The late Jeffrey Lee Pierce and his band, The Gun Club, were always problematic. They were frequently shambolic, frustratingly inconsistent, and Jeffrey himself, by most accounts, was usually inebriated, sometimes to the point of being incapacitated.
But the band was often brilliant, too, and sounded like no one else before or since. They somehow merged L.A. punk rock and Delta blues, creating an electrifying, California-fried roots rock that, swear to God, made them nothing more or less than a 1980s analogue to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Like CCR, the Gun Club at their best possessed a seemingly effortless ability to make traditional music sound vital in a completely contemporary context.
Case in point: the third song on the band’s first album, “She’s Like Heroin to Me.” The first Gun Club song I ever heard, the track ripped out of my speakers in 1982 like nothing else I’d ever heard.
The recording itself sounds rough and primitive, not unlike the 1920s and 1930s blues records that inspired the Gun Club. And while the band follows the standard punk-rock guitar/bass/drums template, they also flout convention: the slide guitar work of Kid Congo Powers was an unheard-of element in punk rock at the time, and the country-tinged beat was also unusual.
On top of it all comes Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s voice, which ranges from a surly mutter to an utterly convincing wail: when he howls, you can’t help but hear the driven, obsessive soul he evidently was.
A particularly unusual aspect of his vocals, which really sets the Gun Club apart, was pointed out first by Ira Robbins in Trouser Press: Pierce frequently hits notes just slightly sharp, which you can hear clearly in the chorus of “She’s Like Heroin to Me.”
And the lyrics are great. The central metaphor of love-as-drug is hardly subtle, but part of what makes the song work so well are the details in the verses. The two lines that always get me when I hear this song appear in the second and third verse, with Pierce talking about the disorientation and ultimately despair he feels as a result of his dependence on the woman he’s writing about…who seems to be as needy as he is:
We sit together drunk, like our fathers used to be.
That’s a deceptively simple line, which not only depicts a troubled couple finding solace in mutual inebriation, but also alluding to a common family history of substance abuse and, one can infer from the past tense, death.
That’s powerful enough, but a callback to that line in the third verse, instead of just reiterating the situation, adds dimension by bringing in the emotional problems that so often underlie addiction:
We sit together sad, like our fathers used to be.
The lyrics by themselves aren’t poetry, but when he delivers them in the context of the Gun Club’s punk-blues attack, Jeffrey Lee Pierce makes them signify. You believe him.
And an interesting tension happens between the lyrics and the performance, redolent of similar tensions in the classic blues records that inspired Pierce. While the lyrics are dark and unhopeful, offering neither neither resolution nor improvement (just like an addiction), the performance is passionate and joyful: you can feel Pierce’s genuine delight in his version of the blues, even as he’s pouring out his desperation. It’s marvelous, and it happens on every single song on the Gun Club’s debut album, Fire of Love.
Which I nonetheless can’t wholeheartedly recommend, despite its undeniable power. Because you can’t talk about the Gun Club without acknowledging a big problem. The album that “She’s Like Heroin to Me” is from also contains two songs that are deeply, deeply flawed: both “Black Train” and “For the Love of Ivy” employ indefensible racial slurs.
Now, we’re hardly talking about something as deliberately hateful and awful as Skrewdriver here: the lines in question are almost throwaways, mere asides, and not the point of the songs in question. And some have argued that Pierce was trying to be “authentic” and using the language of the south in his reinvented blues, but that’s a load of crap: Pierce was a savvy enough artist to not need such a lame device. I’d like to think that he inserted those lines for artistic effect, however misguided. But I don’t know, and it’s always made this album uncomfortable to listen to, and difficult to recommend.
Which is a shame, because it’s a great album otherwise, and one that certainly introduced a generation of punk rock kids to blues roots. Including me. Unfortunately, like the work of H.P. Lovecraft, it’s not okay to ignore the ugly aspects of the work, let alone give it a pass. In the end, there’s much to learn from the Gun Club, but there will always be a stain that mars it.
As for the influence of the Gun Club on my work, I will point to a song I’ve referred to before, “Never Tell” which appeared on the Signifying Nothing album. Thematically, it explores consequences of addiction and obsession, and the beat and overall vibe cop from a song named “Mother of Earth,” which appeared on the Gun Club’s second album, Miami.
I’m glad I wrote that song, but I’ll always wish I’d written “She’s Like Heroin to Me”—despite my qualms about the indefensible aspects of the Gun Club’s oeuvre.