Red Peony Gambler
This is a brief, probably familiar tale about how the music biz (and life) can grind a man into tiny grains of sand, and how we all might take inspiration from those hearty souls who use the tough lessons they learn to rise ever higher and higher. Amen.
Chris D. is an artist who maybe never even had the ability to sell his soul. Hed moved to L.A. from Riverside in 70 to attend film school. He had no burning desire to be a musician; he needed to act, direct and write. I always wanted to get into film, he says, but I couldnt hack the film-industry types and all the compromise the film business involved, and Ive never had a hustling talent, though Im a bit more like that now than I was then.
He started making music with his band the Flesh Eaters because he wanted to be heard from, and in the late 70s it only cost a couple of thousand dollars to make an album, unlike even the most cheapo of indie films. And he began writing for the L.A. punk zine Slash.
Because of the kind of people who tended to gravitate toward Slash, the Flesh Eaters attracted luminaries of the original punk scene; among those who moved through its ranks as members or collaborators were Xs John Doe, Tito Larriva of the Plugz, Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Kid Congo of the Gun Club, Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman of the Blasters, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, and Wall of Voodoos Stan Ridgway, who was the guitar player for a few months. The band played its first gig at the Masque in December 1977.
In the spirit of L.A. punk, the Flesh Eaters were incendiary and experimental, reveling as much in feral garage thrashage as in jerky, dissonant nu-jazz strains and an often campy Roxy Music--type party-time flair, all given perfervid snarl by Chris D., whose hair-shirt poetic accounts of desperate lust, stabs in the back, wicked fate and being Satans tool rasped out of the roar like the bastard spawn of Mitch Ryder, Mick Jagger and Sky Saxon.
The band crashed and burned or fizzled out in the mid-80s, but Chris D. quickly formed Divine Horsemen with jazzy diva Julie Christensen, whom he had brought in to sing backup on a session he was producing for Top Jimmy. (At Slash Records, he also produced classic stuff by Gun Club, Dream Syndicate, Lazy Cowgirls and Green on Red, as well as remixes for Glenn Danzigs Misfits and the Germs.) This too was an authoritative presentation, featuring ripping yet melodic rock anthems that coupled Chris ever-complex psycho-sexual lyrical imagery with Christensens stylishly accomplished vocal flights.
Divine Horsemen fought the good fight, releasing copious amounts of recorded material and playing gigs as often as possible. But it all fell apart or imploded or whatever it is that happens to bands when they work too long for too little. Chris D. and a few co-Horsemen had developed some unhealthy habits, too, so it was time to lay back and get clean and think about things for a while. Chris started a new band, Stone by Stone, in 89, and performed with the Flesh Eaters on occasion in the early to mid-90s. After releasing the strong solo CD Love Cannot Die in 1995, he took a break from music.
As might be inferred, Chris is the type with a persistent abstract need to express, and through the years hes been writing -- poems, short stories, screenplays, dreams, lyrics, a bounteous and thoroughly engrossing collection of which was published by Illiterati Press as Double Snake Bourbon in 1989. Recently hes added lyrics dating up through the present, and hopes to publish the whole thing soon under the title A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die.
Right now he works a day job as an assistant programmer and annotator for American Cinematheque, and hes spent the last few years compiling an encyclopedia of Japanese yakuza (gangster) films, an interest that kind of figures, considering the damnation n destiny nature of much of his music and prose. Most of the yakuza films I like have this kind of doomed romanticism, a kind of obsessive feeling. Theres a lot of ritual -- blood-brother ceremonies, the exchange of sake cups, tattooing, swords.
But the music wont leave Chris alone; in fact, it probably never will, so he re-formed the Flesh Eaters a couple of years ago, and has recorded a snidely soulful and often darkly humorous new album, Ashes of Time, that reunites members of the old Flesh Eaters and Divine Horsemen, including Christensen on backing vocals.
I spent six months to almost a year trying to find a label, he says. There were little labels interested that Id never heard of, but they wanted to give us, like, a meager amount of money. So we eventually just decided to put it out ourselves. Once we got it pressed, distribution was kind of a nightmare. With the first Flesh Eaters stuff, it was very easy to get distribution, because back then there were a lot of one-stops, a lot of independent distributors. I had no problem selling a couple of thousand albums without any promotion. But now its hard to get people to pick it up for distribution -- we dont have any other releases on their imprint, and they dont want to take just one. And a lot of distributors have committees -- you have to run it by seven or eight people. Its a lot like whats happening in the movie business.
Such frustration doesnt get Chris too far down these days, though. Hed like to sell a lot of records, but he seems to have found a pragmatic peace in his place between the show-biz cracks.
I have the feeling that if I write poetry, nobodys ever going to see it, and then Ill just feel like, whats the point? As far as being a pure artist goes, that isnt the right attitude to have. But sometimes the futility becomes overwhelming -- its almost oppressive, it forms a dread that makes me not want to do it. And Im really an impatient person, another reason why I didnt initially pursue film as much as I wanted to. I saw so many people with a film project that would take five or six years to come to fruition -- and thats if theyre lucky -- and I couldnt see myself devoting that much time to one thing.
But my perspective on a lot of that has changed in the last few years, about working toward goals and not having unrealistic expectations, but still working ahead anyway, and not being too much into the result, just being into the work ethic of it. Thats the only way we ever achieve any kind of serenity as an artist.
The Flesh Eaters appear at the Garage on Saturday, April 15, at 11:45 p.m. For more information, see www.flesheaters.com.
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