The Gun Club: Born To Burn Out Fast

The Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce, staring at the camera, wearing a sailor's cap.
Jeffrey Lee Pierce

It’s August bank holiday 2002, and The White Stripes, hot on the back of their third album, White Blood Cells, are introducing a whole new generation to the blues at the annual Reading Festival. A thrilling and coruscating performance powered by heavy distortion and near-punishing volume, Jack White’s wide-eyed and frantic delivery drips from every pore with a punk rock attitude. And while the new fans are throwing themselves with abandon to the maelstrom emanating from the stage, older heads are sensing a familiarity that hasn’t been heard for some time.

And then it happens. With Meg White pumping her bass drum, Jack stomps on those overdrive pedals again and hollers, “You look just like an Elvis from hell!” For those older heads it all clicks into place and at the same time The White Stripes acknowledge forebears every bit as important to their oeuvre as Robert Johnson, Lead Belly or Son House: the song is For The Love Of Ivy and The White Stripes are paying dues to The Gun Club. This is a crucial moment and one that links the opening overs of the 21st century to the early 1980s, when roots music collided
with the fury of punk.

Every generation since the boomers onwards has had a gateway band into the blues, and for those taken by punk’s brief but seismic blast, that group was The Gun Club. Formed in 1979 and based around the core of frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce, The Gun Club drew deeply from the well of American vernacular music and infused it with the stripped down energy and elemental values of punk rock. And while punk, on the surface, at least, eschewed and discarded what had come before it, The Gun Club tapped into a lineage that took them through the decades via punk, primal rock’n’roll and eventually the blues.

Driven by an obsessive personality from an early age, Pierce’s love of alcohol, drugs and the romanticism of playing in a band would be both his making and undoing. His premature death at the age of 37 on March 31, 1996, was shrouded with a tragic inevitability, and sadly he never saw his legacy truly take shape while he was still alive. Over the course of seven studio albums and an ever-shifting line-up of musicians driven away by Pierce’s self-obsessed and self-destructive behaviour, The Gun Club left behind a body of work whose ramifications are still reverberating to this day. Whether consciously or not, echoes of The Gun Club are keenly felt by contemporary practitioners of punk-rock blues such as Daddy Long Legs, Guadalupe Plata and The Bonnevilles as well as more established musicians such as Mark Lanegan, Nick Cave and The Black Keys.

Born in 1958, Jeffrey Lee Pierce was raised in the east LA suburb of El Monte. An obsession for record collecting in his early teens led to him meeting fellow music fan and future Gun Club guitarist and co-founder, Kid Congo Powers (née Brian Tristan).

“We were record collectors and fans and at a super young age had dedicated our lives to that,” recalls Powers. “After punk and post-punk, the next logical step was for us to have a band.”

Punk had left its mark on both of the young friends, with Pierce and Powers running the Blondie and Ramones fan clubs respectively. But it was after witnessing Pere Ubu at LA’s Whiskey A Go Go in 1978 that the idea of band was hatched.

Says Powers: “The concert was great and at the end of the night, in a fit of inspiration, I suppose, Jeffrey said, ‘Why don’t we have a band together?’ So I said, ‘Well, okay, but I don’t play any instrument or do anything.’ So he said, ‘Well you can be the singer and I’ll play the guitar,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to be the singer.’ And he’s like, ‘I could show you how to play guitar. We’re having a band.’ And that was that!”

Indeed it was. Pierce taught Powers how to play the guitar using an open-E tuning and one finger. The moment was certainly right for Pierce. He’d already spent time travelling around the United States and Jamaica on a musical odyssey, and returning to LA he’d regularly contribute reggae reviews to the Slash fanzine under the name Ranking Jeffrey Lee. Recruiting bassist Don Snowden and drummer Brad Dunning, the quartet named themselves The Creeping Ritual before changing their name to The Gun Club at the suggestion of The Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris. So enamoured was Pierce of the new name that he wrote Group Sex for them in return.

“That became the title of their album. It was an even trade!” laughs Powers.

Jeffrey’s idea was to be as antagonistic as possible. He’d say, ‘Always tell the people what they don’t want to hear.’

With the first line-up imploding, Pierce and Powers were joined by Rob Ritter (bass) and Terry Graham (drums) from LA band The Bags, whose contribution was instantly felt.

“Terry and Rob joined and we pretty much had a ready-made rhythm section. Suddenly the songwriting just happened. We already had Sex Beat and For The Love Of Ivy, but having guys that could really play was a really big step up,” says Powers.

Though the audiences were small at first, Pierce tried to create a scene by adopting different personas.

“Sometimes he’d be like Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter where he’d take a Bible on stage and throw it to the floor. It was juvenile but very dramatic and the seeds of what would follow,” says Powers.

Pierce’s behaviour on and off the stage soon began to be counterproductive: “The other guys in the band were very antagonised by him. He was difficult to get close to because he was changing personas so much. He was a record nerd but we were also dreamers and into a lot of rock’n’roll fantasy. That period was a lot of trial and error and luckily more of it was working than not, but that nihilistic streak and antagonism that was coming from him was needed at the time. Jeffrey’s idea was to be as antagonistic as possible. He’d say, ‘Always tell the people what they don’t want to hear.’ So what’s going to really annoy people? How about a title like She’s Like Heroin To Me?

“But fantasy bled into reality and it was annoying to the band. At times, it was a case of, ‘This could be really good but you’re really fucking it up. You’re really pushing everyone away from us.’”

With Pierce’s persona in place and a fascination for roots music that saw radical re-workings of Tommy Johnson’s Cool Drink Of Water Blues and Robert Johnson’s Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil), The Gun Club soon developed a reputation for being a band’s band and in turn attracted the interest of The Cramps, who offered Powers the job of replacing recently departed guitarist Bryan Gregory. It was an offer that worked to both bands’ advantages.

“When I told Jeffrey that I’d been asked to join The Cramps, he said, ‘Do it, but get us gigs!’” With Powers joining The Cramps to record their second album, Psychedelic Jungle, The Gun Club recruited slide guitarist Ward Dotson and set about making their debut album, Fire Of Love.

“I thought they were amazing with Ward Dotson playing,” remembers Powers. “Something was really happening there.”

Produced by The Flesh Eaters’ Chris D and released in 1981, The Fire Of Love was the perfect distillation of Pierce’s vision of punk and blues coming together. Garnering much critical acclaim, it would prove to be an influential album, not least on the UK’s nascent psychobilly scene and the 80s garage band revivalists that followed. The Gun Club had truly arrived.

The demon drink: Pierce gets to grips with his downfall.

The demon drink: Pierce gets to grips with his downfall. (Image credit: Getty)

The following year saw The Gun Club capitalise on Pierce’s Blondie connections by signing to Chris Stein’s Animal Records. The band upped sticks to New York’s Blank Tape studios to record the follow-up album, Miami. Though the material was as strong as the debut – Texas Serenade features some fine slide playing by Dotson while Mother Of Earth practically invents – Stein’s production all but ignored the bottom end to create a trebly document that, as testified by live bootlegs from the time, was hardly representative of the band’s sound.

By this time, bassist Rob Ritter had taken as much as he could of Pierce’s self-centred behaviour and quit, with Ward Dotson following soon after. Prior to his departure and the release of the album, Ritter played Miami to former Bags compatriot Patricia Morrison, who quickly fell for the record’s charms and replaced the bassist.

“Jeffrey decided that he wanted a girl in the band and they were wary of who they were going to get, so they said, ‘Would you do it?’” says Morrison of her entry into the band. She would soon discover that life in The Gun Club around Pierce’s personality would be far from easy.

“I learned 30 songs and I had one 10-minute rehearsal where Jeffrey was completely pissed, and then I played the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in front of 5,000 people. That was my audition!” she laughs. “Afterwards, I said to Jeffrey, ‘Well?’ And he said, ‘Well, what?’ And I go, ‘Well, am I in the band or what?’, and he says, ‘Yeah…’ and that was it.”

Yet despite Pierce’s persona, it was the music that counted for Morrison: “I think he was incredibly talented; he was a singular talent. That’s why I wanted to join the band. I’d heard that he was an oddball and difficult and all the rest, but when I heard the songs – the ones on Miami – I just thought they were fantastic.”

But she also saw another side to him: “My favourite bit of being in The Gun Club was when Jeffrey would write songs and he’d get a hold of me, and I’d drive out to the valley where he lived with his mum and his sister. He’d play the songs to me and I’d learn the bass parts. He did me first before the rest of the band and I loved that. Then we’d get together with the rest and they picked things up quickly.”

With the release of the Death Party EP in 1983, more line-up shifts saw the departure and return of Terry Graham and the inclusion of Jim Duckworth, formerly of Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, on guitar. Featuring five songs, the material on the EP sounded thicker and bolder than anything that had previously been released, with a far stronger emphasis on the songwriting. Despite the continued alcohol and drug abuse, Pierce’s talents were flourishing. As were The Gun Club as a live draw, and their popularity increased in Europe, especially Britain. Now head of the Punk Rock Blues booking and promotion agency, former Jim Jones Revue guitarist Rupert Orton recalls the impact the band had on him as teenager.

“It was at this place called The Gala in Norwich,” he says. “The thing that I remember most about that show, and I’ve never, ever forgotten it, is that they came on – and it’s hard to overestimate the impact this has on you as a kid – and this huge wall of feedback emanated from their instruments. Jim Duckworth has this big, archtop semi-acoustic Gibson and he was getting feedback to go from his monitor and into his amp, and I’d never heard anything like it. It was this enormous sound of huge discordance, and Jeffrey Lee was mumbling something into his mic and when it hit critical mass and couldn’t get any bigger, Jim Duckworth pointed his guitar at the baying mob that was the crowd and hit the first notes of The Fire Of Love, and the whole place just exploded. It was one of the best rock’n’roll experiences of my life and I’ll never forget it.”

But it was too good to last. With the band ready to board a connecting flight bound for Australia, Duckworth and Graham quit thanks to Pierce’s unreasonable demands.

“His guitar had arrived and ours hadn’t come yet,” sighs Morrison. “He said, ‘Leave them! Come on! I’m an important man! People want to see me!’ And he looked at us as if we’re supposed to leave our guitars. Terry, Jim and I looked at each other and went, ‘Hmm’. The other two just quit on the spot but I thought, I want to see Australia, so I went with him.”

A call was made from Australia to Kid Congo Powers. With The Cramps on indefinite hiatus due to ongoing legal wrangles with their label, Powers re-joined The Gun Club. Using a pick-up drummer, The Gun Club road-tested material from what was to become their third album, The Las Vegas Story.

Recorded in 1984 at Hollywood’s Ocean Way Studios and using Ry Cooder’s gear during the graveyard shift, The Las Vegas Story saw the band – now with Terry Graham back on board – incorporate a variety of influences. On top of Pierce’s fascination with Tom Verlaine, elements of be-bop and beat literature found their way on to the album.

“We didn’t try to transpose it to rock’n’roll,” says Powers. “Jeffrey always used to say, ‘Hey, let’s think like jazz!’ We weren’t jazz players but we could make our own version of it.”

The Las Vegas Story is a farewell of sorts to an LA and America changing under the Reagan administration, but whether they knew it or not, The Gun Club wouldn’t be returning to the US to live. They embarked on a highly successful tour of Europe that saw The Gun Club play with a renewed vigour and sense of musical dexterity.

“When you were on stage and it was going well, it was fantastic; it was what music should be,” enthuses Morrison. “No two gigs were ever the same on that tour.”

But it was with a depressing sense of inevitability that the band would collapse once again. With Pierce’s drinking escalating to the point of blackout, relations within the band rapidly deteriorated. Pierce’s self-interest, combined with the theft of Terry Graham’s personal effects after a gig in Manchester, led to the departure of the drummer. Despite a pick-up replacement, the magic was gone and the tour ended at Dingwall’s in Camden Town, London. And it was there that the next stage of The Gun Club began to take gestate.

“After the gig, Jeffrey Lee came up to me and started talking to me and he just wouldn’t let me go,” says Romi Mori, then a Japanese fan and later Gun Club bassist. “I could feel that he was so lonely. He just needed somebody so badly, so I stayed with him.”

Love in a cold climate: Romi Mori and Jeffrey Lee Pierce.

Love in a cold climate: Romi Mori and Jeffrey Lee Pierce. (Image credit: Romi Mori)

With The Gun Club well and truly over for the time being, Pierce embarked on a short-lived solo career. Joined by his girlfriend, Mori, on guitar and Clock DVA’s Dean Dennis (bass) and Nick Sanderson (drums) for his 1985 album, Wildweed, the quartet undertook a US tour that left them penniless after being ripped off by their tour manager. By this time, Pierce had become obsessed with the ethereal music of the Cocteau Twins via Mori, and a chance encounter with the band’s guitarist Robin Guthrie and singer Liz Fraser in the Hollywood Hills would lead to the reformation of The Gun Club with Guthrie in the producer’s chair.

“By coincidence, Robin and Liz were walking towards us,” remembers Mori. “They were going to be playing that night and I said, ‘Jeffrey! Look! It’s the Cocteau Twins!’ We got talking with them and they were so friendly and invited us to their show that night at the Palace Theatre. So we went and kept in contact, and it was decided that the next album should be recorded with Robin.”

She continues: “Jeffrey had been wanting to record The Breaking Hands and he knew that he wanted loads of bells on it, so he figured that Robin would be perfect for it. He had the idea that he wanted a Cocteau Twins kind of sound for it. It kind of sounds like a Christmas song but Jeffrey always described it as a love song.”

The decision to re-activate The Gun Club with a new line-up was made. Mori moved to bass, Nick Sanderson was on drums and the call was made to Kid Congo Powers who, by this time, was based in Berlin. At his suggestion, their next album, Mother Juno, was recorded at Hansa studios.

Explaining the decision to work with Robin Guthrie, Powers says: “We kind of felt pigeonholed so we wanted to break out of that, just for our own artistic survival as we didn’t want to keep making the same record over and over again.

“The blues was an anchor but we were very much into seeing what would happen if you mixed up different things. In this case, what would happen if this blues band played a Cocteau Twins song?”

Mori agrees and adds that whatever Pierce’s ongoing musical obsessions were, they always informed The Gun Club: “That was because of his personality. If he liked something, say, like a type of food, then he’d eat that for months and months and then drop it and move on to something else. Music was the same thing: if he liked something then he’d listen to it to death. So that first Gun Club album, he was really into blues music, The Las Vegas Story he was into Television, Wildweed was Bob Dylan and Mother Juno was the Cocteau Twins.”

The new band gelled particularly well. Says Mori: “It definitely felt like a band. We were all very relaxed and all good friends and we all really wanted to do it. We really liked the songs. Jeffrey was so into it and even asked if we wanted to split the writing credits, but we stupidly declined and just accepted a recording fee!”

Powers concurs: “It was like a completely new band and it was the strongest version that I was in.”

By now Pierce had begun to take his health more seriously and took up an unconventional method to lose weight.

“He’d go for a run every lunchtime,” says Mori. “He’d have a few drinks at lunchtime first and then do a few rounds at the Holland Park running track. He’d then run back home, only stopping at the pub for a few more drinks, and he’d do that every day.”

Released in 1987 to much critical acclaim, Mother Juno and its subsequent tour became the most successful period of The Gun Club.

“Jeffrey’s voice was unbelievable,” says Mori. “He had the voice of sadness and when we played really large venues, his voice would go so wide, especially when we were playing sad, bluesy songs.”

But it wasn’t to last. Long-term alcohol abuse had left Pierce with cirrhosis of the liver and his enforced sobriety was having a detrimental personal and musical effect.

“Because he’d stopped drinking, he found that he couldn’t perform, because it was always about him being pissed,” explains Mori. “He couldn’t perform any more and he felt such an idiot having to do it sober. He had to pretend being wild; he had to pretend being Jeffrey Lee Pierce. That’s why he started playing guitar more. Instead of falling to the floor screaming, he’d play the guitar and hide behind that. Singing then came second for him. The whole dynamic changed and he didn’t sing as well because he was concentrating so much on playing the guitar. Recording was
fine but live it all changed.”

Because he’d stopped drinking, he found that he couldn’t perform, because it was always about him being pissed.

Patricia Morrison agrees with Mori on this point. She caught the band live in London in 1991 after the release of Pastoral Hide And Seek: “They were so uninspired that night.”

The recording of Pastoral Hide And Seek in Belgium had become a workmanlike chore for Kid Congo. With the songwriting being dealt with by Pierce and Mori, he began to feel sidelined and interest in the band dwindled along with their performances: “It just seemed that after that album the audience was getting smaller and we’d have more bad shows than good and that depended on our inebriation and/or interest. We were not a band that was poker-faced; you could see what was going on. It was never a choreographed act.”

While Powers returned to America to clean himself up, Pierce slid into heroin addiction. He took what was left of the band to Holland to record their final album, Lucky Jim. Their most straight-ahead blues album, the direction taken still evokes scorn from Mori: “I think Jeffrey wanted to be Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan. I didn’t want to do anything like that.”

The drugs became problematic.

Mori: “He was heavily into drugs and couldn’t keep the tempo. His attempts at doing a guide guitar were just a disaster. We were recording in Holland and, as you can imagine, you could get hold of anything you wanted. It was difficult to do anything because he was using. I knew the situation he was in: he couldn’t drink and he so he needed something else. It stopped him doing what he wanted to do. I suppose all junkies are secretive and he was hiding it and I didn’t say much to him. In the end, he took me to Amsterdam and when we got there he asked me to wait in McDonald’s. I was just sat there having coffee waiting for him to come back from scoring and it just wasn’t right any more. It was too painful. I couldn’t do it any more; we had too many arguments and disagreements.”

She left him and began a relationship with her future husband, Nick Sanderson.

Returning to London, hanging out with Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds and guesting with the band on Bob Dylan’s Wanted Man at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and living alone in Mori’s apartment, Pierce was eventually deported to the United States in 1995 following a violent altercation in a west London pub that saw him waving a samurai sword.

Mori saw him one last time: “It was his last day in London. He was being deported and he needed somebody to take him to the airport. He was very ill. He’d been living on his own in my flat in Shepherd’s Bush and when I went back there I found that he’d drawn all these happy, smiling faces on the wall because he’d been so lonely. It must have been so hard for him. It was so sad.”

Pierce returned to Los Angeles before relocating to Utah to stay with his father and write. It was while he was there that he suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage on March 31, 1996. He was 37 years old.

“Right up until Jeffrey died we were talking about doing something again,” sighs Congo Powers. “I’d gone down the skids again and Jeffrey was in Utah staying with his father and cleaning up again. Apparently his health had been very bad again but it was a step in the right direction. We were talking about doing something in New York and calling it The Gun Club and getting some local players. I was already living in New York and I got as far as asking people, because there was a great music community in New York. And I could navigate Jeffrey when he was saner. I believed in him as a songwriter and I knew the quality would be there but his health always dictated the situation. Hypothetically it could’ve worked but then he passed away a week or two later.”

It’s now 20 years since the untimely passing of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, and his legacy is apparent in any number of current bands now active, as well as his contemporaries who are still performing.

Patricia Morrison: “So many bands came from us but we never got the recognition. Nick Cave based his whole universe on Jeffrey. Listen to The Birthday Party before and after Jeffrey. He was always at our gigs selling his autograph. He’s never name-checked Jeffrey and I think that’s a little rude.”

Rupert Orton is quick to acknowledge where he hears The Gun Club now: “Guadalupe Plata are, I think, the people closest to re-inventing it in a way that’s interesting. They don’t really sound like The Gun Club, but like them they’ve taken the roots and re-invented them the same way. A lot the bands that I work with owe a debt to The Gun Club, and that includes The Jim Jones Revue.”

But for those who played in The Gun Club and suffered the outrageous behaviour, demands and whims of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, there remains an enormous sense of pride at what was created. For Patricia Morrison, it was the wonderment of seeing the world and playing music she loved.

“You’d go places and everybody was in on it,” she says. “You didn’t show up to do a gig to nameless and faceless people. Everybody felt the same and we were there for the music. I have great memories of being on stage and looking at the audience who all had massive smiles on their faces. It had a great feel and it was special.”

Kid Congo Powers chuckles when asked what he’s proudest of: “Many things. Sometimes I say The Las Vegas Story album as a work. I take away that I had an amazing friendship with Jeffrey. That’s what I got the most out of it. But I’m also amazed that you can make such great music when you’re that fucked up on drink and drugs. But The Gun Club made things happen on their own terms. It was double-edged in not listening to anyone artistically or making horrible career moves but then again, in the end, it was not about career. It was about making good music and that became our means of survival.

“But also I take away all the things I learned from Jeffrey. He was the biggest influence in my life and that’s a pretty big thing to take away. I wouldn’t be playing guitar if it wasn’t for him, and I wouldn’t know a lot about music if it wasn’t for him. If he hadn’t have been so tenacious then nothing would’ve happened for the band. He went and grabbed it; it didn’t come to him. And I also think that the records speak for themselves and I’m really proud to be on them. I’m glad that those records mean something to people and I hear that all the time, and I’m really proud of that.”

Julian Marszalek

Julian Marszalek is the former Reviews Editor of The Blues Magazine. He has written about music for Music365, Yahoo! Music, The Quietus, The Guardian, NME and Shindig! among many others. As the Deputy Online News Editor at Xfm he revealed exclusively that Nick Cave’s second novel was on the way. During his two-decade career, he’s interviewed the likes of Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne, and has been ranted at by John Lydon. He’s also in the select group of music journalists to have actually got on with Lou Reed. Marszalek taught music journalism at Middlesex University and co-ran the genre-fluid Stow Festival in Walthamstow for six years.