Jeffrey Lee Pierce was willing to take the most evil, obscure route – risking being shunned by the very people he was making music for – to offer the most genuine account of an elusive truth.
As it turns out, having a Los Angeles rock band named ‘The Gun Club’ in 1981 happened to be both as American, and anti-American, as one could possibly get – Anti-American in the sense that they emerged from a shared ethos of rebellious West coast acts that wreaked havoc musically, socially, and (very) physically; American in their seamless emulation of a nation-plaguing dichotomy: glamour on television, squalidity in real life. The inner-city slums of urban California, primitive headquarters of the Gun Club, was a stark portrayal of the two-sided dynamics at play in 20th Century America writ-large. In movies and mass-produced pop culture, its ‘City of Angels®’ philosophy was a rigorously followed rite of passage, complete with steamy romances beneath bright lights, moonlit skies, and ritzy metropolitan utopias. In reality, on the other hand, the Los Angeles of the living world was a drug-ridden hellhole, complete with outright policing injustices, a violent smattering of interconnected underground scenes, and one of the largest homeless populations in the country.
The music birthed by such a setting followed suit in the chaos. Up from the bluesy jive drawls of the Doors, and past the primitive rebellion of the previous decade’s counterculture revolution, the 1970s saw not only Los Angeles, but California en masse, brand itself as the national centerpiece of a new punk dynamic that presented its gospel as loudly as the lifestyle it materialized from. This revamped sonic approach gave way to a massive auditory hotbed, where inner-city LA’s two-faced folklore spilled over into equally nightmarish creative emulations: in some corners, bands like the Germs unleashed pained-yet-indecipherable screeches of terror in the little music they recorded, all the while routinely slashing themselves bloody during live performances; in other parts of town, mid-concert casualties were a very usual occurrence, with aggressive factions like Black Flag turning distorted rock & roll into an irreversibly contagious hardcore upheaval.
“The Gun Club not only embodied dichotomy (as a concept) on the macro level of America, but perhaps even more extensively regarding the punk attitude of its California home: like their peers, they, too, bore a tangible elitism stemming from the sense that they were so wonderful – yet at the same time, unlike many of the acts that emerged alongside them, they also did not allow themselves to live too far up in the clouds to embrace their collective roots.”
“Whenever I write lyrics, in the back of my mind I always see a guy driving to work, driving to a really bad job, one of those horrible institutions, or one of those low squat buildings in Los Angeles,” Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins said in one interview. “I write with that person in my mind.”
In a way, the countless acts populating hard rock scenes of Los Angeles were all writing music, whether intentionally or not so, for those guys driving to really bad jobs at horrible institutions in low LA squat buildings. Los Angeles came to represent a twisted verison of the American Dream, an ever-moving finish line that promised the money-ridden candylands of TV dinner fantasies, while punk rock naturally grew to be a de-facto watchdog, calling it out on persistent holes in its message. Many of the movement’s premiere voices, too, held some stake in such an objective, because they themselves were often on the receiving ends of empty Western promises. California itself boasts a storied history of disappointment. When the Gold Rush saw merchants from various origins at-home and abroad scramble to emigrate to San Francisco for a chance at obtaining valuable gold found there in 1849, many found themselves, after several years on the plow, empty-handed and directionless. The deceitful trend manifested itself just as culturally as economically. The string of fabled grassroots counterculture festivals that spanned from the onset of the movement through the 1970s often wound up being remembered for their darker, inhumane crevices, rather than their avowed Woodstock-implied mantras of Peace & Music. The festivals themselves weren’t as short-lived as their overarching creative uprising either – in 1980, a year before the Gun Club would release its debut album, counterculture’s flame was symbolically extinguished with the shooting death of John Lennon.
Circumstances as invigorating as these did, yes, directly contribute to a brand new wave of sonic disillusionment; but at the same time, conceived a limiting downside: now, for as welcoming as brash, in-your-face punk culture purported itself to be upon entry, it was equally – if not even more – difficult for an act to find its way out of the bubble. California was congested with groups that were preaching to the same point, even if they did so with entirely different approaches. The cluttered rock niches of Los Angeles’ slums were kindred both thematically and sonically, a group of prophets walking amongst each other in the same room, prophesying the same exact doomsday, not one participant enthralled enough to change course.
“L.A. always got very little attention compared to London and New York, because they decided they were so wonderful,” Frontier Records founder Lisa Fancher told the Los Angeles Daily News in 2016. “I certainly liked all the British bands for sure — the Clash, the Sex Pistols — but it was a different sound and different kind of feeling here. Nobody was trying to copy what the New Yorkers were doing. Maybe there was a little bit of fashion following, but musically it was a stand-alone sound.”
“There will be no apology, nor will there be a post-listen disclaimer, nor will there be a public explanation of intent.”
The Gun Club not only embodied dichotomy (as a concept) on the macro level of America, but perhaps even more extensively regarding the punk attitude of its California home: like their peers, they, too, bore a tangible elitism stemming from the sense that they were so wonderful – yet at the same time, unlike many of the acts that emerged alongside them, they also did not allow themselves to live too far up in the clouds to embrace their collective roots. This was an outlook chiefly funnelled through the genius of frontman – and sole consistent member – Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Pierce was a direct product of his native Los Angeles’ double vision, having grown up under the roof of an American father and Mexican mother in the working-class East LA community of El Monte. (In one 1982 interview, he called his hometown “the Los Angeles that nobody ever bothers with.”) Upon moving to Granada Hills, another middle-to-lower class neighborhood in LA, he attended the town’s local high school, where he fostered simultaneous interests in theatrical arts (he acted in school dramas and wrote several experimental plays of his own) and rock music. Pierce had started learning guitar at the age of ten. By the time he entered high school, his once-simple musical interests gave way to glam rock and progressive rock, with primary influences being acts like Sparks, Genesis, and Roxy Music. A testament to his ever-present childlike curiosity, Pierce found himself so bewitched by a Bob Marley performance at one point in the mid-1970s that he braved an excursion to Jamaica to study reggae music, where he befriended Winston Rodney (more commonly known by the moniker Burning Spear), and inadvertently sparked a curiosity for the prospective future of the genre in the United States.
Around this time, Pierce also grew obsessively infatuated with the New York rock band Blondie – with an even more intense admiration for frontwoman Debbie Harry. He began bleaching his hair in the same ritzy platinum flair as the singer’s own iconic mane, some time after which he became President of the West Coast Blondie fan club. His newfound affinity for reggae was beginning, during this period, to forge a unique niche within the proto-punk he surrounded himself with. Under the pen name Ranking Jeffrey Lea, he became a regular contributor to Slash – the legendary punk rock fanzine that served as an unofficial Bible to LA’s sprawling hardcore underground (and the inspiration to Whole Lotta Red’s cover artwork) – where, rather than stay in line with its strict editorial rock and roll ethos, he opted to contribute writings about 1930s blues and 1950s rockabilly, along with a reggae column that occasionally featured interviews with acts like Bob Marley.
Pierce did not start addressing the music industry as a producer, instead of a consumer, until the late 1970s – and the only reason he did so was because he thought being in a band was a surefire way to get free drinks from moguls in the industry. Reverting back from his pen name, he struck up a friendship with fellow Los Angeles musician Phast Phreddie Patterson, a stark connoisseur of the vast international musicality he himself sought to amass. Pierce thought that punk rock was on an ostensible decline into dull uniformity, and in having such a pessimistic outlook, also regarded his long-beloved Carribean reggae as a savior to a dying brand, the elusive drop of life so desperately needed by an apparatus that initially thrived on a reputation overflowing with it. He went on to grow enamored with the delta blues, studying the genre alongside Patterson, and reckoning it with the history of both his own culture and punk culture writ-large.
Pierce would eventually encourage new friend Brian Tristan (more commonly known as Kid Congo Powers) to hone in on crafting his own unique sound and style as an independent instrumentalist. The two became founding members of a group called Creeping Ritual, then, with the later additions of drummer Terry Graham and guitarist Rob Ritter, renamed their act to ‘The Gun Club.’ The group’s first record, Fire of Love (1981), came at the tail end of the very movement Pierce sought to rejuvenate, all the while being noticeably backwards-facing for its forward-thinking philosophy. “While the Germs and Black Flag pulverized punk into hardcore, bands like X and the Blasters approached punk as a rescue mission, by forging a spiritual connection with the primal hoots and howls of ’50s-jukebox oldies,” Pitchfork contributor Stuart Berman wrote in a (9.1) Sunday review of the record. “And then there was the Gun Club, whose ringleader, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, looked so far back into the past—to the emotional bloodletting of Depression-era blues—that he wound up seeing the future, opening up a trail that indie rockers and roots artists would travel for decades to come.”
I listened to Fire of Love in the early stages of my fourteen-hour road trip to Vanderbilt University, the harrowingly rigorous Nashville private school that I would spend the next four years being challenged by. The drive was surreal in a sense that so much of what was not supposed to be happening was, indeed, happening right in front of me – just about an hour prior, I said goodbye to the four walls within which I had spent a majority of my adolescent life becoming a man; the night-time city lights that whirred past my window were whirring past my window for the final time; the ride was simultaneously my first, and most crucial, one-ended family excursion.
No anxieties I felt about this transition, however, were any more horrifying than the voice of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Pierce had an eclectic intonation that could wake you up with both a whisper and a shout, hot rage seeping through his breath, and invigorating militance trembling in his tonality. In the film The Sandlot, there is a scene where the mystic history of a chained bulldog living behind the titular field is told, sarcastically, by a freckled boy holding a flashlight to his face. “And that’s where he’ll be for the rest of his life. Because (when) Mr. Mertle asked the cops how long…he had to keep The Beast chained up like a slave – they said until forever,” the boy narrates, his serious down-home accent seeming to make the tale several levels more real. The bulldog’s fate of eternal damnation is repeated over and over again, until the scene fades into a denouement of eerie echoes: “For-ev-er. For-ev-er. For-ev-er. For-ev-er. For-ev-er.” Pierce’s voice registers a lot like that of the freckled pickup baseball player; yet in his case, what makes it all the more captivating is that it isn’t a movie. Credits will not rise from the bottom of the screen to assure you that the nightmare was, at most, a fictitious adaptation of a true story that cannot hurt you anymore. There will be no apology, nor will there be a post-listen disclaimer, nor will there be a public explanation of intent. All that exists, in the absence of conventional security, is an angry voice motivated enough to yell threats at you for 51 minutes straight.
When, in “For the Love of Ivy,” Pierce emitted haunting, yodeled shrieks of “Yooooooouuuuuureeeee the one,” I felt like I was the one. I was the one he was stalking in the woods. I was the one that was going to die. I was the outlet to his manic violent fantasies. The mocking taunt of “they’re as stupid as the simple thought of ever thinking at all,” jeered in the early refrain of album-opener ‘Sex Beat,’ vigorously forced me to stop my nerve-ridden train of thought dead in its tracks and question what, if anything at all, it was trying to accomplish. Why am I thinking so hard about something so far away? Why am I thinking? Why am I? There were moments in ‘Fire Spirit’ where, within split-seconds that hosted complete halts of all music at the whisper of “and the fire will stop” – and you could hear Pierce breathe jolted, maniacal breaths amidst the sudden silence – it was difficult not to ponder on all the fires in my own life that were destined to burn out sooner or later. Much like the fate that drew more and more inescapable with every mile driven on our trip, there was no protection from the ugly unknowns of reality, nor was there a dichotomic rug for them to be swept beneath.
A considerable part of the reason why Pierce gravitated towards Blues music was that it was (and still is) the unofficial language of the other. Many oppressed groups on American and foreign soil alike, left with few other avenues of meaningful change, sought to secure creative outlets for their neglected strife. A great deal of these people, much like the inner-city Los Angeles neighborhoods from which Pierce hailed, were plagued by inescapable dichotomies: emancipation from labor-based slavery sold a hopeful people directly into slavery that was economic; nationwide sentiments of freedom to live as one pleased often resulted in death as those in power pleased; it was a common thing for one to learn that the “liberty in justice for all” in the Pledge of Allegiance did not apply to them. They were protagonists in flawed stories, making the best of universes bent upon their being wronged – their blues music, as Leone Redbone famously put it, was “nothing but a good man feelin’ bad.”
Pierce empathized with sufferers of such fates, and incorporated their musical inclinations so seamlessly into that of early ‘80s Los Angeles that the result became a dual story, two equally weighted contexts bearing collectively angry fruit.
There is one line, yet, in “For the Love of Ivy,” where in spite of his deep-rooted passion for continuing such stories, Pierce uttered a particularly nasty line in contrast to his creed: “I was hunting for niggers down in the dark,” he whispers, with the same deranged drawl as he does every other harrowing taunt. Using such language, Berman wrote in the aforementioned Pitchfork review, was a risky tightrope often braved by acts who meant well up-front, “whether they were using it as an expression of outcast solidarity or holding a mirror up to society’s ugliest impulses or shoving it back in the racists’ faces.” In this case, the word sits suspended in thin air, bare, naked, rendered infinitely grotesque by its lack of contextual supplement.
But Pierce had not uttered the word with divisive intent. Rather, instead of using it to – just like every single other act that dared say it – make as obvious as possible the fact that it was, indeed, coming from a place of support, he allowed his usage to be one more extension of the theatrical art buff inside of him: he said it like he was serious, because that was the only direct line to what was actually happening beyond the music. In using such a word in the safest way possible, other bands often inadvertently addressed one dichotomy with another – facing glitter-adorned squalidity with reality-adorned falsification. They wrote about the unfiltered world from studios that operated as safe havens, well-intended with their messaging, but stingy in the amount of it that actually translated back to reality. In a jarring testament to his carefree artistry, vice versa, Pierce was willing to take the most evil, obscure route – risking being shunned by the very people he was making music for – to offer the most genuine account of an elusive truth.
It’s an all-or-nothing anarchy that rings true in Pierce’s artistic output en masse. What he said was believable, because in a climate that saw countless acts work for their platforms, then subsequently forget their creeds upon mounting them, his dedication reigned steady to a point where it was scary. When Jeffrey Lee Pierce said something, you believed it. Even if believing it didn’t make sense. His shaky, pained growl jolted something loose inside of you; his domineering whisper awakened a primal fear reserved for life-or-death situations. With Jeffrey Lee Pierce, it was a life-or-death situation: keep your own understanding alive, or allow it to die a violent death at the hands of his.
“Yooooooouuuuuureeeee the one!”
When I arrived at college after the fourteen-hour road trip, my first objective upon getting settled into my dorm room was to pick up the textbooks I had ordered from the campus library. In preparation for the humidity I grew to expect from Southern states, I intentionally dressed a severe notch down from my typical multi-layered East Coast wardrobe; on the twenty-minute walk there, breeze blew through my baggy pants and onto my bare legs, filling the air in my loose rugby shirt, and at times threatening to peel the casual baseball cap off of my head. Upon reaching the front of a lengthy line of students with my exact objective, I was told by a librarian that my textbooks would not be available until the weekend, and not at the library, but in a move-in tent being set up for first-year students. As I turned around to head back down the escalator, I saw a torrential downpour commence outside the larger-than-life glass window. Even the people with umbrellas raced for shelter underneath awnings and inside private garages. I had class in one hour. There was only one option.
It was a long, wet, lonely walk back to campus. I was drenched. My clothes stuck to my bare body. Every crosswalk meant filling my dying Adidas sneakers with bowlfuls of murky rainwater. I had no way out of my predicament – no contacts in the state of Tennessee, no parents to give me a ride home, no umbrella to shield my phone from thick water drops while I tried to Google Map my way back to campus.
As I stood in the middle of nowhere, hopelessly lost in the vicinity of a local hospital, with no other human beings in sight and the seats in my first class starting to fill somewhere far, far away, the voice of Jeffrey Lee Pierce echoed in my head. “Yooooooouuuuuureeeee the one!” it taunted.
It was rich in my memory, squalid once contextualized – as American, and anti-American, as one could possibly get.