Jeffrey Lee Pierce (June 27, 1958 – March 31, 1996) was an American singer, songwriter, guitarist and author. He was one of the founding members of the band The Gun Club, and also released material as a solo artist.
|Jeffrey Lee Pierce|
Pierce, seen performing live with The Gun Club in 1985.
June 27, 1958|
Montebello, California, U.S.
March 31, 1996 (aged 37)|
Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.
Jeffrey Lee Pierce was born on June 27, 1958. As a teenager, Pierce moved from El Monte, a working-class industrial suburb east of Los Angeles, to Granada Hills, at the time a white working- and middle-class suburb in the San Fernando Valley. Pierce attended Granada Hills High School, where he participated in the drama program, acting in plays and writing several of his own brief experimental theatre pieces.
Pierce's musical influences at this time tended heavily toward glam and progressive rock, and he was particularly fond of bands such as Sparks, Genesis, and Roxy Music. During the mid-70s, after attending a concert by Bob Marley (at which he was fascinated as much by Marley's shamanistic presence as by his music), Pierce became deeply engrossed in reggae; eventually he would travel to Jamaica to explore the music, a trip that left him ambivalent about the music's relevance to American culture but may have served as an influential source of his own shamanistic and charismatic performances. His infatuation with reggae overlapped with the emergence of punk rock, and Pierce became a fixture on the Hollywood scene as a writer for the Slash fanzine and as a musician. While his later interest in American blues was presaged by his devotion to the rootsiest forms of reggae, his love for the more theatrical, complex sounds of glam and prog rock showed up in his support for the No Wave movement in New York City. However, due to the unique nature of Pierce's inspirations and influences, his music always stood alone as original, fresh and inspired.
Pierce found himself disappointed by the swift decline of punk rock into strict formality, and his sense that reggae was ultimately a foreign import. Seeking music with the authenticity and simplicity of reggae but more deeply rooted in American history and culture, he became influenced and inspired by the Delta blues, developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre. By the late-1970s, Pierce had defined his own musical style and had developed a theatrical and charismatic persona that would become an essential element of Gun Club performances.. He recruited fellow music fan Brian Tristan, a.k.a. Kid Congo. Throughout his career Pierce was supportive and encouraging of unique talent, and he encouraged Kid Congo to play guitar and develop his own unique sound and style, recruiting him to form the band Creeping Ritual. Creeping Ritual eventually evolved into the Gun Club, with the addition of drummer Terry Graham and guitarist Rob Ritter.
In the early stages of his career, Pierce was supported by longtime friend Debbie Harry of Blondie, who was convinced of his potential as a musician and artist. He originally met Harry, as well as Chris Stein (also of Blondie), through his position as the president of Blondie's U.S. fan club.
The first three Gun Club albums can be viewed as a trilogy, and the growth and maturity of Pierce's original musical vision is evident. The Gun Club's debut album, the groundbreaking Fire of Love, featured the songs "Sex Beat", "For the Love of Ivy", "Jack On Fire", and "She's Like Heroin to Me". The Gun Club sound at this point was completely original, a southern-swamp inspired voodoo sensibility and a punk wildness to their fundamentally bluesy style, derived from one- and two-chord Delta blues artists, such as Howlin' Wolf, Charley Patton and Son House. The album contains an exuberant version of Robert Johnson's "Preachin' the Blues" and the iconic spiritual anthem "Promise Me". Fire of Love sold well, and was a favorite of virtually every critic who heard it in 1981. In July 2014, Australian musician Spencer P. Jones, whose own work was heavily influenced by Pierce, explained that the blues influence in Pierce's music was largely the result of the songwriter's access to the record collection of Canned Heat frontman and friend Bob Hite: "Jeffrey was really lucky he met Bob Hite from Canned Heat before Bob died ... He was allowed to come over and pick out ten albums from Bob Hite's massive blues record collection when he was dying, indicative of the respect Bob Hite had for Pierce."
The follow-up album, Miami, was produced by Chris Stein, and featured backing vocals from long time supporter Debbie Harry, credited as D.H. Lawrence, Jnr. and features "Carry Home", "Devil in the Woods", "Like Calling up Thunder", "Bad Indian", "Sleeping in Blood City", the mystical "Brother and Sister and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle." Miami also featured the cinematic noir classic "Texas Serenade". Miami saw Pierce's musical vision evolve to a more melodic and ethereal place, and made use of a wider musical palette and a poetic lyrical style. Miami, under the masterful production of Stein, took the band's sound to a more cinematic level, evocative of the vast, lonely plains of the American wilderness. His vocal range was also evident on this album, his voice nuanced with heartbreaking emotion and depth.
The Las Vegas Story (1984) was the band's third album, and a musical tour de force. Helmed by producer Jeff Eyrich, The Las Vegas Story also saw the return of long time collaborator Kid Congo, after a stint in the renowned cult band "The Cramps. Named after the 1952 film noir classic and inspired by Pierce's fascination with the seedy underbelly of the Vegas Strip, The Las Vegas Story took the lyrical style and sound of Miami a step further, and included "Walking with the Beast","Eternally is Here", and "Bad America", a commentary on the degeneration and degradation of the American Dream, the rise of violence and the "American Disease".
The Gun Club toured extensively throughout the 1980s, and underwent a number of lineup changes. Touring Australia for the first time in 1983, Pierce was blindsided by the loss of guitarist Jim Duckworth and drummer Terry Graham on the eve of the flight, who refused to get on the plane. Pierce arrived in Australia with bass player Patricia Morrison and was soon joined by original guitarist Kid Congo. In addition, Pierce enlisted Spencer P. Jones as a guitarist. Jones, a major figure in Australian music, recalls that "Jeffery's voice had an element of horror" and the "nature of their [The Gun Club's] music it was way more brutal and full on than any metal band I have ever heard."
In 1985 Pierce lived in London, where he recorded a solo album named Wildweed. The cover of Wildweed featured an atmospheric black and white photo depicting Pierce in the rural American wilderness with an ethereal look on his face and a shotgun over his shoulder, fitting well with the mood and lyrical content of the album. Wildweed opens with "Love and Desperation", a lyrical masterwork about the darker elements of love and obsession. Wildweed also contains three spoken-word pieces, originally released as a bonus e.p., a foreshadowing of the literary talent Pierce was to display in his autobiography, Go Tell the Mountain, written prior to his tragic death at the age of 37.
Jeffrey reformed the Gun Club with bass player Romi Mori, Nick Sanderson (Clock DVA) and longtime friend and collaborator Kid Congo. 1987's Mother Juno, recorded at the legendary Hansa Studios in West Berlin, saw Jeffrey Lee Pierce taking the inspired step of enlisting The Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie as producer. Mother Juno, arguably one of the band's most mature and accomplished works, ranging from the intense hard rock of Thunderhead, the contemplative Port of Souls,to the dreamlike and wistful Breaking Hands. Pierce's vocals had matured into what has been termed one of the greatest blues singers of the modern era; his range and depth as a vocalist being very evident.—Pierce later said in relation to the album: "We envisioned an album that sounded like ocean waves."
The influence of Japanese culture and art became increasingly evident in Pierce's work in the early 1990's, which was enriched and complimented by the collaboration with his girlfriend during this period, musician and photographer Romi Mori. 1990 saw the release of the dreamlike and flowing Pastoral Hide and Seek, named after the Felliniesque Japanese film of the same name. Pstoral Hide and seek, although still showing evident roots in rock and roll culture, in such tracks as The Straights of Love and Hate, revealed a developing depth and sophistication to Pierce's songwriting, evident on St John's Divine, Humanesque and the sweetness of his reworking of an older original track, I Hear Your Heart Singing.
The final Gun Club album, 1993's Lucky Jim, includes the song "Idiot Waltz". Another album from that period is Ramblin' Jeffrey Lee and Cypress Grove with Willie Love; the recording mainly consists of cover versions of blues artists such as Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Skip James.
In a reflection on Pierce's death, Mark Lanegan stated in an August 2004 interview for Loose Lips Sink Ships:
In early 1996, he went to Japan, and right before he left, he and I were at his mom's in LA [Los Angeles, US] writing songs. He seemed in really good health—sometimes he wasn't in such good health, sometimes he could barely walk because he was so fucked up. When he came back from Japan, he left me a couple of messages on my answering machine. He sounded completely out of his mind, though not like he was drunk. It was strange, like he'd gone crazy; finally I got hold of someone, and she told me Jeffrey had come back, that he'd been drinking while he was gone, his liver had poisoned his system, and he was experiencing dementia. The hospital turned him away saying, there's nothing we can do for him, his liver's shut down, he's dying. After this, I get a call from him; he was up in Utah and he sounded normal. And I said, what the hell, man, everyone's saying you're going to die. And he said, they always say that. And a week later, he fell into a coma and died.
Pierce spent time with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds during the recording period of the Bad Seeds' album Let Love In. Mick Harvey, a former Bad Seeds member, has recalled, "He was sat on the couch during much of the recording ... He'd come almost every day and just sit on the couch and then he'd come out to dinner with us and just mumble away. He was very hard work. He was very unusual and a very unique guy." Pierce then joined the band on-stage at the Shepherds Bush Empire venue, during the "Let Love In" tour in 1994, to sing on the Cave/Bad Seeds song "Wanted Man". Harvey has also disclosed his personal perspective on Pierce:
I love a lot of his songs but he was pretty hard to connect with at first. I suppose he was pretty out of it with drink and drugs and so kind of difficult to communicate with. Most of the time it was difficult to work out what he was talking about. But he was always very nice and very gentlemanly.
Cave was in contact with Pierce prior to his death and revealed in a 2012 interview:
He looked increasingly ill, I mean, we all did, but Jeffrey looked particularly so. His pallor, you know. He was physically suffering. And then he went to Japan. I think he got involved in some kind of relief work ... Helping earthquake victims. This seemed to have a positive effect on him, you know, spiritually. Then he went back to the States. The phone calls that I got from him there, he seemed really well. Or comparatively well. And happy, you know. And then, I think, [Henry] Rollins phoned me to tell me that he died.
Mark Lanegan recorded a cover version of The Gun Club's "Carry Home", from the Miami record, on his album I'll Take Care of You. Pierce and Lanegan cowrote the song "Kimiko's Dream House" that appears on Lanegan's album Field Songs.
In 2010, OFF!, a punk "supergroup" fronted by Keith Morris—a former member of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks—released a song dedicated to and named after Pierce—Morris, who also shared a house with Pierce, was responsible for suggesting "The Gun Club" band name while they were living together. At live performances, Morris has introduced the song with a description of Pierce and the relationship that he shared with the late musician, stating that Pierce was one of his best friends and that the song, "Jeffrey Lee Pierce", is a "eulogy". At a May 2012 performance at the Bell House venue in Brooklyn, New York City, Morris introduced the song by stating:
Some people have been around long enough to be able to sing songs about our friends, whether they be, um, celebratory, "let's fuck shit up forever"-type of songs—this is one of those type of songs. I lost a very close friend, a guy named Jeffrey Lee Pierce. This is a eulogy, um, for my very good friend, Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Now I don't know how many of you were at the Bowery Ballroom [New York City] last night? But I got to tell the story of this, uh, meeting, here in New York City, over at the Irving Plaza; my friend, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, and another one of our good buddies, Kid Congo Powers ... they came to a show that I was at, and I just got off performing, and they showed up, we're partying and we're all chattin' and havin' a good time. And we raced over to a benefit for a guy named John Anderson, who is the Independent Party candidate for the presidency of the United States; and The Gun Club happened to be performing that night, over at this other place, and it was a blast! And this is for my friend, Jeffrey Lee Pierce.
While touring with OFF! in 2010, Morris explained in an interview, after he was asked about the Gun Club T-shirt that he was wearing at the time:
... because Jeffrey Lee Pierce is not only one of my heroes, he's totally inspirational to me. He was also my roommate and at one time he was my best friend. And before he died I got to watch him deteriorate; it was just brutal. One of the last things we were gonna do was put together a band. He started playing me this music and I taped it on one of those little microcassettes and the song, he was like, "Keith, you're gonna have to write about Deborah Harry," because he was president of the Blondie fan club. I like Blondie but I like the Ramones better, or the Dictators, out of that group of New York bands, when all of those bands came up.
Come back, Dee Dee Ramone. Come back, Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Come back, Frankie Venom. Come back, Lux Interior. Come back, Darby Crash. Come back, Johnny Thunders. Come back, Sid Vicious. Come back, Joe Strummer. We need you now.
Musician, spoken word artist and friend Henry Rollins played the Gun Club song "Bill Bailey" during his first show for the "Artist in Residence" feature on Australian national radio station Double J. Rollins stated prior to the broadcast of the song: "Jeffrey Lee Pierce was a very good friend of mine and I miss him horribly. I play a lot of his music because I miss him and I want people to never forget The Gun Club."
the Argentinian Sergio Rotman member of the popular Latin rock band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs edited in 2014 a special edition of 500 cd's with versions of 14 Jeffrey Pierce's songs and "fire of love" "el fuego del amor" previously edit 8 songs
The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project is a tribute initiative that was launched after Cypress Grove, one of Pierce's musical collaborators, cleaned out his loft following the musician's passing—Cypress Grove uncovered a collection of three songs that had been recorded onto a cassette marked, "JLP Songs". Cypress Grove subsequently realized that the recording was from sessions that he had worked on with Pierce for an album project that they had been planning—the album was originally slated as a country-style album but eventually transformed into a blues recording. The sessions were recorded with acoustic guitars in Cypress Grove's bedroom, using a "boombox" device. The three songs were named "Ramblin' Mind", "Constant Waiting", and "Free To Walk", with further material uncovered over time to support the tribute project.
To enlist the support of other artists, Cypress Grove initially attempted contact through the respective Myspace sites of particular artists, including Lanegan, and the project progressively evolved, as other artists, such as Isobel Campbell and Jim Sclavunos, agreed to contribute. The discovered recordings were too rough to release and Glitterhouse Records, the label responsible for releasing the recordings of the project, has explained:
This would have been impossible without Digital technology, with artists adding their parts all over the world – London, Melbourne, Glasgow, Barcelona, Los Angeles etc. Once word of the Project started to get out, more material became available through family and friends. Jeffrey's old friend Phast Phreddie Patterson provided a copy of a home made cassette recording he made of Jeffrey doing 'My Cadillac' and 'St. Mark's Place', which were actually pre – Gun Club recordings. Also, Cypress Grove was able to obtain the two inch master tapes of some song ideas they had recorded at the end of the "Ramblin' Jeffrey Lee" sessions.
In 2010 The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project launched We Are Only Riders, the first of a series of four albums featuring Pierce's previously unreleased "works-in-progress". The album features interpretations of Pierce's work by old friends and collaborators, such as Debbie Harry, Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch, Mick Harvey and Kid Congo Powers.
The Journey is Long, the second album from The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project, was released in April 2012 and features The Jim Jones Revue, Barry Adamson, Warren Ellis (The Dirty Three), Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) and artists from the first album – on the second release, Cave performs a duet with Harry for a rendition of the song "The Breaking Hands", a song that is also performed by Lanegan and Isobel Campbell on the album, while Tex Perkins performs together with Lunch on "In My Room". Following the release of the second album, Cypress Grove has explained:
The idea was that, these are not our songs, we merely interpret them... In some cases the artists have had to finish the songs, so there can be no nonsense about this not being as good as the original version as these are the original versions! It's a musical collective of artists who have come together to interpret or complete skeletal, unfinished material by Jeffrey. Where possible we have used Jeffrey's contributions, so he actually appears posthumously on this album. I like to think of it as being like Josh Homme's The Dessert Sessions
Following the release of The Journey Is Long, Cave agreed to participate in an interview with Gun Club biographer Gene Temesy, who planned to use the interview in a future book on the history of The Gun Club. During the interview, which was published on the Australian web-based publication Mess and Noise, Cave disclosed aspects of his relationship with Pierce and first described their initial encounter: "Yeah, I think we went to see Under The Volcano. And then we retired back to my place. I think Henry Rollins might have been there as well actually. Jeffrey and I sat around and took loads of drugs and watched Henry do push-ups." Cave then described his perspective of Pierce in further detail:
He had a thing about the Vietnam War, for some reason. He was very well read on the subject. And dinosaurs. He talked a lot about dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and the Vietnam war, I think, were his two major topics of conversation … and Japanese horror movies ... I mean, with Jeffrey, you pretty much entered his world when you saw him. His obsessions crawled all over him. But in Jeffrey’s world, sometimes it was very inspiring and illuminating and other times it was painful and depressing. But Jeffrey did make efforts to stay on top of all that sort of stuff. But I think it was very difficult for him ... Jeffrey very often didn’t make sense. That was part of his charm. Jeffrey was full of digressions. I think that was very much part of his character. Jeffrey digressed a lot. One minute he’d be talking about the fall of Saigon and the next minute he’d be talking about the size of a dinosaur’s brain. But I didn’t care I was just happy somebody was talking to me. You just kind of sat back and nodded and listened ... But Jeffrey, a beautiful thing about Jeffrey was that he was able to move outside that and connect on some other level to people … I mean, things like with Luke, my kid, and stuff like that. He genuinely cared about other people. He was very genuine. And you know, I loved him very much. And I think he was a great songwriter. And had a great unique voice. The way he sung [sic] up high like that and slightly off key was enough to tear your heart out.
The third album from the project is Axels & Sockets and was released by Glitterhouse Records on May 2, 2014. Contributors include Iggy Pop, Cave, Harry, Lanegan, Race, Thurston Moore and Primal Scream. Prior to the album's release, Grove stated that it is "the best yet, and having Iggy on board is such an incredible honour". Grove also explained that exposing Pierce's music to new listeners is "entirely the point of it [the album]" and he hopes that a wider audience is attained through the tribute. Axels & Sockets opens with a rendition of "Nobody's City", for which the artists—Pop, Cave and Moore—used an original Gun Club demo recording:
We found the original Berlin demo tapes from the Mother Juno album in 1987. It's funny how sometimes demos can be better than the released version. So we took those original guitar parts played by Jeffrey Lee and Kid Congo Powers (The Gun Club guitarist) and built a new song. Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds added drums and Iggy [Pop] and Nick [Cave] and Thurston [Moore] layered guitar and vocals on top. Nick has a great love and admiration for Jeffrey and it shines through.
Although the project's third and final album, The Task Has Overwhelmed Us, was due for release in late 2012, the schedule was changed after the release of the second installment. Glitterhouse Records, the label producing the collection, instead released Axles & Sockets. The label clarified that the third album has become the "penultimate" full-length release of the Project, but did not name the final album, or its release date.
Pierce's life is the subject of the documentary, Ghost on The Highway: A Portrait of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and The Gun Club, directed by Kurt Voss, and produced by Voss and editor/composer Andrew R. Powell. In the documentary, Voss interviews Pierce's former collaborators, Kid Congo Powers, Ward Dotson, Terry Graham, Jim Duckworth, and Dee Pop, in addition, his High School friend (actor/photographer) Steven Tash, and former publisher of Pierce's work (and musician), Henry Rollins, and Lemmy, lead singer of Motörhead. However, its notable that Voss failed to interview Pierce's family and with a few exceptions, friends, preferring to focus on people who had personal issues with Pierce. Also notable is the lack of Pierce's music or interview footage with him, which may have skewed the perspective of this work into the negative, or at least only presenting a one dimensional portrait of a singular and complex artist.
... Music like that is usually done by people who are dead ... you see this kind of shambling screw-up—you're like, "What can he do?!" I mean ... you don't even want to give him a car; you know, you're like, "Uh uh". "I need to do my laundry?"—"We'll do it for you"; I mean he'll never even figure out a washing machine. Not 'cause he's stupid—he's one of those people, like ... him, have a straight job? It could never work; he could never work in that world. It's like, you could never have Iggy [Pop] be a waiter. Don't give him a real job—they can't balance a check book, they can't do anything; but, they can do that thing! Jeff was one of those guys ... He is totally legendary now—he is lore.
In addition to the limited exploration of Pierce's life, the documentary also examines the punk rock sub-culture that Pierce was a seminal, but in this documentary uncredited, aspect of.
Pierce was strongly influenced by Debbie Harry, whom he had a strong admiration for. Jones explained in 2014 that Pierce used to carry a handwritten note from Harry in his wallet that had instructions on how she dyed her hair, including the types of products she used. According to Jones, the note was "written out in beautiful handwriting and 'with love, Debbie' at the bottom" and was Pierce's "most prized possession".
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