It was roughly thirty-four years ago today that the so-called “all-star” version of the Flesh Eaters — vocalist/leader Chris D., joined by Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin and drummer Bill Bateman, X bassist John Doe and percussionist D. J. Bonebrake, and future Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin — spent an evening recording the album A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die.
A punk-infused blend of African rhythms, swamp blues, and garage rock, topped with lyrics that drew equally from voodoo rituals, French symbolist poetry, and hard-boiled pulp novels, the album immediately spawned a dedicated cult following, especially among those who were fortunate enough to see the fistful of live shows this lineup performed at various L.A. clubs in the wake of its 1981 release. (The members’ other commitments prevented them from playing anything more than these few dates.)
However, fervent word-of-mouth led to the album’s being reissued on CD in 1993 and again in 2001. Five years later, at Mudhoney’s request, the sextet reunited for a performance at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England, surrounded by three West Coast club dates. And just six months ago, the Superior Viaduct label reissued a CD — and, for the first time in fifteen years — a vinyl version of A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die.
But the BIG news is … these same six musicians will be doing a brief West Coast tour that begins Thursday (January 8) in Santa Ana, followed by Friday in San Francisco, Saturday in Los Angeles, Sunday in San Diego, and concluding in Seattle on January 13.
Although Chris D. fronted different lineups of the Flesh Eaters before and after this album, then recorded several LPs as the leader of the Divine Horsemen, A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die is the disc for which he’s best known.
“There’s a lot of different reasons for that,” he explains. “Starting with who plays on the record. Even though the instrumentation — particularly with D. J. playing a marimba and Steve sometimes playing a soprano sax — is unusual, there’s a unified sound all the way though.
“The songs on A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die began when I was driving around in a 1969 Ford Falcon that I’d inherited from my parents, listening to tapes of these African tribal chants, and I started syllabizing things like ‘da da da-dah, da-da da-dah’ to these melodies that I already had in my head.
“But I was also listening to a lot of Bo Diddley and Link Wray — and ‘See You in the Boneyard’ has almost a Roxy Music-like feel — so there’s a strange mélange of stuff at work. But we were all listening to similar things, and I think that’s most evident with the Gun Club’s Fire of Love album, which is kind of a companion piece that also came out in 1981.”
Not coincidentally, Chris produced half the tracks on that Gun Club disc, which — like A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die — was first issued on the Slash Records subsidiary label, Ruby, that Chris helmed. (He also produced the Dream Syndicate’s The Days of Wine and Roses and Green on Red’s Gravity Talks for Ruby.)
“The reason I called the band the Flesh Eaters,” continues Chris, “was because I wanted to explore the battle between the spirit and the flesh, which probably comes from growing up Catholic. And when we made A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, I was caught up in this morbid romanticism like you find in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which Roman Polanski made into the Tess movie. I was in this doomed romantic place in my relationships, using opiates and drinking a lot, trying to transcend my inhibitions.”
He adds that none of the “voodoo stuff” on the record was taken from anything specific. “I was just making things up, using terminology from Macumba, Santería, and Voodoo, along with imagery connected to the Catholic saints that the church appropriated from these African sources. But that’s also why I put that exorcism text from 1619 in the liner notes: ’Cause I didn’t want people to think the record was about Satanism. It’s about purging the poison, getting the devil out.” (Chris has been sober for the last eighteen years.)
“I made the last two Flesh Eaters records after I’d gotten sober,” he says, “and I think they’re the best stuff I’ve done, but the musical landscape had changed, so I spent a lot of my time writing.”
He has since published novels (No Evil Star, Dragon Wheel Splendor, Shallow Water, and Mother’s Worry); a collection of lyrics, poetry, short stories, and other ephemera that’s also titled A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die; and two nonfiction books: Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film and Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980.
When he wasn’t playing music or writing, Chris — who has a master’s degree in film from Loyola Marymount University — did some acting, notably in Border Radio and No Way Out (both 1987), directed the 2006 film I Pass for Human, and spent ten years working in the programming department at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. Until recently, he taught film at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
“I’d like to do more acting, but it’s not a passion,” he says. “I’d rather sell my books and live off that.”
As for the forthcoming Flesh Eaters shows, “We’re going to play the whole A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die album, but we’re also going to do two songs (‘House Amid the Thickets’ and ‘Miss Muerte’) from the last two Flesh Easters LPs, ‘Wedding Dice’ from Forever Came Today, ‘Pony Dress’ — which goes all the way back to 1979 — and covers of ‘She’s Like Heroin to Me’ by the Gun Club and ‘Cinderella’ by the Sonics.”
Fortify yourself with wolfsbane, garlic, and belladonna, and I’ll see you there.