Artists-On-Albums: AOA#6 (Billy Coté on Fire Of Love)

Billy Coté (Madder Rose, The Jazz Cannon and The Piano Creeps) on…

The Gun Club’s Fire Of Love (Ruby Records, 1981)

Fire Of Love by The Gun Club

I grew up in a smallish town in central New Jersey, a place called Somerville. Though only an hour away from NYC and punk rock central, it was, musically speaking, the domain of Johnny Winter & Foghat and the mighty Climax Blues Band. One day in 1981, teenage me was lying on my bed, listening to the college station broadcasting from Princeton University. They were playing some okay stuff, bands from our neck of the woods like The Bongos and The Raybeats, when all of a sudden I heard the true call of the wild, singing (what was for me) the song of songs; “She’s Like Heroin To Me.” Mind you, I had only the vaguest idea of what heroin was, and I was too young to know that it’s mainly for stupes, but I did know that it represented something pretty badass – at least historically –  in the underground culture I was aiming to become part of. Using it as a metaphor in such a straight-up rocking song spoke to me.

I went to the city and I bought that album fast, and I played it for all my friends.

“I don’t know, man, they’re not tight like Todd Rundgren’s Utopia.”

“Well, I think that’s the point, brother.”

I was not long for Somerville.

Jeffrey Lee Pierce – drunk, softie, fan club president – was an unlikely carrier of the blues torch, but when he opened his mouth, it was all right there in front of you.  Along with Ward Dotson on guitar, Rob Ritter on bass and Terry Graham on drums, they were (at least in 1981) The Gun Club, and in only a couple of sessions made Fire Of Love.

Fire Of Love is a punk record for sure, but is mostly based on the blues, the stuff that props up a lot of rock and roll.  In my town, when the older guys would sit around and jam, the highest order of guitar artistry was a faithful rendering of “Spoonful” (the Cream version) or maybe “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” (god help her). The Gun Club were drawing on the blues too, but to my ear they were getting a lot closer to the haunted spirit of John Lee Hooker and Skip James than Eric Clapton and his wah-wah pedal.

Initially, what drew me to this record was the intense melody and performance of each song, but what keeps me engaged is the atmosphere.  They did it, not by adding Moog or cello, but by scraping their slides lightly on the strings and bringing it way down, as per Jeffrey Lee’s commands.  They just hung there too, letting Pierce recite a spooky verse, building up tension until at last, thankfully, the upper register would be full of cymbals, slide guitar and howlin’ Jeffrey Lee.  Listen to “For The Love Of Ivy” or “Jack On Fire” and you’ll hear them let that shit fly.

“Preaching The Blues” – coming on the heels of the slightly new wave but none-the-less sexy “Sex Beat” – is a demented performance of an inspired arrangement, perhaps the ultimate cleaving of punk to blues. It’s also an early example of the quiet, loud, quiet etc… that was used on every record in the ‘90s. I believe, at times, both guitars are playing slide, which is an unusual thing to do, but why not? I like the pay-off, the big, dramatic break:

“Gonna be a Baptist preacher,” (band stops)

“Sooooooooooooo,” (up into falsetto here)

“I don’t have to work!”

Jeffrey Lee, in this instance, brought his own modern day concerns to the blues, just as one should. Despite all his problems with women and whiskey and such, his over-riding concern was to stay unemployed. At 17, I was beginning to know what the fuck he meant.

“On Promise Me,” the sleeper song of the album, he uses a blues type riff, but plants a beautiful and subtle melody over the top. A strange, affecting song when examined more closely. If you were to try to play it on guitar and sing it at the same time, you’d see what an otherworldly creation it is.

“Ghost On The Highway,” though, is what I consider to be the heart and soul of the record. You’ll not find many songs that maintain that kind of intensity for 3 minutes. Ward Dotson gets a thing going where his slide guitar becomes a sheet of metal all the way through, a terrible hippie nightmare. The lyrics, about a female serial killer, are a refreshing change in such male-dominated subject matter, and shows Jeffrey Lee’s undoubtedly feminist bent. Or perhaps not.

The Gun Club made some other fine albums, but to me never topped Fire Of Love. Their next one, Miami, almost scales the heights, but is overall a little more subdued, a little less deranged. Death Party, an EP featuring Dee Pop of the Bush Tetras on drums, has some killer songs (“The Lie” and “The House On Highland Ave”), but is a tad unfocused.  The Las Vegas Story, with Kid Congo Powers now joining in, again has great songs, but is much less anchored in the blues, sounding almost hard rock. Wildweed, Jeffrey Lee’s solo album is compelling, but it is at this point that he seemed to want to be a songwriter in the classic sense, which I don’t think was his strong suit. Then again, I can’t fault him for following his particular muse, or for wanting to make a buck.

In 1985 I watched The Gun Club play to a half-full club in Long Beach, CA. Before the show I went up and stood next to Jeffrey Lee Pierce at the bar.

Fire Of Love is probably my favorite album.”

To me: “Yeah, great.”

To the bartender: “Triple vodka.”

Notes On The Artist:

Billy Coté

For the best part of the 1990s, Billy Coté was the lead guitarist and primary songwriter in much-missed New York quartet Madder Rose.  Since the band’s amicable wilting, after four fine albums, Billy has devoted time to his electronic project The Jazz Cannon and producing bands in his New York State locale.

He has also continued to happily collaborate with ex-Madder Rose bandmate Mary Lorson; on both shared TV/cinema soundtrack commissions (including the film What Remains: The Life And Art of Sally Mann) and in a supporting role across her solo work with Saint Low.  In the late-noughties, Billy co-founded a new art-pop trio with Mary Lorson and Kathy Ziegler, known as The Piano Creeps, whose sole album to date – Future Blues (For You And Me) – was released in 2008 on The Kora Records.

More recently, Billy has – besides his DOA essay above – been diversifying his creative reach through developing his first novel, to be entitled The Other Bill. In the interim before its hopeful publication, Billy’s guitar skills can also be heard at play on fellow Ithaca-resident Johnny Dowd’s new Wake Up The Snakes LP, due out this coming spring.  Billy and Johnny are also currently working on a covers record for future release.