Graded on a Curve:
The Flesh Eaters,
A Minute to Pray,
A Second to Die

Any shelf dedicated to classic California punk requires representation by the Flesh Eaters of Chris Desjardins, aka Chris D. Never a bad record has he made under that moniker, but the finest of them remains the talent-drenched and enduringly brilliant 1981 LP A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die. It’s just been given a welcome reissue by Superior Viaduct of San Francisco.

I first learned of Chris D.’s work in the latter portion of the 1980s, my discovery largely aided by the diligent underground music press of the era, in particular the scribbling of Byron Coley. While numerous zines featured reviews of both the Flesh Eaters and Chris D.’s band of the period The Divine Horsemen, it was really Coley that helped to put Desjardins’ art in proper context.

In fact, Coley’s such a determined champion of the man’s work that his new liners for this reissue aren’t an extra so much as a prerequisite. And the insight was found in more than just reviews, articles, and prior sleeve notes, as Coley and Forced Exposure publisher/writer Jimmy Johnson conducted an extensive interview with Desjardins for issue #12 of their reliably hefty “quarterly” mag. The duo also provided space in the back for “Chris D.’s Video Guide,” an enjoyable and extremely enlightening tour of the guy’s VHS collection.

I’d already sized Desjardins up as a major part of the USA’s roots punk brigade, his output landing in the same rough region as The Cramps, X, The Blasters, The Plugz, and The Gun Club, but the conversation in FE presented him as an uncommonly astute member of the punk community (especially when compared with the average Flipside chat).

Furthermore, his movie writings offered a vibrant critical viewpoint, one that blended a love of low-budget American flicks categorized by Michael Weldon as Psychotronic with a healthy dose of early auteurist perspective (lots of Hitchcock and films noir), considerations of New Hollywood (Polanski, Schrader) and global art cinema (Buñuel, Fassbinder, Makavejev).

In truth, Chris D.’s choice of name for his most lauded band, nabbed from Jack Curtis’ gore cheap-o of ’64 (it also touches upon the original title of George Romero’s ’68 zombie cornerstone), was an easy tipoff to the strength of impact the moving image had on his psyche. The name of this LP, taken from a ’68 spaghetti western, underscores it.

The Flesh Eaters’ initial appearance was an eponymous ’78 EP on Desjardins own label Upsetter (yes, a Lee Perry reference) the still formative singer backed by punk unit The Flyboys. Also on Upsetter was the superb Tooth and Nail comp, the contents including the Germs, the Middle Class, Negative Trend, the Controllers, UXA, and of course the Flesh Eaters. So far so good, but flirtations with greatness arrived on the 1980 long-player No Questions Asked, Desjardins refining a vocal approach comparable to a wilder West Coast Richard Hell.

It was the last release on Upsetter; the next Flesh Eaters album was funded by Ruby, a Slash subsidiary that’s been pegged as Chris D.’s vanity imprint. If that seems farfetched, Desjardins’ is accurately portrayed as a multitalented multi-tasker; also a savvy producer (The Dream Syndicate, The Gun Club, The Lazy Cowgirls), he additionally acted in Allison Anders’ debut feature Border Radio and had his writings compiled in the book Double Snake Bourbon. In artistic breadth he’s a bit like another Coley associate, namely Thurston Moore.

A pull quote from Coley’s notes for this reissue finds him championing it as the “best rock record ever recorded.” While I do love A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die, my feelings don’t run that deep. I certainly do understand that evaluation, however; I’d easily rate it as one of the very greatest US punk rock discs, my individual reasoning deriving from the sturdiness of Chris D.’s vision across eight exceptional songs.

Not a weak or lesser track in the bunch; “Digging my Grave” begins with off-kilter chanted poetics before a raw and solid post-garage riff is set in unflagging motion, the intensity heightened by the immediately distinctive use of marimba courtesy of X’s DJ Bonebrake and sax by Blaster Steve Berlin, his blowing some of the most unique in punk terms since the arrival of X-Ray Spex. Specifically, Berlin’s thrust is derived from R&B, even when he’s engaging in post-apocalyptic freak-outs; his wailing hits a peak as that insistent riff pounds home the tune’s finale.

The garage angle is enhanced on the vaguely Cramps-ish “Pray Till you Sweat,” though it more descriptively combines Sonics-style snarl ‘n’ honk and an atmosphere tangibly swampy, predominantly in Desjardins’ heated delivery of lyrics infused with superstition (the unforgettable line “squeeze out your milk on the baby’s grave”) and homicide (the second half of a two-tiered chorus).

Again, the mallets lend a distinguished feel (this and Bonebrake’s contribution to Geza X and the Mommymen’s ’82 LP You Goddamn Kids! is essentially punk marimba’s whole story), Blaster Bill Bateman thumps a never-rudimentary gallop on the drums, X’s John Doe unleashes killer bass throttles, and Blaster Dave Alvin tackles the spirit of Nuggets with the same panache he brings to the fumes of Sun Records.

The Flesh Eaters’ punk lineage is highlighted on “River of Fever,” a selection also underlining Chris D.’s sheer ability as a vocalist. Instead of Hell, at times here he almost comes off like Darby’s hillbilly cousin crashing Tinseltown with Jim Thompson-esque tales of life turned sour. Commencing with lone whistling and progressing to a rousing finish, it also serves as a reminder that the Flesh Eaters’ toured with the Misfits (Chris D. also produced Walk Among Us for Ruby, though the connection apparently didn’t produce any lasting relationships).

After consideration, Desjardins’ constantly evolving group (in contributors and in sound) can perhaps be thought of as a thinking person’s version of that Lodi, NJ outfit. This is relatable via “Satan’s Stomp.” Recorded live, its title amplifies themes mildly similar to those expressed by Danzig and company, but here the subject-matter is matched with gusts of Berlin purging his lungs, a lopsided post-Stones bluesy wiggle, and intermittent spurts of Beefheartian punk fervor.

“See You in the Boneyard” displays the range of absorbed precedent; it mixes strains of rockabilly and stomping ‘50s R&R as the words connect like a curdled Halloween novelty single, a vibe strengthened by Desjardins’ increasingly poetic and idiosyncratic drive. Add punk heft; Berlin alternates between Ace Records’ swagger and honking like Lora Logic’s twin brother.

Elements of proto-punk Detroit emerge in the fantastic “So Long,” the cut featuring some of Alvin’s strongest string wrangling as Chris D. unloads more of what the great critic R. Meltzer called Blabbermouth Lockjaw of the Soul (he typed it in all-caps and was referring to the Darby Crash of the Germs’ (GI) and the Desjardins of No Questions Asked). Interestingly, “So Long” is one of the few moments where the leader steps away, takes a deep breath of Los Angeles smog, and lets his band throw down.

“Cyrano De Berger’s Back” was written by Doe, the only track here not from the pen of Chris D, and the difference is instantly discernible; bluntly, the song is more melodic and the riffing less harried. But this development imparts no damage upon the proceedings, with Desjardins’ vocals again reminiscent of prime Richard Meyers.

Along with being a grand seven minute merger of the swamp, the Motor City and the ‘70s street punk of NYC, closer “Divine Horseman” magnifies the acumen of its writer; its title references avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren’s research into Haitian vodou, studies that resulted in a book published in 1953 and a posthumous movie completed four years after this album hit racks.

‘82’s more conventional but quite strong Forever Came Today ditched everyone except Berlin, though the membership remained steady for the next year’s blistering A Hard Road to Follow. ’83 also saw Desjardins forming The Divine Horsemen, another outfit wielding regular shifts of personnel and musical environment; they debuted in ’84 for Enigma with Time Stands Still and released three more full-lengths and an EP for SST, that label also issuing two Flesh Eaters comps and I Pass for Human by the one-shot Chris D. aggregation Stone By Stone.

Homestead Records put out Flesh Eaters Live in ’88, and by ’91 Desjardins had convened a new version of the group, offering the shrewdly titled Dragstrip Riot (also SST). Further LPs followed, but more recently, with the exception of a reunion of the ’81 lineup for an All Tomorrow’s Parties gig at the request of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, Chris D. has been appropriately occupied elsewhere.

Until ’09, he was a programmer at Los Angeles’ American Cinematheque. He also directed the ’04 horror flick I Pass for Human and is prolific as a writer (the anthology A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die plus movie books Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980 and Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film) while working part-time as a teacher in San Francisco.

Evaluating A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die as an attempt to move beyond punk is an understandable but ultimately faulty notion. If the songs are to varying degrees lengthier, the instrumentation eclectic but organic, the playing adept but devoid of flash, and the subject matter a heavily personal examination of pulp, trash, and fringe religious belief, Chris D. and this extraordinary crew wasn’t transitioning from the genre that spawned them, but were instead enhancing its possibilities with aplomb.

That too few took the challenge is readily apparent, but over thirty years later, the sound of the Flesh Eaters is as inspired and twisted as ever.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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  • Wheez Von Klaw

    Really fantastic review. One of Punk’s greatest slabs next to the 3 Stooges lps (sorry isn’t it fun to say that?)The Damned’s “Machine Gun Etiquette’,The Cramps’ “Psychedelic Jungle’, and The Birthday Party’s “Junkyard’……Astonishing voodoo power and thick cobwebs of atmosphere.

  • Wheez Von Klaw

    And this will piss some people off, but even though Chris produced the Gun Club’s “Fire of Love’….This lp smokes that classic. Sorry,it’s true.

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