TERRY GRAHAM: HOW ABOUT EVERYTHING?
illustration by felipe flores
Terry James Graham left Texas for L.A. in the middle of the 70s and became a crucial participant in the cultural and musical revolution known as punk rock. At first he was an audience member in the burgeoning Hollywood punk scene, but he quickly got drafted as drummer for the incendiary Bags. He dated and lived with Jane Wiedlin of the Go Go’s in the storied Canterbury Apartments in Hollywood, where dozens of other L.A. punks lived hard and partied hard. After the Bags played every club in L.A., released a scorching single and toured the west coast, they broke up, leaving their rhythm section—Terry and Rob Ritter—without a band. They scoured Los Angeles and found a fledgling mess fronted by Jeffrey Lee Pierce called the Gun Club. They liked the swamp blues and the weird amateurish open-tuning slide guitar played by Kid Congo Powers, and they found that Jeffrey Lee had summoned something special in fusing blues and backwoods country with punk. After witnessing a chaotic but inspired show at the Hong Kong Café in Chinatown, they discovered that Gun Club’s rhythm section—Don Snowden and Brad Dunning—were quitting. Terry and Rob joined, gigged around L.A. and recorded on the Gun Club’s debut Fire Of Love. After the release of Fire Of Love, the band won instant acclaim on the East Coast and in Europe. The Black Train started rolling and many times whiskey and drugs knocked it off the track. Terry found himself in and out of the band multiple times throughout the 80s, touring the world and recording on albums like Miami and Las Vegas Story. He recently published a book about those wild and reckless times: Punk Like Me, Liner Notes for a Revolution that Almost Happened. (Lost Word Press, 2018) I was fortunate enough to witness the book release party at Beyond Baroque in Venice. Along with reading passages of the book, Terry played a set of Gun Club and Cramps songs joined by Colin and Lee of Terminal A and Sharif Dumani of Alice Bag, LA Drugz, Exploding Flowers and Future Shoxxx. I caught up with Terry on a Sunday afternoon with the smoke of the Woolsey Fire covering L.A. in poisonous haze. How fitting. Terry Graham will read from Punk Like Me and do a set of Cramps/Gun Club covers with his band Sex Beat on Saturday at House of Machines—more info here! This interview by Justin Maurer.
Congratulations on your beautiful new 398-page book full of gorgeous art, illustrations, photos, fliers, and collages. It’s quite the accomplishment. One of the things that impressed me most was your attention to detail. I’ve read quite a few books about 70s punk, and something that sets yours apart is the descriptions of the sounds, smells, and tastes of the 70s. How did you jog your memory?
Terry Graham: Jog my memory? It was more like a flogging! Fortunately, my drinking was not so bad that I didn’t keep most of my memories intact, although I’m constantly surprised at the stories I hear from others—stories that involved me. Some of these stories have eluded my memory completely.
You’ve got an almost photographic memory when it comes to recording sessions with the Gun Club. You also said in the book that you were drinking quite heavily during a lot of this. It’s amazing attention to detail. Do you actually have a fine-tuned memory, or were some of these experiences fictionalized based on what really happened?
Terry Graham: I actually remember most of it. The rest is a bit fuzzy but still accurate. I was very connected to our progress as a band. I was hoping for the best and prepared for the worst, but always very in tune. Plus, I still know everyone who was in and out of the band very well. I tried hard to be faithful to the truth even if I couldn’t remember exactly what we said or did. I loved Fire of Love but the two-night recording went by so quickly I hardly had a chance to enjoy it. We just did it and went home. Miami was rather unpleasant because Rob was leaving and we were unsure of what to do about that. And Jeff wanted to stay in New York but we couldn’t really do that at the time. I didn’t like the small studio and the fact that Jeff’s head was outgrowing his body. There was agitation all around. Las Vegas Story was actually enjoyable. Jeff Eyrich was patient and worked well with us. Kid [Congo Powers] and Patricia [Morrison] made it a lot of fun, too. Plus we were back in L.A.
Before getting into a professional—or un-professional—relationship with Jeffrey Lee Pierce, did you have any concerns about his social tendencies? The kind of thing you would later loathe being on an endless—and perhaps endlessly unfulfilling—road trip with him?
Terry Graham: Nope. Jeff was just a kid from the suburbs with a bottomless interest in all things roots-rock. He was one of the misfit toys, but altogether pleasant and very friendly. I’m not sure exactly when or why he began to morph into his personal mythology. I call it ‘the lead singer disease.’
In the book you poke fun at Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s weight quite a few times. You seem to have thought of dozens of different ways to call him fat. Was his weight a point of contention with the band, or was his personality so hard to deal with that it just bled over into his physical characteristics—like his bleached-blonde hair, his style of dress, or his weight?
Terry Graham: I was a smartass and often quite immature. Actually, Jeff was hardly overweight. He was just a stocky guy with a bad attitude. My frustration with him found expression in such things. I wanted so much for the band to work out but Jeff seemed hell-bent on destroying everything he created. His attitude was, at times, truly abysmal and he could be quite insulting. It was tit for tat, I suppose.
The bits about Jeff torturing the audience—and band—with his pawn shop trumpet playing really cracked me up.
Terry Graham: I rather liked the trumpet, but it was yet another one of Jeff’s props that he used to purposely annoy the audience and us. [And] I rather enjoyed his bad attitude on-stage. But the trumpet was the last straw. We loved his songs but hated his trumpet. He brought a machete onstage for a few shows, too. I’m surprised he didn’t cut his own head off.
What was the worst show you ever played with Gun Club? Did you ever feel like you were in physical danger?
Terry Graham: In Houston we played a cowboy bar when they were still real cowboys. They threw half-full beer cans at us and we threw them back. It was total chaos. They pulled the plug and we ended the show after a few songs. There were no fights—not sure why! Some dumbass brought a pistol backstage at a show in Atlanta but he was drunk and I don’t even think it even had a trigger. But it was real. The bad shows were often among my favorites. No one showed up in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, but that was a great show. Well … the waitress seemed to like it, anyway. Once we got booed off the stage by fifteen thousand people at the Long Beach Arena when we opened for Billy Idol. Jeff called the audience a bunch of jock cocksuckers and the booing became a massive dark force. [laughs] I loved it.
Billy Idol offered you a spot playing drums in his band, right?
Terry Graham: Yes, he asked me to join backstage after a show in New York. He was a bit of a has-been already, so I didn’t think there was much potential. I liked the guy—he was very friendly—but I didn’t want to live in New York. It was just before he recorded ‘White Wedding.’ Oh well. There went my condo on the beach.
You have very fond memories of Kid Congo and playing with the Cramps. Why were the Cramps one of the best bands? Were Tex & the Horseheads your favorite Gun Club ‘little brother’ band?
Terry Graham: Yeah, all of us were of the same family. We were grave robbers of blues, rockabilly and country. I only wish we’d all toured the world together on the same bill. Not sure why that didn’t happen. I loved playing with the Cramps. Ivy was fantastic, super friendly and very smart. She was the brains of that band. Tex [Texacala Jones] was almost in Gun Club. I regret now that I made so much effort to keep her out so that Patricia could come in. It would have been fun.
It seems to me that your overall goal with Gun Club—besides making timeless records and playing great consistently—was to be able to make a living off of the band. As a touring musician for years myself, I can understand the frustration with playing sold-out shows in every city in the western world and then not having a dime to show for it. I did a little math. The current poverty rate in 2018 in the US is $12,140 per year. For a band of 4 people to earn a poverty line wage, a current band would have to earn $48,560 profit AFTER expenses. That seems like an impossible goal for most bands. Touring is a necessary evil, but it’s also a very expensive evil. I don’t think most musicians are doing this math when they sign on for bands who do U.S. tours and European tours. This will either piss you off or make you laugh but I calculated Gun Club’s Spotify Royalties. The current Spotify streaming royalty rate is $0.006 per stream. Here’s the top 5. ‘She’s Like Heroin to Me’ has 2,087,874 streams on Spotify which would earn $12,527.24. In a perfect world this would be split between the 4 members of the band who played on the recording—assuming the record label broke even from the album and there was no money owed—so each band member would be due $3,131.81 for the streaming plays of that song. ‘Sex Beat’ has almost 2 million streams, ‘Mother of Earth’ over 2 million streams. Were you cut off from royalties when you quit the band in the 80s? Who is receiving royalties from the represses and all of the streaming digital plays? I’m assuming Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s family owns the rights?
Terry Graham: Great math! Sadly, Jeff took all the royalties from everything we ever did. I never saw a dime. I was naive and dumb! We did make a fair amount from live shows but not enough to make a ‘living.’ As of two months ago, however, Ward and I own 25% each of Fire of Love. It took a while but some justice was done on paper, at least.
Glad to hear that. In the book are tales of bands broken up, damaged relationships, money lost, failed relationships and marriages, infidelity, and more. Do you have any regrets? Do you wish you could change anything?
Terry Graham: Change anything? Yeah, how about everything! Only thing I really wish I had done was continue playing after Gun Club. I moved to Chicago and my drums stayed in Europe. That I regret. I’m doing it all again now and only for the fun of playing, but I think I missed out on a lot of pure enjoyment with other musicians—my misfit toys. We’re a strange breed and often our own worst enemies, but, in the end, worth all the trouble. Did you read that, Jeff?
After music you became a screenwriter. What are some of the projects you worked on that you are most proud of?
Terry Graham: I’m working on a World War II movie script about the guys who flew over the Hump in the Himalayas. It was among the most dangerous flying of the war. Amazing stories. I worked a lot with Allison Anders on various TV pilots and a movie about Wanda Jackson that never got made. Too bad—it’s a fun script. I have a few other TV projects in development. I’m looking for someone to take the script Allison and I wrote called Canterbury Tales—based on my book—and make something of that. I developed it at IFC but that didn’t quite work out. Sure, it would be fun to see that on Netflix. Or wherever. I also have a chapter in John Doe’s new book that will be out in the spring.
What do you think of the documentaries Ghost On The Highway or Hardtimes Killin’ Floor Blues?
Terry Graham: I like Ghost On The Highway although my attitude has tempered quite a bit. I only wish the doc had our music. Kurt Voss did a great job with that film. I haven’t seen Hardtimes…
Why didn’t it have Gun Club music?
Terry Graham: They couldn’t get the rights from Jeff’s family for a price that Kurt could afford. It came down to money—as usual.
Do you think it’s harder now for an independent underground musician to live off of playing music, or was it equally hard in the 70s? Do you think technology, instant access to music, and streaming services like Spotify or Pandora hurt or help?
Terry Graham: Instant access helps in many ways but it hurts almost as much. I do wish the music business was still intact, flaws and all. If you could break through, you got the backing and support to fuel a career. Of course, it was much easier said than done. But today, access for everyone has created a sea of voices in which everyone cancels everyone else out. Who is good? Who is bad? Record execs don’t determine that anymore. We do. But how do we know without wading through new and scarier channels like Apple or Pandora who now control our access? We’ve traded one monster for another. We still don’t control it—‘they’ do. Only now, we do all the work and get paid less for our efforts. Fortunately, great music is still being made.
The pictures and flyers in this book—were they all from your personal collection?
Terry Graham: I never intended to do any of the interior design myself. I have a lot of very talented friends who offered, but because I was paying for the book myself, their fees were a bit too pricey. So I learned InDesign and Photoshop from scratch. It took about two years to put together. My intention was to create something visually different that would act as backdrops or placeholders the photos and graphics that I had. I wanted to stuff as many into the book as possible. I have grey hair because of it.
Were the original L.A. punk bands in 1977 convinced that they would get a major record deal? How did people feel when the Dickies and The Go-Go’s got record deals?
Terry Graham: We were incredibly naive about record deals. It wasn’t going to happen for us. New York and London bands got enormous attention but the music business in L.A. was mired in a very old fashioned way of thinking. They didn’t like us or really know how to approach us. We thought they would jump at the chance to take something new and fresh into the recording studio. Alas, not so much. I was quite jealous when the Go-Go’s were signed but was secretly proud of them. They really did it on their own and deserved all of their success. They were very determined. I was the drummer for the Go-Go’s for about an hour or so during a rehearsal. Sadly, I didn’t have the gender identity needed to stay in the band.
What is the best musical document of that time? Yes L.A.? Tooth and Nail? The Dangerhouse singles?
Terry Graham: I think all the Dangerhouse singles were really well done. I only wish they’d had more money to record more albums and more bands. I loved the Weirdos. They were an incredible band whose sound flirted with chaos and order at every turn. Their recorded output documented only a little of the absolute power of their live performances.
The Elks Lodge Hall police brutality incident in your book is intense. It’s hard to imagine punk was a threat to LAPD at the time. Did the media report on this?
Terry Graham: There was no media mention whatsoever except for a mention on KCBS radio. I forget the station. I seem to remember a brief mention on local TV news but nothing else. We weren’t a threat but the LAPD determined that we ‘might’ be a threat so they stepped in hard to fend us off. We were suddenly on their radar after being ignored for a couple years.
It seemed like original L.A. punk in Hollywood was a pretty eclectic mix of gays, straights, and bisexuals. There was also inclusion of women, Asians, Latinos, and Black people not only in the audience but also onstage as members of many of the bands. Did the Hollywood punk scene manage to transcend some of the prejudices glaringly apparent in other parts of 1970s society?
Terry Graham: I never gave it a thought. No one else did, either, at least not in the earliest incarnation in Hollywood. Being surrounded by so many diverse people was natural for us. We were a rock scene full of misfit toys. It could not have been otherwise. Like I said in the book, women powered the scene. Their energy and bravery and dedication was what made it happen at all. It was obvious. I’ve never heard anyone say anything to the contrary.
Sex, drugs and group sex seem like they were just a part of life at the time. No one in your book seemed to be much concerned about hard drugs like heroin and PCP. No one seems to blink at public displays of group sex. I know this was pre-AIDS but were people not worried about STDs? Were people more open-minded about sexual experimentation than they are now?
Terry Graham: We wallowed in our differences as well as embracing the rock ‘n’ roll myth of drugs and sex as a right. It was part of the dark side of being outsiders, I suppose. People weren’t all that worried. I don’t think we were experimenting as much as we were just trying to get laid as much as possible. 70s culture at large certainly played a part. Be who you want to be, express that however you want, and hope the price you pay isn’t too dear.
Have either Jane Wiedlin from the GoGos or Alice from the Bags read your book? You have some quite descriptive and … lurid sexual encounters with them in the book.
Terry Graham: Uh, yes. Not sure about Jane. I believe Alice has read it and I don’t think she approves. I feel bad about that. My intention, of course, was never to embarrass anyone, but to describe what crazy kids in Hollywood are prone to doing when a cultural revolution is taking place on their doorstep. I didn’t want to ignore those experiences. I was dumb and stupid on many occasions, but my respect for Jane and Alice was absolute. It still is. Alice, to me, was the face and energy of the entire punk scene in L.A. She embodied the whole thing for me. She really was and is quite amazing.
How much rent were you paying at your various pads in the 70s? Did they run credit checks or background checks then? How was it possible for a broke punk to rent?
Terry Graham: Checks? [laughs] No, nothing of the sort. It was all the honor system. I guess we all know how that has gone. I think the rent at the Canterbury was $225 or $250 a month for a one bedroom. That was for the place I shared with Jane Wiedlin. The Canterbury was a flophouse of sorts so they would take just about anybody.
The bit about driving to Texas and San Francisco to see the Sex Pistols was one of my favorite parts. It wasn’t just the circus-like atmosphere of the shows, but the enthusiasm. The impromptu journey with the girls from the Plunger Pit—your roommates, and the queens of the Hollywood Punk scene—was amazing. Are you in touch with any of these women now? Have any of them read your book?
Terry Graham: I don’t know if they’ve read it. Possibly Hellin. I’ve recently talked to her and Mary. Trixie is in New York State and is an Instagram pal. I haven’t spoken to Trudie in a few years. They were amazing people. I’m fortunate to have known them. That whole experience with them and my brother Gary driving out and the craziness at the show was so much better than the actual Sex Pistols.
What advice would you give to a kid just starting up a band, hoping to tour like their favorite bands did?
Terry Graham: Take all the tools at your disposal and work the hell out of them. Think hard about your music and above all make it personal. Make it melodic. Give it real meaning. Make sure you have fun doing it. Life is too short to do otherwise. And don’t worry about your lead singer. They’re supposed to be crazy. Go easy on the bottle and no needles, ever. The music is what matters, nothing else.
As far as the ‘revolution that almost happened’, I see bands influenced by the Gun Club around the world. One that particularly stands out is a current band called Roselit Bone from Portland. I’ve heard Gun Club songs in bars in L.A., Portland, New York, Madrid, London and Berlin 30 years AFTER the band broke up! Do you think the revolution was just a slow burn?
Terry Graham: Oh, it was definitely a revolution. It just didn’t happen in my time. I played my small part to make it happen—to make DIY a global reality—but the benefits spread slowly year after year, to generation after generation. I’m always amazed and happy when someone tells me how much they like or appreciate Gun Club. That is the belated payment for my efforts. It’s humbling. I just played a show with Sharif Dumani and Colin and Lee of Terminal A, a couple of young guys who are fans of Gun Club, and their enthusiasm and love of all music is truly inspiring to me. The revolution continues with people like them.
How did you form a group with Sharif Dumani and Colin and Lee from Terminal A? Do you plan to do any more shows?
Terry Graham: Love those guys. Very talented. They’ve expressed interest in more shows so I’m all for it. Check your local listings. Also, I’d really like to put an original band together. I’m writing a lot of songs of what I call industrial/gothic blues. That’s my next step.
Do you miss Jeffrey Lee? If not as a band mate, do you miss things like his business card that said ‘Show Business’ on it?
Terry Graham: I miss Jeff all the time. If he was still around I’d probably be playing with him in some band somewhere. I’m angry that he basically offed himself. He really deserved to live another day and write another hundred songs.
Any parting words to fans?
Terry Graham: Thank you all for being so incredibly smart, profoundly insightful and cuddly and warm. You’re the best.
TERRY GRAHAM’S SEX BEAT WITH JAIL WEDDINGS, SIRENS OF THE NIGHT AND VAGUESS ON SAT., JULY 13, AT HOUSE OF MACHINES, 2828 E. 7TH ST., LOS ANGELES. TERRY GRAHAM WILL READ FROM PUNK LIKE ME AND GABRIEL HART WILL READ FROM VIRGINS IN REVERSE/THE INTRUSION BEFORE THE SHOW. 8 PM. MORE INFO HERE. TERRY GRAHAM’S PUNK LIKE ME IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM LOSTWORDPRESS.COM.