Punk Like Him: Terry Graham of the Gun Club: An Interview by Ryan Leach

It was a Monday night. I was jam packed with writing deadlines, but when Terry Graham told me he was in town, due dates fell by the wayside; we would meet tomorrow. Prior to this interview, I’d talked to Terry a couple times on the phone – one would be for a Gun Club oral history which ran in Razorcake – and we had corresponded via emails. Meeting him and director Allison Anders at the Brite Spot was a real treat. We discussed his Gun Club days and his book, Punk Like Me, which is due out the middle of this year. A month prior to this interview Terry had sent me a chapter of his book for preview; his writing style has a Henry Miller/Louis-Ferdinand Celine-like feel in its free-associating pace, frankness, and conversational writing style. Punk Like Me tells what is was like to be a member of the Gun Club, the Cramps, and the Bags; it also sheds light into the first and second wave of punk. It’s no secret: LA punk, both old and new, has been underrepresented in print. Neutron Bomb scratched the surface of the first wave, but there’s more underneath that topsoil. Certainly, the roots-punk scene of the early ’80s consisting of bands such as the Gun Club, Tex and the Horseheads, Blood on the Saddle, and the Divine Horsemen deserves its own lengthy tome. Punk Like Me covers these bases by one of the few members of both scenes to have stepped up. To better gauge the future, the past must be known, making Punk Like Me a must read.

Without further adieu, ladies and gentlemen, here’s Terry Graham.

Interview by Ryan Leach
Photo by Dawn Wirth

Ryan: So who’s going to publish Punk Like Me?
Terry: Well, I’m in discussion with one individual. I sort of take them one at a time and as soon as they hate my offers, I go to the next one. But, actually, Long Gone John, of Sympathy for the Record Industry, I’ve know him for twenty-five years, he has published a few books of very nice quality, and I’m talking to him very soon. I’m talking to him about a deal tomorrow. It may not happen. I’ve got a very unique approach I want to take with it. Book publishing is very standardized in a sense that everybody’s approach to it is like: “It’s done like this,” and contracts are very standard. I figure with a friend and someone who has been such a fan of the things I’ve done with the Gun Club, we’d be able to work something out, but there’s no guarantee.
Ryan: I was reading that section of the book you sent me and the initial part has a kind of conversational style while the latter part has a kind of recollection of events. Does the rest of the book flow that way?
Terry: Well, I wanted that Gun Club chapter to be a book within a book. For me, since I was there, I can’t take that approach (a band bio of the Gun Club). Someone outside of it can, but I thought, “Well, since I was there, I want to reflect what it was like to be there,” so it may be a little silly, a little dense, a little “huh?” but that’s exactly what it was like. And how do you do that through a collection of words? It’s not easy. There are certain conventions you have to follow, but I still think within that you can kind of push the boundaries a little bit. That whole punk scene seemed to be a giant explosion – it’s hard to categorize – and every single day you were constantly looking around you for another new band. At that time, you were shocked and amazed on a daily basis – not only from the music coming in, but the people around you. I didn’t think of anything structured, so it grew from that, but I wanted to give it some order, some structure. So it starts off with a bang, and then I have back stories starting from birth, but I had fun with that. No one from Gun Club is going to write this, so I felt like I owed it – to be able to give that chapter – which started out at twenty pages, then turned out to be forty, and is now twice as long as when you read it.
Ryan: What did you think of Jeff’s book (Gun Club figurehead’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s Go Tell the Mountain)?
Terry: Jeff’s book, half of it is lyrics. So it really isn’t a book Jeff was intending to write as his book. It’s just notes. It’s kind of a journal. I don’t have any lingering animosity towards Jeff; I did for a long time. It’s not a very factual account. There are a few things about me (in Go Tell the Mountain) that are so ridiculous. When I first read it years ago, I thought I was going to kill him. You should suffer some consequence. I kind of wish his book would have been more… Jeff didn’t know he was going to die and these were notes that were kind of collected and they breeze through Gun Club events. You can tell that it’s the most superficial thoughts off the top of his head. It’s unfortunate because Jeff should have written a great book about himself. He would have loved to have written it about himself, too. I wish he could have done that. I don’t hate that book. I just think it was the most they could come up with that was actually from Jeff. So it’s fine for that, but it doesn’t really exist as Jeff’s statement. I say, in a way, that I wish that he could have had time to write that. The last time I saw him, about a year before he died, he looked good, he sounded good. He and I had not seen each other for twelve years and so we shook hands, which for a lot of people, they would have been shocked that we would have even done that. He gave me his little business card that said “Show Business.” I thought, “Oh, that’s perfect.” He said, “Look me up at the Viper Room sometime.” I wasn’t living in L.A. at the time, but I thought, “That’s great. I’ll do that sometime,” but I didn’t get that chance. He died within the year.
Ryan: You were a few years older than Ward and Jeffrey. Did you feel a maturity there? You also had that nickname, “Dad Bag.”
Terry: No, because a couple of years, literally, was all it was. We all grew up in the ’70s listening to Marc Bolan (T. Rex) and Roxy Music. I was into reggae, even when I was living in Texas. Whatever (music) that I could find that was obscure. And, at that time, you literally had to leave town if you wanted to get closer to musicians and music that was hard to find. There was obviously no internet and no way to access this stuff. Jeff’s behavior was the typical rock’n’roll myth: I think I’m Jim Morrison, therefore, I am. I’ll drink, take drugs.
Ryan: He sounds like Jim Morrison, on stuff like “Mother of Earth.”
Allison Anders: Kurt Voss (director of upcoming Gun Club documentary) always thought that too.
Ryan: Yeah, he really does. I wanted to ask you more about your writing, Terry. I read an old NY Rocker (March 1982 issue with an Ira Kaplan interview of the Gun Club) that said you wanted to start a fanzine when you initially moved out to Los Angeles. Had you been writing back then, or is this a new pursuit?
Terry: Well, I wanted to start a fanzine in L.A. when the scene first started, before I was in the Bags. I never considered myself a musician. I knew I could play the drums, but that was in the school band. I was in a rock group for two hours when I was twelve years old. We did “Gloria.” This was in 1967. I think that was the only song we played. I just enjoyed writing, but I didn’t take that too seriously. What are going to do? Call yourself a writer at seventeen years old? I still don’t now. I felt that that stuff should be documented. It was before Slash magazine appeared. Flipside was around, but it was four Xeroxed pages. And then I had trouble with photographers. And then Alice asked me to join the Bags, so I thought, “Forget it,” because when you’re in a band, you’re just focused on that. That first show I did with them at the Whisky, I threw up, I kept throwing up, I was pretty hooked. That was a drug that was hard to put down. I always thought about that (writing), but I never kept a journal. It’s like I said before, I didn’t want to take time to document it; I just wanted to live it. I just wanted to be there. Now, years later, I have a little more command of my time. I can communicate, I can write about it.