Last August, my old Chico runnin’ buddy, Sean-Michael Yoder, became the first guest writer in the history of The Adios Lounge. I let Sean run loose on the early history of The Gun Club, particularly their first 2 albums, Fire Of Love (1981) and Miami (1982). For years, Gun Club was a band I’d only casually liked, but knew Yoder was a big fan of theirs and he knew how to write. I trusted that he could spin the bean in a way that worked as an Adios Lounge piece, and I think Gun Club: Preachin’ the Word, Pt. 1 proved me right. Now he’s back to present Part 2.
Gun Club occupies an interesting niche in ’80s/’90s rock ‘n’ roll in that they bridge The Cramps and Blondie on one side and Screaming Trees and Afghan Whigs on the other. That’s a pretty good lineage, skewing dark and heavy, but leaving room for melody. I like how Sean contextualizes the band within Los Angeles, but ultimately seeks to answer the question: What is Gun Club’s mid-’80s musical legacy? That’s the question I wanted answered and I think Yoder took it to the house. As we did last time, Sean and I follow up the post with a Q&A, where we use Gun Club as a base to address the idea (or fantasy) of Los Angeles as a monolithic entity, the underground scene’s legion of great guitarists , and SST‘s remarkable 1984.
Please enjoy the essay stylings of Sean-Michael Yoder …
WHAT WE DO IS SECRET
A rare look into a self destructive and nihilistic scene, where the main motives seem to be restlessness and soul-crushing boredom.”
–1981 VPRO documentary, Surf Punks [YouTube], about the SoCal punk scene
My second installment of the history of The Gun Club looks at the band’s mid-’80s output: The Death Party EP (1983), The Las Vegas Story (1984), and Jeffrey Lee Pierce‘s solo album, Wildweed (1985). I am setting the music history inside the city itself, because more than anything I believe the essence or DNA of the greater metropolis had a very large effect on the various subcultures. That’s where all of my writings about Los Angeles and music starts. So, let’s get in the wayback machine and take a musical trip to mid-1980s Hollywood.
The end of The Germs in 1980 was a key moment in the development of the L.A. underground rock scene. It allowed the active members of the band a chance to finally leave the Darby Crash circus and pursue their own muses, of which a few would be significant. On a larger scale, the punk rock tribes of Southern California divided into parallel genres: death rock, roots rock, SST, hardcore, and the Paisley Underground. In his essay, “Gimme Gimme This, Gimme Gimme That,” James Newlin correctly highlights the events he believes set the above-mentioned divisions in motion, using the dissolution of The Germs as the agent of historical change. They were like a punk rock John Brown in what became an ugly secession in SoCal:
The subculture inevitably splinters into other subcultures, and nowhere more so than in Los Angeles, where the punk movement was begun in opposition not to the kind of political strife that incensed British acts like The Clash and Sex Pistols, but instead as a refusal of suburban angst and boredom.
–James Newlin, “Gimme Gimme This, Gimme Gimme That”
Newlin cites academician, Daniel Traber, whose amazing essay, “L.A.’s ‘White Minority’: Punk and the Contradictions of Self-Marginalization,” (2001) cuts a little closer to the bone with regards to L.A.’s punk rock scene. However, he also fails to boat the biggest bass in the pond:
L.A. punk’s common discourse was about “privatized issues” like “feelings of personal alienation or repelling conservative attempts to control individual consciousness.” Or, as Darby Crash put it twenty-three years earlier, “What We Do Is Secret.”
The problem, according to Traber, is that the L.A. punks positioned rebellion as a way of declaring themselves a “self-imposed minority,” emphasizing individualism so much that they left no possibility for collective action. In the end, punks identify themselves not by politics, aesthetics, or common philosophy, but by the most conservative of identities: one based on geographical location.
So, despite all the rhetoric about the acceptance found in the community of “the scene,” the L.A. scene was more often than not characterized by competition and demarcation. The spastic, glam rock-influenced Germs from Hollywood were not like the skate punk hardcore Black Flag from (Hermosa) Beach who were not like the roots rock revivalist Blasters from Downey. These divisions are not just harmless bickering about genre distinctions: fights between the Hollywood punks and the Huntington Beach punks were often brutal and could turn into full-scale riots.
–James Newlin, “Gimme Gimme This, Gimme Gimme That”
The essence of the L.A. story is there and touched on by both, but like any good game of Telephone each subsequent link in the chain further misses the point.
Which points are missed by Newlin and Traber? First off, L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world where you can indulge ANY vice. That’s definitely going to put a huge damper on any sense of scene unity or common cause. Traber sees through all of that “huggin’ and learnin’,” scene unity bullshit for what it was — a dead leftover from ‘60s counterculturists. That was something any self-respecting punk rocker from that era would’ve been 100% averse to — just read a Claude Bessy piece in Slash Magazine for further proof. There was no true love for scene unity from the very beginning in SoCal. There were just too many distractions to care about the broader issue of a punk community in Los Angeles. The interview with Bad Religion‘s Brett Gurewitz in the telling Bob Forrest documentary, Bob & The Monster, provides one of the clearest pictures of L.A. in the mid-’80s, at least in terms of drug consumption in the underground rock scene.
You have no idea what it was like. There were drugs EVERYWHERE in L.A. in the 1980s. It was just free-for-alls. Every drug imaginable, mostly heroin.
–Brett Gurewitz in Bob And The Monster, 2011
Director Keirda Bahruth
The second point overlooked, and both essayists miss it completely, is the socioeconomic aspect of L.A. and how the invisible hands of political corruption, crime, sprawl, pollution, etc. all converged into keeping everyone in line in the decades between explosive riots (Watts in 1965, South Central in 1992). You really have to read the Mike Davis book City Of Quartz (1990) to fully wrap your mind around the unique conglomeration of elements that such a large and fractured city has produced. In a nutshell, Davis concludes that L.A. is as dangerous as a Raymond Chandler novel and the films Chinatown (1974) and Blade Runner (1982) combined, especially so for young people, and worse so for those of the non-white persuasion.
Iggy Pop & James Williamson – Kill City
Released on the Kill City LP, 1977
“Yeah, the scene is fascination, man, and everything’s for free
The scene is fascination, man, and everything’s for free
Until you wind up in some bathroom overdosed and on your knees”
To counterbalance the ugly reality of big city life there were three very important things that contributed to the explosion of various youth cultures in SoCal in the years following World War II: The Hollywood industry, cars, and all of that vice. These were every kid’s way to escape from a life stuck working in the aircraft factories — or worse. Here are those personal issues that Newlin and Traber debase in their essays as being less noble than a political statement essentially shaping the music and culture of L.A. but in ways that require more of a sociological analysis than a musicological one to unravel what is really going on here. These aren’t personal issues, these are personal issues being felt by an entire section of the population en masse.
X – The Have Nots
Under The Big Black Sun, 1983
It was a yearning for personal freedom that previous generations would have identified as purely negative: solipsism and nihilism. But, this move to individual expression above all else helped to shape a working class artistic revolution that started in the early-to-mid 1970s in SoCal and spread outward rather rapidly and on a completely grassroots level. It is now the dominant paradigm in America for anyone under the age of 50. Dogtown & Z-Boys (2001) is a perfect example. Glen Lockett’s (aka Spot) new coffee table book, Sound Of Two Eyes Opening (2014) is, too. I’m thinking the film Boogie Nights (1997) is also a good example, but I could be wrong. And so was The Gun Club.
MEMORIES OF EL MONTE
Let’s visit El Monte, birthplace of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. A place about as far removed from the filth and fury of the Hollywood/Masque scene as Mars. El Monte is in east L.A. Not East L.A. that big, bad fucking El Barrio, or whatever it is that white people like to call places where there isn’t a plethora of like-minded. But, if you’ve read enough Thomas Pynchon you know that El Monte (“The Mountain” in English) is just close enough to the hood that its racially mixed, working class airs can still be transformed into the heart of Tiajuanita Norte in the minds of most Angelenos.
Last I looked, Jeffrey Lee’s out of print autobiography, Go Tell The Mountain [1998; very pricey], is the only book out there that seeks to overturn a lot of history that’s been written about the place. For Pierce, the author, to be from the outlands is to be forever defined like that in the L.A. mindset. He found it even more defining — and restricting –- as a half-white, half-Mexican kid in the San Fernando Valley when his family relocated to Granada Hills as a boy and where Pierce spent his formative years.
Tito Larriva talks about skin color zoning like it was modern day Jim Crow and how it extended far beyond the city limit signs into everyday life. Unlike Pierce, Larriva lived right in the middle of it all in Hollywood at the very beginning of the punk rock boom and yet in the eyes of the media The Plugz were “Los Plugz” and therefore had to be from East L.A., where all the Mexicans live. It was like “Whittier Blvd” [YouTube] all over again. ¿Entiendes mendes?
I’ll be honest with you. Coming from Texas, and coming to L.A. and living here for so many years, I never felt in Texas that I didn’t fit. Then when I got [to Los Angeles], suddenly The Plugz, my punk band, are from East L.A. I must have told the L.A. Times and the L.A. Weekly 200 times, “I’m not from East L.A. I live in Hollywood. Hollywood. H-O-L-L-Y–.” They even started calling us ‘Los Plugz.’ I gave up.”
–Tito Larriva to Raoul Hernandez, Austin Chronicle, “Noché de la Tarántula,” December 19, 1997
From my perspective, the L.A. rock scene didn’t retreat to regionalism, as Traber tries to insinuate in his essay. The story is more about these stitched together communities and how they are designed to keep you in your place and follow the narrative assigned to you. For someone like my old friend Donald that meant being armed even if he hated it just because he was a Londoner who happened to be black, for Keith Morris it meant taking over your father’s bait shop in Hermosa Beach someday, and for a half-Mexican kid like Jeffrey Lee Pierce it meant a blue collar life and early grave in the Valley, the absolute edge of the world in SoCal in the early ’70s.
Sadly, Pierce found that tombstone way too early and his life was anything but blue collar. Mr. Circle Jerks wasn’t blue collar either. That change of destiny is the ultimate expression of personal freedom and seems to be the thing, whatever that thing is, at the core of this story about L.A.’s enduring rock narrative, even in 2015. Again, I turn to Tito Larriva to focus on the fractured lines of the cities and how a select handful of artists in the ’80s transcended those invisible boundaries and escaped life stories written for them.
Larriva is a quintessential L.A. artist. He was there at the center of the Hollywood punk scene, yes, but it’s his artistic trajectory out of the scene that remains more significant, shining light on the dead-ends and new opportunities of the L.A. music and film industry as it moved over the ’80s and ’90s from rejecting underground culture and independent production to incorporating them deep within its economic being.
This shift in L.A.’s economy can be told in analytical models, but also in human relationships. Contacts and collaboration were essential to the shifting fortunes of Larriva, who seems to have played his rolodex as well as his guitar. Those relationships can be said to have helped build L.A.’s Chicano rock scene of the ’80s. They might even be said to have shaped, in their own minute way, the ways we consume genre, aesthetics, and tradition today.
–Leonard Nevarez, Musical Urbanism, “Tito Larriva: The Hombre Secreto of L.A.’s Culture Industry”, Jan 31, 2012
Due to the academic nature of Nevarez’s essay, he’s talking strictly about the Chicano contribution to L.A.’s rock music scene of the 1980s. It’s a heavy bummer that he misses a crucial opportunity to make it less about the Chicano scene and make it about L.A. as a whole. The problem here is that by the mid-’80s, the time of the both The Gun Club’s greatest works, the idea of rock music as cultural redemptive beyond the constraints of politics and race, was essentially over.
From the essayist’s 2015 perspective it’s as if it never existed, buried under the gains of personal freedom, institutionalized tyranny, and all of that sinnin’. But, in this virtually nonexistent time and place The Gun Club released a few records — including perhaps their finest album, The Las Vegas Story — that represented Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s attempt at the big time as much as The Cruzados did for Larriva. It’s also a body of work beyond the narratives already out there about Fire Of Love and Miami, including Part 1 of my Gun Club History.
Gun Club – The Death Party EP
Released April 13, 1983
Tracklisting of original 5-song EP
A1 – 0:00 – The House On Highland Ave
A2 – 3:29 – The Lie
A3 – 6:45 – The Light Of The World
B1 – 9:55 – Death Party
B2 – 15:47 – Come Back Jim
The Death Party EP was a stopgap release between 1982’s Miami and 1984’s Las Vegas Story with a thrown together collection of players – the rhythm section from the NYC art rock band the Bush Tetras and legendary session man Jim Duckworth on guitar, who at the time was playing with Alex Chilton in Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. I am sure Duckworth appreciated the opportunity to do some unrestrained rocking out with The Gun Club and responds with some playing inspired by the band’s former guitarist Ward Dotson.
Dotson had tired of doing the punk thing and formed a rootsier combo called The Pontiac Brothers, who had several fine albums on Lisa Fancher’s Frontier label in the 1980s. The Gun Club suffered a tremendous loss when the original line-up bailed after the Miami record. Dee Pop has become an amazing session drummer, but Terry Graham was made for The Gun Club. Maybe that’s why Graham chose to return to the fold for The Las Vegas Story. Bassist Rob Ritter became Rob Graves and joined 45 Grave, one of the worst moves in L.A. rock history, but it gives you an idea of how difficult Pierce was to work with.
In terms of the playing, Death Party never strives for anything more than a trash level version of the Wrecking Crew studio cats. As a result, the song quality is uneven and so is the production, once again by Blondie’s Chris Stein – who also produced the poorly recorded Miami LP. The problem was that Stein and his musical partner, Deborah Harry, had no idea how to record or market loud, aggressive rock music like The Gun Club. They had become full-on tools for Top 40 producer/songwriter, Mike Chapman, so what was coming out of L.A.’s underground in 1983 –- even by Blondie fan club president JLP –- frightened them. As a result, Stein’s production work on both Miami and Death Party sounds like a coked-out hack doing a favor for an old friend. It’s a shame too because this is Pierce at or near the peak of his songwriting abilities.
“The Girl On Highland Avenue”
The big winner here is the lead-off cut, a countrified ballad with backing vocals from Texacala Jones, whose own Horseheads would emerge just a few years later with a heavy duty Gun Club influence. If there was a song that foretold of that development, “Girl” is that track. It’s a classic song in the she-done-me-wrong blues vein and one of the finest in the band’s canon.
“The Lie” + “Death Party”
Both tracks have nice moments, but don’t quite catch fire, although Duckworth’s playing on Death Party would exert a huge influence on Aussie bands like the Lime Spiders, Hoodoo Gurus, and Kim Salmon And The Surrealists. “The Lie” has a catchy take on the riff from “One Way Or Another,” but Stein’s production is at its worst, burying a group of unsure players under a ton of audio mud.
“The Light Of The World”
On the other hand, “Light” is a picture-perfect snapshot of this line-up at its best and some of Pierce’s finest lyrics.
“Come Back Jim”
Sounds like an outtake from Fire Of Love with the same explosive, rootsy shuffle on the skins that Bill Bateman perfected with The Blasters. The lyrics are typical of Pierce’s ramblin’ blues work and bridges the gap between “Goodbye Johnny” on the first album and “A House Is Not A Home” on the final album (Lucky Jim, 1994).
This is where everything comes together for The Gun Club: perfect lineup, amazing songs, and unbelievable production. Too bad the lineup was short-lived and the band never realized the ambition heard here. The album is named after the 1952 RKO film, The Las Vegas Story, considered to be the finest of the movies produced by Howard Hughes in his tenure as RKO’s boss. It’s a typical noir with the quintessential noir man, Victor Mature, and a grotesque, almost punk-ish Jane Russell as the female lead. There are definite connections to the SoCal punk scene and its trashier, more criminal elements.
Jeff Eyrich, who produced the classic Plimsouls‘ LP, Everywhere At Once, and a good chunk of the Thin White Rope catalog, is in charge on The Las Vegas Story. The record has a big room, Ocean Way sheen that takes some some getting used to and the americana feel, in retrospect, seems very dated. In a lot of ways it’s like Born In The U.S.A. (also released in June 1984), but tougher, punker, better. Finally, all of the best elements of the original Hollywood scene came together in one album for something perhaps bigger than life and, at the very least, bigger than the band.
The unfortunate thing is that the album came out at the wrong time. SST bands like the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, and Meat Puppets were already pushing music in unbelievable new directions, new bands were popping up that were heavily influenced by Gun Club (Tex And The Horseheads, Blood On The Saddle, Dream Syndicate), and the old guard were busy putting out mediocrities like Wonderful (Circle Jerks, 1985), Ain’t Love Grand! (X, 1985), and Into The Unknown (Bad Religion, 1983).
Bad Religion’s dismal keyboard experiment is the best example of what many other bands were doing back then –- retreating to their teenage roots and making albums that felt comfortable and safe. The only problem with putting out a loving tribute to King Crimson if you have a fan base like Bad Religion’s is that you are going to get skewered. Plus, you end up with boxes and boxes of that shitty record sitting around in yours and other people’s basements (mine, for instance) which will only perish at the end of days. That kind of rigid scene policing by fans and record buyers ended up stifling the scene, hindering many exciting musical developments, if your band wasn’t lucky enough to be on a label like SST.
No surprise that Bad Religion’s next record was called Back To The Known (1985) and they’ve been churning out the same formula ever since. They clearly were not interested in any future musical defeats, only easy victories. It’s also important to note that rather than struggle to update or invent new sounds many other bands chose to go dormant instead. Where were The Bags, Eyes, and Weirdos in 1984? They’d all given up and gone home. Even X did by 1984. That’s why Double Nickels On The Dime and The Las Vegas Story were such significant albums for L.A. that year. Those albums represented the best of what a chaotic and fractured L.A. underground rock scene could conjure during the otherwise moribund mid-‘80s. One pointed forward to the future, the other remade the past in a weird sort of revisionism.
Unlike the Death Party EP, Las Vegas features an organic group of skilled players playing together: Kid Congo Powers of The Cramps, Patricia Morrison of The Bags and Legal Weapon, and the return of Terry Graham, who once again really locks in with another former bass player from The Bags. Pierce holds down the lead guitar duty and does a remarkable job that often recalls the work of Richard Lloyd with Television. The album was dedicated to Debbie Harry “for her love, help and encouragement,” but thankfully it contains no weak-ass production by Chris Stein.
It was nice that Harry and Stein finally ponied up the dough for a real producer, but at this point everyone in the business knew Jeffrey Lee was never going to make it, and the album, more or less, was just another favor for an old friend. That the band created genius in that vacuum of no expectations is not an unusual rock & roll story, that people went back in time to give this album a second chance and recognize it for the genius that is/was the real miracle here.
YOU CAN’T TAKE MY DREAMS
“The Las Vegas Story”
Interesting story about this track, a mix of Beat poetry and strange noises. The noises came from ribbed plastic tubing that producer Jeff Eyrich was swinging around in the studio. Pierce thought they made an interesting sound and used them extensively here.
“Walkin’ With the Beast”
This is an updated take on the band’s earlier hit, “Sex Beat,” with a sleazier edge, a quality that describes the entire record. It’s the standard punk-by-rote grind that the band had perfected by this time. There is a lot of energy here, but the more you listen to it the more it loses its edge.
Gun Club – Eternally Is Here
Lead guitar: Dave Alvin
“This is what she always said,
‘I will give to you of love and blood
For all the forever and never
And yet still again and again'”
Dave Alvin’s playing on “Eternally Is Here” and “The Stranger In Our Town” (as Mustang Dave) is one of the highlights on The Las Vegas Story. For me, this is where Alvin stakes his claim as one of the most distinctive L.A. punk guitarists, right next to Billy Zoom and Pat Smear. The song is so dramatic as Pierce’s songwriting burns brighter than just about all of his contemporaries.
“The Stranger In Our Town”
Lead guitar: Dave Alvin
Another sex-soaked tune from The Gun Club, real shocker there, huh? This one is obsessive lyrically and hews musically to the swamp rock carved out by bands like Creedence and The Cramps. Dave Alvin’s solo is the noteworthy moment on a filler tune, coming on like a punk Bill Haley as he highlights what the band did best -– transmogrifying the blues into something mutant, not quite right, and stirring up the discomfort.
“You can’t take my dreams
You can’t take my dreams
You can’t take and steal from this body”
This is a hellhound-on-my-trail song garbed in the gothic clothing of the L.A. deathrock scene. It’s also another epic tune with incredible playing that explodes at the end. This was one of the signature tunes on the band’s European tour that whipped crowds into a frenzy. Deborah Harry contributed the lyric, “In Victoria, Gare du Nord, and Tompkins Square.”
“The Master Plan” + “My Man’s Gone Now”
Unlike their first two albums, there are only a pair of cover tunes this time around and they’re interesting choices. “The Master Plan” is a take on “The Creator Has A Master Plan” (1971) by Pharoah Sanders‘ and Leon Thomas. There’s also a lounge-y version of “My Man’s Gone Now” is from Porgy & Bess. I don’t know if I really like either version, but they are fascinating selections. “My Man’s Gone Now,” especially, comes from the same Southern Gothic place as “The Girl On Highland Ave” and “For The Love Of Ivy.”
Gun Club – Bad America
“Bad America” is a straight rip of Marquee Moon (1977). In addition, this track, along with the two cover tunes, shows a jazz touch that permeates Las Vegas. Not surprising considering this lineup covered “A Love Supreme” during live performances [YouTube], and unique on the scene in that respect outside of Geza X and the long dead Masque house band, Arthur J & The Gold Cups.
“Give Up The Sun”
“Bad America” isn’t the only reference to Television on Las Vegas. The dynamic playing on “Give Up The Sun” is reminiscent of the darker textures on Adventure (1978) and references Marquee Moon in the lyrics.
“Broadway looked so medieval
It seemed to flap like little pages
I fell sideways laughing
With a friend from many stages”
Television – Venus De Milo
“I try to remember Broadway
I had a friend up there at last”
Gun Club – Give Up The Sun
Gun Club – Moonlight Motel
Of all the tracks on this album, “Moonlight Motel” is the only one that sounds like an L.A. record, mostly “Solitary Confinement” by The Weirdos. Jack Grisham of T.S.O.L. would really investigate this sound and take it much further with his ’90s band, The Joykiller. He did a remarkably good job of keeping the mid-period Gun Club feel alive for many years, just as T.S.O.L. had kept The Germs ghost alive years earlier.
“We worked for days and years
Through the dust and the heat
I came around to see you
On highway-burning feet”
Best song ever about El Monte, really not much more to say.
By 1985, there was no way the Gun Club was going to capture commercial success once the early hype faded. The band basically broke up in stages during the world tour supporting The Las Vegas Story due to infighting and substance abuse. Nick Cave poached Kid Congo Powers for his ever-changing Bad Seeds while Patricia Morrison made London her permanent home joining The Sisters Of Mercy. She’s currently playing with The Damned alongside husband, Dave Vanian.
J.L. Pierce found a lot of love in Europe and is in many ways the guy who brought the unheard music of the L.A. scene to Europeans. They especially loved The Germs, X, and Gun Club in Holland, where Pierce made his home for many years. He moved there after finding the acceptance he couldn’t find in his divided city back home or the parochial rock scene in New York, where he moved in ’83 to record Death Party.
Wildweed was JLP’s first solo album after his bandmates deserted him and it was recorded at Brittania Row, a big studio in London. Producer Craig Leon (Ramones, Blondie) was enlisted because Pierce could never escape his obsession for the way those early Blondie records sounded. Unfortunately, Leon’s production is all slick and polished like he was cutting a Paul Shaffer album and the studio players give Wildweed that distinctive ‘80s sound, the kind that drives any self-respecting Adios Lounge reader nuts:
“The ’80s were a fucking tsunami of weak-ass synths and tinny, compressed drums.”
Lance Davis, “Dylan & The Plugz: Start Me Talkin’,” December 3, 2013
In many ways, Wildweed is Gun Club Lite. The songs here contain many of the themes and elements explored on the three earlier GC albums and also serve as an excellent bridge between The Las Vegas Story and Mother Juno (1987). However, the production is a hard to get past, especially in 2015. But, there are also quite a few things to like about Wildweed. JLP plays guitar brilliantly, on par with the indie scene’s top guitar dog, Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, in terms of technique and inventiveness. Pierce also does a bang up job of beating Nick Cave at his own torch song game with some wicked ballads and quite a bit of ivory tinkling.
Released on a Dutch label, you can hear Pierce really stretch out as a songwriter on Wildweed, which contains some of the best lyrics the ‘80s had to offer. He wasn’t falling prey to the neighborhood regionalism that was disintegrating the underground back home in L.A. He’s finally escaped the City Of Quartz and all of the bullshit baggage that comes with that life. In this light, the typical “basketball on tinfoil” production standard sorta slips into the background as the songs themselves take center stage.
“Love & Desperation”
Cassell Webb – backing vocals
“Somebody hurt you, so you hurt me
So I hurt somebody that I’ve never seen
Who hurt somebody else beyond down the road
Who hurt someone else who goes on home with you”
Some interesting light funk influences here, because Pierce was always a huge James Brown fan and later became a big time hip-hop fan, at least according to what he wrote in Go Tell The Mountain.
My wife Anna, ever the ‘80s hater, says this song sounds a lot like Kick-era (1987) INXS. I’d say that’s a pretty spot-on assessment, maybe a little Talking Heads, too. The lyrics are on another level, though, the same kind of difficult wordplay as Van Morrison.
Jeffrey Lee Pierce – Sex Killer
Cassell Webb – backing vocals
Billy Idol has often mentioned that he was heavily influenced by JLP when he moved from London to Los Angeles, but I could never quite figure out the connection until I heard this song. This might as well be a Billy Idol song, except for Pierce’s slashing, Pere Ubu-esque guitar playing.
“Cleopatra Dreams On”
“Now the agents of grace have been stealing your lace
They cheated the race and they claimed your face
This is no place for Cleopatra dreaming on”
This is very Dream Syndicate influenced and exactly what European audiences thought the California scene should sound like. The rhythm section is sleek and polished, but a little stiff for the material. It sounds an awful lot like Gun Club without the rolling swing. Pierce’s songwriting ability is unrivaled on this album and that’s what the real appeal is –- a punk rock guy writing like the newly-crowned Dylan -– and few were paying attention.
“From Temptation To You”
Craig Leon – piano
This is the specific bridge between the more rock-oriented work on The Las Vegas Story and the dreamier aspects of the Mother Juno album to come. Plus, it’s the template for all of Nick Cave’s work from Tender Prey (1988) onward.
Jeffrey Lee Pierce – Love Circus
“You got a price that is not so nice
You got demise written on your mind”
There’s a heavy Ron Wood-era Stones influence on this song and some more inspired playing by Pierce, perhaps some of the best playing in his career.
Craig Leon – piano
Speaking of Nick Cave, the similarities between Wildweed and Nick Cave’s 1985 album, The Firstborn Is Dead, are striking. Of all the songs on Wildweed, this one sounds most like it was lifted by Nick Cave. It’s definitely one of the better songs, mainly because of the explosive Television workout at the end, something you’d never find on a Nick Cave album –- and why you should be listening to Jeffrey Lee instead.
Tex And The Horseheads meets New Values-era Iggy. Has a nice greaser rock feel similar to, but much lighter than Gun Club. This is Pierce’s big attempt at the mainstream and sounds pretty half-assed, which may explain why he’s faded into obscurity. The nursery rhyme lyrics are seriously palm-to-forehead and certainly don’t help his case.
Gun Club – Wildweed
The title track is as powerful as anything Gun Club ever did, a real rocker. Imagine “Car Crash” by The Avengers teaming up with “Ghost On The Highway” for musical reference points and you’re halfway there.
“The Midnight Promise”
“You got 127 ways to die
You have your promise, your Midnight Promise
It’s such a deal, so go for the ride
And get your promise, your Midnight Promise”
You can almost hear the torch being passed from the confessional songwriters on the scene like Tito Larriva and Jeffrey Lee Pierce to up & comers like Bob Forrest and, later, Eleni Mandell. This is the best the Masque scene ever aspired to right here. The playing is extremely inspired and the words are among the best of Pierce’s career. They almost make the hefty purchase price of Go Tell the Mountain worth it. Lou Reed eat your effin’ heart out.
COMING NEXT TIME
CONVERSATIN’: LANCE DAVIS & SEAN-MICHAEL YODER
LD: So, let’s start at the beginning of your post. Why the Germs? How much is them being actual Johnny Rottenseeds and how much is the romantic mythology of Darby’s tragic death? And I’m not necessarily asking why YOU started your essay about the Germs. You started with them because they have a currency most other bands of that era don’t have. But, is it fair to ask if they actually earned it?
SY: I think they did if only in the sense that they encouraged much better bands like The Middle Class and Gun Club to pick up instruments and do it, too. If The Germs could do it, why not lesser bands like T.S.O.L. and better bands like the Meat Puppets. Meat Puppets I is heavily influenced by The Germs. There were certainly good players in the band, but as long as Darby was alive there wasn’t going to be much else besides that story. He was so much larger than life, which probably explains his early exit.
LD: Would you say that The Germs and Black Flag are the co-creators of the LA hardcore scene?
SY: Definitely. You could include Fear and Circle Jerks. Maybe The Bags?
LD: I know The Middle Class were writing classically hardcore songs concurrent with Germs and Flag, but they were stuck way out in OC in the late ’70s. Orange County doesn’t really exist in any kind of tangible sense until, what, Agent Orange‘s “Bloodstains?”
SY: OC is a different story and crucial in the development of the scene with “Amoeba” (Adolescents) and “Bloodstains” hitting around the same time, but late to the party. The Middle Class and T.S.O.L. were essentially Germs clones, with a heavy Masque vibe.
LD: One thing that gets easily overlooked, but is emblematic of the change between the first wave of SoCal punk and the hardcore offshoot, was no chicks in hardcore. I mean ZERO. The Hollywood punks are rightly celebrated for having a genuinely diverse scene: men, women, whites, Mexicans, straight, gay, the whole deal. By the time you get to “Institutionalized” it’s a fucking sausage fest. That’s actually one of the nice things about second wavers Gun Club, Dream Syndicate, and Tex And The Horseheads. Patricia Morrison, Kendra Smith, and Texacala Jones were on equal footing with the dudes.
Listen to me. You’d think I was a card-carrying feminist and nothing could be further from the truth. But, facts are facts.
SY: There was Kira Roessler in Black flag, Gerber in Twisted Roots (with Paul Roessler and Pat Smear), and Kat Arthur in Legal Weapon. But, these were incredibly tough women. They could live and thrive in that scene.
LD: Notice, though, that outside of Black Flag, none of the bands with women are even faintly hardcore. They were punk as hell, but not hardcore.
And even Flag wasn’t really hardcore by 1984. The band that emerged from the contract dispute with Unicorn was heavy as fuck, but not hardcore.
SY: Hardcore, to me, is John Macias from Circle One — a guy who was obviously mentally ill. There was zero femininity in that guy, band, and scene. Where do you go from there? Shitty metal and “Institutionalized.” There is zero danger there musically and no chance to progress.
LD: Haha. I actually like “Institutionalized” for the Spinal Tap-on-meth quality to it.
SY: I do, too. I used to love giving shit to Lisa Fancher at Frontier about that record, so there is still some of those residual feelings of sarcasm and mischief about S.T.
LD: One of the things that bothers me about traditional analysis of LA music history — if not LA history as a whole — is the idea that SoCal is a monolithic culture. Motherfuckers see a Laker game and think everyone’s a westside mcmillionaire. I like what I heard Mike Watt say on Marc Maron’s podcast. He said, “You fly over LA and you think it’s one city. It’s not. It’s 150 cities.” It’s one of the most balkanized landscapes in America and mostly working class. The idea that there should be some sort of “collective action” against anything is liberal bullshit. How can you have collective anything when you have 150 different collectives???
SY: That’s it right there. My friend works in L.A. politics and it’s all about districts, supervisors, and unadulterated fucking graft. It’s sickening.
LD: I always hated the idea that punk should be political. That punk is at its best when it’s railing against a political entity is short-sighted, self-important nonsense. Usually left-leaning. These are SST’s 1984 highlights, an election year in which only a single album (Double Nickels) addressed contemporary politics.
SST 019 – Meat Puppets – Meat Puppets II
SST 023 – Black Flag – My War
SST 024 – Saccharine Trust – Surviving You, Always
SST 025 – Hüsker Dü – Eight Miles High 7″
SST 026 – Black Flag – Family Man
SST 027 – Hüsker Dü – Zen Arcade
SST 028 – Minutemen – Double Nickels On The Dime
SST 029 – Black Flag – Slip It In
What the fuck could be more punk rock than that list of albums?!?! Why isn’t promoting top shelf artistic output the political statement? Why aren’t acts of independent, creative consciousness the political statement? These motherfuckers didn’t talk about thinking for themselves, they pressed that shit into vinyl. And yes, the Minutemen — especially D. Boon — were intensely political. But, they were political on another level entirely and THAT level has stood the test of time way more than their diatribes against Central American policy. The story to me, the real triumph of human achievement, isn’t that those albums represent a dot on a political spectrum. It’s that those albums were created at all. That they fucking exist.
SY: Exactly, that’s it. That people made these amazing records, this music. That’s the political statement. I think that was the point Carducci was trying to make in his book (Rock The Pop Narcotic). The MUSIC of the Minutemen was revolutionary. It should all start there and work outward. By the way, that Saccharine Trust album (Surviving You, Always) is so good. 1984 was a big one for SST, no doubt about it.
LD: So, any idea why Gun Club and SST never happened?
SY: Chuck Dukowski and Jeffrey Lee Pierce hated each other. At least according to Chuck. Pierce was an incredibly difficult guy, not that the SST crowd was an easygoing set. Plus, (Joe) Carducci (SST co-owner/A&R guy) was never sold on The Gun Club and everything had to pass his muster during those days. Carducci had his eyes set on the Pups, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, and Flag as the places to spend their limited dollars, which i totally get. But still, It seems like a good match, doesn’t it? But, under all that are the interpersonal rivalries that drove the L.A. scene.
LD: In retrospect, maybe releasing 3 Black Flag records in 1984 wasn’t the best use of those limited SST dollars. Release My War OR Slip It In, and maybe Family Man, because it was genuinely different (spoken word meets metallic jazz fusion).
SY: You’ll get no argument from me on that one. Too many Flag albums. Not that I don’t like them and own them all, but I would’ve loved to seen Las Vegas Story on SST instead. That would’ve been a real gamechanger for all involved. In retrospect, good ol’ retrospect.
LD: When did Jeffrey Lee move to NYC?
SY: In ’83 for the Death Party EP. In ’84 he bounced back and forth between NYC and LA. He slept on Chris Stein & Deborah Harry’s floor. I can’t even imagine what that was like. After that he moved to London and then Holland, which would be 1985-86. JLP was a bit of a hobo in that sense — never in one place for too long.
LD: Here’s a devil’s advocate type question. While Pierce was undoubtedly his own worst enemy from a career standpoint, I think one of the things that works against him on a musical level is that he wasn’t a very good singer. He could write the fuck out of a song, but his best songs were invariably written or arranged with his limited range in mind. The question is this: If JLP had a voice as good as, say, Michael Stipe, don’t you think Gun Club would be more well known today? Not that Stipe was a virtuoso singer, but his voice had some elasticity. Pierce was a shouter and moaner — which is fine — but given the songs he wrote and was drawn to, a slightly better vocal instrument would’ve yielded exponentially greater rewards. What say you?
SY: From the perspective of pop music, JLP is a terrible vocalist and it probably led to his downfall to a certain extent. But, that guy already had some dark demons, so I’m not sure how much of a role his voice played in the whole thing. Personally, I’m from the Henry Rollins camp. Part of what made the band so good were those weird, off-kilter vocals. I think every band from that era who didn’t turn into a complete piece of corporate POS a la R.E.M. spent a long time wondering what piece of the professionalism puzzle they were missing. It wasn’t them, it was the time.
LD: Fair enough and I may have been baiting you with the Stipe reference. Anyway, you say that “by the mid-’80s, the idea of rock music as cultural redemptive, beyond the constraints of politics and race, was essentially over.” Expound on that a bit.
SY: From the mid-’80s onward rock has been considered passe and novelty. Talented studio artists like Michael Jackson and Prince subsumed some of the magic, but the complete collapse of the European rock scene, as well as the rise of MTV did much more damage.
You also mentioned Reaganism and liberalism. Being against both — as many of our generation are and were — was and is going to put you in the extreme minority. Reaganism was about subverting (perverting?) the liberal message. The ’84 campaign’s appropriation of “Born In The U.S.A.” is a prime example. Liberalism was all about believing things that weren’t real, like Walter Mondale‘s platform, or that The Clash were anything more than posers post-London Calling. There is simply no room for Sylvia Juncosa in that conversation, so we end up with Joan Jett instead. Pop killed rock for all but the truest believers around the mid-’80s.
LD: Hey, if you have to end up with someone, you could do a helluva lot worse than Joan Jett. I’m not sure I totally agree with you about rock becoming passe or novelty by the mid-’80s. Hell, the whole post-Nirvana explosion is testament to that. That brief cultural window, from roughly 1990-93, brought a lot of outsider music into the mainstream. I think what starts happening in the ’80s is the fragmenting of rock, so that instead of just having rock like you did in the ’60s and early ’70s, you have the rise of American metal (which co-opted a lot of punks), hip-hop is starting to get its legs, the whole house music/dance music thing starts up, and then you have the various iterations of punk (or post-punk), several of which you mention in your essay. But, it’s metal, hip-hop, and dance music that pointed to the future. Rock wasn’t really going anywhere, but it had to share space at the table.
SY: I like that. Sharing space at the table. That’s good. I think because of that sharing, some of the cultural elements that were once exclusive to rock were blunted as they were being shared with others.
LD: Bringing it back to Gun Club, you’re spot-fucking-on about Duckworth’s guitar work on “Death Party,” the title track. He has such gnarly tone and two great solos. The song is OK, but that guitar is a thing of beauty. And while Terry Graham is unquestionably the best Gun Club drummer, you are correct to point out Dee Pop’s shuffling drums on “Come Back Jim.” Goddamn that makes the song.
SY: The players are unsure, but know what to do on “Death Party.” Plus, JLP’s songwriting is next level.
LD: “Bad America” is a jam. It clearly pays homage to Television, but it also sounds like the template for Afghan Whigs. I mean, shit, the vocal style, the scratchy guitar, and soul-once-removed rhythms. Totally Dulli, totally Whigs. Also, in the mid-’90s there was a San Diego band, aMiniature, who sounded just like “Bad America.” I have no idea if they — and by “they” I mean guitarist/singer/songwriter, John Lee — were Gun Club fans, but hearing this, how could he not be? aMiniature modeled a chunk of their sound on Television, as well, but didn’t forget the balls out rock ‘n ‘roll that typically eluded the more cerebral Verlaine and Co.
Afghan Whigs – Conjure Me
aMiniature – Featurist
Depth Five Rate Six, 1996
SY: That was the band we saw at Spaceland the night we saw those drunken kiddos crash into someone’s parked car … in their driveway! I’ll never forget that or aMiniature for as long as I live! They never did much for me on record, but live I can definitely hear the Gun Club connection. Never considered the Afghan Whigs connect, though. That is extremely astute and spot on. I guess that’s why they pay you the big bucks, lol. Definitely has me looking at both bands in a new light and isn’t that what this Q&A thing is all about?
LD: Tell me more about these big bucks …
SY: PS: We were super wasted that night of the aMiniature show.
LD: Me wasted??? That sure doesn’t sound like me. Especially back then, I was so safe and sane.
SY: Safe and sane, lol.
LD: BTW, I like the comparison of “Moonlight Motel” to “Solitary Confinement.” I also think it sounds like “In This House That I Call Home,” if not 2-3 other X songs.
SY: There are many similarities between X and Gun Club, but I hear The Weirdos and Jack Gresham for some reason on that tune. I’m weird that way.
LD: While talking about Dave Alvin’s work on “Eternally Is Here” and “Stranger In Our Town,” you mention him with other great LA guitarists, namely Billy Zoom and Pat Smear. That trio is a pretty stout triumvirate. Thing is, the scene had several solid players in the early-to-mid-’80s. D. Boon, Greg Ginn, Joe Baiza, you mentioned Sylvia Juncosa, Ward Dotson, Karl Precoda, and hell, Poison Ivy! If you take a macro view of the SST roster in 1984-85 you also have Bob Mould and Curt Kirkwood. Wasn’t this one of the great underrated scenes (and eras) for rock guitar???
SY: It seems like the greatest guitar heroes, at least in my book, are from that era. It’s a real golden age, that’s for sure. Smear, Zoom, and Alvin just happen to be my favorites of the bunch. But, you are totally dead on with your assessment.
LD: I will say that hearing Pierce’s guitar playing within the songs on Las Vegas and Wildweed, it really clicked for the first time why Alejandro Escovedo is such a huge JLP/Gun Club fan. The interesting thing is he’s been covering “Sex Beat” for years, but his sound is way closer to Las Vegas than it is Fire Of Love, the album from which “Sex Beat” is drawn.
SY: The Escovedo comparison is one I hadn’t considered, but it’s so accurate. I can hear the Gun Club influence very strongly in Rank & File now. That connection is definitely something worth investigating in a future piece. I think Alejandro and Jeffrey Lee come from that same era of New York Dolls, T. Rex, and Bowie, plus all of those blues and country records. There’s a kinship there and it would be worth setting up an interview with Alejandro just to discuss that. I am sure we’d learn some stuff.
Kid Congo Powers comes from the same place, too. But, he was more of a hired gun, always bucking for a better spot, like any good player should be doing.
LD: Would you consider Jeffrey Lee and Kid Congo to be co-lead guitarists in 1983-84? If so, how were they different as players, especially relative to the kinds of songs Pierce was writing?
SY: He and JLP are co-leads throughout Las Vegas Story and Mother Juno. I think of them being like Brian Jones and Keith Richards. Powers is Brian, adding all of the textures and exotic flavors, while Pierce is Keith, doing the dirty work.
LD: I feel like JLP taught himself to become a pretty good lead guitarist. I mean, if you have Ward Dotson in your band, you’re probably right to let him take the lead.
SY: After Ward left, Jeffrey Lee began to teach himself to play and then became this amazing player. I love his playing on Las Vegas Story, but his finest moments are on the last Gun Club album, Lucky Jim (1993). By then, he’s as good as any of the greats from Clapton to Kirkwood.
LD: Bold statement.
SY: What can I say, I’m a fan. Which may mean I fall victim to hyperbole on occasion. Let’s save that for the next Q&A, lol.
LD: I actually think that’s a perfect spot to close this Q&A. We’ve hit most of the high spots, got appropriately tangential, and now we have something to look forward to in the next piece: GUITARS!!!
LD: Thanks man.
SY: Thanks and have a wonderful Father’s Day.