By Eleni P. Austin
When real life couples sing together, there’s a combustible energy that never really goes away. Even if that couple’s romantic relationship has ended, that chemistry rarely recedes. It was palpable for Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash as well as Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa (both couples remained married), as well as divorced couples Sonny & Cher, George Jones and Tammy Wynette and Exene Cervenka and John Doe from X. The same can be said for Chris D. (ne’ Desjardins) and Julie Christensen. The pair originally fronted Divine Horsemen from 1984 until 1988.
Divine Horsemen rose from the ashes of Chris D.’s first celebrated band, The Flesh Eaters. A Punk Super Group of sorts, it featured Dave Alvin, Bill Bateman and Steve Berlin from The Blasters, along with John Doe and D.J. Bonebrake from X. Their seminal effort, A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die, was released in 1981.
Preceding that, Chris had successfully cycled through a series of careers, English teacher, aspiring filmmaker, music journalist and finally, A&R (artist and repertoire) rep and producer for Slash Records. At L.A.’s premier Punk indie label, he oversaw pioneering albums from The Gun Club, The Dream Syndicate and The Germs.
The Flesh Eaters released a couple more records featuring different line-ups. But by 1983, Chris was completely smitten with Julie Christensen, a singer he met while producing Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs. Together, they formed Divine Horsemen. Their sound mixed the sacred and profane, blurring the lines between Punk, Country, Jazz and Roots Rock. Lyrics mined the same hard-boiled prose of literary heroes like Chester Himes James Ellroy, Ambrose Bierce and Jim Thompson.
Julie and Chris were the nucleus of the band, but the fluid line-up also included guitarist Pete Andrus, bassist Robyn Jameson and drummer Rex Roberts. Between 1984 and 1987, the five-piece released four full-length records and an EP. By 1988, Chris and Julie had already married and divorced. When some band members began struggling with substance abuse, it hastened the band’s demise.
Once Divine Horsemen folded, Julie continued her singing career, occasionally releasing solo albums, touring extensively with Leonard Cohen and performing with everyone from Iggy Pop, Public Image Limited, Van Dyke Parks, Exene Cervenka, Van Morrison, k.d. lang and John Doe.
Meanwhile, Chris cultivated an intriguing acting career and released a solo album. At the start of the 21st century, he began to traverse more literary and cinematic paths. He wrote poetry and novels, as well as Gun And Sword, an exhaustive encyclopedia on Japanese cinema. 2004’s I Pass For Human marked his feature directorial debut.
Fast-forward to 2018, and the all-star Flesh Eaters line-up reconvened for a tour. It proved so successful, they booked time in a studio and recorded 2019’s I Used To Be Pretty. The album earned rave reviews and topped plenty of influential Top 10 lists. With The Flesh Eaters once again on the back burner, he decided to resurrect Divine Horsemen. Julie needed little encouragement, she had been advocating for a reunion for a while. Sadly, Robyn Jameson had passed away, a victim of street violence. Pete Andrus quickly returned to the fold, enlisted his longtime collaborator bassist Bobby Permanent. Everything fell into place when X/Flesh Eaters compadre D.J. Bonebrake stepped behind the drumkit. Released in 2021, their fifth long-player, Hot Rise Of An Ice Cream Phoenix had critics and fans alike singing it’s praises. By turns, pithy, visceral, elegant and shambolic, it was hailed as a welcome return.
Although the pandemic was raging full on, Chris hardly slowed down, writing reams of stream-of-conscious lyrics. As soon as it became safe, he and Peter shaped accompanying melodies from scratch. Meanwhile, over in New Mexico, Julie was putting the final touches on her seventh solo album. The Price We Pay For Love arrived this Spring to rapturous reviews. Now Divine Horsemen return with an expansive 16 song-set , Bitter End Of Sweet Night.
The album’s opening couple of tracks pack a powerful one-two punch. “Memory Fails” is powered by slashing, Surf Rock guitars, rumbling bass lines, slithery keys and a pounding backbeat. Chris kicks things off, as his brooding vocals wrap around lyrics that re-litigate past emotional transgressions: “’You’ll see, it’s for the best,’ the last words you said, but I wouldn’t know because I feel dead.” Decades on, it’s clear this former couple still have a connection as he notes: “No one else measures up, no one knows but you, my heart forever flew right up in the blue” and she counters “Reconciliation, anticipation, too good to be true, it was only…a dream, a shock of recognition.” Their voices intertwine on the chorus, “Memory fails, it won’t let go of you.” Guitars jangle with Byrdsy intent on the final instrumental break, buoyed by darting keys and a hi-hat kick.
“Talking In Your Sleep Again” is also determined to explore the disintegration of a marriage with startling specificity. Prowling guitars are matched by roiling bass and an off-kilter beat. The phantasma of old jealousies and betrayals receive the once over twice, before exhuming and examining more tangible wounds: “Unstitching stitches, bleeding again, hospital memories when they cut you, throwing up black in the back of your upraised bed, unstitching stitches and bleeding again.” Their vocals are suitably sepulchral as lyrics rip the bandage off emotional scar tissue. A barbed and scabrous guitar solo mirrors their perpetual malaise.
On a couple of songs, Chris drew inspiration from his exhaustive and intimate knowledge of literature and cinema. “Dirty Like An Angel” takes it’s title from a brutal film noir from French director Catherine Breillat. Strafing guitars draft off spooky keys, gritty bass and a stutter-step beat. Even though Chris and Julie trade verses, the scattered narrative is all his, as he addresses a reckless femme-fatale: “You know it’s not a pretty story when your smile cracks, the way you hold me dear, it unleashes my desires, ambushes me while I’m still putting out fires, I’m still putting out fires.” Julie’s wordless, wraith-like wail sidles around stinging guitars and spectral keys on the extended instrumental outro, framing a dissolute tableau.
“Vanina Vanini” was originally a novella from the 19th century writer, Stendahl. More than 130 years later, Italian Neo-Realist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini directed the period drama about a spoiled Italian princess in love with a revolutionary. Sugary acoustic guitars and lithe bass lines are tethered to a clip-clop gait. Julie and Chris trade verses sort of in character. But to paraphrase The Pretenders, at some point, lust turns to anger: “Perfidy, duplicity, disloyalty, infidelity, I can’t see the path any longer, it keeps me from getting stronger…..my selfish treachery, it’s so 19th century.” A swirly violin on the break adds some courtly textures.
Because most of this album was created during the pandemic, Chris and Julie collaborated on a couple of tracks, long-distance. He tackled lyrics and she wrote the music on “Notorious” and “Bitter End.” On the former, warm piano notes ripple and ache alongside serpentine violin, thready bass and a loping backbeat. Gothic lyrics paint a vivid portrait of another doomed romance: “Our path secretly made of water, wind and cold…a twisted path that damns our souls/The sun dreams of the moon, they kiss and marry in bliss, the wind shares it’s dreams and the wind drowns our dreams, you arrive, smiling and notorious.” The violin swoops and shivers between verses, adding a hint of melancholy to the inevitable.
Rangy guitars connect with tensile bass and a sturdy rhythm on the latter. The amiable arrangement and sparkly instrumentation nearly camouflage macabre lyrics like “Curdled soul and stuck-up blood, caked around your heart like early American mud, you’re a collector’s item in a disappearing time.” Guitars ring and chime throughout, adding to the melody’s sing-song feel.
Much like the last album, this one includes a few trenchant cover songs. “The Next Man I See,” was originally on the 2001 album, Sex O’ Clock, from Anita Lane. The Australian native made her bones as part of Nick Cave’s Post-Punk band, The Birthday Party, she was also briefly affiliated with his next combo, The Bad Seeds. The Divine Horsemen supplant her breathy, slightly seductive original, recasting it in a dusty, Country Rock patina Filigreed guitars lattice plaintive piano, fickle violin accents and a tick-tock beat. Chris and Julie trade verses, and the lyrics offer a nuanced reaction to infidelity that see-saws between thoughts of revenge and a measure of philosophical sangfroid: “All these broken things, they’re a part of God too, there is the divine in all that you feel and all that you do, and I think I’ll just go do what I what I do and play in your memories.”
They also offer their take on The Smoke Faries’ “Coffee Shop Blues.” The distaff duo from Chichester, England devised a blend of Dreamy Folk-Pop that has beguiled the likes of Bryan Ferry and Jack White. Chris and Julie ditch the ethereal for a more tough-minded approach. Swampy guitars, swoony Mellotron and persistent piano are bookended by wily bass and a thudding, back-tracking beat. Chris’ weather-beaten vocals are leavened by Julie’s more delicate croon, as lyrics yearn for a simpler time: “I lost it too soon, I was only 19, I’d only found my scene, all wrapped up in coffee shop blues, I wanted more than anything.”
Julie offered up a couple of tracks, retrofitting “No Mercy,” a song from her days fronting her Nashville combo Stone Cupid. It doesn’t get much of a makeover, as anthemic guitar chords, sawing violin, battered bass lines and a walloping beat cocoon Chris and Julie’s blunt back-and-forth. With little equivocation, plain spoken lyrics speak truth to power: “That’s just the way of the world, you’re a swine or you’re a pearl, you’re a king or you’re a fool, that’s the law, just the rules…nothing’s sacred nothing’s profane, you’re the same, you can keep your suggestions, there is no mercy.”
Co-written with Dan Navarro and the late Eric Lowen, (the team responsible for Pat Benatar’s mega-hit, “We Belong”), “These Evils” explores the Hollywood demi-monde that was completely familiar to the original incarnation of Divine Horseman. The wobbly melody is anchored by stickity guitars, spidery bass lines, jittery piano and a caffeinated beat. Lyrics offer a seedy snapshot of life in the streets: “Siren’s wailing in the middle of the night, but I’m safe behind my windowsill, by the freeway and the racing lights, I can see that it’s throbbing still…in Hollywood/Look at that penthouse at the flophouse, still got on all the lights, I’d like to know what’s going on….maybe I’m missing out, I try to clear my mind of these evils and still they enter in, I wonder why.”
Chris and Pete wrote the lion’s share of the songs here, seven tracks in all, including three of the album’s best. “You Knew No Other Way,” is stripped-down and economical. Jingle-jangle guitars connect with boomerang bass and a rattle-trap beat. Garrulous lyrics straddle the line between attraction and antipathy: “Trash my gentle touch, I’ll still be by your side, solitude don’t allow that much in star-filled skies/Your hidden mirror, a reflection of fear, it hurts too much to ever see clear, we missed each other by that much pulling back from our touch.” Then there’s the “On The Wane,” an antsy stream-of-conscious rant fueled by shards of Punky guitars, bruising bass lines and a brawny beat. Finally, “Footprints On The Moon,” down-stroke riff-age hurtle across nimble bass lines and a hopscotch beat. A gimlet-eyed lament, the lyrics seem to mourn both a broken romance and a diminished libido: “Waiting too long…flat on my back, stalled on a one way…cul-de-sac, paths cross…skip in the groove, rhythms of fear…afraid to move, I was happy to be here… exiled to one room, just a sad…hormonal heirloom.” An impossibly catchy guitar solo spirals on the break, landing like a hit of musical Spanish Fly.
Other interesting tracks include “Garden Of Night,” which was co-written by Chris, Peter and Erika Wear, and “Murder Of Courage,” another song Chris cannibalized from his lone solo album, Love Cannot Die. The record closes with the otherworldly “It’s Still Nowhere,” which features Bobby on lead guitar. Produced by Chris D., the album receives some superstar assists from violinist Elizabeth Wilson and Green On Red legend Chris Cacavas on piano, organ and Mellotron.
40 years ago, Chris and Julie forged a connection that transcended love and romance, heartbreak, addiction and angst. Through it all, they’ve continued a dialogue that ricochets between tart and tender, cynical and sentimental, bitter and sweet. Hopefully, that conversation never ends.