! Pretty much every night, we were teetering on the edge of disaster. There was the occasional night when we were stone sober and stiff as a board. But it’s like any night you get out on stage whether you’re smashed or not: something just takes over when you do the show.

“Still, most of the time there was a ‘Jeffrey watch’ in place because we didn’t know what kind of condition he was gonna be in when he got onstage. Even getting onstage in time, so there could be a lot of tension underlying things as a result. But once we got onstage, it was a different thing.”

On the Gun Club’s unique visual and musical appeal: “I think it was that everybody in the band had a very distinct personality. There are so many bands now that look like five minutes after they get offstage they’re gonna be at taking the trash out. No personality at all. But it was just a given at the time that you would be distinctive —think about a band like The Cramps, who were pretty good pals with. A lot of bands then had unique sounds, so you had to be creative. If you weren’t creative or different, you just immediately blended into the wall.

“Every show was different because the set was half spontaneous—whatever mood we were in, [the sets] would get played with a lot. There was a lot of room in some of the songs where you could do that, drag out certain things as long as Jeff wanted to, when they weren’t dependent so much on song structure as vocal cues from him. Paying attention to and watching him was really important, and that’s why there was a lot of anxiety about his condition; there were a lot of times when he forgot where he was, even the planet he was on, or that band he was in—he’d start thinking he was James Brown! [laughs]

“A couple of shows he really, truly lost it, and it was just a mess. But most of the time he was just amazing in his ability to come onstage just baked yet pull it off.

“We all had a general collective attitude of ‘weirdness’—that it just might work! Not that we were trying to be the Philharmonic or anything. I mean, a lot of times, Jeff would sho up onstage and, for example, with this beat-up old trumpet one night and start blaring it. And we had a thing about ‘noise’ where noise was an important element onstage. Not as in the kind of just stupid noise; more like freeform jazz. We wanted to create a form of chaos and have our songs come out of that. We were just into crating something that we didn’t know where it was going to go or take us—we wanted to take that risk.”

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PREVIOUSLY IN THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES:

 Big Star

 Dumptruck

 

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