Perfect Sound Forever

THE FLESH EATERS


Flesheaters circa 1983, courtesy of flesheaters.com

Heavy Punk Thunder from the Lake of Burning Fire
by Jay Hinman
(January 2001)

The Flesh Eaters were a rock beast every bit as ferocious as their name, a bolt of heavy metal thunder and subterranean howl in place with one of the finest American rock-n-roll meccas of our time -- Los Angeles in the early 1980’s. Arising from a punk rock party scene that exploded in the wasted midst of Hollywood tinsel and trash, The Flesh Eaters first mutated into a punk-fueled "roots rock voodoo blues" group (marked by the masterful A Minute to Pray, A Second To Die LP and a classic line-up of LA scene heavies) and later into a "speed metal esoterrorica" four-piece who throttled American hardcore with their mix of amped-up guitar hellfire and rough-hewn Jagger/Richards blues. Singer and band constant Chris D. (Desjardins) was able to sprout new heads for his band every couple of years while keeping a supremely intense, performance-as-catharsis ethos very much alive, and always charting fertile new musical ground. Live, Chris D. would shriek like he was conducting the last performance before Satan’s bloody rapture, and as if he just might be taking the audience down with him. The rock pundits of the day thus brought forth much enthusiasm, enthusiasm now all but buried in the yellowing copies of local fanzines. Most of the amazing Flesh Eaters LP’s remain sadly unissued in compact disc form. Though I’m concentrate on the body of work produced by this singular band between 1978 and 1983, a Chris D.-helmed band called The Flesh Eaters continues with a revolving line-up to this very day (and hey, they’re not half bad, either).

Before we begin, let’s get to know Mr. Chris D. Here’s a man intimately involved with some of the germinal rock-n-roll of the U.S. punk era. He was an early force behind 1977-1979 LA punk ‘zine SLASH, and while documenting sounds the likes of which had never been heard by humankind DID have its rewards, his unique vocal & lyrical gifts were lying dormant, a crime soon rectified by the formation of the early Flesh Eaters in late 1977. A word has come up in many descriptions of Desjardins’ voice, a word you rarely see elsewhere: YOWL. Yowl is what Chris D. did with this magnificent voice -- not yell nor howl, no no no – YOWL. For the uninitiated, imagine Richard Hell at his inebriated best, say on "Love Come in Spurts" or "Down at the Rock and Roll Club." Now drown that voice in gallons of gasoline and let it thrash up to the surface screaming & clawing. Ladies and gentlemen, yowling. At his best, Chris D. had a voice of skin-crawling beauty and intensity. If he had been just a rote screamer that’d be one thing, but Desjardins wrenched his words through haunting whispers and banshee-like shrieks, very often in the exact same syllable. Check out "Drag My Name in the Mud" from 1982’s Forever Came Today for a yowling performance without parallel.

Desjardins also produced or remixed some of early American indie/punk’s high-water marks: The Dream Syndicate’s The Days of Wine and Roses; The Germs’ What We Do is Secret; The Gun Club’s Fire of Love; Green On Red’s Gravity Talks and The Misfits’ Walk Among Us. Desjardins may have remixed the latter but appeared to congregate with Glenn Danzig & co. like oil and water – in an old issue of FLIPSIDE, the Misfits whine poetically about their 1982 tour with the Flesh Eaters. Seems Danzig was dismayed on the tour’s San Francisco stop when the Flesh Eaters actually wanted to see the town before the show (dubbed "homoland" by the Misfits). The collective brainpower of the Misfits, it seems, was quite happy to be left at a Bay Area McDonald’s while the Flesh Eaters went off to explore. Subsequent collaborations or tours were deemed unnecessary. ("Fiends" may also be aware that later that very evening, Misfits guitarist Doyle hauled off and clubbed the living daylights out of a teenager with his axe, splitting the kid’s head wide open and making the band VERY unwelcome in homoland thereafter).

Ruby Records was Desjardins’ vanity imprint at Slash, and was responsible for the Gun Club & Dream Syndicate masterpieces listed above. Be advised, though, that Ruby wasn’t always Desjardins’ label. When a string of mediocre pop-punk records came out in the late 1980s on the Ruby label, I had the opportunity to ask Chris at a Stone By Stone show if they were his. "No, I don’t have anything to do with that HORSESHIT" came the reply. So there you have it.

One curious trick in Desjardins’ arsenal is mixing his song titles with album titles and vice versa. Once can imagine a list of titles and themes kept warm & at the ready for recycling; thus, the song "A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die" appears one LP after the release of the same name; the title track from the A Hard Road To Follow LP never makes the album yet shows up on a greatest-hits LP years later; the song "Divine Horseman" becomes the name of a post-Flesh Eaters band four years later, and so on. I’ve got a long out-of-print book of Chris D. lyrics, poetry & stories called Double Snake Bourbon. The titles from said book gives a glimpse into Desjardins’ recurring themes of blood, recklessness, sex, the occult & religious guilt:

Johnny Blood, The Baptist
Hell’s Belle
Robitussin Sob Story
Underworld Rosary
Yellow Fever
Fistful of Vodka
Lake of Burning Fire
Pray Til You Sweat
Snake Handler
Devil’s River

Religion in particular plays a tormented role in the man’s lyrics. Desjardins was either majorly spooked by churchtime devil-talk as a kid, or brought some serious Catholic hang-ups to his art. To be fair, more than half this imagery is mixed with an undying faith in love and the union of man and woman – the lighter side of religion, if you will. Chris D. very often wrote of being carried away through slithering demons and the hounds of hell by the love of his baby, or thereabouts. It stands to reckon that this heart bursting with amor led to a pattern of adding his current flame into the band, from Jill Jordan on the A Hard Road To Follow-era ’83 Flesh Eaters, to Julie Christiansen throughout the Divine Horsemen and Juanita Myers in today’s Flesh Eaters. All of whom, it should be noted, have provided a terrific foil to Desjardins’ brooding and yowling.

The debut Flesh Eaters 45 was released in 1978 on Desjardins’ own Upsetter label, the name of which was a tribute to Lee Perry & the tripped-out dub reggae popular with the early punks. "Disintegration Nation" was a four-song EP recorded with the backing of local three-piece The Flyboys, who issued an LP later that year to the sound of roughly one hand clapping. The outstanding new wave fashions on the inner sleeve may give a strong hint as to why. Nonetheless, this record, with just a hint of the ferocity of the LPs to come, is full of jagged, blazing glory, with a touch of rockabilly adulation and an up-front, slashing guitar sound that laid down a subsequent trademark.

Desjardins then issued the killer Tooth and Nail comp on Upsetter the next year, packed with classic LA punk from The Controllers, Middle Class, Germs, UXA & of course three frothing Flesh Eaters tracks: "The Word Goes Flesh", "Pony Dress" and the truly wacked "Version Nation." This is a reworked "Disintegration Nation" with Chris wound up in such vocal contortions it sounds as if he’s delivering the punk rock gospel in Satan’s Spanish. Interesting, though – these early Flesh Eaters may have been subjected to too many lineup changes and limited vinyl pressings to have the cranial impact of their peers, legends such as the Weirdos, Germs, X, Bags, etc. Of all the bands that played at The Elks Logs benefit for the legendary Masque club in February 1978, now captured on the terrific 3-volume Live at the Masque CD series, the Flesh Eaters are only one of a handful that have been intentionally left off. Certainly I’ve never heard recordings of this early band playing for the crowds, and there hasn’t been a groundswell of collector scumdom clamoring for the tapes. The true genius and raw power of this band was still to come.

It wasn’t necessarily to be found on the 1980 debut LP No Questions Asked, but no one in their right mind would call the record a wash. The album suffers a wee bit from muted production and some discontinuity, which is not particularly surprising given that eight musicians rotated through 14 short tracks. Among the band members were X’s John Doe & Don Bonebrake, as well as Joe Ramirez from The Eyes and Pat Garrett of The Randoms. Stan Ridgeway, later of Wall of Voodoo, also played in an early version of the Flesh Eaters and is given a few of the music-authorship credits here. The sound is sharp, static bursts of punk heat, dressed up with Chris’ phantasmagoric visions of plagues, hemorrhages and rabid cops. The sound is best represented on tracks like "Impossible Crime", "Dominoes" and "Police Gun Jitters" – there’s even a DUB track called "Cry Baby Killer". It’s worth noting that Desjardins’s tales were repeatedly inspired by B-movies (the name of the band being a prime example, not to mention "Cry Baby Killer"), with a ghoulishness particularly heard in the lyrics of this LP. No Questions Asked marked the end of the first wave of the Flesh Eaters, and gave birth to the all-star roots/voodoo combo of 1981’s A Minute to Pray, A Second To Die.

Joining Desjardins in this next line-up of the Flesh Eaters were Doe & Bonebrake from the by now nationally recognized X, Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman from The Blasters (guitar and drums respectively) and sax player Steve Berlin, a year or two shy of joining Los Lobos. Though the "on loan" status of the musicians involved did not bode well for anything more than a one-off project, what these gentlemen created together was an unequalled masterpiece. A Minute to Pray, A Second To Die is 35 minutes of the best raw, netherworld blues and marimba & sax-led garage stomp you’ll ever hear. Think about what you know of the best work of X and The Blasters of the time, add Chris D. at the absolute top of his game, and some out-of-this-world arrangements that harken to some unholy trinity of the Stones, Stooges and Seeds, and you’ve got quite a goddamn record. What reputation the Flesh Eaters still have left in the early ‘80’s history books and Ameripunk cognoscenti is likely due to this album. The band stand posed like paragons of ultimate cool on the back cover (against a brick wall, no less), symbolizing for the world the transformation of punk rock wildness into a more musical, complex – and dare I say MATURE -- beast. It was 1981 in Los Angeles, and some incredible rock music was beginning to crawl out of the woodwork: Dream Syndicate, Minutemen, and Black Flag, to name a mere few.

The all-star band gigged for a couple of months in LA with the likes of the Gun Club and The Fall, each show made out to be an "event," given the rising popularity of X and The Blasters and the strong critical reception accorded A Minute to Pray.A Target Video of one of their few live performances exists (with the camera strictly locked on Desjardins for 98% of the show), and this band can also be heard on Side 1 of the posthumous Flesh Eaters Live LP. Homage is indirectly paid to early surrealist filmmaker Maya Duren on the 7-minute-plus "Divine Horseman," a tour-de-force that is arguably this band’s peak moment. Other standouts include "Digging My Grave," "Pray Til You Sweat" and "See You In The Boneyard," but really, there’s not a clunker in the bunch. Too good to be anything but temporal, the band went their separate ways and Desjardins went quickly to work on keeping the flame alive.

What followed was anything but a letdown. Forever Came Today followed hot on the heels of A Minute To Pray…, recorded with a steady new line-up (with Berlin as a holdover) on St. Valentine’s Day 1982. The new team was Don Kirk on guitar, Robyn Jameson playing bass & Chris Wahl pounding the drums. Another band, another classic LP, only this time with a caterwauling, hell-bent HEAVY rock unit. The screeching "Shallow Water" and "Hand of Glory" are nasty and razor-sharp cries of torment and pain, while the more tempered "My Life To Live" and "The Rosy Hours" are elongated, lyrically twisted musings on life, love and death. One of my big regrets is never seeing this band kick out the massive "Drag My Name in the Mud" on the live stage. Miles away from roots rock, Forever Came Today was deservedly well-received and was championed by a few critics, if a bit unfairly shuttled into the punk ghetto. Now that Chris D. had a true touring unit, the Flesh Eaters set forth to bring the noise to the dank clubs of America. Paired with young hardcore bands as Punk USA turned faster, louder & more violent, the band stepped up to the plate and delivered a wallop of speed metal-tinged thud that scared the baldies and the mohicans straight back to mama’s bosom. Louder than any punk, this was the true "grunge", a few years before it was appropriated to good and not-so-good ends up in Seattle. Forever Came Today must be reissued en masse at once and handed out with earplugs to a new generation looking for lost idols and future inspiration.

The violent and hell-soaked sound continued at times on 1983’s A Hard Road To Follow, but with a new soulfulness and boozy undercurrent that swaggered rather than spit. All key band members remained, a Flesh Eaters first, with Jill Jordan brought in for backing vocals on a number of the tracks. Like its predecessor, this record has its terror-soaked hardcore-ish screamers such as "Eyes Without A Face," but mid-tempo crunching and lurching is the normal speed, as on "Poison Arrow," "Buried Treasure" and the fantastic "Fistful of Vodka." Let’s not forget that all this guitar-led chaos was pumping with the blood of Desjardins’ lyrics, which bordered on the poetic and were deeply intelligent and clever streams of wordplay. "We’ll Never Die" is romantic ne’er-do-well Desjardins, daydreaming of shooting a pack of cops in the eyes because his girl told him he wasn’t the one for her. Ah yes. A Hard Road To Follow was released on Chris’s wholly owned Upsetter Records, not on the larger Ruby/Slash, and was somewhat lost in the shuffle of burgeoning Americana rock, then gaining a national foothold with R.E.M. and the like. Somehow "Eyes Without a Face" wound up on the 1985 soundtrack for horror spoof The Return of The Living Dead along with goth-punk from 45 Grave and the like, but by then the Flesh Eaters had thrown in the towel. Six years, four incredible albums and one classic single, and the band members knew it was time to move on to other things.

So now you’re pumped and ready to rock with the Flesh Eaters. Where do you find all this treasure? Start scouring the used bins, because three of these four remain vinyl-only. In lieu of the original LPs or the thankfully reissued CD of A Minute to Pray, A Second To Die, there are two excellent Desjardins-compiled "greatest hits" compilations on SST called Greatest Hits: Destroyed By Fire and Prehistoric Fits. Both cover the breath of the era we’ve been discussing here, with tracks from all four albums, and are excellently representative of the Flesh Eaters’ majesty. Give a fair shake to Desjardins’ other musical work too – the Divine Horsemen’s Time Stands Still and Devil’s River LPs and the Stone By Stone I Pass For Human record are particularly strong testaments to Desjardins’ creativity and ability to successfully evolve. Finally, renaissance man Chris D. has spent most of the past decade researching and self-compiling a massive encyclopedia of Japanese gangster (Yakuza) films. Aptly titled YAKUZA EIGA: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1956-1980, the book is due out any day now, and is partially funded by The Japan Foundation Artist Fellowship. Indeed, the man has left a hard road to follow, and burned a shockingly bright legacy as the leader of one of the hallmark bands of the punk and post-punk eras.


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