The Gun Club - Biography
The Gun Club was the artistic vehicle of Los Angeles singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Born of Pierce’s obsession with antique country blues, the band was a prominent and often-reviled fixture of the second LA punk rock wave. The group never managed to command much respect at home, but proved wildly popular in the UK and Europe, where it toured widely.
Pierce’s influence resonated long after his premature death in 1996: The work of such punk-blues ensembles as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and The Black Keys would be unthinkable without his precedent, and Jack White has often acknowledged The Gun Club as the major influence on The White Stripes. Overseas, Pierce is considered something of a legend.
Pierce was born in Montebello, California, east of Los Angeles, on June 27, 1958, and went to high school in the San Fernando Valley north of the city. By the time he was in his late teens, he was omnipresent and unavoidable on the Hollywood punk scene. Pudgy, moonfaced, and sporting a thatch of dyed blond hair, he was a ubiquitous presence at local shows, chattering volubly about the music he loved and himself, his non-stop conversation punctuated by a nervous laugh that was a conversational trademark. His non-musical idols included Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando (to whom he bore a slight resemblance).
His tastes in music were catholic. He reviewed reggae shows and albums under the byline “Ranking Jeffrey Lee” for the local punk magazine Slash, and he was deeply schooled in the country blues of such pre-war performers as Son House and Robert Johnson. But he was also a punk fan; he was especially fixated with Blondie and its singer Debbie Harry, and essentially stalked the band when they performed in LA (and, on at least one occasion, at their home in New York).Pierce, who had played guitar from his junior high years, had ambitions of starting a band
with himself as front man. The earliest incarnations of his mostly one-off “groups” included The Cyclones (which included scenester, fanzine writer, and future Ringling Sister Pleasant Gehman), the Red Lights, and the E-Types. One of his earliest recruits was a skinny, bashful aspiring guitarist named Brian Tristan, who learned the rudiments of the instrument from Pierce. The best-remembered pre-Gun Club lineup included Tristan, Los Angeles Times music writer Don Snowden, and drummer Brad Dunning; known as The Creeping Ritual, it premiered at the Hong Kong Café, the punk hot spot in downtown LA’s Chinatown, in the spring of 1980.
The Creeping Ritual disintegrated within a matter of months; Tristan was cherry-picked to replace guitarist Bryan Gregory in Pierce’s principal influence The Cramps, who rechristened him Kid Congo Powers. But a new lineup, which acquired the permanent handle of The Gun Club, formed with Ward Dotson (who had also tried out for The Cramps) on guitar and Terry Graham and Rob Ritter of the local punk group The Bags on drums and bass, respectively.
As an opening act for the like-minded roots-punk band The Blasters and others, The Gun Club attracted a good deal of local attention — not all of it positive — with its abrasive, blues-soaked punk rock. While the band itself was tight and loud, its principal attraction was Pierce. He was never a gifted singer technically — he would invariably veer wildly off key — but his unpredictability, his volatility, and his natural charisma made each live show a confrontational adventure. The band found a supporter in The Flesh Eaters’ lead singer (and fellow Slash writer) Chris D., who signed The Gun Club to the fledgling Slash Records’ subsidiary imprint Ruby Records.
Co-produced by Chris D. and Tito Larriva of the Hispanic punk trio The Plugz, The Gun Club’s debut Fire Of Love (1981) captured the group’s early attack to perfection. The LP included the key Pierce originals “Sex Beat,” “She’s Like Heroin to Me,” and “For the Love of Ivy” (a paean to The Cramps’ Poison Ivy Rorschach), plus covers of Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink of Water Blues” and Robert Johnson’s “Preaching the Blues.”
Touring in the wake of the album, The Gun Club began to develop a following on the East Coast, especially in New York and Boston. (An astounding 1982 live set from Buffalo, NY, can be heard on the posthumous Sympathy For the Record Industry compilation Early Warning .) The group’s growing popularity may have spurred Chris Stein of Blondie to sign the band to his new Chrysalis-distributed label Animal Records, which also included Iggy Pop, one of Pierce’s major inspirations, among its acts. Stein produced Miami (1982), a thin-sounding affair that nonetheless included such indelible tracks as “Bad Indian,” “The Fire of Love,” and “Mother of Earth.”
The first Gun Club lineup dissolved soon thereafter. Ritter, who was (like many other players) in and out of the band frequently in the early days, quit permanently to play with 45 Grave. (He would die of a heroin overdose in 1991.) A touring edition of the band briefly included Dotson, Graham, ex-Bag Patricia Morrison on bass, and second guitarist Annie Unger. After a short stint as guitarist for Tex & The Horseheads, which featured his discovery (and, briefly, girlfriend) Linda “Texacala” Jones, Pierce busted up the group and relocated to New York. (Dotson went on to form The Pontiac Brothers and Liquor Giants.)
For the better part of a year, The Gun Club consisted of Pierce, guitarist Jim Duckworth of Memphis’ Tav Falco and The Panther Burns, drummer Dee Pop of New York’s Bush Tetras, and bassist Jimmy Joe Uliana. Their lone studio venture was the five-song EP Death Party (1983), co-produced by Pierce and Stein and only released on Animal abroad. This tense, somewhat slovenly record was cut during a period that began the already hard-drinking Pierce’s romance with heroin, which made him an increasingly erratic and difficult performer and bandleader.
A good deal of chaos prefaced The Gun Club’s next recording. Graham and Patricia Morrison rejoined the band, but, on the eve of an Australian tour, Graham and Duckworth abruptly quit the group, believing they would not be paid. Pierce and Morrison commenced the tour with members of the Aussie opening act filling the empty slots, but, in a panic, Pierce convinced Kid Congo Powers, now out of The Cramps, to fly in for the remaining dates.
Back in America, Pierce, Powers, Morrison, and Graham, who accepted an offer of his old job, recorded The Las Vegas Story (1984) with producer Jeff Eyrich. This slickly produced album included the solid Pierce originals “Walking With the Beast,” “Eternally is Here,” and “Bad America.” Reflective of the singer’s growing love of jazz, it also featured covers of Nina Simone’s “My Man’s Gone Now” and Leon Thomas’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” A horrific US and European tour followed. All the band’s equipment and belongings were stolen -- not once but twice, in Buffalo, and again in Manchester, England. Finally, the fed-up Terry Graham quit, for the last time, in Paris, stealing away in the middle of the night. Hastily hired fill-ins completed the trek.
In London at the end of the tour, Pierce met and fell in love with Japanese émigrée Romi Mori, who became his soul mate and, soon, his bassist. Now based in the UK, Pierce recorded a bluesy solo album, Wildweed (1985), with American producer Craig Leon; the drummer for the tour that followed, Nick Sanderson of Clock DVA, would join a new edition of The Gun Club.
Though his drug and alcohol abuse was escalating rapidly by the late ‘80s, Pierce experienced a burst of creativity. The Gun Club’s album Mother Juno (1987), made with the lineup of Congo (by now a veteran of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds), Mori, and Sanderson, is the band’s finest latter-day work; produced by Pierce’s friend Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins, it sports a sound by turns ethereal and gutsy, and the potent tracks “Bill Bailey,” “Yellow Eyes,” “The Breaking Hands,” and “Port of Souls.” The self-produced follow-up Pastoral Hide and Seek (1990), made in Holland with the same group, suffers from its smaller budget and hurried production schedule.
In 1991, Pierce entered a studio in the Netherlands for a highly personal album, Ramblin’ Jeffrey Lee & Cypress Grove With Willie Love (1992). In sharp contrast to his more manicured later work with The Gun Club, this simple, rough-hewn set found him essaying country blues standards by Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Skip James, Robert Wilkins, and other titans, with a couple of fresh originals thrown in. English guitarist Tony Chmelik was billed as “Cypress Grove,” while drummer Simon Fish, of The Gun Club’s then-current touring unit, was tagged “Willie Love.”
Kid Congo Powers, the most faithful of all Gun Club members, finally quit the group before the making of its last studio album, Lucky Jim (1993). Heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, one of Pierce’s favorite books, and by several of the vocalist’s trips to Asia — especially to Vietnam, the site of Apocalypse Now, a favorite film — the collection features the trio of Pierce, Mori, and Sanderson. Pierce takes all of the lead guitar work, which shows the abiding impact of Television’s Tom Verlaine.
Some of the Lucky Jim songs were evidently inspired by Pierce’s absorption with Kayoko Hosaka, a Japanese photographer who shared the London apartment occupied by the singer and Mori. His relationship with Hosaka — retold fictionally in the short story “Young Kyoko” — and a growing estrangement prompted an affair between Mori and drummer Sanderson, who finally eloped in 1994. This event began the period of steep physical decline that ended with Pierce’s death.
After the expiration of his British visa, Pierce bounced between Europe and Asia. He spent a good deal of time in Japan, and injuries he sustained in the Kobe/Osaka earthquake of January 1995 led to a hospital stay. He became infatuated with his Japanese nurse, but was soon expelled from the country. After a brief time in London, he returned to Los Angeles, destitute, addicted, and dying.
In his hometown during the last year of his life, Pierce hung out at the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip and performed a couple of shows with jerry-rigged editions of The Gun Club. He began working on his memoirs. His last public performance was in December 1995, at The Ringling Sisters’ annual Christmas benefit show. After two decades of nearly constant drug and alcohol abuse, his health was failing: He was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis C (and, according to an obituary by Pleasant Gehman, he was HIV-positive). Yet he walked away from an attempted intervention by friends who briefly placed him in a hospital. In his last days, he looked thin, almost spectral; he had lost so much weight that it was difficult to recognize him.
In early 1996, Pierce went to Salt Lake City, Utah, to stay with his father. In late March, he was discovered unconscious on the living room floor, the victim of a stroke. A week later, on March 31, 1996, Jeffrey Lee Pierce was taken off life support. He was 37 years old.
Pierce and his work have been accorded a great deal of attention posthumously. In 1998, Henry Rollins’ 2.13.61 issued the book Go Tell the Mountain, which compiled Pierce’s unfinished memoir, his scattered writings (including “Young Kyoko”), and his lyrics. Rollins also reissued several Gun Club albums on CD. In 2006, director Kurt Voss’ documentary Ghost On the Highway was screened at the Don’t Knock the Rock Film Festival at REDCAT in Los Angeles; while the film frustratingly does not include any live Gun Club performance footage, its premiere marked a reunion of band members Ward Dotson, Kid Congo Powers, and Terry Graham, who backed such Pierce stand-ins as Thalia Zedek, Chris D., and Kristian Hoffman. A four-CD collection of live and studio material was issued in Europe in 2008.
Hopefully, longtime Gun Club fan club president Gene Temesy’s invaluable and deeply researched oral history Walking With the Beast: The Story of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and The Gun Club, the source of much of the information in this biography, will someday see publication.