Rock music has had its beautiful losers (Jim Morrison, Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain) but the American singer and songwriter Jeffrey Lee Pierce was more in the mould of the late Johnny Thunders (of New York Dolls and Heartbreakers fame) and Malcolm Owen (of Britain's Ruts), one of those musicians who never quite fulfil their potential yet follow their destiny to its inescapable conclusion. Titles like "Walking With the Beast", "Bad America" and "Wildweed" now seem sad portents of what was to come.
Born in Texas in 1958, Jeffrey Lee Pierce later moved to the West Coast. Los Angeles was one of the few American cities to follow the British and New York punk scene and the young Jeffrey soon became obsessed with Blondie to such an extent that he became president of their fan club (a couple of years earlier, a teenage Morrissey developed a similar unhealthy fascination with the New York Dolls, another proof that fandom sometimes pays creative dividends).
In 1979, following in the footsteps of the Germs, the Dead Kennedys and the Dickies, Pierce formed his own punk band, Creeping Ritual. He still made ends meet by working hard in a record store and contributing to music fanzines but, by 1981, he was at the helm of Gun Club, an impressive fourpiece (also featuring Kid Congo Powers on guitar, Rob Ritter on bass and Terry Graham on drums) who seemed to create their own brand of swampy, ramshackle, psychotic, blues- influenced music.
Reflecting the singer's burgeoning interest in the blues, Fire of Love, Gun Club's debut album, included possessed covers of Robert Johnson's "Preaching the Blues" and Tommy Johnson's "Cool Drink of Water" alongside Pierce's own compositions ("Sex Beat", "She's Like Heroin to Me") which already reflected his unhealthy fascination for the seamier side of rock 'n' roll. Originally released on the LA-based Ruby Label, Fire of Love attracted much interest in Europe and was picked up by the Beggars Banquet label for the UK while France's New Rose acquired the rights for that territory. The Parisian rock elite, always in love with tragic figures like Morrison, Thunders and Iggy Pop, had found a new hero.
But, just as Gun Club seemed about to capitalise on this early critical acclaim, the Cramps pinched the guitarist Kid Kongo (ne Brian Tristan) to replace the departing Brian Gregory. Still, the momentum nevertheless enabled Pierce to sign his band to Animal Records, a label set up by the Blondie guitarist Chris Stein. The latter acted as producer on Miami, the second Gun Club album, which also featured Debbie Harry on backing vocals. This was a more ambitious offering, from the reworking of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle" to the voodoo feel of "Like Calling Up Thunder" and "Devil in the Woods". Gun Club looked like serious contenders but, by 1984's "Las Vegas Story" (which would have formed an apt soundtrack for the Mike Figgis Oscar- nominated Leaving Las Vegas movie) Pierce's boozy and druggy life-style had started to overshadow the music.
After the Fur Bible offshoot and the bassist Patricia Morrison's departure for the richer and more bombastic pastures of Sisters of Mercy, Pierce went solo and released Wildweed, a pretty focused collection which included the strangely prophetic "Portrait of the Artist in Hell". By then, his influence could be felt on the work of rootsier American outfits like Green on Red and on the new direction taken by Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds (which featured for a time the Gun Club refugee Kid Congo).
In 1987 Pierce reformed Gun Club, recording with Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins as producer. The singer lived for a time in London and gigged fitfully around Europe, doing strange versions of jazz standards (John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme", Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit") and releasing disappointing albums of past and recent concerts on many labels (Two Sides of the Beast on Dojo for instance). In 1993, the last Gun Club album, ironically entitled Lucky Jim, featured his Japanese wife, Romi Mori, on bass. This was to be the last gasp of a career which had patently lost its direction. Indeed, in interviews, an increasingly bitter Pierce had begun to refer to his work as being "full of weaknesses".
With his tousled blond-dyed hair, Jeffrey Lee Pierce was in many ways the archetypal American cult musician, at the crossroads of many musical styles (the goth scene, the swamp blues now revived by G-Love & Special Sauce) which later came to prominence. It's a pity this peripheral figure found the bottle and the needle instead instead of a wider audience. His demise is another sad reminder that the rock 'n' roll life-style can also lead to oblivion.
Jeffrey Lee Pierce, singer, guitarist, composer: born Texas 27 June 1958; married Romi Mori; died Los Angeles 31 March 1996.
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