The Flesh Eaters took the stage in 1977 for their debut show at Hollywood’s storied punk club, The Masque. Of all the cultural milestones occurring that year around the United States, the first wave of Los Angeles punk rock is a significant one. Its stories are well documented and available in books written by people inside the scene and out.
As with any cultural movement, though, some figures are glorified while others stay layered in the background amongst the hordes. A narrative is constructed, but the stories and characters extend far beyond Germs burns, The Church in Hermosa, and Brendon Mullen’s club. The Flesh Eaters are a group that most people don’t think of when the first three groups associated with that era spring to mind. It’s been 14 years since their last LP, 2004’s Miss Muerte, was released, and they’ve returned with a new studio offering, I Used to be Pretty.
Their emergence in Hollywood was during punk rock’s endearing-yet-chaotic-beginnings, but not a lot is known about them. They formed, broke up, revamped, reunited, and have been maintained by the enigmatic Chris Desjardins, Chris D. for short, whose lyrics infuse the stylings of dark poets, film noir, the macabre, and supernatural imagery to coincide with the band’s Southern Gothic-swamp-punk-style.
Chris D. holds a master’s degree in Film from Loyola Marymount University and is a published author. If one more book on the harsh realities of the L.A. punk rock scene is bound to come out, D. should pen it. He saw it all, spread its propaganda as a staff writer for influential Slash magazine, and worked as an A&R person for its offshoot label, as well as releasing bands through his own Upsetter Records.
Still, he kept The Flesh Eaters as his priority along with his alt-country/punk/roots group Divine Horsemen, which he started with ex-spouse and longtime collaborator Julie Christensen. Throughout the years, The Flesh Eaters have gone through a slew of lineup changes, but the group that rounds out their 1981 Ruby Records release, A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die, is the most well-known and considered by peers, the press, and fanatics to be their classic incarnation, although Desjardins dismisses the “classic” aspect.
The parties on board are formidable, with John Doe (bass, X), Dave Alvin (guitars, The Blasters), DJ Bonebrake (percussion, X), Steve Berlin (saxophone, Los Lobos), and Bill Bateman (drums, The Blasters) rounding out the fold. Desjardin acknowledges that this lineup was intended to be only a one-off and not to continue.
“The chemistry of this so-called ‘classic’ lineup, originally put together in rehearsals in late 1980, then recorded for posterity on the 2nd Flesh Eaters LP, A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die, in January 1981, is significant for a few different reasons. First and foremost, we were all friends, especially Dave Alvin, John Doe, and I, before we even thought of playing music together.
“Second, although I knew every member of this band was already playing with other, more successful local groups (X, The Blasters, et. al.), that was not a stumbling block. Since 1978, I’d already been broken in to the reality of lineup members having frontman ambitions with their own bands, (e.g. Tito Larriva of The Plugz and Stan Ridgway of Wall of Voodoo). There was never a question that the Minute to Pray lineup was going to be anything other than a one-off effort with just that one album, then a string of seven or eight live dates, ending in the summer of 1981.”
Flash forward a quarter of a century to 2006, and at the request of Mudhoney being co-curators for All Tomorrow’s Parties in the U.K., this lineup returns to the limelight to play the festival. Desjardins admits if it weren’t for that offer, I Used to be Pretty wouldn’t have happened. From this event, new dates spurned, and Desjardin’s enthusiasm from the January 2018 shows took wind with the rest of the guys to get them to commit time in their schedules to make the record.
Desjardins reunites the “classic” lineup for I Used to be Pretty and enlists the vocal skills of Christensen to accompany his own. The album is essentially past tracks recut by this lineup, two never-released songs, and a handful of covers. For any Flesh Eaters follower, the production quality will be the first thing that snags, as it’s the cleanest on any of their releases. The chemistry between Dave Alvin and Steve Berlin is highlighted extensively with their playing complementing and adding dynamics to each other’s parts, most notably in the dual-freakout solo on “The Youngest Profession” and the concluding eerie blues piece ”Ghost Cave Lament.”
The latter holds huge significance for Desjardins, who says: “The ‘Ghost Cave Lament” lyrics were generated from lines from three long poems I’d written in the 2008 period, then also my cannibalizing the best lines from three or four song lyrics I’d written since 2013. I did a bit of an intuitive cut-up of the phrases, a method I’ve used since the mid-1970s.
“The correct placement for some of the lines wasn’t even decided until I was right there in the vocal booth in April, when we were recording the song ‘live.’ The musical ideas stemmed from a lengthy instrumental piece, ‘Moritas Moras’ by the late flamenco guitarist, Manitas de Plata. I had originally envisioned a kind of flamenco-influenced series of guitar riffs for ‘Ghost Cave Lament,’ but played loud, distorted and garage punk/free-jazz Sonic Youth style, kind of like ‘So Long’ from the Minute to Pray album. However, the few times Dave and I got to rehearse it together in his living room before we went into the studio, that’s not the way it turned out.
“It turned into a rolling, creepy, atmospheric flamenco love ballad/blues lament. We got into the studio; we recorded it as the last song of the sessions, and it became even more different. The other guys had only heard it once or twice, yet everyone seemed to psychically connect with each other, intuiting what would come next and improvising as we went along. It was the kind of thing that happens all-too-rarely. It was literally raising the hairs on the back of my neck as we recorded it. Where was this coming from? Because it was really conjuring up something from the ether, from the collective unconscious.
“We only did two takes, which is remarkable. Originally, I’d thought the song would run seven or eight minutes, tops. But our first pass-through was almost 20 minutes long. Some great stuff throughout, but a little too unfocused, too meandering. On our second try, which is the take on the album, we nailed it, though it was just over 13 minutes in length. After listening to it, we decided not to try to do any editing. We were afraid of screwing it up. Virtually, the whole track is ‘live.’”
They border modern rock with an upbeat rendition of the recut of “My Life to Live” and the leadoff track “Black Temptation.” Desjardin’s lyrics are consistent in theme as he switches between a drawl and shrieks spinning an ambiguous tale of naive lust in his lyrics to “Black Temptation” (“I always think the queen of wolves is a delicate flower/and up just meat for the bitch to devour”).
Desjardins parallels this vocal styling of Gerry Roslie on a rendition of “Cinderella” originally done by The Sonics and has the guys manage to make “The Green Manalishi” (originally done by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac) just as heavy and slightly more interesting than the Judas Priest cover from 1978. The most obvious piece of sentimentalism is in the cover of “She’s Like Heroin to Me,” originally by their contemporary L.A. blues punk foremen, The Gun Club, on which Desjardins’ lyrics have been compared to the much-missed Jeffrey Lee Pierce.
Grab a copy of I Used to be Pretty from Yep Roc Records.
The Flesh Eaters on tour.
1/16/2019 – Crescent Ballroom (Phoenix, AZ)
1/17/2019 – 191 Toole (Tucson, AZ)
1/18/2019 – Pappy & Harriet’s (Pioneertown, CA) w/Mudhoney
1/19/2019 – Echoplex (Los Angeles, CA) w/Mudhoney
1/20/2019 – The Independent (San Francisco, CA)
1/22/2019 – The Star Theatre (Portland, OR)
1/23/2019 – The Crocodile (Seattle, WA)
2/21/2019 – Continental Club (Houston, TX)
2/22/2019 – Continental Club (Houston, TX)
2/23/2019 – Continental Club (Austin, TX)
2/24/2019 – Club Dada (Dallas, TX)
3/9/2019 – Turf Club (St. Paul, MN)
3/10/2019 – Lincoln Hall (Chicago, IL)
3/11/2019 – The Pyramid Scheme (Grand Rapids, MI)
3/12/2019 – El Club (Detroit, MI)
3/14/2019 – City Winery (Boston, MA)
3/15/2019 – Johnny Brenda’s (Philadelphia, PA)
3/16/2019 – Union Stage (Washington DC)
3/17/2019 – Bowery Ballroom (New York, NY)