For the Love of Jeffrey
by Jay Hinman
Jeffrey Lee Pierce - reggae enthusiast, heroin addict, and former president of the Blondie fan club - upheld the confident predictions of many by dying a lonely and fairly depressing death over four years ago, on March 31st, 1997. Pierce's Johnny Thunders-esque holdout in the face of self-wrought bodily deterioration was oddly admirable, yet in no way was the man mistaken for a hero for it. He expired of a brain hemorrhage at a relative's house in Utah, HIV-positive and sick with hepatitis after untold years of drug use, alcoholism and the usual other suspects. Why this event mattered much to anyone lay most prominently in a fantastic record his band The Gun Club recorded 16 years earlier, the masterful Fire Of Love. Listening to that record hammers home a particularly visionary and fierce moment in time when The Gun Club took the raw, dripping meat of shopworn delta blues and infused it with the energy and fire of the Los Angeles punk rock scene. I thought I'd take a stab at conveying Fire Of Love's kick-ass timelessness for those who just might be unaware.
The independent rock music stage in L.A. at the time was perhaps the finest local scene in the city's - quite arguably rock and roll's - history. Three to four dozen bands and artists were busting paradigms, genres, skulls, what have you, with original, "anti-parent", anti-Hollywood-machine rock and roll. From the aural hardcore assault of Black Flag to the infernal howl of The Flesh Eaters, Los Angelino rock circa 1980-1982 was as exciting and raw as it came. Out of an early musical start as Creeping Ritual in 1979 grew a bleary-eyed group of heavy drinkers and blues fans, soon to be renamed the Gun Club. They were comprised of the white-hot rhythm section of Rob Ritter and Terry Graham, wailing slide guitarist Ward Dotson, and Jeffrey Lee Pierce on vocals and occasional slide guitar. These men were already fixtures on the burgeoning scene - Ritter and Graham had been in one of the gnarliest, eat-you-alive first-wave punk bands, The Bags, and Pierce was already a notorious drunk, exhibitionist, poet and fanboy. The Gun Club were quickly a dangerous new spoke on the spinning wheel of dynamic LA alt-culture.
By 1980, Jeffrey Lee - "Ramblin'" Jeffrey Lee to the easily captivated European music press - had moved beyond his Blondie infatuations and into a deep reverence for Mississippi delta blues. The sounds of Son House, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and other giants were, as we know, co-opted by legions of rock-n-rollers and folkies beginning in the 1960's. The Gun Club paid more than passing homage, however -- they wholeheartedly swiped complete riffs, words and attitude from the masters. Pierce participated in the great blues singer tradition by cobbling together distinct lines from other people's songs to create new ones.
Outright verse theft was indeed encouraged back in the day -- the better to carry on the oral tradition. Snatches of Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson can be heard throughout the two sides of Fire Of Love. This debut LP was hotly anticipated throughout lowbrow Los Angeles upon its release, as the band had acquired an early reputation for cathartic, tear-'em-up live performances. Main Flesh Eater Chris D. took to releasing this fine platter on his own vanity subsidiary of Slash, Ruby Records.
What makes Fire Of Love such a brilliant listen long after its time is the fact that this blatant homage to the blues was amplified, energized and kicked into overdrive - yet not in the way that, say, The Yardbirds or Led Zeppelin did it, but in a new style that combined the ghostliness of the original model with a FAST, unwound and supremely energetic beat. The band had a studio magic that was tight & controlled in all the right places, yet loose and wild as a general rule. Ward Dotson joined Greg Ginn and Karl Precoda as one of LA's early '80's gutter-circuit guitar heroes, with each man bringing a totally unique slant to his instrument. Dotson attacked the guitar with each rise in tempo, all the while keeping the sound harmonious with the desired mood. Usually this mood was pretty bleak (but crazed), and harkened to moonlit, fevered nights that spoke of sex, voodoo and imminent violence. His guitar pinnacle is on the album's second track, "Preaching The Blues". Dotson's histrionics sputter and flame out of control, only to be reigned in and tamed by the slide jammed onto his middle finger. And when Pierce plays his rare slide over a berserk Dotson riff, the effect is pretty much a yin-and-yang point-counterpoint. Quite a sound, and you didn't have to be an unabashed blues hound or a drunken punker to get it.
Fire Of Love has three songs in particular that will always be among my all-time favorites: "Sex Beat", "She's Like Heroin To Me" and "For The Love Of Ivy". They all reside on the LP's first side, though the second side is under no circumstances a slouch. Fire Of Love kicks off with "Sex Beat" -- for most folks this is the Gun Club's most recognizable number, and would have been their "Satisfaction" had they made it to reunion tours 20 or 25 years on. Now, some people have always given poor Jeffrey Lee a hard time for his lyrics, not to mention the fact that he often came across as a fat, sweaty drunk. I won't dispute the latter, nor will I go to great lengths to defend him on the former. However, on Fire Of Love Jeff was immensely successful at transmitting the dark, twisted roots of evil without pasting them to his sleeve like a bad Greil Marcus essay. "Sex Beat" quite simply combines an aggressive, convoluted sexuality with an homage to "the devil's music": rock and roll, or alternately, blues. In the end, the song says, life comes down to a pair of basics: fucking and dancing (with emphasis on the former). Pierce at times had his lyrics questioned on what now seems laughable 1980s P.C. grounds i.e., he uses the word 'nigger' several times, albeit in the guise of a deranged Southern evangelical straight from a Flannery O'Connor story. Given the historical, sometimes creepy and violent context of these songs, I think it's fair to say this blues-obsessed reggae lover had no beef with his African-American brothers. Unlike others of his time, you can actually understand the words Pierce sings, to the point where one could probably do a decent job transcribing the lyrics verbatim. Try that with Chris D. or Dez Cadena!
There was also the great, original LP cover art of three bizarre-looking Africans. This gorgeous initial pink, black & green cover was jettisoned when the LP was re-released (by Blondie's vanity label "Animal") in favor of an exceptionally dull "fire" motif. Animal Records even unloaded the terrific Judith Bell bottle drawings on the record's back cover, each of which beautifully captures the essence of the particular songs they represent. This overall packaging of the original Fire Of Love complements the record perfectly, and makes the LP that much more special.
"She's Like Heroin To Me" was my personal introduction to this band, and it is one of the hellfire classics of this era. Everything comes together in this 2:33 masterpiece, a paean to a wayward woman sprinkled with a few choice drug double-entendres. This is followed by the near-epic "For The Love Of Ivy", a fetishistic salute to fellow traveler Poison Ivy of The Cramps. (Kid Congo Powers, who wrote the song with Pierce, was playing in The Cramps at or around this time, and came full circle by playing in later versions of The Gun Club). The closing line "I was all dressed up like Elvis from HELL" - a line which really has nothing to do with the rest of the song - can be assumed to be a tip o' the bottle to Lux Interior as well. The side closes with the rave-up "Fire Spirit," which charges ferociously through a dirty 60's punk riff by way of bo-weevil blues. Turn the disc over, and you've got five more of the same, including a great take on the spooky Tommy Johnson blues, "Cool Drink Of Water" (popularized, in a manner of speaking, by Howlin' Wolf).
No discussion of this fine platter would be complete without mentioned the engineering feats of Pat Burnette. This man wielded his Quad-Teck studios like a weapon, and mastered some of the greatest sides in LA music history. Listen to classics like the Germs' G.I. or the Flesh Eaters' A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die, and you'll hear pure fullness of sound and the raw, hot throb of records that were made to stand the test of time. Burnette somehow engineered the music to leap right off of the vinyl and into your face. Fire Of Love sounds like a 45rpm disco 12", yet plays at a normal 33+ revolutions and clocks in at roughly forty purifying minutes. It would be a shame if this record lived on only in the Trouser Press New Wave Record Guide or if it were allowed to totally lapse out of print. Jeffrey Lee Pierce was far from a visionary or even a particularly outstanding musician, but he had the cajones to lead this fantastic band through the recording of an album of timelessly roughshod and unruly punk-blues, perhaps the first -- and easily the best -- of its kind. Let's give the devil his due for this one, and ask him to take real good care of Jeffrey. (source)