Category Archives: musings

Musings. Brain dump. Uncategorized.

A Shot at The Gun Club

Jeffrey Lee Pierce by Yves Lorson, circa 1985

About a week after musician Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s death in the Spring of 1996, Britain’s Independent published an obituary that called him “one of those musicians who never quite fulfil (sic) their potential yet follow their destiny to its inescapable conclusion.” Grim words for a man who — despite fusing punk rock with psychobilly, roots music, country, and a whole lot of the blues — eschewed much of the angst and anger that was common among his peers. His band, The Gun Club, invariably raises questions of the “who are they?” variety in some circles. But they were pioneers nonetheless, cited as an influence by the likes of The Pixies and Jack White.

“Why are these songs not taught in schools?” asked Jack White in an article in Mojo Magazine [as quoted by The Guardian]). Pointing to tracks like “Sex Beat,” and “She’s Like Heroin to Me,” White would go on to say that “the songwriting of Kid Congo Powers and Jeffrey Lee Pierce has the freshest white take on the blues of its time.” (Listen to “For the Love of Ivy,” another song cited by White, and you can hear how much the band influenced him).

Experiencing many lineup changes (nearly 25 people!) over the years (with Kid Congo Powers leaving to play with both The Cramps, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for a time), The Gun Club released seven albums in the nineteen eighties and early nineties. Arguably, the band’s first two were its best: Fire of Love (1981) and Miami (1982). The former features a raucous cover of Robert Johson’s “Preaching the Blues.” The latter, released on Blondie guitarist Chris Stein’s Animal Records, found Debbie Harry* singing backup vocals.

Like their debut album, Miami is steeped in the blues, but comes off a little bit darker than its predecessor. Perhaps not as much gloom as the burgeoning goth crowd wanted, but still too strange to appeal to fans of more traditional blues.

That odd mixture might explain why stardom eluded Pierce. The music was difficult to pin down. Live, it could come across as discordant and jarring, as on a 1983 performance of “Sex Beat” at the Hacienda in Manchester, UK. And in the studio, the results were often mixed (no pun intended). Sometimes too polished. Other times, thin and tinny.

Of course, Pierce himself may have been to blame for The Gun Club never getting much notoriety. At least according to bassist Patricia Morrison (later of Sisters of Mercy fame), who joined The Gun Club soon after the release of Miami. In a recent interview with Stomp and Stammer, she attributed their relative anonymity to the same thing that made the band work: Pierce himself. “Jeffrey was quite difficult,” said Morrisson. “He was his own worst enemy. That band should have been huge. I sat there and watched as we were offered record deals and he would turn them down, to take less. It was just his personality, but that’s what also made him Jeffrey.”

The Gun Club never found wider appear like other Los Angeles bands of the time — like X and, especially, The Cramps — did. No coverage on MTv (anyone remember 120 Minutes?). Very little college radio play (at least in the Philadelphia area, where I grew up).  Although they now appeal to fans like me that sought them out years later due to others’ recommendations, they just never attracted a broad audience, then or now.

Their Fire of Love album is included in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Vefore You Die, but they never charted.

Pierce died young, suffering a brain hemorrhage in 1996.

He was 37.

*Pierce was the President of the West Coast chapter of the Blondie fanclub. Harry would go on to record a duet with Nick Cave on “In The Fire” — part of The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project, a tribute to Pierce that has produced a handful of albums.

“Mother of Earth,” was chosen as the song to embed in this article because Debbie Harry performed it with Blondie at the second-to-last CBGB show in 2006. I make that remark for no other reason than I find it hard to believe I’m a Blondie fan and never knew of their connection to The Gun Club.

Finally, the photo used in the header of this post shows The Gun Club, circa 1984, with band lineup, left to right: Terry Graham (drums), Jeffrey Lee Pierce (vocals, guitar), Kid Congo Powers (guitar) and Patricia Morrison (bass).

Consumption, Cholera, and Creativity: How a Pandemic Can Inspire Art

As much of the world is behind closed doors, and practicing social distancing, one wonders how COVID-19 will affect 21st century culture. Beyond, perhaps, the permanent cessation of the needless handshake, how will artists come to describe and illustrate the fear, isolation, the heroism — and, yes, even the boredom — of this terrible time? Over two hundred years ago, cholera and consumption were similarly on the minds of many. Outbreaks in the nineteenth century were constant reminders of the frailty of life, and the ever-present threat of death. While a consideration of how writers of that period dealt with disease may not necessarily shed light on what’s to come from us (in this quite different, digital age), it’s undeniable that creativity can come from all kinds of calamity. Even a pandemic.

By the dawn of the 19th century, tuberculosis, or consumption, had killed one in seven people. And severe outbreaks of cholera occured seven times over that span of one-hundred years. John Keats died from tuberculosis in 1820. Tchaikovsky, of cholera, in 1893 (though some say suicide). Poets, musicians, painters, sculptors. The lists of famous people who have died from tuberculosis, and those who succumbed to cholera, are lengthy. The Brontë sisters. Anton Chekhov, and many others. Pandemics kill artists, but a pandemic can inspire art.

Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) was written as the poet became increasingly aware that he was afflicted with consumption. Key symptoms of it, like “the weariness, the fever and the fret” has only one outcome:

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies

Henry Kirke White painted by Thomas Barber
Henry Kirke White painted by Thomas Barber

Even more direct, a lesser known poet of the Romantic period, Henry Kirke White (1785 –1806), who suffered the same fate as Keats years earlier, went so far as to come out and directly dedicate a poem “To Consumption.” There, he addresses the disease, accepting its embrace as he realizes he soon will succumb to the affliction.

Gently, most gently, on thy victim’s head
Consumption, lay thine hand! Let me decay
Like the expiring lamp, unseen away,
And softly go to slumber with the dead.

Which he did. On October 19, 1806.

Edward Munch's "The Sick Child"
Edvard Munch’s “The Sick Child”

One scholar, Clark Lawlor, has written a whole treatise on the subject of “Consumption and Literature.” Then there’s Roger Platizky’s journal article on “Tennyson and Cholera.” It would seem there’s no shortage of critical essays on ways both consumption and cholera affected artists of the nineteenth century.

And beyond poetry, one need only look at Edvard Munch’s series of works begun in 1885 marking the death of his sister from tuberculosis to understand that the only way some people can deal with grief following great affliction is to capture those feelings in art.

Need all feelings in times of disease, however, be those of sadness and grief? Those who lost their lives, or lost family and friends to consumption and cholera, certainly felt terrible sorrow. Yet even among those who lost, like Edgar Allan Poe, death (of his wife Virginia to consuption in 1847) inspired beauty; with Poe, it’s in the form of his Annabel Lee (written in 1849). An idealized woman. Beauty personified. Verdi, in his La traviata (1853), sees beauty in the death of its heroine, Violetta, who — in the final stages of TB — sacrifices all for love. And the aforementioned Keats, with his brother Tom dying of the disease in 1817, writes  “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” There, the poet celebrates the permanence of beauty and art in the face of frail humanity.  Upon seeing the classical Greek marble sculptures, Keats is inspired that their wonder…

…mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

Something great, like art, can be celebrate beauty, even in the “wasting” of life.

What will artists of this third decade of the twenty-first century produce during — and after — this coronoavirus pandemic? Will we see great art, music, and literature addressing our planet’s collective hopes and fears? Are there those stuck at home, in self-quarantine or practicing social distancing right now that will turn their experience — our experience — into something special? Will it be sad, or hopeful?

Some artists, like former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, have already begun to address our pandemic. In “No Time for Love Like Now,” Stipe sings:

Where did this all begin to change?
the lockdown memories can’t sustain

lyrics that make us consider our situation and question if our memories of what was normal can survive the lockdown of our own self-isolation.

To our artists, we ask for help in figuring out what will be the new normal. Within their work, perhaps we can find release from — even make our peace with — anxiety about what is, and grieving for what used to be. Even during a pandemic, creativity can thrive. It is undeniable that human beings can find hope and beauty everywhere, even in the face of depression and death.

Let us hope that our trying times find us with more of the former, and less of the latter.

And not just thousands of TikToks.