Features EssaysPerformance Published 11 December 2012

The Shoebox in the Attic: Jeffrey Lee Pierce and the Last Crusade

On an authentic account of the lost event.

Sam Kinchin-Smith

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I first heard from Cypress Grove, real name Tony Chmelik, back in January of 2010. I’d reviewed the first CD/volume of his Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project, a thrillingly thoughtful meditation on unreleased work by the late Gun Club singer (of whom Jack White once said, “why are [his] songs not taught in schools”) the month before in fairly hyperbolic terms, and Tony wanted to say thanks. So he tracked me down and sent me an email commending me “for so comprehensively getting the project.” (I realise, of course, how unlikely this sounds: artist seeks out reviewer to thank them for their writing. Absurd notion, until one factors in Tony’s uniquely generous sense of creative community without which, incidentally, the JLP Sessions would never have got off the ground. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

What I’d “got” was Tony and his co-curator Gene Temesy’s vision of how the traditions of the tribute record and the restored “lost” song might themselves be reworked into something authentic and respectful, rather than mawkish and exploitative. The JLP Sessions came about because Tony found a tape containing “pencil sketches” of songs he’d worked on with Jeffrey towards the end of the latter’s life, and decided to re-record them with some of his friend’s most eminent collaborators and contemporaries – Nick Cave, Mark Lanegan, Debbie Harry and so forth – instead of taking the more established route of releasing them as scarcely audible rarities. And most reviewers duly chose to focus on the biography behind the project: the Gun Club’s cultish influence, Jeffrey’s tragically premature death, the attractive notion of analogue treasure in Cypress Grove’s loft (“wish I had an attic like that,” wrote Robert Brokenmouth in his review). Perhaps because I was a Gun Club agnostic, though, I was much more interested in the shape of the end product; in Tony’s role as commissioning editor, rather than his qualifying connection to Jeffrey.

Because We Are Only Riders, part one of the project, didn’t look or sound like a conventional compilation CD. Most striking was the fact three song titles each came up three times on the tracklisting – that more than half the record constituted a series of repeats, in other words. Then there was the explanation, in the press release, that (ex-Bad Seed) Mick Harvey’s contribution represented a “brand new Jeffrey composition”, stitched together out of a guitar line and unrelated lyric fragments from different Jeffrey “archives”. And finally there was the evidence, all over the place, of an ensemble mentality that seemed extraordinary considering the pedigree of the musicians involved. A closing track by “Lydia Lunch, Dave Alvin and the JLP Sessions Project”. Liner-notes which revealed that (more ex-Bad Seeds) Kid Congo Powers and Barry Adamson played guitar and bass on various songs, with Nick, Mick and Blondie’s Chris Stein stepping in from time to time when a hole needed filling.

The significance of a lot of this same-but-different stuff was almost immediately obvious, such was its quality and clarity of purpose. It makes perfect sense, when one is given the opportunity to think about it, that presenting multiple interpretations of the same demo will afford a listener a more panoramic perspective on the potential of a great songwriter’s sketched ideas than a single cover (or indeed, direct release) ever could. Similarly, describing a Frankenstein’s monster of a track as a new JLP song isn’t as deeply problematic as it might seem, when the result sounds exactly like something he might have written in the very early nineties (“quite spookily like a Jeffrey melody,” is how Tony puts it).

Most convincing of all, though, was the basic premise: that tapping into unstable collaborative energies offers the best chance of doing justice to the shrieking imaginative whirligig responsible for the songwriting. For Jeffrey, just in case you’re coming to him for the first time, was a pretty weird dude.

Actually, though, I’m now of the opinion that Tony and Gene’s JLP Sessions shouldn’t only be credited with locating an exemplary model for re-recording their subject’s particular genius. Rather, I think their project deserves to be recognised as the most interesting, radical experiment in creative reanimation to have emerged since, I don’t know, Marina Abramović performed Seven Easy Pieces in 2005 – a work, or rather a series of works, which saw her rejecting traditional conceptions of “remembering” ephemeral pieces by re-staging some of the most iconic happenings in the history of performance art with her own body, at the Guggenheim in New York.

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Jeffrey’s original manuscript for a fragment of prose, ‘We Are Only Riders’, from which all three volumes of the JLP Sessions Project have taken their titles. Courtesy of Tony Chmelik

Actually, borrowing an illustrative example from live art isn’t as arbitrary as it might initially seem. Fact is, I wouldn’t have been thinking seriously about Tony and Gene’s achievement quite so much if it wasn’t for my day job, editing books about performance studies for Routledge. And more specifically, one of the most peculiar sides to our publishing programme, namely the theoretical synthesis of performance and postmodern archaeological practice, pioneered by Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks in their 2001 monograph,Theatre/Archaeology, and revisited in a book called ArchaeologiesofPresence that came out earlier this year. (Strange, that such an esoteric critical arena offers various routes into a clearer understanding of a collection of pop songs – or perhaps not, considering that the dusty shoebox in the attic represents one of our most hackneyed archaeological narratives.)

Pearson and Shanks’ central argument is that archaeology is “a discipline intimately concerned with retrieval, recording and reassembling,” and that “the documentation of unwritten happening, attested through material trace, is an archaeological project.” That archaeology is performative, in other words, and performance studies (and the performance that emerges from study) is archaeological. Which means, of course, that we should try to see the archaeologist as performer, and the (re-)performer as archaeologist, if we wish to properly understand either discipline: “The past is not somehow ‘discovered’ in its remains … Instead, archaeology is to regard itself as a practice of cultural production … which works on and with the traces of the past and within which the archaeologist is implicated as an active agent of interpretation … archaeologists create the past.” Similarly, “we might regard the dramatic structure of devised performance as constituting a kind of stratigraphy of layers.”

Let’s apply that last quotation to the JLP Sessions Project. It’s a neat introduction to the first way in which “archaeological theatre” helps to make sense of Tony’s work: it offers a very useful narrative (to compensate, perhaps, for the failure of more conventional vocabulary – “tribute”, “cover version” and “heritage” all missing the mark). “Different things can be made from the same traces and fragments,” Theatre/Archaeology notes; “Any one of these layers may be the starting point … and any one may from time to time bear principal responsibility for carrying the prime narrative meaning.” The pertinence of a stratigraphical “reading” to any one of the tripled tracks on the first JLP record is self-evident. Take ‘Constant Waiting’: out of Cypress Grove’s original sketch, it’s clear that Mark Lanegan isolated a layer of the song that might define it as a classically masculine, country confessional, and drew it out to its logical conclusion. In parallel, the Sadies unpicked and exaggerated those features of the song’s melody and shape that suggest a mournful, accusatively atmospheric anthem. And most dramatically, Johnny Dowd somehow dug up, or rather dug out a synthetic, psychobilly dirge.

In short, each artist located a viable “argument” and stuck to it. And by including all three, Tony implicitly acknowledges the potential in Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s writing for all three stories – and perhaps even more significantly, his own ignorance (for who but Jeffrey could know) of what is the right way of completing a song, as it should be completed. “We know roughly what, say, a Hank Williams song sounds like,” Tony suggests, “whereas not quite so much with a Jeffrey song, because his songs varied so much.”

Pearson and Shanks’ work also offers an explanation of why the JLP Sessions are so successful. Or rather, it posits a definition of achievement that Tony’s records, built around this central acknowledgement, meet head on. Success is “to create an authentic account of the lost event.” That “is the prime objective.” But archaeological projects also involve “acting out something to give it an intelligible life,” and so it’s a little more complicated than that: success becomes a question of whether or not an archaeological performance’s authenticity is intelligibly convincing. Compilations of cover versions rarely achieve either authenticity or intelligibility, at worst provoking awkward questions (what gives you the right to do this?) and at best usually subverting, rather than transcending, this wringing of hands – I’m thinking here of 2004’s The Late Great Daniel Johnson, for example, whose subject is still alive and working hard. Tony could have sidestepped all such questions via reference to his relationship with Jeffrey, but instead he chooses to propose that the only sensible way of convincingly presenting re-made songs is to draw attention to the amount of “acting” going on behind their reanimation. That is, musicians acting up those facets of the writing which most appeal to them, and acting out their own memories of Jeffrey.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, Theatre/Archaeology gestures towards why these records are so important. When I interviewed Lydia Lunch about the project, she semi-seriously made Tony out to be a kind of body-snatcher: “I don’t think you can dig through Jeffrey’s grave much further than he is with the second and third volumes.” To define his work in this way is to ignore its remarkable sensitivity, though – creatively, personally (the second volume’s liner-notes include some paragraphs from his sister entitled Christmas with Jeffrey) and even financially. “All the money made goes to causes Jeffrey would have approved of,” Tony explains, “so there can be no accusations of exploitation. No one’s making any money out of any of this. In fact, I’m losing thousands.”

Pearson and Shanks make the case for their new methodology in the following terms: “why not just get on with digging up the past? One answer is the need for critical self-consciousness, to be constantly open to alternatives, to hold dear the aim of acting thoughtfully.” The JLP Sessions are a revolutionary enactment (and proof of the wisdom) of this principle. That it took Tony and Gene three years to put together the first volume is just one of the many potential testaments to the truth of this argument.

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The only known photograph of Nick Cave and Jeffrey Lee Pierce in existence. Courtesy of Gene Temesy

I put some of these ideas to Tony at his flat in Earls Court. I ask him first of all about the role of the curator, and the delicate, inconsistent path that has to be negotiated between delegation, resignation and intervention. Initially, he’s insistent about the extent to which he has no choice but to put material into artists’ hands and leave them to it: “it’s always responding to stuff. There was quickly a revelation that this is what it is, do it or be damned … I’ll have put my heart and soul into a verse and they’ll say, ‘nah, that’s shit, let’s do it again.’ But what’s important is the music. People will sometimes say, ‘I want to start doing this from the ground up,’ and then – well, sure as hell, makes my life easier … But I sometimes think, I can’t [let you]. Because that means giving the song to you.”

As this caveat suggests, though, the handover isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Tony carefully selects what material goes to which artist, for example; the laissez faire is skillfully coordinated. A case in point: “I was struck with this song [Jeffrey’s ‘Untitled Blues’, which became RosesBlues on the second volume] it sounded a bit like ‘Song for JLP’ which Noir Désir had done. Obviously there was no way that anybody could have heard the Jeffrey version, but there was this comparison between what they were doing that was interesting. And so I immediately knew when I heard the Jeffrey version, there’s no one else on this planet who could sing that song, except Bertrand [Cantat – Noir Désir’s frontman].”

And while investing all he has in a collaborator’s ability to work through ideas is central to Tony’s project, there are lines he’s not willing to see crossed. As he puts it, “I understand the kind of thing Jeffrey was trying to do. But I was aware also that it was very elemental, what he was trying to put across was that he wasn’t quite sure … But I absolutely know when it’s not what he wanted. There were certain things that just did not work, that were just not the way he anticipated a song going. I know that’s not how Jeffrey would have wanted it to be. But for example, Jeffrey and Nick Cave knew one another very well, and Nick instantly knew – so there was no problem. Actually, there were only two times that I had to say, ‘look, I just don’t think that’s the way we should go’.”

His firmness on this point leads me to ask him, next, about the shadow cast on the JLP records by his status as a one-time creative partner of Jeffrey’s. “Well, I mean everyone knew – because of the RamblinJeffreyalbum [that Jeffrey and Cypress released together in 1992] – so I think that was part of the reason people got involved. If I had no relationship, just randomly pitching this thing – but because they knew that I was there, at the beginning of these songs, and that I wasn’t in any way exploiting this, you know? That’s a very important aspect with this, particularly for Nick, who hates being exploited.”

It’s only when we talk about his present motivations, though, rather than passive past experience, that he drops his guard a little. Did he feel a pressing sense of responsibility? That he had to orchestrate this? “Yeah, if I don’t do these things then they’ll just die, they’ll never be heard of again. I think these songs are just too good to let go. There’s one called ‘Goodbye Johnny’ – I think it’s one of the best things that he ever wrote. This is the one I want Jack White to do. It actually sounds like a young Jack White to me. It’d be an utter fucking tragedy if this [wasn’t released].”

I ask him if he (now) believes there is a richness within this material of potentially even greater significance than Jeffrey’s work with the Gun Club, and he answers without hesitation: “it sounds desperately arrogant but yeah, I think there is. Fire of Love [the Gun Club’s debut)is a great album, don’t get me wrong, it’s a fucking great album. But there was so much more to him. Unfortunately he wasn’t alive to finish [these songs] but in a sense what we’re doing is finishing the stuff he had the vision to do. People said I’d get death threats, that I shouldn’t interfere with a dead man’s music. But I honestly, hand on heart, can look myself in the mirror and say I think he’d be delighted with what we’re doing with the material.”

To some extent, though, responsibility has been superseded by delight in the quality of these new versions: “the real thrill is to hear the melange of a Mark Lanegan and Jeffrey co-write, or a Jeffrey and Nick co-write. I remember one of the Nick sessions, he said, ‘I just love fucking up Jeffrey’s stuff.’ The thrill of hearing Nick saying, ‘ah, I really don’t like the way Jeffrey did that, so I’m going to do it this way…’ And he rewrites Jeffrey’s words, and does it properly. Because I know from experience of Jeffrey, he would just do any old shit, think it’s just a placeholder, and come back to it later. But he didn’t have the chance to come back to it later.” (Tony later tells the story of the original version of JustLikeaMexicanLove, versions of which appear on volumes one and two, which included the line, “I don’t even know what this song is about.” Apparently, this caused “great controversy”: to throw away or to keep?)

Of course, many of these assertions ultimately beg the question, was Jeffrey’s genius such that it justifies this obsessive archaeological process? Somewhat inevitably, Tony has been convinced for some time, to the extent that “he could virtually fart into a microphone and it’d be great. Fragments of things, you think, that just sounds like some idiot dicking around with a guitar. But then you break it down and actually, even that is a brilliant basis for a song. It’s just two or three notes but I can hear it’s going into a tonic note here, and he’s experimenting with the subtonic … I think virtually every note is genius, yeah.” Even towards the end of Jeffrey’s life? “Absolutely. Up to the very end he was spewing out ideas, it was continuous.”

We conclude by discussing how technology and new tools have helped facilitate a project that is simultaneously deeply traditional – in terms of its rigour and its slowness – and rather cutting-edge. Mark Lanegan was recruited, before anyone else, via MySpace (don’t forget, this was back in 2006/7) and an online model was born. “The thing is,” Tony explains, “the only way this could happen, in terms of getting the people, is through digital. And even then it took eighteen months to get Nick and Debbie together [there are Cave/Harry duets on volume one and two]. Now imagine trying to do this – and some of these songs are recorded in Melbourne, bits in Brighton, bits in New York – flying back and forth a two-inch mastertape. The tape’s going to get lost. People say, ‘I’m slightly disappointed to find they didn’t do it in the same room.’ Well yeah, you try and organise that!”

And it is this “re-stratification” that is, perhaps, the most striking archaeological facet of the entire project. Because with Nick’s, and Debbie’s, and everybody else’s MP3 files hopping and colliding between continents at ridiculous speeds, we can begin to see an exaggerated re-layering occurring almost immediately after a single stratum of Jeffrey’s songwriting has been isolated by an artist. Of the process beginning all over again, in other words, in a manner that may well ensure that the JLP Sessions are similarly subjected to future excavations by writers and artists wanting to properly interrogate a Kid Congo guitar line here, or a Cave backing vocal there. Pearson and Shanks envisage a future in which “material may be developed in isolation, and then run side by side … Whilst we might expect performance to be a homogenous mixture of elements … we might now imagine situations in which tracks are run in parallel … they are read and interpreted onto, into and through each other.”

Well, gentlemen: looks like it’s happening already.

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The ideas I’ve been touching on in this essay are both encouraged and confused by volume two of the project, The Journey is Long, which was released earlier this year. Gone (and I’m disappointed about this) is the framework built around multiple versions of the same tracks. Just two songs are twinned on the record, ‘The Breaking Hands’ and ‘The Jungle Book’. Furthermore, the doubled interpretations of both tracks contrast with one another less radically than the unlikely swerves of the first volume. ‘The Breaking Hands’ is beautifully (re-)realised via two duets,the first by Lanegan and Isobel Campbell and the second by Nick and Debbie. And while the former shimmers sweetly and utilises an excavated thread of guitar, and the latter is a sparser, more intimate thing, it’s difficult to listen past the similarities in both versions’ vocal dynamics. And similarly similar are the parallel ‘Jungle Books’, the second ostensibly a slightly looser-slung reflection of the first.

Perhaps the sketched out guidelines Tony presented to his collaborators this time round were too elegant to be resisted in the way Johnny Dowd faced down ‘Constant Waiting’ on volume one.

What we get instead is a wall of new sounds that it’s often difficult to believe stem from the same musician’s demos. Until you spin the record a few times, that is, and begin to recognise repeated rhythms and songwriting tropes that, unlike the first album’s sustained highlighting of the widescreen potential within Jeffrey’s writing, start to point towards defining characteristics that are, in their way, every bit as interesting. For instance, song after song eschews the catharsis of chorus, subsiding at the close of each verse before starting up again with a new depth of intent. ‘The Breaking Hands’ does precisely this, falling off at the end of every one of its bridges. And Cypress Grove’s own track L.A. CountryBlues attempts something similar, the final line of each stanza repeating itself before a kind of backpeddle into its original melody.

That said, volume two orbits around four or five spectacular moments, each of which can be read as a harmonic clash between author and performer. The Journey is Long achieves the unlikely feat of burying Lydia Lunch’s notoriously snarling vocal beneath an instrumental with the dimensions of a James Bond theme on TheBrink, a testament if ever there was one to the scale of Jeffrey’s melodic imagination. Even more remarkable is Cantat, Pascal Humbert and (current Bad Seed) Warren Ellis’ RosesBlues, which glues together a lucid, free-form groove out of a demo recording of Jeffrey screeching into a guitar, before culminating in a primal scream which sees Cantat matching Jeffrey’s own shredded chords with painful precision. (And yes,thequestion of whether Cantat should have been given such a platform is an important one. But not, I think, for this piece.)

Clearly, the new songs can only be understood with reference to the first volume, which erected the intellectual scaffolding upon which these more individually ambitious archaeological experiments have been hung. But I suspect the absence of this structural rigidity on volume two is largely responsible for why, when I spoke to Lydia and Ellis about the project, their views didn’t particularly chime with my own. “It feels more like a real labour of love, for the right reasons,” is Warren’s understanding; “Tony and Gene, they’re doing this thing because they just loved the guy so much. It’s so moving actually.” Lydia’s analysis is closer to my own: “it’s about recreating atmosphere out of something, anything that was identifiable.” But: “I’ve done my time with the ghost of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. I’m happy that Tony and I can walk away from the graveyard with a whole new album in our suitcase instead of parts of a dead body.”

Ah yes, Tony and Lydia’s album. Somewhat ironically, the JLP Sessions have created their own residue, their own “rarities”, their own archaeological imprint (as well as blueprint). The most interesting example of this is the developing collaboration between Cypress Grove and Lydia Lunch that, based on the evidence released variously over the past few months, promises to be every bit as compelling as Lydia’s contributions to the JLP Sessions. And Tony’s tantalising suggestion that he has “at least seven versions of everything” that made it onto either We Are Only Riders or The Journey is Long is an archaeological call to arms if ever I’ve heard one. In fact, I have Mick Harvey’s interpretation of ‘Free to Walk’ taped on my dictaphone and, truth be told, I think I prefer it to any of the recordings of the same track on the first album.

I just hope that the afore-imagined cultural excavator who decides to dig up the performance remains of The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project (perhaps they should call their results The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Sessions Project) chooses to adopt Tony and Gene’s archaeological model. Indeed, I sincerely believe that anybody attempting a comparable reanimation of anything should bear Tony’s example in mind. As he puts it, five years on from that first MySpaced message to Mark Lanegan, with characteristic modesty: “any fucking idiot could do this.” So why don’t they?

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Sam Kinchin-Smith’s edited e-collection of essays about Nick Cave, featuring contributions by Cypress Grove, is available here. The Journey is Long is available now, on Glitterhouse Records. Sam will be writing an occasional column, tentatively entitled ‘The (Performance) Art of Noise’ and exploring somewhat arbitrary intersections between music and musicians, and live art and live artists, for EXEUNT in 2013.

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