Graded on a Curve:
The Gun Club,
The Las Vegas Story

I had a gun once. And if you have a gun, you might as well hold up a liquor store. So I went to the liquor store, panty hose over my head, and pointed the gun at the clerk. Turned out he was an old high school friend who recognized me immediately, panty hose notwithstanding. I lowered the gun and said, “Well, shit,” and pulled the panty hose off my head. “Way to go, fucktooth,” he said, “you just performed a cameo for the security cameras. Just go. I’ll fuck them up somehow.” Then he said, “I can give you a bottle and a pack of cigarettes. Like tequila?” I said, “Man, this is ridiculous.” He said, “You’re disappearing ink. I never saw you. Take the tequila. It’s some expensive shit. And I recommend heartily that you find another way of getting paid, because you’re too nice a guy for this business.” By this time there was a customer standing behind me. I didn’t even know he was there. I turned to him and said, “I’m sorry for the hold-up, no pun intended,” and bolted. And heard him say behind me, “It takes all kinds of idiots to make a world.”

None of that is true, but it reminds me of The Gun Club, whose 1981 debut LP blew my mind. “Sex Beat,” “She’s Like Heroin to Me, and “For the Love of Ivy” opened up new possibilities in post-punk; for one The Gun Club was heavy on the blues, and the songs were dark, dark as Robert Johnson dark. No 57-second tantrums directed at that bitch Ronald Reagan for The Gun Club; they played a deviant hybrid of punk, rockabilly, country, and blues, and lyrically were mining an ancient vein of a haunted America, where spirits and ghosts wandered the highways and lightless trains rode the trestles at night, along with one Jack on fire. I listened to that album for six months straight, then I discovered the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, and The Gun Club just sorta slipped off my radar.

It was my loss, because front man Jeffrey Lee Pierce came on like a man possessed by some curse spirit from South of the Border, like he had voodoo in his blood and sex in his guitar, and it surprised virtually no one when he died at age 37 as a result of alcohol and drug abuse. He founded The Gun Club in the happening Hollywood scene in 1979, with a line-up that included Brian Tristan (aka Kid Congo Powers) on lead guitar, Don Snowden on bass, and Brad Dunning on guitar. Originally called The Creeping Ritual, they changed their name to The Gun Club at the suggestion of Circle Jerk Keith Morris. But the band had a high turnover quotient, and everyone but Pierce was history before The Gun Club recorded its debut, including Powers, who skedaddled to the Cramps and was replaced by Ward Dotson. As for Snowden and Dunning, they were replaced by two former members of the Bags, Rob Ritter and Terry Graham, respectively.

But Pierce apparently loved to fire people, because by 1984’s The Las Vegas Story Ritter was gone, replaced by Patricia Morrison, while Graham left only to return, as did Powers. But more importantly, the band had a new sound, one more polished and less doom-laden than the “tribal psychobilly blues” of their previous LPs. Of course all things are relative, and Powers’ freaked-up and fucked-out guitar playing added a twisted edge to their sound that you weren’t going to hear every day.

But enough with the history lesson. The important thing is that The Gun Club is still best remembered for their debut, when its successors are great as well. I’m especially partial to The Las Vegas Story, which opens with some weird space noises over which Pierce says, “This is the Las Vegas story/The story of a couple of great—“ and wham, the band breaks into the dark and pounding “Walkin’ with the Beast.” It’s a propulsive blast of raw power thanks to Powers’ guitar, and Pierce is walking with the beast until Powers goes berserk, playing some sensational and squealing guitar, all feedback and high-voltage danger. It’s a tour de force, Powers’ guitar, and it takes the song out on a moaning note that reminds me, believe it or not, of whale song. “Eternally Is Here” features a fantastic melody, pounding drums, and guest “Mustang” Dave Alvin of the Blasters on lead guitar, who plays a gimcrack guitar solo. Meanwhile Pierce warbles and shouts and wails, hell I think he even ululates at one point, and this one should have been a hit but there’s no justice in America, never has been and never will be.

“The Stranger in Our Town” features an ominous guitar riff before exploding into the chorus, in which Pierce outdoes himself on the vocals. This is one perfectly constructed tune, and features some amazing guitar by Alvin, after which the song slows before picking up the tempo again. Pierce delivers some spooky high-pitched cries towards the end, showing off his verbal chops, and they sound as doom-haunted as the stranger, whoever he is. “My Dreams,” like “Eternally Is Here,” is surprisingly melodic, and Pierce’s voice goes from a tremble to a scream as Powers plays a great guitar riff and the rhythm section nails everything down nice and tight.

“The Master Plan” is, believe it or not, an instrumental cover of a tune by the jazz singer Leon Thomas and avant-garde saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and it has everything in it, including (in addition to lots of great guitar) what sounds to me like all the weird horns played by the Whos from Whoville. It’s an oddly fetching tune, a jazz-punk romp, with Pierce playing bells, musical tube, montage (whatever that is), and piano, while Powers is playing (I think) “whirling whirlies,” maracas, and who knows what else. I love this tune because it doesn’t belong on this LP or any LP, and is trembly captivating for that reason. It’s followed by the piano driven “My Man’s Gone Now,” a cover of an aria by George Gershwin, and while I can appreciate its craft, arias by George Gershwin are not my cup of tea, no matter how odd. Pierce’s vocals are eccentric, the arrangement ditto, and there’s even a choir for people who go in for that kind of thing. Me, I don’t go in for that sort of thing, which is why I’ve never warmed up to it despite its myriad positive attributes.

Now “Bad America,” different story. It opens with a great guitar riff and some cool slide guitar, and pounds and pounds while Pierce does his thing. It’s not a raver but the melody is worth writing home about, as is Powers’ guitar at around the 2:30 mark. Pierce’s vocals are inimitable, as is Powers’ guitar, which does things guitars simply weren’t meant to do, although he occasionally wanders into Tom Verlaine territory. “Mystery Motel” is a rave-up, with Pierce doing some great shouting while the band kicks out the jams. Powers plays a relatively normal solo, while Pierce takes it out with an otherworldly howl. The great “Give Up the Sun” starts on slow note, only to explode into a wonderful chorus, with Powers playing some bent guitar and Pierce shouting, “Give it up!” This one may be the best song on the LP, thanks to that transition from verse to chorus, which is positively transcendental. It doesn’t hurt that Powers plays a great solo and another riff that reminds me a little of Tom Verlaine. And the ending is apocalyptic, with Pierce repeating, “Give up the sun” while Powers cuts loose.

LP closer “Secret Fires” is a mid-tempo cow punk classic, with Powers playing excellent slide guitar while Pierce sings, “Touch me through your screen door/I want to remember you/They that seek me are behind me/Against the moon.” A sort of murder ballad, “Secret Fires” is a lovely and haunting tune that wouldn’t sound out of place beside the Grateful Dead’s “Dire Wolf.” This one demonstrates the Pierce had the songwriting chops to take him places, but it wasn’t meant to be.

The Gun Club should have gone places, and I’m talking big places, but Pierce was volatile and a big league substance abuser and his songs were just too dark and voodoo-haunted for mass consumption. He had a hellhound on his trail and has become, in death, the man Kid Congo Powers introduces at his live shows as the ghost on the Highway, who walks at night like a Flannery O’Connor character in a purple suit and a battered hat the color of mortality, wailing his dead man’s blues. The Las Vegas Story may not have any songs as downright brilliant as “Sex Beat” on it, or as maniacal as the title track to 1983’s Death Party for that matter, but it demonstrates that Pierce—who for a long time I wrote off as a one-trick pony—was nothing of the sort. I may have never held up a liquor store, but Pierce achieved a form of greatness, and it’s a shame and a pity he never attained the plaudits he so richly deserved.


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