Friday, November 21, 2014

The Flesheaters: an appreciation (and a show in Seattle January 13th!)

Was it the Georgia Straight that listed it? As a young man living in Maple Ridge, in the days before the internet, I was utterly dependent on concert listings in the Straight to find out what shows were playing in the city, and I would particularly pay attention to certain venues, like the Cruel Elephant - a long-since-closed Vancouver punk rock club where I caught, among other things, the Dwarves on the Blood Guts and Pussy tour or the Melvins in their first few incarnations (as I recall, they had a different bassist each time, with Lorax being the second one I saw). I saw the Supersuckers (when they were a punk band!), Hamm's grungy Slow offshoot Tankhog, the first couple of Vancouver shows by Helmet, various Seattle-scene bands like Love Battery, and - most memorably, when the Granville street location was very nearly falling down, Mission of Burma alumni the Volcano Suns, a power trio led by one of the more demented drummers in rock, Peter Prescott; they played a set of tribal fury, shirtless and sweaty, as great sodden clumps of insulation fell from the ceiling around them and rain poured into steaming industrial-sized buckets on the stage. (How no one was electrocuted is beyond me). But the show listing I got the most excited about at the Elephant - I must have seen it in the Straight - was when I saw that the Flesheaters were scheduled to perform there, in what I guess was the summer of 1991. I was 23 at the time.
The Flesheaters (or Flesh Eaters, if you prefer; I like it better as one word, but both variants seem to be in use) have always been my favourite California punk band, pretty much from when I first discovered them at Odyssey Imports back in the day. Sure, I liked X, Black Flag, Flipper, the Circle Jerks, and the Dead Kennedys, but none of them provoked the same degree of enthusiasm or personal resonance. Chris Desjardins (AKA Chris D.) was a Slash magazine editor and movie freak who filled his lyrics with B-movie romanticism, liberally borrowing references to films noir, spaghetti westerns, and the sleazier horror and action films of the day (many of which I heard about for the first time in his songs), packing them into poetry of youthful angst and doomed romance. And he sang like a wounded coyote, yelping and bellowing in a way that's totally unique; he's up there in the pantheon of "utterly unique rock vocalists" like Doc Corbin Dart, but he's nowhere near as painful to listen to). His songs can pretty accurately be summed up as Gun Crazy distilled two and a half minutes (on average) of slashing punk fury. The lyrics to "Eyes Without a Face" (which appeared on the Return of the Living Dead soundtrack, which I had, and on Hard Road to Follow, the first album of theirs I picked up, based on its extraordinary cover; I'm honestly not sure which I had first) were always among my favourite:

Born into a world that I don't understand
Try to get a foothold in drifting sand
Every time I look someone in the eye
They trip up and start to fall
I've been burning a candle for you oh
Private bedroom and a naive altar
Of unswerving faith
A tarnished wedding bracelet 
In a forgotten drawer
Darling, what are eyes for?
Good for love-talk inside a storm
Fucking unnoticed in a crowded room
Someone in my sight
Someone else by your side

Two pairs of eyes want to be free
To write up their history in a handful of dust
Yeah, I'm hurting inside
Sometimes your eyes look at me and see destiny
Yeah, I'm hurting inside
Sometimes your eyes can't see no matter how close they get to me
Writing me a history of misery
My eyes without a face
Yeah, I'm hurting inside
Eyes without a face
Oh my eyes without a face
Oh my eyes without a face

I got blistered fingertips split open with blood
Unbutton my top button, my shirt is in shreds
Up for eight days straight, a trip to drop dead
Til history crashes to a stop
But I kept going and didn't end
I didn't end because I can never ever end
I can never ever ever ever end
This happiness turned around inside out
Alone in the beating heart of night
Pumping blackness into my veins

Until any light
On your beautiful face becomes the dirtiest word

Two pairs of eyes want to be free
To write their history in a handful of dust
Yeah, I'm hurting inside
Your eyes won't go away
They follow my trail down that twisted road
Right into that world I don't understand
A bedroom buried in drifting sand,
Can they catch me? How close can you get?
Because what waits here are two burning eyes without a face
Eyes without a face
Yeah, I'm hurting inside
Eyes without a face
Eyes without a face

And yes, I knew that song before the Billy Idol one, though they came out around the same time (1983). Both lift their title from a rather infamous French horror film about a plastic surgeon killing women so he can steal their face for a graft on his disfigured daughter. You'll notice that that has utterly nothing to do with what Chris D. is singing about, however; he takes the phrase "eyes without a face" and owns it, transforms it into the experience of an alienated youth who sees so much more than he himself is seen by others. Its one of their greatest songs - though I would direct those who don't know the band to, say, their super-cool video for "The Wedding Dice" (and if Chris looks a bit like one of the contras in that Kevin Costner Cold War thriller No Way Out, it's because he was; he acted a bit, also starring in a kinda-not-so-great rock movie called Border Radio, which was put out by Criterion). Or check out the songs on their first single, like "Twisted Road," "Disintegration Nation" - or "Digging My Grave," off what for some is their most esteemed album, A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die (recently reissued on vinyl), featuring an all-star lineup including members of X and the Blasters, and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos on sax.  
That's a great album cover, but for my money, and attempting to be objective (eschewing my baby duck fondness for Hard Road to Follow and the sheer awesomeness of their very best songs on that album, like "Life's a Dirty Rat"), their greatest moment overall is probably Forever Came Today, which is more cohesive than Hard Road and more muscular than A Minute to Pray (and features the actual song "A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die," which takes its title from a spaghetti western, though again, Desjardins completely transforms the phrase, gives it new/ different meaning; that one is not on Youtube). But all those early albums were great. I got off the boat around the Ashes of Time release, which just didn't grab me, and I didn't have much love for 2004's Miss Muerte (sorry!), but I was totally down with 1991's Dragstrip Riot , a double album on SST that slows down the tempo a bit but has not a bad song on it, and even some really cool covers, like a version of Mott the Hoople's "The Moon Upstairs." It was that lineup of the Flesheaters that were slated to perform at the Elephant. I had plans to record the show on my shitty little Realistic tape recorder. It had disappeared from the listings soon after I first saw it, and I could find no confirmation in the weeks that followed that the show was going on as scheduled, but I still bused in from Vancouver on the off chance that it was going on, tape recorder tucked in my bag. I wasn't exactly surprised, but my heart still sank when the doorman confirmed that indeed, the show had been cancelled. I bused home, sad, on a Pacific Coachlines bus, my tape recorder unused in my bag, the entire trip having been for nothing.

I recall later discovering - not sure how - that that whole branch of the tour got cancelled because Chris D. had to go to Japan to work on a film-related project. He's written several books now - including novels and an authoritative look at Japanese gangster and action cinema, called Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film. Fans of Fukasaku Kinji should get the book for sure, though I will confess here that Mr. D's knowledge of Japanese crime and exploitation so far exceeds mine that I barely know the work of 70% of the filmmakers he writes about. I did get a copy of his vampirism-as-addiction feature film directorial debut I Pass For Human (it's interesting but inessential; I love Desjardins most as a punk poet and film reviewer, and I don't respond to the whole heroin-addiction thing so much, though it pops up in his lyrics elsewhere from time to time).

Anyhow, folks, there's news. Don't get up your hopes about a Vancouver show by the Flesheaters, because that will probably never happen; the size of their fan base is just not large enough to merit the trek across the border, I would imagine. But the Flesh Eaters - a revamped version of the Minute to Pray band, featuring John Doe and DJ Bonebrake - will play Seattle on January 13th, co-headlining with Mudhoney. (I don't really follow Mudhoney but the one time I saw them, playing the Commodore, I liked them way better than the other band on the bill, who happened to be Nirvana). I am thinking on catching the Amtrak 513 (I think it is), which leaves Vancouver early in the morning that day and costs a mere $63. I may see if there's an early train back, too, and just pull an all-nighter, to save money on a hostel or such. This will probably be my only chance to see the Flesheaters, ever.

And not that you care, necessarily, but it will probably be YOUR only chance to see them, too, Vancouver...


David M. said...

They didn't bother to show up at the Whisky in 1982 either. Can the Flesh Eaters be trusted?

Allan MacInnis said...

...that being a reference to this: