The Gun Club, Part 1 (Introduction)

Up Jumped the Devil:
The Gun Club’s Fire Smolders On

Their sound struck like a whip’s tail smacking flesh, leaving stinging welts and stripes of blood. It was the sound of violent upheaval on both a grand and inner scale. The sound of lost American spirits, long believed dead and irrelevant, rising in an unforeseen fury. The sound of reality’s dirty train barreling down the mountain into your shuddering, oblivious soul.

The Gun Club made an impact like few other bands of their era. They certainly made an impact on me. There were obviously better-known “punk” bands, indeed there were many better-known punk bands out of Los Angeles alone. The best of them did great things, made killer records and left a mark, no question. To me, though, The Gun Club are sort of an equivalent to The Velvet Underground, The Stooges or Big Star: bands who were largely overlooked or underestimated during their time who nonetheless greatly influenced a vast array of listeners and fans, many of whom followed that inspiration into forming their own bands. And it’s still happening, nearly 25 years after the death of founder and leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce. The “punk blues” of The Gun Club sounds as thrilling, primal and alive today as it did 35 or 40 years ago.

As far as I can tell, they were the first punk band, or band associated with that scene, to even consider covering Robert Johnson, let alone pulling it off so bracingly, electrocuting “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” into a frantic frenzy (as “Preaching the Blues”) on their essential 1981 debut album Fire of Love. While much of punk rock postured itself as a dismissal of or reaction against traditional “blues rock,” a portion of the L.A. scene fully embraced American roots music by stripping away the fat and wankery and chiseling it back down to the core. Foremost among these were The Gun Club. And I don’t wanna hear any hecklers dismissing it all as “inauthentic” because Pierce was a middle-class L.A. suburban kid who worshipped Debbie Harry. So what? The Rolling Stones came from middle class white London suburbs and they’re arguably the greatest blues-rock band in history.

In hindsight, it’s tempting now to view Jeffrey Lee Pierce as some sort of barbed, forgotten link in rock ‘n’ roll’s timeline between Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. He was intense, but also a bit of a buffoon. Thoughtful, well-read and poetic. Wild, reckless, prone to self-destruction. Alienated many around him, including bandmates, but he had the vision. A man of immense talent. And hugely charismatic. Look at any old Gun Club photographs – his look, his face, his eyes, his entire presence just grabs you and holds you. He really should have been a massive rock star. He had what it takes – and he certainly wanted to be famous, by most accounts – but he excelled at sabotaging opportunities. Pierce lived long enough to see Cobain rise and fall as punk’s last great bozo/deity; I don’t know what he thought of him…probably hated Nirvana, but who knows. As for Pierce’s frequent comparisons to Morrison, he once told an interviewer, “Yeah, but they say that about every drunk from L.A.!” They all three died way too young, Pierce on March 31, 1996 from a cerebral hemorrhage after lapsing into a coma, his body spent and shot from years of heavy abuse.

But, my God, that voice. He had one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most visceral, piercing (sorry) howls, ragged and possessed, quavering on the edge, its own animal. Not technically great, by any measure. And yet, perfect. And those songs… so full of weird, vivid imagery and quaking drama and dangerous scenes and situations. The Gun Club never made a bad album, and I’ll include Jeffrey’s two albums apart from the band – 1985’s Wildweed and 1992’s Ramblin’ Jeffrey Lee & Cypress Grove – in that declaration as well. (In a 1985 interview, Pierce referred to The Gun Club as “a solo project with musicians,” anyway.) After Pierce formed a new Gun Club with original guitarist Kid Congo Powers post-Wildweed, their later albums (1987’s Mother Juno, 1990’s Pastoral Hide & Seek, 1991’s Divinity and 1993’s Lucky Jim) veer more into straightforward rock territory, with Pierce taking over on lead guitar, but are no less compelling than Fire of Love. Most can be found, after some searching, in re-issued editions with cool bonus tracks. I highly recommend them all.

My personal favorite, 1982’s Miami, has just been re-released, in fact. Produced by Blondie’s Chris Stein and originally released on his indie label of the time, Animal Records, this latest edition on Blixa appends a second CD of demos for the super-fans. It’s a good enough excuse for me to finally devote the bulk of an issue to my favorite band. I’d actually planned to do this back in 2001 for the fifth anniversary of Pierce’s death. All three of these interviews – with former members Ward Dotson and Patricia Morrison, and also the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan (one of the many notable musicians on whom The Gun Club had a profound effect) – were conducted around that time, but never published. At some point I sorta thought I’d possibly write a book on the band, or a biography of JLP, but like many big ideas, that one never happened either. Back then, there wasn’t a whole lot of written material available, that I could gather, on a band I considered so important. Today, there are numerous articles, interviews and testimonials online, as well as old live video footage, some documentaries and the aforementioned reissues of their records, and their story has been told in far greater and much deserved detail. So, I’ll just add this trio of 20-year-old personal perspectives to the pool and leave it at that. There are tons of other people that could and probably should be interviewed about The Gun Club, so maybe someday we’ll do a sequel. And, oh, if you’re wondering why I didn’t talk to Kid Congo, Jeffrey’s friend who was in and out of The Gun Club throughout the band’s existence, well, I already did a big interview with him, much of it devoted to Gun Club, back in the Sept. 2009 issue. And Dee Pop’s brief stint in The Gun Club came up briefly during my interview with the Bush Tetras drummer in the October 2019 issue, if you’re interested.

Photo of Jeffrey Lee Pierce by Ed Colver.