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Fire Of Love: A Jeffrey Lee Pierce Retrospective
Helen Donlon , May 2nd, 2014 10:43

With the release of Axels And Sockets, the third instalment of The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project, next week, Helen Donlon looks back over the troubled but brilliant career of the Gun Club founder. Photographs courtesy of Edward Colver

Kazuo Ishiguro, author of An Artist Of The Floating World and The Remains Of The Day, once told the Paris Review: "I discovered that my imagination came alive when I moved away from the immediate world around me." After reading Jeffrey Lee Pierce's posthumously-published (and written towards the end of his life) memoir Go Tell The Mountain it's easy to conclude that he was of the same mind as Ishiguro, albeit moving in the geographically reverse direction. As a man whose background and musical mythologies were steeped in rootsy American culture he was nonetheless drawn all his life towards Asia, and frequently referred to his desire to "float away". His lifelong love of Asian cinema - from the delicate observations of early Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Raise The Red Lantern) to Terayama and Kurosawa's dramatic epics - was just part of a journey which took in a solo voyage to Vietnam and several trips to Japan.

While Ishiguro grew up in England with a Japanese cultural background, the Texas-born Pierce left his hometown of Los Angeles several times over the course of his Gun Club and solo years to seek solace in the East. Despite the often-reported chaos of his lifestyle as a musician, he seemed ironically hellbent on escaping the material world and its judgmental trappings, and even to escape his body itself, in his case this desire manifesting itself in abject and continued assault on his liver. Even when he was settled for a time in the UK, his compass pointed to the East - he settled with a Japanese partner, Romi Mori (who eventually joined his band), spent whole weekends watching Japanese films and eventually saw Japan as some kind of final refuge for his imagination. He even made one last pilgrimage to Japan when he was by normal standards just too sick to travel, not long before the end of his short life.

Pierce threw himself into the culture by going that crucial step further than so many other Japan-loving Western artists before him, as he taught himself katakana, hiragana and kanji - the three components of the Japanese writing system. Go Tell The Mountain (published by Henry Rollins on his 2.13.61 imprint and now a highly sought collector's item on eBay) often has haiku-like inflections in his prose, which at times make it read as though it were originally written in Japanese and translated into English. It's hard to know if this was a studied effort, or a reflection of the way Japanese culture had by then gripped his imagination to such an extent that he'd assimilated it on a much deeper level.

Pierce first picked up the guitar at the age of 10, later being tutored in Delta Blues and reggae by L.A. musician Phast Phreddie Patterson. In 1976 and by now bewitched by Debbie Harry (he revamped and coloured his hair to clone himself in her image) Jeffrey became President of the West Coast Blondie fan club. In 1978 his parents divorced and he began writing for Slash magazine as Rankin' Jeffrey Lea. By 1980 his band Creeping Ritual had surfaced on the L.A. scene with the line-up including Don Snowden and Brad Dunning, as well as Jeffrey's long-term friend and frequent collaborator Kid Congo Powers (who soon peeled off to join The Cramps for a while). L.A. punk scenester Keith Morris of The Circle Jerks and Black Flag suggested the name The Gun Club, and Pierce wrote the music for The Circle Jerks' song 'Group Sex' in recompense.

The Gun Club perfectly distilled the paper-thin glamour and stubborn grime of Los Angeles. 1981's unusually influential album Fire Of Love, produced by Chris Desjardins, includes the now -abled Gun Club tracks 'For The Love Of Ivy', 'Sex Beat' and 'Ghost On The Highway'. The line-up at the time was described by Exene Cervenka as, "Fucking insanely good." During this period The Gun Club would often be the warm-up band for her group, X.

The next album, Miami was released in 1982 and featured Debbie Harry (as D.H. Laurence Jr.) on backing vocals, with Chris Stein on bongos (he also produced the album). On the press release Pierce wrote, "No future. I've never been so bored in my whole life. I'll go anywhere anyone wants to take us. And do anything. To be a piece of dust, just float." Some of the Gun Club's best songs appear on Miami including 'Like Calling Up Thunder' and 'Devil In The Woods'.

By 1983, Anton Corbijn had photographed Jeffrey for the front cover of the NME, and The Gun Club set out on a sizeable European tour. Bush Tetras' Dee Pop was now with the band and he and Jeffrey used the tour to dive deep into several weeks of chemically enhanced havoc.

The Las Vegas Story, a new album release in 1984 saw the return of Kid Congo (back from his stint with The Cramps), and The Bags' Patricia Morrison on bass. Said to be Pierce's favourite of their albums, The Las Vegas Story was made while several members of the band were spiralling into deeper chemical plunder. One of Pierce's favourite books was Malcolm Lowry's Under The Volcano. Inspired by the narrative, he and Kid Congo set off on a Mexican trip to clean up before the tour. Kid Congo remembered: "We went to Mexico before this big tour, we wanted to dry off, because we were really on drugs. And so, we thought, 'Well, let's go there to get over our drug habit.' Then we'll be able to go on tour and not be burdened with being a slave to drugs. Well, when we went to Mexico, we got very drunk the whole time. And actually had a great time, really fun. We had a crazy, drunk time. We also had fun exploring, going to Chichen Itza, which is really where all of these ruins are. And then we left and did the Las Vegas Story tour…"

Pierce's solo career began in 1985, after living in Europe for a while and somehow withstanding abnormally blighted tours with The Gun Club which saw equipment stolen (several times), fractured group relationships and Pierce's spiralling bad health leading him to a near breakdown again and again. He nonetheless recorded a solo album, Wildweed and went on tour with a new band consisting of Romi on guitar, Nick Sanderson on drums and Dean Dennis on bass. Another tour, this time across the US, was beset by yet more bad luck stories, which culminated in all the tour money going mysteriously missing.

The next Gun Club incarnation was announced as Pierce, Romi, Kid Congo Powers and Nick Sanderson and a new album, Mother Juno, produced by Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie was recorded at Hansa Studios in the summer of 1987. Kid Congo Powers remembered: "I actually set all that up. I convinced them that it was a good idea at Hansa, 'cause it would be perfect, which it was. You know, it's like this big, giant room that's really great. It had so much great history, you know - [Iggy Pop's] The Idiot was recorded there, just different things. And that was like my second home the whole time I was living in Berlin, I was in that studio so much. With the Bad Seeds [Tender Prey], and Die Haut [Headless Body In Topless Bar], and I did some stuff with Diamanda [Galas] there that never got released. I'd go visit Neubauten near there, so it was like Jeffrey thought it would be a good idea to have Blixa [Bargeld] play on it. That his kind of style of guitar would be really good for the mood of that song ("Yellow Eyes").

Pierce's drug and alcohol osmosis had already begun to assault his health, and by 1987 he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver (he was 29). That same year he had hooked up with Jeremy Gluck, Epic Soundtracks, Nikki Sudden and Rowland S. Howard for the album I Knew Buffalo Bill. Howard had been asked by Pierce to do some work with The Gun Club but by this point Pierce's sickly disposition had taken away a lot of his own creative impetus. According to Howard: "He was a very unhappy man. He seemed to be in a lot of physical pain. He seemed to be just taking a lot of drugs trying to get through the pain that he was in. His liver hurt all the time, and he'd come around to my house, and walk up the stairs like he was about eighty years old. Just sort of really depressed and really negative, and it was really sad. But, yeah, I mean, Jeffrey was very unhappy with what he was doing musically when I knew him. He was very unhappy with The Gun Club and he seemed to think he was sort of trapped in there. He didn't really have a choice to do anything else. But he just had no energy. It was just sort of hard for him to get up and play and do all that stuff. But he had no energy to create something else." Wim Wenders, a massive Gun Club fan (he described Jeffrey as "one of the greatest blues singers of all time") called Rowland Howard "our Jeffrey Lee Pierce" after working with Howard on his 1987 film Wings Of Desire, which was also filmed in Berlin.

Pastoral Hide And Seek (named after Shūji Terayama's 1974 film of the same name) from 1990 was made at a time when Pierce was, in his own words, "probably at my worst and lowest bad luck period that I could have possibly had in my life. I had no money. I was completely addicted to alcohol. My band was doing nothing. We had no record deal, and I was extremely depressed all day." He gave the demos for the LP to Mark Lanegan, who considered them better than the final recording. When the recording was finished a depressed Pierce set off on his own for Vietnam and came back with suspected malaria which further attacked his already seriously compromised liver. Back in London in 1993 a side project was conceived with Cypress Grove - Ramblin' Jeffrey Lee And Cypress Grove With Willie Love, a highly regarded collection of dirty blues numbers including covers of Skip James, Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton.

Back in Los Angeles in his last years Pierce was often to be found at the Viper Room, from where he pursued the idea of connecting long distance with some of his favourite Japanese bands (including The 5-6-7-8s of Kill Bill fame). In 1995 his friend Johnny Depp was in Tokyo with director Jim Jarmusch doing press for the Japanese launch of their film Dead Man. Jarmusch was a huge fan of The Gun Club. Pierce, who had once again taken up residence in the city, gave Jarmusch and Depp a bespoke tour of Tokyo using his knowledge of the Japanese language to guide them through another side of the city. Jarmusch told Libération in Paris: "These few days revealed the loneliness of this talented man that I saw as someone who had fled the world to take refuge in a foreign metropolis. A year later, he was dying in L.A., where I had gone to visit him, at the beginning of 1996, without knowing he was ill. His approach to the blues, to punk and to country was seminal for many of us - musicians, writers or cineastes. Amazing guy".

In 1996 Pierce flew to Utah to be with his father, in a final effort to clean up (previous attempts had ended in failure). He began to write what was to be his autobiography for his publisher Henry Rollins, while keeping in touch with Kid Congo Powers, and Mark Lanegan who remembered, "He called me from Utah, and was completely normal, and I said, 'Jesus Christ, man, everybody's telling me, you're going to die'. And he said, 'Fuck, they say that all the time. I'm fine.' And he sounded fine, but it was maybe two weeks later that he went into a coma and all that."

Pierce died of a brain haemorrhage on March 31, 1996 at the age of 37. On October 20, 2006 his ashes were spread in Kyoto by his sister Jacqui, and he was given the Buddhist name Shaku Chi Ken (English translation: Buddha Who Sees Wisdom in Others).

"I feel really guilty about the last days of Jeffrey, that I didn't really do more to help him, to tell you the truth. But at the time, John Roecker and I were so close, and he was kind of taking care of it. We gave him some money, and things like that, but I guess, I didn't know what to believe. I do remember talking to Chris [Stein], when Jeffrey was sick, on the phone for about an hour. He called up at the store, and he would talk to John [Roeker] a lot, and he talked to me and was like, "I can't come there, why isn't anyone helping Jeffrey?" And he was just really angry, and almost crying. He was so distraught about Jeffrey and that there was nothing he felt he could do from there, and what were we doing, and were we helping him? Were we giving him money? Did he have a place to stay? Was he taking drugs? Was he drinking? I think at that point, Jeffrey was pretty resigned to his fate. I don't think there was much he could have done to save himself at that point." (Exene Cervenka to Gene Temesy)

Cypress Grove decided to launch the Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project on uncovering lost tapes he'd earlier recorded with Pierce in his attic. After contacting Mark Lanegan to get involved with collaborating on a new recording of these work-in-progress tapes, he realised that many other artists were willing to get involved too. Phast Phreddie provided a home-made cassette of pre-Gun Club recordings, and some of Pierce's unpublished writings were assembled.

The release next week of volume three of the sessions, Axels And Sockets follows 2010's We Are Only Riders - whose collaborators include Kid Congo Powers, Lydia Lunch, Debbie Harry and Mick Harvey, and 2012's The Journey Is Long, featuring Barry Adamson, Warren Ellis, Isobel Campbell and Nick Cave. Axels And Sockets is the penultimate of the Sessions albums (the fourth is planned for 2015). Many of the familiar collaborators are back and this time Iggy Pop (whose salvo "Jeffrey Lee Pierce!" kicks off the album), Julie Christensen, Jim Sclavunos, Andrea Schroeder, Mark Stewart and Thurston Moore also form part of the album's line-up.

The Iggy Pop and Nick Cave opening track Nobody's City, which originally featured on the 2005 remaster of 1987's Gun Club album Mother Juno also features Jim Sclavunos on drums, and a stack of guitar work from Thurston Moore, Cypress Grove, Kid Congo Powers and Jeff Zentner, with Pierce's guitar in the mix.

Debbie Harry is one of the most important contributors to the project. Having contributed to all three albums, she appears on two tracks on Axels…. It was Jeffrey who made Debbie that crucial mix tape including The Nerves' 'Hangin' On The Telephone' which she and Chris Stein had on their cassette player while driving around in a cab in Tokyo, when, according to Debbie, the cab driver responded so enthusiastically to the track that they decided to record it. As President of the Blondie fan club, Piece had written 'Kisses For My President' about Debbie, and here she is joined by Mick Harvey and JP Shilo (of The Amber Lights) for her own rendition. On 'Into the Fire' she performs a sultry duet with Nick Cave, another regular collaborator to the project.

Leeds-based Black Moth, who recorded their debut album with Jim Sclavunos (associate producer of Axels And Sockets), bring a wistful shimmer to 'Just Like A Mexican Love', while Julie Christensen (who was married to Chris Desjardins, producer of Fire Of Love) delivers what might be the most beautiful track of the album, Weird Kid's Blues. Slim Cessna, who was deeply influenced by The Gun Club's music in his youth presents his own version of 'Ain't My Problem Baby'.

One of the French bands most influenced by The Gun Club is Noir Désir. On their 1996 album, 666667 Club, the unnamed bonus track is their tribute to Pierce, "Song for JLP". Band leader Bertrand Cantat appears here on Axels… alongside Crippled Black Phoenix and Cypress Grove with 'Constant Limbo (Constant Rain)'. Cantat also appears on the track 'Desire By Blue River' with Mark Lanegan. The Amber Lights' 'Kitty Ina Moonlight' and Ruby Throat's 'Secret Fires' both attempt to re-stoke their own versions of Pierce's blues. But the track that is by far the most reminiscent of the Gun Club themselves is delivered by Cornish heavyweight blues-rock trio Honey, who have recorded a raw and vital version of 'Thunderhead', produced by Pierce's friend and JLP Project Sessions collaborator Kris Needs.

Glitterhouse artist Andrea Schroeder gives us another version of 'Kisses For My President', and ex-Bad Seed/Gallon Drunk guitarist James Johnston (who memorably played Maggie Cheung's tragic boyfriend in Olivier Assayas's Clean) performs 'Body And Soul', while Andrew Weatherall's remix of Primal Scream's 'Goodbye Johnny' clocks in at seven-minutes-plus but without feeling a second too long.

Yet another Bad Seed, Hugo Race takes on 'Break Em Down', before Cypress Grove delivers 'When I Get My Cadillac'. The Lydia Lunch and Jeffrey Lee Pierce (guitar) ballad on 'The Journey Is Long' is cleverly mixed to perfection by Sclavunos and the final track, 'Shame And Pain' by Mark Stewart and Pierce with Thurston Moore features the only Pierce vocal to be used in any of the three sessions projects. Watch our exclusive first play of the video above.

The cover of the CD features a portrait of Pierce done especially by cherished artist and ex-Mekon Jon Langford, and the sleevenotes include texts by Kris Needs, Sam Kinchin-Smith, Paul Bearer, Merle Leonce Bone and Pierce's sister Jacqui, while Edward Colver has provided the project with a handful of his characteristic photographs of Pierce in L.A.. All proceeds from this and the other CDs in the Sessions Project go to Amnesty International and Pierce's charity to buy kids in downtown L.A. musical instruments.

With thanks to Gene Temesy for extra interview quotes. Axels And Sockets is out on Monday, May 5, via Glitterhouse Records