When one thinks of “Halloween music,” inevitably a few evergreens will come to mind. “Thriller,” of course. Anything by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. And yes–sigh–“Monster Mash.” But if you’re anything like me, you’ve already spent way too many Halloween nights passing out candy and/or drinking to excess with those old chestnuts playing in the background. That’s why, when it comes time to get in the Halloween spirit, I turn to some alternative, less overexposed musical choices; and one of my favorites for this time of year is Fire of Love, the 1981 debut album by L.A. punk-blues pioneers the Gun Club.
I love the Gun Club because they’re a perfect Halloween band, without succumbing to any of the usual “Halloween band” clichés. There are connections to goth (see: frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce‘s hairstyle) and, especially, psychobilly: original guitarist Kid Congo Powers actually left the band before Fire of Love was recorded to join the Cramps. But the Gun Club ploughed a much older and weirder (and “Old, Weird“-er) furrow than either of those genres: their spooky imagery was more Southern Gothic than monster movie, and their musical influences reached past rockabilly, deep into the blues.
Two of the songs on Fire of Love are in fact covers/arrangements of old Delta blues songs: an amphetamine-laced version of Robert Johnson’s “Preaching [the] Blues“–also known as “Up Jumped the Devil”–and “Cool Drink of Water,” based on Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink of Water Blues.” In adapting these songs, the Gun Club took full advantage of their status as young, mostly white interlopers in a very old African American tradition, making up for what they lacked in experience with systemic oppression by reveling in the lyrics’ stark, haunting surface imagery. When Jeffrey Lee Pierce wails about asking for water and his baby giving him gasoline, or blues being “like consumption, baby, killing me by degrees,” he’s vividly acting out a version of the blues impressionable white listeners have been creating in their minds since the 1930s: eerie, alien, and unspeakably ancient, the musical equivalent of the enigmatic (and appropriative) vodou imagery on the album cover.
But it’s when Pierce is singing his own lyrics that Fire of Love really shines, both as an album in itself and as a great Halloween album. Aside from the more obviously spooky imagery–the “graveyard of my own” in “For the Love of Ivy,” the blood-stained sheets in “Ghost on the Highway,” the promise that “I’ve been a real good tombstone” in “She’s Like Heroin to Me“–a song like “Promise Me” sends chills up the spine with its mysterious simplicity alone: “outside in the trees, they’re waiting tonight,” Pierce intones, leaving it up to the listener to wonder exactly who “they” are and what they’re waiting for. “Fire Spirit” weaves a similar, but more aggressive spell, showing cryptic glimpses of an occult fire ritual on “the mountain” until the band hammers out a vicious three-chord riff and Pierce howls like his life depends on it: “Someone will break out of the circle / Someone will turn and burn a world / Someone knows a better cell / Where the old north wind blows through southeast hell.” Even more prosaic subject matter, like the frankly-titled opening track “Sex Beat,” is rendered deeply sinister, describing lust as a kind of possession where “we can fuck forever, but you will never get my soul.”
Probably my favorite song on the album is “Jack on Fire”: a freaky, symbolistic study of a drifter who promises/threatens to “be your lover and exorcist.” The performance is all prowling tension, as sexy as it is creepy, Pierce’s lyrics more saturated than ever in vodou and barely restrained violence. Then the arrangement strips down to just Rob Ritter’s bass, and Pierce starts to sing almost sweetly: “And when you fall in love with me, we can / Dig a hole by the willow tree…” As he continues and the music builds again, an edge of menace jabs abruptly into his voice: “Then I will fuck you until you die / Bury you and kiss this town goodbye / It will be unhappy, it will be sad / But it’ll be understood that I…am…BAD!” When he screams out the last word over the cacophony of Ward Dotson’s dissonant slide guitar, it’s simultaneously the coolest and the scariest moment on the record.
If there’s any sour note in Fire of Love as a great Halloween record, it’s the moments when the Gun Club’s general air of Gothic foreboding gives way to a much realer, and thus jarring, kind of evil. The narrator of “For the Love of Ivy” is “hunting for niggers down in the dark”; the protagonist of “Black Train” “left a nigger lying dead by the river.” The artistic validity of Pierce’s use of the “N-word” is up for debate, and frankly I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand, I’m not sure the actual substance of Pierce’s lyrics can support his racially-charged choice of words. But on the other hand, given the pervading atmosphere of horror and despair on the album–as well as the fact that the Gun Club would go on to frequently perform (albeit in mangled form) the anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit“–it seems far more likely that Pierce was haunted by these images of racial violence, not just wallowing in them. And maybe, problematic as the language might be, that’s actually a strength, not a weakness. Fire of Love is a Halloween record, for sure. But at its darkest, it reminds us that the scariest things in human nature are the things we can’t chase away with jack ‘o’ lanterns or exorcise with ghost stories around the campfire. Sometimes it’s worth remembering that the things people do to one another are far more horrifying than any vampire, ghoul, or werewolf.
You can buy Fire of Love here–trust me, it’s worth the investment–or just listen to it on Spotify below, you cheapskate: