Jeffrey Lee Pierce, for all intents and purposes, was the Gun Club. From his days as a peroxided, Debbie Harry-fixated Los Angeles teen-punk, through a lengthy era when he seemed convinced he could channel the spirit of Robert Johnson, to a more recent probe of the seedier side of continental balladry, Pierce — who died of a cerebral blood clot in Utah at the end of March 1996 — always presented a highly individual, albeit sometimes dazed’n’confused, vision of a soul in torment.
Being unseasoned, young, middle-class, white and barely able to play guitar didn’t mean he had to be to the blues what the Cramps once were to rockabilly. For Pierce, the blues was a highly personal medium to broadcast/exorcise demons. On Gun Club’s cathartic debut, Fire of Love, his unschooled, high-lonesome howl often evokes the hellhound-on-his-tail imagery he’s trying to project. This is bona fide mutant blues, with Pierce using the musical structures and lyrical imagery for his own ends. Exciting, intense — even cathartic — and badly (if appropriately) recorded, with a dash of punk leavening, this also has homey and effective touches like bits of violin and slide guitar (by Ward Dotson and Jeffrey Lee). If the band isn’t terribly successful when it tries to preserve the letter of the blues (as on a cover of Johnson’s “Preaching the Blues”), transposing the genre’s spirit to a snarled punk framework (“She Is Like Heroin to Me,” the gripping “Fire Spirit”) proves the Gun Club’s purity of essence.
Miami, which gave Pierce the chance to live the dream of singing with Harry, is both jumbled and dispirited. It includes a little folk, country and pop-rock without diluting the strength one whit, not even via harmony vocalizing. Producer and Animal magnate Chris Stein does procure a clearer sound, cleansing Dotson’s slide guitar of its grit, although bringing Pierce’s generally strong Jim Morrison-styled vocals to the front of the mix does focus attention on his disconcerting tendency to hit notes sharp. (The cassette adds tracks from the Death Party EP.)
The next couple of turbulent years yielded little of value. Death Party dates from Pierce’s 1983 sojourn in New York with a pick-up edition of Gun Club that includes Bush Tetras drummer Dee Pop and guitarist Jim Duckworth from Panther Burns; it’s a lackluster episode that can safely be forgotten, although one stately goth- rock ballad, “The House on Highland Avenue,” is worth hearing. The lineup of the first two albums (which included bassist Rob Ritter of 45 Grave) is documented live on the poorly recorded, indifferently performed Sex Beat 81 LP; The Birth The Death the Ghost, a somewhat better live album recorded at various LA shows, features a later lineup, with pre-Fire of Love guitarist Kid Congo Powers back in the Club following his stint with the Cramps. Neither betrays the slightest hint that Pierce is a compelling, powerful live performer. There’s an overlap of five songs; The Birth The Death the Ghost also has several otherwise unreleased numbers. Although the Dutch-origin Danse Kalinda Boom, dating from 1983, sounds as if it could’ve been recorded from the parking lot, both Pierce and Kid Congo sound positively adrenalized, particularly on the feral “Sleeping in Blood City.”
By The Las Vegas Story, the Club was properly reconstituted. A switch of bassists brought ex-Legal Weapon/future Sister of Mercy and Damned star Patricia Morrison into the band; original guitarist Brian Tristan, aka Kid Congo Powers, who had served in the Cramps in the interim, returned. Even with guest guitar from Blaster Dave Alvin, it’s an uneven album, an odd survey of the wrong side of countless sets of tracks. Evidently intended as a snapshot-mosaic portrait of America, with Pierce attempting to carve himself a Morrison/John Fogerty niche, it simply doesn’t wash. That’s not to say it’s bad — just too unfocused and ineffectual for its ambitious goal. (The issue is further confused by opening Side Two with Pharaoh Sanders’ “Master Plan” and following it with “My Man Is Gone Now,” from Porgy and Bess.) Finally, it’s instrumentally too sloppy/punky for the Middle America saga it aspires to be. (The cassette has a bonus track: “Secret Fires.”)
With that, the Gun Club fell apart again. As a posthumous live record and the two-disc live/studio compilation Two Sides of the Beast were released, Pierce made his solo album, Wildweed. Although typically erratic and idiosyncratic, it’s his best and most fully formed work since Fire of Love. Produced in London by Craig Leon, it’s crisply played by a good little band, and Pierce helps himself surprisingly well on lead guitar. All nine songs are strong; if at times the lyrics seem offhand, the music backs it up. He has apparently become a consistently worthwhile songwriter; one can only hope that he gets a chance to develop even further. (There’s also a bonus 45 which features silliness like a drunken Pierce reciting a strange poem as if he plans to become his generation’s William S. Burroughs.)
After a two-year hiatus, Pierce and the Kid joined forces again for Mother Juno, a polished album that’s both sobering and sober. The album cover painting by Claus Castenskiold, known for his Fall sleeves, captures the mood: through a car windshield revealing a pair of dice and a plastic Jesus, we see a forlorn couple driving through the desert, a booze bottle on its side on the seat between them. The man’s face is grim; the woman’s got her eyes covered, but can’t help peeking. On songs like “The Breaking Hands” (a single which resembles some of Wildweed), producer Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins spins a delicately layered web of sound; more straightforward numbers like the shimmying “Thunderhead” recast the old energy in slightly more linear terms, although guest Blixa Bargeld does his best to tilt “Yellow Eyes” on its axis. The lineup (rounded out by bassist Romi Mori and drummer Nick Sanderson) remains intact for Pastoral Hide & Seek, an album that lays open the first flowerings of Pierce’s creeping Euro-style (not surprising, given its nascence in the city of Brussels). Pierce is still able to concoct scenarios (like “Emily’s Changed”) that make slipping through society’s safety net seem almost inevitable. More important, he’s rediscovered a dormant sense of dynamics, as evidenced by poignant interludes like the country-tinged “I Hear Your Heart Singing.”
Divinity is certainly the artiest Gun Club album ever, replete with byzantine song structures and jarringly dissonant tunings on the part of both Pierce and Kid Congo. That’s strange, given the directness of songs like “Keys to the Kingdom” (a straightforward New Testament reading set to a Bo Diddley beat) and “Richard Speck” (a serial killer paean). In Exile compiles seventeen songs from the three preceding longplayers, adding the heretofore unreleased “Pastoral, Hide and Seek” (recorded during the sessions for the album of the same name). Congo’s on-again/off-again involvement was off again by the time the band reconvened to record Lucky Jim, an eerily austere record that displays the more spectral side of Pierce’s voice, particularly on the dejected title track and “Cry to Me,” which gathers some Bayou musk from Bart Van Poppel’s muggy Hammond organ washes. The lack of a truly heated counterpoint allows Pierce to coast a bit too easily through some of the tracks, but the manner in which he replaces post-adolescent rage with full-blown adult emptiness is mighty impressive.
Pierce’s intermittent solo career was not nearly as distinguished as his work in the Gun Club. A follow-up to the erratic Wildweed, the Ramblin’ Jeffrey Lee record is slightly more palatable, if only for Pierce’s indisputable gift for emulating the slurry phrasing and pigfoot playing of the country bluesmen he venerates.