What can you say about one of the best records, if not the best, ever to come out of the punk scene? Simply this: it took vision to make it, and a fucking mind-meld to actualize it, kinda like whatever hold James Brown had on his ‘60s and ‘70s ensembles: the psychic lock-down, a half-dozen guys completely absorbing the same message and responding with revolutionary levels of power.
Very few people were going through a history of under-the-seat level cinema reappraisals and reams of pulp, leveled with the raw action of L.A. punk, the way Chris Desjardins did in the years leading up to the second Flesh Eaters album. His first, the guttural No Questions Asked, and the loose tracks from their 7” and the Tooth And Nail compilation (we’ll call this era “his band” as D. populated the Flesh Eaters’ ranks with utility players from the Dangerhouse scene, but moreover because it’s impossible to imagine the band without him), seemed to get more and more wound up as it went along, songs ascending into a tension spiral that you can tell, at least from here/now, were growing into something. All of that promise, and then some, is realized here, on A Minute To Pray A Second To Die.
Picking up a veritable fortune in sidemen – John Doe and D.J. Bonebrake from X are here, along with Steve Berlin from the Rhythm Pigs, and Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman from the Blasters – and keying in on a swampy, voodoo-laced dimension of rock ‘n’ roll that, even as I write this, sounds implausible and cheap, the sort of gross caricature that drives the entire two-inches-deep subcultures of rockabilly, automotive fetishes, Tom Waits, Las Vegas, racism and whatever points any of that toxic bullshit had to do with punk like 99.9% of the time. There really should be no reason why this sort of record should come off as astoundingly well as it does. It’s not even that the years have been kind; it’s that no one else has been able to properly revisit the sorcery over the form that this particular lineup of the Flesh Eaters ever could. Hell, even they couldn’t hold onto it for longer than a year, and it’s not to say that the two LPs made by D.’s next lineup weren’t stellar. But they’re not this one, which is a high-water mark for punk, rock, and filmic realizations across the forms.
Certainly there is no better punk record where marimbas and saxophones play such a significant role. All the fear of seedy UHF-based TV broadcasts burning a hole in your psyche is on display here: the film noir with acts of sadism you can’t un-see, the one science fiction concept in your viewing experience that triggers nightsweats, the old black-and-white cartoon that scared you more than anything else. Bonebrake’s work on the xylophone scale gives the impression of an animated skeleton playing another skeleton’s ribs. Signifiers of jazz, exotica and disciplined, streak all over this one (it’s not hard to imagine Dave Brubeck having written “So Long,” though he’d have to be impaled on a fireplace poker to play it the way these guys did), but what really makes A Minute To Pray cook is that it almost entirely seems to be coming straight from Chris D.’s mind.
Apart from the one track where John Doe has a songwriting credit (“Cyrano De Berger’s Back,” which plays like it could be something written for X, or at least by one of the main songwriters of that group, though in D.’s presence it’s turned more into something Alice Cooper might’ve considered in the Dick Wagner era), none of this record bears any resemblance to the bands for which its members were better-known. Maybe we are outside the era where discovering punk meant sifting through other people’s errors, like following the Slash catalog down to a Blasters record and wondering what the fuck went wrong, but Dave Alvin’s guitar playing on this could peel back the skin of anyone standing too close. Bill Bateman’s artillery drumming and unmistakable swing (a technique that most drummers seem to leave behind these days, as if it’s impossible to maintain – Bill Ward and the late Charlie Ondras would disagree with you) punch through both cadences of “Satan’s Stomp,” both on the beat and off it, as Steve Berlin’s sax plays a complementary arrangement of Alvin’s nimble guitar line with extra sleaze atop, before breaking down into the sort of chaos you’d want out of any reedsman coming near this murk.
And there is no escape from Chris D.’s words, and how he delivers them, wild-eyed and feral, and still verbose and deliberate. He’s not yowling into the void, and he’s not so far out of control that the meaning behind his words are obscured (sup, Darby), and it’s that line he walks here, between snake-handling preacher and fevered madman, that draws you into A Minute To Pray and keeps you there. The following Flesh Eaters record, Forever Came Today, has a song entitled “Tightrope On Fire,” and that’s exactly what D. is traversing all across these eight songs, the madness of not being in control of love because the calling of the left-hand path is just too great. He’s got a precedent for this line of dramatic thought: every femme fatale in the mold of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, every gunman’s last stand, every town with a deadly secret. Most importantly, he is a showman, and throughout the performance on this record, he never lets you forget.
I picked up my first and only copy of this one at a record show in 1995, for the unseemly price of $25. Back then I wasn’t accustomed to paying that much for a record, but this one was special. I’ve never come across another in the wild, even though I’ve been able to obtain OGs of all the other prime-era Flesh Eaters LPs (still looking for the 7” though). Superior Viaduct has done a stellar job of bringing this one back in print, particularly on vinyl, with a bulletproof essay on the band and the era by Byron Coley in case these words don’t get you running to the store. (http://www.superiorviaduct.com)