Chuck Prophet: Night Surfer
Chuck Prophet: Night Surfer
By Charles Pitter
26 September 2014
You probably want to know whether Night Surfer is any good, but the usual starting point for any article about Chuck Prophet is to lament the fact he has never hit the big time. It's easy to bracket Prophet as a cult artist, just like Elliott Murphy, Josh Rouse, or Joe Henry, but that's a somewhat lazy assertion because this kind of categorisation doesn't mean much anymore. The implication of course is of unfilled potential, as if somehow the artist should be doing better than they are. While this is usually well-intentioned enthusiasm, it's also a load of hog-wash. So-called cult artists almost always have a loyal, sometimes rabid, following of fans, an audience that will stick with them through thick or thin beyond the realms of trend. Artists with bigger commercial clout are more likely to be subject to the perilous sway of popular taste, and run the greater risk of suddenly finding themselves dumped unceremoniously at the bottom of the heap, remaindered in the bargain bin.
The other side of this well-meaning name-calling can be a type of elite snobbery, whereby the fan of a "cult" artist just wants to laud it over those who have not yet caught on to what may be the next big thing. When the artist finally breaks through, the super-fan may make accusations of selling-out.
But let's consider the possibility that not every artist necessarily even wants a big hit. Didn't somebody once say that money is the root of all evil? These days we should regularly be reminded that it's no sin to be poor, and that not everyone aspires to own the latest gadget or suburban utility vehicle no matter what the advertisers try to convince us. I'm sure a lot of musicians want to be famous, but a lot of the wiser ones must have realized by now that celebrity is a dead end and probably, most of the time, a bit of a drag.
So yeah, Chuck Prophet may not be über-famous, but Night Surfer is Prophet's 13th solo album. For the uninitiated, Prophet learnt his chops in the somewhat subterranean Paisley Underground movement, joining Green on Red in 1985 for Gas Food Lodging and successive albums. Green on Red's music has been described as psychedelic desert rock, a relatively niche category to begin with. After Green on Red's break-up, Prophet signed as a staff writer for BMG in Nashville, releasing his debut solo album Brother Aldo in 1990. Prophet's last album was 2012's Temple Beautiful, a definitively glorious record inspired by all things San Francisco. Prophet spent a few years touring Temple Beautiful non-stop around the world, including some concerts with a string octet, but here he is back again with new material surprisingly quickly for the somewhat cryptically titled Night Surfer.
Temple Beautiful was extraordinarily focused, not far from being a concept album, but ultimately a study in monochrome. After this artistic success, you can almost imagine Prophet scratching his head in the office where he writes (again for this album, often with poet Kurt Lipschutz), considering how to follow up without looking comparatively incohesive. The PR blurb claims Night Surfer is loosely conceptual, and Prophet says it's "about a path forward, about looking around and imagining where we'll be in 20 years if we just follow that path. And of course, you'll find a persistent anxiety throughout; we live, after all, in anxious times."
Fortunately Night Surfer is not an electro-futuristic nightmare, but a continuation of Prophet's twangy, jangly, pure-bred rock and roll. The conflicted and tense title of the opener, "Countrified Inner-City Technological Man", which is a raucous Rolling Stones riff monster, kind of says it all. The band delivers an exciting, conflicted performance, as Prophet rails about surveillance cameras and payday loans.
Night Surfer takes a different approach to Temple Beautiful, but the themes are broadly similar, covering the counter-culture (whatever that is), outlaws, and those on the margins. Prophet has kind of turned into the Godfather of Freak Power, but this time around it's a more grandiose vision, in full technicolor due to the wider instrumentation. "Wish Me Luck", based around a nameless real person, has a backdrop of cannabis harvests, marching in parades, and Henry Rollins. "Guilty As a Saint", which Prophet describes as a "rescue dog of a song", has more than a dose of pity for those who are not meeting their targets ("sorry I couldn't be the man I never was"). It starts with an intro reminiscent of '70s Eric Clapton, and has a great use of strings, perhaps picked up from his recent touring. Small details enhance the overall tone: Prophet's over-pronunciation of "connoisseur", some sonorous clanging bells, the unexpected melodic howling as Prophet bemoans that there are "six million people in the world / and I sleep alone."
In fact the illusive title of Night Surfer was well chosen. To get up on a wave in the dark and ride a barrel takes instinct and guts, which this record has in lorry-loads. It's a dangerous business though. "Truth Will Out (Ballad of Melissa & Remy)" is full of fear of the unknown ("tighten up your panties, boy / loosen up your wig"), a story of moral and factual ambiguity, keeping secrets and possible cover-ups, where no one ever mentions the past. Prophet's tough semi-spoken lyrics inform us that there'll be no answers, as "no one knows exactly what went down in that room." The twin guitars emphasize the multiplicity of more than one version of events, but this is how our daily news plays out. In such a climate, the cover of Ezra Furman's "If I Was a Baby" fits perfectly, with a longing for a return to infancy.
Whilst Night Surfer is an anxious, wired record, you couldn't call it neurotic, and it doesn't lack in confidence. The playing is outstanding, with a real sense of the band as a unit, kicking out, having fun. Because of this it's best listened to through speakers as opposed to solitary headphones. The atmosphere is social, as if your favourite band just happens to be playing in your garage. "They Don't Know About Me & You" has an anthemic ring to it reminiscent of Tom Petty. "Lonely Desolation" takes unfortunate circumstances and turns them in to a positive, with plucky pizzicato violins and some quirky backing. Prophet shouts that absolution is going to be hard to arrange. Catholics, or Catholicism, seem problematic on more than one song.
Prophet's singing is the strongest it's ever been despite a recent throat scare, the charismatic hip vocals well matched for the dark comedy of Night Surfer's mutant world. There's some indeterminate dark muttering and a cross-pollinated half-horse/half dog on "Laughing on the Inside" (and elsewhere a dog who's lost his bark). For the listener what's important is not what's being said, but how it's being said. "Ford Econoline" is also a great vocal performance of a tremendous song. Prophet references listening to Talking Heads as he's taken on a road trip, not knowing where he's going. Pop music geeks will immediately recognize which Talking Heads track he's listening to from the oblique but deliberately placed reference, but the lyrics are positively Dylan-esque ("all the memories like dirty plates/ stacked up in the sink of time") as Peter Buck's 12-string guitar pushes the song home. "Felony Glamour" also conjures up some vivid scenes, as Felony goes ballistic in the beauty shop. Party girls and broken poets perhaps, but the song suddenly and unexpectedly fades out, possibly the only minor disappointment that can be found.
Despite the nervous times, musically this is an upbeat record. "Tell Me Anything (Turn to Gold)" seems like the natural single, a catchy empathic jangle "to bring your troubles home to me." You can easily climb inside this song due to the communal, uplifting spirit of the chorus. "Love Is the Only Thing" is a universal message of hope with a deep glam '70s Marc Bolan riff, and it's a difficult philosophy to argue with when it's put so determinedly.
In the notes to the album, Prophet considers whether Miley Cyrus should cover one of the songs. Perhaps this would please the converts, make Prophet a pile of dough, and put him front and center on an arena or stadium stage. Ticket prices would double, merchandise sales quadruple. But if Prophet was commodified, over-exposed, commercialized, wouldn't the essence of this quirky, talented musician be diluted? Night Surfer is as good as it gets and you don't need much more, if anything at all.
Chuck Prophet – Night Surfer
"Life in Startup City, USA is making me anxious ... Landlords licking their lips, people getting evicted and laying down in front of buses. I can relate. I feel like I've been duct taped back together so many times I don't know what I'm a part of anymore," muses Chuck Prophet about his new album, Night Surfer. It's a record that belongs to that growing trend of middle-aged songwriters commenting upon, however indirectly, a world that seems to grow more restless, unnerving, and bleak by the blink (see: Elvis Costello's National Ransom, Robyn Hitchcock's Love from London). But like its contemporaries, Night Surfer doesn't curl up and wallow or slump into grouchiness, but rather acts as a diversion or pick-me-up from the same heady confusion it addresses. "This record is about a path forward for better AND worse," says Prophet, "flying blind, looking around, punching your way out of a paper sack." The result isn't a blueprint for aging gracefully or even surviving these vexing times as much as it is one man's makeshift plan for making it through the day with a bit of humor, sanity, and hope left intact.
Prophet's "path forward," full of his signature brio, wit, and sass, paves its way upon the same dynamics that have always made life worth struggling for. Standout rocker "They Don't Know About Me and You", though set in the distant future, pits boy and girl against the world, an archetype that resonates with many of us on a daily basis, even if only facing a mortgage or future in-laws and not the extinction of the human race. On "Ford Econoline", a woman, an old touring van, and a Talking Heads song on the radio (not to mention Peter Buck's cameo twelve-string) are enough to summon a warm feeling and create some mistiness. And on closer "Love Is the Only Thing", Prophet concludes, as have many songwriters before him, that love, despite its ability to inflict hurt upon us, is the only real gold left in a depreciating world. In many ways, Night Surfer really becomes a record bent on salvaging — or at least recognizing — what's still worth clinging to in our lives.
Musically, listeners will be familiar with Prophet's tact for architecting guitar-driven songs that are equal parts grit and jangle pop (e.g., "Countrified Inner City Technological Man", "Ford Econoline"), but it's often the subtler adornments or decisions that Night Surfer crests upon: like the shouted, call-and-response backing vocals in the pop chorus of "Tell Me Anything (Turn to Gold)" or the mumbling interlude of "Laughing on the Inside", with building strings that prod the song to its coiling finish. Other times, cooldowns that might threaten to stymie the record's momentum avoid tedium through a mix of elements — falsetto and strings ("Guilty as a Saint") or cooing backing vocals and plucking instrumentation ("Lonely Desolation") — and actually create breathing space that make the surrounding rockers all the more potent.
It's rare that Prophet loses his balance on Night Surfer. "Felony Glamour", despite its energy and interjection of horns, ultimately falls flat with its one-note observational commentary and fades out to no meaningful end. Likewise, the spoke-sung courtroom narrative "Truth Will Out (Ballad of Melissa and Remy)" features a great vocal turn on its chorus and some choice Prophet-isms ("He called himself The Greek, but he only spoke French"), but not a compelling enough story or arrangement to warrant repeat listens. Still, Night Surfer remains that rare record that elucidates how dysfunctional our world has become while somehow leaving us thankful that we get to trudge ahead through the mess. Maybe the album's takeaway line actually comes from Prophet's cover of Ezra Furman's "If I Was a Baby": "Life is a waiting room for all those who wait/ So much of it's terrible, but all of it's great."
Essential Tracks: "They Don't Know About Me and You", "Tell Me Anything (Turn to Gold)", and "Ford Econoline"
CHUCK PROPHET AND THE MISSION EXPRESS, RED JACKET MINE
CHUCK PROPHET AND THE MISSION EXPRESS, RED JACKET MINE
(White Eagle, 836 N Russell) We've still got Ray Davies, but even if we didn't, Chuck Prophet would be more than adequate compensation. The San Francisco songwriter's knack for melody and eagle eye for emotional truth has resulted in a gratuitous wealth of terrific music, and his 13th solo album, Night Surfer, comes out in September. Until then, 2012's Temple Beautiful is more than enough to tide me over: That album's "Museum of Broken Hearts" and "Willie Mays Is Up at Bat" are marvelous evergreens, full of sadness and life and regret and hope. Prophet's one of America's best living songwriters, up there with Jason Isbell and David Dondero and Willy Vlautin. Peter Buck guested on Night Surfer, so if he's in town, maybe he'll come out for a song or two. NED LANNAMANN
August 9, 2014
@ McCabe's Guitar Shop
Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express
8:00 p.m. June 27 @ McCabe's Guitar Shop
On his new album, Temple Beautiful, Chuck Prophet takes listeners on a musical travelogue through the city of San Francisco. With homages to Willie Mays and Harvey Milk and references to Jim Jones and the old Mission District, Prophet is clearly celebrating the vanishing, virtually mythic, classic incarnation of the city, long before it turned into a soulless yuppie enclave. Joined by such quintessential Bay Area musicians as the Flamin' Groovies' Roy Loney and Tubes drummer Prairie Prince, Prophet duets with his vocalist wife, Stephanie Finch, and segues from jangling power-pop anthems ("Castro Halloween") to austere ballads ("Museum of Broken Hearts"). Backed by the aptly named Mission Express, the singer also brings along a string section tonight to cast aloft dreamy tracks such as "He Came From So Far Away."
— By Falling James
June 24, 2014
Chuck Prophet never needed a revival
by Jason Cohen
The Paisley Underground revival is upon us. The Dream Syndicate, the Rain Parade and the Three O'Clock have all returned this year. Mazzy Star, led by Rain Parade co-founder David Roback, is back with a new single. And the Bangles have been reunited since 2003. Then there's Chuck Prophet, an antidote to both nostalgia and such pigeonholes. All the term "Paisley Underground" ever really meant in 1982—if it meant anything at all—was, "look, a bunch of post-punk bands who also still like classic rock and folk and psychedelia and songwriting!" And while the LA/Arizona band that Prophet played in, Green on Red, also reunited briefly in 2006, he's been making solo records out of San Francisco for two decades plus, a rich and ragged catalog of music you could summarize by saying, "look, a post-punk kid who also still likes classic rock and folk and psychedelia and songwriting!"... and Memphis soul and glam and cosmic country and whatever else you might call rock 'n' roll. An equally magnetic singer, songwriter and lead guitarist, the 50-year-old Prophet has been particularly prolific in the past five years, putting out two records under his own name (2009's ¡Let Freedom Ring! and last year's Temple Beautiful), plus one by his bandmate, spouse and ace-in-the-hole Stephanie Finch (2010's Cry Tomorrow). There were also two collaborations with Austin's Alejandro Escovedo—Prophet co-wrote some of last year's Street Songs of Love, and co-wrote and played guitar on all of 2008's Real Animal (that record's quasi-hit, "Always a Friend," is a staple of both mens' set, as well as a song Escovedo has played live with Bruce Springsteen a few times). On top of that, Prophet co-fronted a Clash cover band, the Spanish Bombs (taking the Strummer role) and landed his song "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)" over the closing credits of an episode of "True Blood." Like a ballplayer who's not a superstar but makes the lineup every game and still plays on a winter team in Mexico, Prophet never stops working. He does it because the constant action (and variety) make him a better artist and because, well, that's the only way to make a living playing music in this day and age. When they take the stage on Sunday afternoon at the River City Roots Festival, Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express will have played 22 shows in August, including a Thursday-Friday-Saturday swing from Big Sky to Great Falls and back to Bozeman.
- Chuck Prophet's band Green on Red was associated with the Paisley Underground in the 1980s, but it's his solo albums that have made him a lasting artist.
You'll still find "(formerly of Green on Red)" next to Prophet's name more than occasionally, which at this point is like saying "(ex-Nirvana)" of the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, or putting "(from the Yardbirds)" on an Eric Clapton poster. It's true, but incomplete. Prophet's own website has the right perspective, listing the Green on Red catalog under "side projects" on the discography page. GoR broke up in 1992; Prophet's second solo album, Balinese Dancer, was released in 1993. At the time, it was actually a little shocking that such a good guitarist was also such an appealing, multi-faceted singer-songwriter and frontman. It's even more shocking that I'm still listening to him in 2013. Undeniable truth: If 90 percent of all musicians only ever made three records, we'd be missing out on nothing. But Prophet's last two records, No. 9 and No. 10 respectively, may well be the best of his career, which, after 30 years, including 20 solo, is a rare thing to achieve, and something you can't even say about Springsteen or Bob Dylan. And comparing Prophet to Springsteen feels increasingly appropriate. He covered "For You" while touring behind ¡Let Freedom Ring!, which the Village Voice called "a Born in the USA for our time," and his tastes are similarly ecumenical, if more punk rock (read: better). But what really stands out is the sense of showmanship. Earlier this month in Philadelphia, Prophet sprinkled "Willie Mays Is Up At Bat" with an entertaining mid-song yammer about the inferiority of soccer (and cricket) to baseball. "Ladies and gentlemen, I don't have to explain to you what's going on right about now ... We play this song in [the United Kingdom] and they don't know what's going on! ... In [soccer], it's a lot like our Giants, there's a good chance that you can watch an entire game and neither team will score a point!" It's as kitschy a verbal riff as Bruce's storytelling, sans the teleprompter, but almost certainly repeated other nights. It then explodes into a Thin Lizzyesque guitar duel (if you don't mind Internet spoilers, you can listen to it and the whole show, which also features an especially raging "Cortez the Killer"-style "You Did" at archive.org). And this carnival barker persona is nothing new. "Ladies and gentlemen, step right this way," Prophet sang way back on his debut album, 1990's Brother Aldo. You still should.
(Concert Review) Chuck Prophet, Club Helsinki Hudson, 8.10.13
Chuck Prophet Club Helsinki Hudson Hudson, N.Y. Saturday, August 10, 2013 Review by Seth Rogovoy (HUDSON, N.Y.) – For those who perennially need their faith restored that rock 'n' roll music can be intelligent and entertaining, thoughtful and fun, Chuck Prophet comes around at least once a year to demonstrate that it can and does, as he did on Saturday night to Club Helsinki Hudson. With the expert assistance of his five-piece band, the Mission Express, featuring his wife, Stephanie Finch – "the brains behind pa," as he puts it — on keyboards and backup vocals, Prophet played a generous set of his smart, catchy brand of rootsy rock that, importantly, never draws too much attention to itself nor takes itself too seriously.
It did, however, please the brain and the ears – as well as the part of you that makes you want to dance. There are lessons to be learned here. Aspiring rockers may want to study Prophet's stage performance, as well as his songcraft, to see how it all gets put together in the post-Beatles, post-modern era. Prophet entertains with a bemused nonchalance that belies an awesome talent. His songs – drawing equally on blues, country, pop, and soul — range from cinematic stories to sociocultural critique to confessional heartbreak, but always with a clever narrative strategy. His narrators could well be the spawn of Randy Newman's narrators, and like that elder master of pop irony, he gives voice to them with a jaded, arch delivery that is as much persona as it is personable. That he doesn't look the part, also much like Newman, also makes his live shows even more of a treat.
Chuck Prophet at SPACE
In some parallel dimension Chuck Prophet is a star, though for the real-world fans he's amassed over the past three decades, beginning with his stint in Green on Red through his well-regarded solo career, he may as well already be one. Certainly Prophet stands as a revered writer's writer, earning the respect of such peers as Lucinda Williams and Alejandro Escovedo—the latter's last three records were cowritten with Prophet.
One wonders whether Escovedo's pronounced trips down memory lane partly inspired Prophet's latest, Temple Beautiful, a tribute to his San Francisco roots that's populated with figures both familiar and forgotten, from Willie Mays, murdered politician Harvey Milk and legendary stripper Carol Doda to an ode to the colorful characters gathered to watch the annual Castro Street Halloween parades. The music itself combines the provincial street poetry of Lou Reed with roots-riffs and the jangle of power-pop, all propelled with a passion and soul that lifts the project well past its personal scrapbook blueprint. And that's really the gift of a great storyteller: to make memories public, to make friends out of strangers, to take something specific and transform it into something universal. Or, in the case of the oblique AIDS chronicle "Museum of Broken Hearts," to turn the tragic, dirty or damaged into something beautiful.
In ‘Temple Beautiful,’ Chuck Prophet reflects on his Bay Area home
Chuck Prophet's catalogue is overflowing with insightful character studies, jangle-pop perfection and energetic barroom rockers. And that accounts for just some of the songs he has written, recorded and forgotten. In his 25-plus-year career, the 49-year-old has established himself as a minor god in the roots-rock pantheon — a sharp, prolific singer-songwriter who always seems to have a new batch of tunes ready to go.
Prophet didn't have to look far for inspiration for his new album — it was all around him. "Temple Beautiful" is a tribute to Prophet's longtime home of San Francisco. As Prophet and songwriting partner Kurt Lipschutz were working on new material, the idea of a San Francisco-centric album dawned on them, and they went with it. They had secluded themselves in an Internet-free zone, so there was no digging for details and the album is more interpretive history than history lesson.
"We couldn't really research anything, so we started leaning on the more mythical side of things," Prophet says of the songwriting process. "You get to have fun with the characters. In the case of Willie Mays, we put him in a song with a bunch of people that he would never be caught dead with."
Prophet is referring to the song "Willie Mays Is Up at Bat," which serves as a tidy centerpiece to an album that marks another creative high point in his career.
"I hear the church bells ring, Willie Mays is up at bat / I hear the crowd go wild, all he did was touch his hat / Meanwhile Carol Doda stood up and said I won't be ignored / She showed 'em everything she had then she showed 'em all a little more," goes the first verse, placing the baseball Hall of Famer in the same company as the famous 1960s Bay Area stripper.
From there, notorious cult leader Jim Jones interacts with legendary concert promoter Bill Graham. There are more peeks into the seedier corners of town before the song ends with a Thin Lizzy-level guitar flourish. It's the kind of tune that has become synonymous with Prophet — a rollicking story-song with lyrics both wistful and funny and no shortage of impressive guitar runs.
Prophet's career began in the mid-'80s when he joined Green on Red, then one of the leading bands in a robust L.A. psychedelic pop scene. In the early '90s, Prophet embarked on a solo career that has put him in a place where he's neither a household name nor in danger of toiling in obscurity. The likes of Bob Dylan, Alex Chilton and Tom Waits may be obvious influences, but Prophet also cites Woody Allen as an inspiration for his auteurism and devotion to making a new film each year. Prophet similarly keeps chugging along. And although at this point songwriting seems to be second nature, he's still thrilled when a new creation comes to fruition.
"I try to explain what it's like to just be addicted to the buzz of wrestling a song to the ground," Prophet says. "And that's what it is, a buzz. And as soon as I do get a song to behave and it's a good song, I'm pretty depressed after that. I never really know where the next one's coming from. I think I understand the craft. . .but the [last] part of the process is the mystery — what makes someone want to listen to it again?"
"Temple Beautiful" is overstuffed with songs worthy of repeat listens. It also serves as an ideal gateway into what can be a daunting discography. The title track (named after the old punk club where Prophet saw life-changing gigs, including the Dead Kennedys) is a boisterous roadhouse rocker with sax blasts and hand claps. "Castro Halloween" is a shimmering slice of guitar pop that Wilco fans should love. If this isn't the best album of Prophet's career, it's definitely one of the most invigorating. And he has San Francisco to thank.
"I've been lucky enough to travel around playing music," he says, "and I just always look forward to coming home."
Green On Red man’s ode to San Francisco
Temple Beautiful – Yep Roc
Green On Red man's ode to San Francisco
The city by the bay, a radical outpost and rich source of urban myth and legend, provides a fine springboard for the ever buoyant Prophet here. Titled after the long-since defunct punk rock club where he earned his stripes, Temple Beautiful provides a home for the many musical genres Chuck has explored since then.
With songs combining wry world weariness, affectionate homage and emotional depth, the singularly sumptuous production makes Museum of Broken Hearts' valediction for the AIDS epidemic a standout, but the pleasures are abundant.
The title track manages to combine Stones in the honky tonk groove with a crafty Ramones tribute and Willie Mays Is Up To Bat is what The Replacements might have sounded like, had they been able to stay together and get into a Dylan influenced late period. A heroic all round smash and grab raise on rebel rock across the generations. Well played, Sir.
Spirited homage to the City by the Bay; Flamin’ Groovie Roy pitches in.
Spirited homage to the City by the Bay; Flamin' Groovie Roy pitches in.
After dabbling in everything from swamp-pop to hip-hop – not to mention his verbatim London Calling tour – renaissance-rocker Prophet literally brings it all back home on Temple Beautiful, a dozen beautifully melodic, razor-sharp guitar-pop elegies to his 'Frisco roots. Mythological in scope, soulful in execution – tracking everything from the city's vaunted musical history to baseball star Willie Mays and madman/murderer Jim Jones, it's a feast of contextual songwriting and sizzling guitar. The piercing "Castro Halloween" and the NY Dolls-style rave-up title cut jump out first, but the whole lot is first rate.
Chuck Prophet: If it's Tuesday, it must be...Helsinki?
Actually, I think he's in Oslo on Tuesday. Yep, Chuck Prophet has left the building, split town, crossed the state line and fled the country ... all the way to Europe, where he's touring in support of his brand spanking new release, Temple Beautiful (Yep Roc Records). He'll be performing solo, opening up for the Jayhawks on a short, nine city blitz, but returns to Europe in April for 31 headlining dates with the full Mission Express band, featuring the eternally cheerful Stephanie Finch (Chuck's wife) on keyboards and vocals, James DePrato on guitar, Rusty Miller on bass and "never quite sure" on drums. Not that unusual for Prophet to venture across the Atlantic, where he's developed quite a following since his 1980s "Paisley Underground" days, fronting Green on Red.
Unless you've spent the past couple of months sequestered in a seedy Pacheco motel room, you're probably aware that Prophet and the Mission Express (named after a San Francisco bus line) played six Sunday night shows during their recent Armando's residency. Each concert was expectedly unpredictable, whether the band was road testing new tunes or pulling out the irresistible pairing of Chuck's chilling bible and bullhorn preacher feature, "Automatic Blues" and Neil Young's big spike classic, "Motorcycle Mama," starring Finch as Nicolette Larsen. It was fascinating to witness Prophet and reformed hair metal guitar prodigy -- now double necked slide hero -- Deprato, adroitly switch off between lead and rhythm. I hear things got a little hot and sweaty towards the end of the sold out two month run, with disheartened fans being turned away at the door. But don't fret if you missed out, because I have a strong feeling our Prophet will return. After all, it appears a musical free love society has blossomed between Chuck, Roy Jeans and the patrons of his Marina Vista nightspot.
Prophet turns 49 this year, but at an age when most recording artists have long passed their creative peak and are coasting on autopilot, Chuck defies the norm by actually improving with age. His previous album, Let Freedom Ring! (2009), was a paranoia fueled masterpiece, recorded under chaotic circumstances (swine flu epidemic, earthquakes, power outages and "policia" hassles) in the bustling metropolis of Mexico City. And while a new Chuck Prophet CD is usually a cause for celebration, I'd been anticipating the Feb. 7 release of Temple Beautiful with some degree of trepidation. After all, how does one fashion a worthy successor to the alt-rock equivalent (reasonably close anyways) of Abbey Road (The Beatles), Blonde on Blonde (Bob Dylan) or Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones)? The Beatles responded to their success by breaking up, Dylan fell off his motorcycle, and The Stones stuck a goat's head in a soup pot.
In retrospect, I really had nothing to worry about, since Prophet attacks each new project by applying his typical "nothing to lose" attitude. You can't go wrong when you have the ability/gift to consistently craft timeless tunes, à la Paul Westerberg, Alex Chilton and "On the Beach" era Neil Young. Plus, you have an exceptionally potent combination when you add Prophet's razor sharp Telecaster guitar skills (think Keith Richards meets the twin guitar assault of The Clash and Television) and his haunting, slightly cynical Alt-Petty vocal drawl (take two thirds cup Tom Petty, add a pinch of Jim Morrison, a dash of Dylan, blend well and bake at 375 degrees until crispy on top).
Temple Beautiful (his 12th CD) is named after a long defunct music venue -- oddly shoehorned between The Fillmore and Reverend Jim Jones' People's Temple -- where a precocious Prophet caught seminal punk acts like Black Flag and The Dead Kennedys. The album mines a similar alt-indie-punk-pop-soul-folk-blues-country-rock (here-to-after referred to simply as rock) vein as earlier releases, although instead of Freedom's shattered American Dream, the lyrics pertain to various people, places and things associated with the bohemian city in which he resides -- or as Chuck puts it, "a love letter to the town where I grew up ... San Francisco."
High points of the new record include the slashing, "You Really Got Me" guitar burst of title track ("Temple Beautiful"), the poignantly rocking ode to "the freakiest most beautiful celebration" ever ("Castro Halloween") and the Cain and Able-like brotherly love story between Jim and Artie Mitchell ("The Left Hand and the Right Hand"). All three conjure up vivid images that will have you singing in the shower and humming in your dreams, both day and night.
Every track contains numerous examples of Prophet's piquant wit, whether he's discussing Carol Doda in "Willie Mays is up to Bat" ("She showed them everything she had, then she showed them all a little more"), the frailty of art and human emotions in "Museum of Broken Hearts" ("Some of them are permanent, some have come and gone / some are just too delicate to move") or a night of tragedy in "Castro Halloween" ("When the shots rang out and two men died, you took off your mask just to see me cry").
Prophet and Yep Rock Records decided to promote the album by organizing a San Francisco bus tour/record release party, hosted by long time KFOG radio personality, Peter Finch (no relation to Stephanie). However, this was clearly not your typical corn on the cob fed Nebraskan über tour bus excursion, as confirmed by Prophet's claim that participants would see, "The liquor store where Janis Joplin purchased her first bottle of Southern Comfort." Following a jaunt through the city, revelers were dropped off at an 18th and Capp St. warehouse and treated to a Mission Express concert, with special guests Kelley Stoltz and John Doe (X). Yep Roc generously provided the free Mexican food and two kegs of beer -- no tip jar in sight.
Well, the verdict is in: it's a pretty damn good record -- perhaps even better than Freedom. And if there was any justice (hah!) in this world, Temple Beautiful would go multi-platinum and the title track would be a number one smash hit! But alas, the Prophet freight train will continue to chug along as just another fairly well kept secret. And though he's accumulated a fair sized collection of faithful followers, in order to pay the utility bills he augments his income through songwriting and strategic television placement. In recent years, Prophet has written for, collaborated with and had songs covered by a wide range of artists, including Alejandro Escovedo, Dan Penn, Solomon Burke and country music stars Kelly Willis and Cyndi Thompson. One composition in particular, "No Other Love," was covered twice, by the classic rock group Heart and by Michael Grimm, winner of America's Got Talent (2010). As for television, Prophet's "You Did" appeared on the season two soundtrack to HBO's True Blood and his "Love Won't Keep us Apart" was heard on Sons of Anarchy (FX).
So, the next time you need a break from watching high-def TV, or downloading the latest G4 App, and want to hear a really good album from one of the last purveyors of original rock music, hop on down to your local Rasputin Records and purchase the new Chuck Prophet CD, Temple Beautiful. Or better yet, make audiophile Chuck truly happy and pick it up on 180 gram vinyl -- free poster while supplies last.
a witty, gritty style that simply goes unmatched
San Francisco singer/songwriter/producer Chuck Prophet makes a mighty follow-up to 2009's Let Freedom Ring! With Temple Beautiful, his 12th studio album. Well-known as a co-founder of Paisley Underground head honchos Green On Red, Prophet lives up to his last name with a witty, gritty style that simply goes unmatched. TB, named after a long-defunct punk rock club, is packed with Prophet's unmistakeable style, and features special guests such as Red Man, Dan White, Flamin' Groovies vocalist Roy Loney, and a passel of highly talented soul mates. TB kicks off with the driving, fiery rocker ""Play That Song Again,"- a number that causes the listener do just that. "Castro Halloween" weeps and bleeds out a memorable, rough ballad- all bells and whistles intact. " The title cut is a catchy hand-clapper with Chuck's trademark "shooby doo wahs" and a memorable tale of unrequited love. "Museum Of Broken Hearts" slows the pace and shares his deepest fantasies, "Willie Mays Is Up At Bat" recalls a personal tale of the past over slithering slide guitar, while "I Felt Like Jesus" is an urban toe-tapper of the highest order. "Who Shot John" recalls Johnny Cash- a musical journey through crime, hard times, and righteous rhythms. "Little Girl, Little Boy"is an upbeat duet with Chuck's partner Stephanie Finch, and slams out like a `50's jukebox standard- replete with bouncy piano, danceable decadence, and revved-up horns. "White Night, Big City" collects all of the album's highlights to perfection, and the disc closes with the mystical, spiritual slice of lust and loneliness that is "Emperor Norton In The Last Year Of His Life (1880)" which neatly ties the whole affair together; bow and all. A must-have for fans, and an effort that should be heard globally. Sublime.
Temple Beautiful paints a vivid, romantic picture of the San Francisco demimonde
Chuck Prophet's 12th solo album is a love letter to San Francisco (though only the most well-informed locals will catch every reference). Not only does the longtime Bay Area resident pepper his tunes with classic local characters like Mission district oddball Red Man and self-proclaimed world leader Emperor Norton I, but he also sets each story-song amid the city's lost cultural landmarks. Characters wander through the Albion bar, fall in love at the Temple nightclub, commune with carnival attraction Laffing Sal, and teeter atop high heels at the Castro Halloween Parade. Meanwhile, his band -- which includes such local luminaries as the Flamin' Groovies' Roy Loney, the Tubes' Prairie Prince, and Prophet's wife, Stephanie Finch -- wraps Prophet's Tom Petty-esque vocals in an anachronistic style of rock that fits the songs as snugly as fishnet stockings. The title tune evokes the rough-and-rowdy strut of Mott the Hoople, with its honking sax, plinky piano, and chugging guitars, while the serrated riffs of "Play That Song Again" recall Prophet's work in the '80s Paisley Underground scene with Green on Red. The occasional luridness of the material may give the stiffs at the Chamber of Commerce pause, but Temple Beautiful paints a vivid, romantic picture of the San Francisco demimonde.
Chuck Prophet Takes Fans and Famous Guests on a Musical Bus Tour of San Francisco
Chuck Prophet and Guests
Feb. 7, 2012
Better than: Going broke at any nearby Mission District restaurant.
To commemorate yesterday's release of his new album, Temple Beautiful, S.F. singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet and Yep Roc Records treated about 40 fans to a guided bus tour of San Francisco last night, followed by an intimate set at The Catacombs with Prophet and an impressive array of guests. The motif of the tour was intended to coincide with the thematic spirit of Temple Beautiful, an appreciation of San Francisco's local lore and unusual history.
Unconventional promotion is not entirely new to Prophet. (We seem to recall a taco cart outside Café Du Nord at an earlier album launch.) But the elaborate bus tour, which took attendees to various San Francisco locales chosen by Prophet, was a particularly earnest and unique gesture, especially considering it was free.
The tour was hosted partly by KFOG/KGO radio personality Peter Finch, who first took us to Treasure Island to gaze at Marco Cochrane's 40-foot tall sculpture of a naked woman with San Francisco's skyline in the background. Since Finch didn't appear to have much of a prepared script, he engaged passengers in a playful banter about San Francisco's landmarks and history, with a focus on its most bizarre and unsung qualities. Between chats, Finch played songs by Garland Jeffreys and The Flamin' Groovies that inspired Temple Beautiful, along with songs from the album and prerecorded commentary from Prophet himself. Despite some awkward pauses and difficulty operating the bus's stereo system, Finch's obvious amusement with the entire evening was endearing, and his sardonic one-liners retained our attention.
After admiring some of Prophet's favorite murals in the Lower Haight, Finch commanded the bus driver to stop next to Central Market and asked passengers, "Does anyone like Southern Comfort?" When he returned from liquor store, he had indeed purchased a bottle, but he was also accompanied an older gentleman in a burgundy trench coat. As he passed the bottle of Southern Comfort, he introduced the man as Joel Selvin, pop music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly 40 years.
Selvin boisterously narrated the tour throughout the Haight district with tales of 1960s rock `n' roll debaucheries and Jimi Hendrix's fabled panhandle performance, and gave his firsthand account of the night that the original Temple Beautiful—a legendary punk venue—burned down. When the bus arrived at the top of Twin Peaks, passengers exited to take in the view. While admiring the brightly illuminated Market Street, a barrage of acoustic guitars rang out: Prophet had been lying in wait and serenaded us with an acoustic rendition of the title track from Temple Beautiful.
With Prophet and his wife accompanying us on the bus to the next location, former Avengers frontwoman Penelope Houston, whom Prophet has collaborated with in a number of capacities, recited a list of the 10 worst things that could possibly have happened on that night. But her appearance was only a taste of the guests in store for later.
The bus tour ended at The Catacombs, a warehouse venue in the Mission, where the 40-odd passengers filed in and grazed upon complimentary beer and snacks. The unconventional space was densely decorated with art, candles, and red velvet flourishes, but the sound was comparable to any other local, professional venue. Prophet's initial set drew exclusively from his newest record, and with a map of San Francisco draped behind the band, it couldn't have been a more thematically cohesive performance.
Prophet has assembled an extremely tight band, and they demonstrated their proficiency right away with "Willie Mays is up at Bat," which ends in triumphant dual guitar leads. "White Night, Big City," the single from the new album, is perhaps the mellowest song on it, with its simplistic, cute keyboard pitter-patter. But it deals with the some of the heaviest subject matter: the assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.
The backup vocals of Stephanie Finch, Prophet's wife, in her woeful, upper register, provided a pleasant foil for Prophet's impassioned delivery, and songs like "Little Boy, Little Girl" in which she was featured prominently, stood out as some of the evening's finest moments.
Prophet's selection of The Flamin' Groovies hit, "Shake Some Action" as a soundtrack to the drive earlier in the evening proved to be heavy-handed foreshadowing as well. Roy Loney, the Groovies front man, took the stage with Prophet and performed three songs from the early Flamin' Groovies catalog. The joyous atmosphere became ecstatic during Loney's brief appearance, both on stage and off.
It was truly a Yep Roc-centric evening. Kelley Stoltz took stage to perform two of his own songs, followed by Prophet's band playing Stephanie Finch originals with her on guitar and lead vocals. But the arrival of John Doe was particularly shocking. He performed one song off his last solo album, Keeper, with Prophet in raucous accompaniment, and then left the stage.
With an ironically chosen cover of Iggy Pop's "I'm Bored" as an encore, the show was through, and an elaborate, unique rock `n roll album release event was concluded. At one point in the set, Prophet summarily described the impetus behind such elaborate festivities with the observation, "It's good to make records that aren't about yourself. That way, you can have a really good time promoting it."
Chuck Prophet's Setlist
Willie Mays is up at Bat
Who Shot John
White Night, Big City
I Felt Like Jesus
Little Boy, Little Girl
With Roy Loney
A Hundred Miles
Not since Lou Reed paid homage to the city and era that forged him with New York has there been a song cycle dedicated to a place and reality that offers the core immediacy with the thump, churn and ferocity of Chuck Prophet's Temple Beautiful. It's a stripped-down rock `n' roll record where the drums pump and echo, guitars slash and buzz, horns squawk like geese with rhythm, and the former wunderkind of progressive cosmic cowboys Green On Red bristles with an intensity that makes great rock burn.
More than anything—even the punk aggression, the unadorned arrangements that slice to the core, the voice that tears through layers of guitars, bass and drums—there's a far-flung Americana at work. Named for Jim Jones' San Francisco-based temple, the title track is all marching band pound-down, while the strummy electric guitar-basted "Castro Halloween" evokes the sweetness of Alex Chilton's power-pop and the promise of holidays burning off to leave the wistfulness of what is. The post-Western "I Felt Like Jesus" is equal parts Clint Eastwood and Azetec Radio, xylophone flourishes popping around the melody.
Noir machismo that's so pulp West Coast pushes the flat rock of "Who Shot John," and the Paisley Underground scene of LA in the '80s sweeps through the character sketch "He Came From So Far Away," ethereal background vocals falling in sheets and whispering the details of an illusionary life that may or may not be what is presented.
It is the details that make Prophet explode. Loping through a strtaight-forward midtempo— lacerated with bits of twangy guitar—of "Willie Mays Is Up At Bat," it's an afternoon painted vividly, a conflict torqued and bravado bristling in the seemingly ordinary moment. Not quite Bukowski, the tale has a beat poetry sensibility that honors San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, and enough rising and falling "ohhhhOOOhhhoooHHHohOH" chorus to make Legionnaires of us all.
That is Prophet's vexation: maintaining the innocence in the knowing. "Little Girl, Little Boy"—featuring wife Stephanie Finch—is pure '50s swoon via Ramones nostalgia to keep it from Sha-Na-Na-ery. Even more retrofit is "White Night, Big City" that scrapes Blondie-esque punk doowop for its essence.
Still, it's Lou Reed who keeps flickering. With the pounding, half-barked "Play That Song Again," it's a more likable "Sweet Jane"/"Walk On The Wild Side" hybrid, also suggesting Alejandro Escovedo's Real Animal, which Prophet co-wrote—and the slow-mourn blues of "Emperor Norton" that is an unsentimental caution, Prophet channels Reed's pervasive urban edge without overwhelming his own voice.
Chuck Prophet's 'Beautiful' Homage To San Francisco
Chuck Prophet's new album, Temple Beautiful, takes its name from a former synagogue that hosted punk-rock shows in the late `70s and early `80s; it was next door to the temple overseen by cult leader Jim Jones. That may sound like a grim or black-humored reference point around which to erect an album, but with Prophet, grimness, humor, fact and fiction mingle freely. Before anything else, he's a guitar player with a melodically nasal voice whose phrasing favors the whimsical and the querulous.
Over the course of this album, Prophet takes you on a tour of San Francisco as he's lived and dreamed it, watching Castro Street Halloween parades, the famous local stripper Carol Doda and the San Francisco Giants-era Willie Mays. Prophet says his album is filled with "Google-free" facts and non-facts to suit the mythology he wants to create about the city he's so fond of.
One of the ways Prophet achieves tension and release in his songs is by contrasting the content of the lyrics with the tone of the music. Take, for example, "White Night, Big City," about the 1978 murder of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and the riots that followed the trial of Milk's killer, Dan White. Prophet frames his version of that narrative with a song that has a jaunty melody, a refrain featuring doo-wop harmonies and openhearted compassion. The result is music whose ironies aren't cheap ones.
Ultimately, you can listen to Temple Beautiful for the superficial catchiness of its tunes, Prophet's slashed guitar chords and his searching, keening vocals and have a good time. And if you want to, you can listen more closely to what he's getting at on this album, and experience the album as one man's alternative history of three decades of West Coast culture and politics. All that, plus a few awfully good songs about having your heart broken.
W&A With Chuck Prophet
On his 10th studio album, Temple Beautiful (Yep Roc), Chuck Prophet found his muse in the city he's called home for 30 years. Exploring the local landmarks and myths with friend and poet klipschutz, Prophet winds his way through San Francisco, stretching tales even taller along the way. But this guided tour isn't a detailed and prefabricated concept album, so much as it's the product of spontaneous inspiration, and it's not a document of the city's past as much as it is of its present. MAGNET caught up with Prophet to explore some of the things that inspired the making of Temple Beautiful. Prophet will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
MAGNET: Temple Beautiful has been dubbed your "ode to San Francisco." What inspired this album-length exploration of the city?
Prophet: I was writing songs with a friend of mine, Kurt; his pen-name is klipschutz. We were just kind of messing around, really, and we tapped into this vein where I was just like, "This could be a San Francisco record." And that's really it. It kind of floated to the top, then once we tapped into that, everything started flowing.
I know ¡Let Freedom Ring! had a bit more of a political tone or thread. Do you feel like giving yourself these sorts of conceptual frameworks helps the album come together?
Yeah, for me it does for sure. I know some things about writing songs. I know how to put things together. But really, I'm kind of in awe of the whole process. Mostly, I feel like I don't know anything, so I guess it helps to be pushing an idea along. Then it's like, you have an idea in a room with somebody, and you're playing some chords, and you're shouting at the walls and bouncing sounds around, and, you know, somebody says, "Well, we're going to have to see if Willie Mays will show up in one of these songs." That's kind of the way it goes, you know.
Is it a deliberate thing for you, to come up with an idea for the record before you start really getting into the meat of the song?
I mean, I can write songs, like love songs or relationship songs or whatever. But I feel like at some point something emerges. At some point you stand back and squint and say, "Well, this is kind of where this record's going." I dunno. Maybe it's something you figure out when the record's done.
I wonder sometimes, too, how much is just critics projecting.
People only have so much time. So, if somebody says that they went to Alaska and lived in a teepee for a year and wrote these songs, that might be the best way to describe it. I really don't know. I know that when we tapped into the spontaneity and the kind of energy that brought me here in the first place, then we had songs I was excited about. I guess that's it. And you gotta understand, too, I was born in Whittier, Calif. I was born only a few miles from where Nixon had his first law office, and for all intents and purposes, I should probably still be down there pushing a lawn mower or something. I didn't really grow up very culturally aware, so most of it came from listening to records and stuff. I started traveling, then when I moved to San Francisco I started getting my own sort of self-education in different people of different races and colors and sexes and shit, punk rock and arty stuff. For me, coming here kind of opened my eyes. When we tapped into that, I felt like we were tapping into something I could get excited about.
When did you move to San Francisco and what brought you there?
I basically moved here to go to college in the early '80s, and I never left.
How many of the characters in the songs are real? I recognized a lot of the places, or have found out about them after hearing the songs, but how much are the people in there actual people of San Francisco?
We kind of leaned a little more toward the mythological side of things, but, I mean, Willie Mays is very real. There's also a whole host of characters on the record, from the Mitchell Brothers to Redman to Jim Jones—a lot of people who probably wouldn't be caught dead with Willie Mays, or Willie Mays probably wouldn't be caught dead with them. We knew he was going to be on the record somehow, and he's a very real person, and he's sort of the hero of the record. He's a kinda quiet guy, and he's a man of substance and stood up to racism. There's probably a lot of thick books written about him, but all we knew about him is that he always swung for the fence.
The reason I ask is I read an interview from January, where you'd said, "I'll always take the myth over the truth." When you're writing creatively, that's always kind of what you're doing, shaping the truth or the memory, but do you see mythmaking as part of your goal in writing these songs?
No. Well, if you're lucky, sure. I'm trying to think of the guy from the Silver Jews (David Berman). He has an expression that somebody told me. He calls it "Google Pure." If you can Google something and not find it, and it doesn't come up anywhere, he calls it "Google Pure." A lot about this record is sort of "Wikipedia Pure." We didn't really know. We were definitely in a woodshed when we wrote the songs, in the sense that we didn't have any Internet. Even a song like "Castro Halloween," that we snuck out about the parade that happens really only a couple blocks from my apartment every year, I thought two people were killed, but it turns out that really two people were shot and nine people were injured. The first line of the song is "When the shots rang out/And two men died," so somebody corrected me, like, "Actually, Chuck, you know, nobody died." Spoilsports.
That's how storytelling works, though. Through memory or accidents things change and become something new.
It's also rock 'n' roll; it's not journalism. Sorry. Sorry you got the short end of the stick when it comes to the fun.
I was interested to see that you had done some gigs playing London Calling front-to-back. That's been one of my favorite records forever because there's so much variety in it. It seems like maybe that's an attribute you value in your music.
Oh, absolutely. I think that the Clash are very roots rock and world music and all that stuff with London Calling. For me, prior to that, punk rock was pretty narrow, and that record showed what was possible. I still feel like that's probably the record I've been trying to make, in many ways. They were just discovering American jazz and rockabilly and ska, and they had a deep well of music history that they were drawing from, and they dipped their bucket down into that well, and they weren't afraid to drink it. Even if you listen to "Train In Vain," which was a very contemporary-sounding track at the time, they weren't afraid to play with disco, which was really just contemporary black music. It's an adventurous record. I think if it wasn't a direct influence on me, it at least showed me what was possible.
You've worked with a lot of people. Whether helping Sonny Smith put out a record or helping Alejandro Escovedo write one or playing guitar with god knows how many folks at this point. How important is collaborating, and getting fresh insight from people?
I like it. I appreciate writing songs by myself, but I sometimes like having somebody in the room with me. With somebody like Alejandro or klipschutz, it's easy company. It's probably also my social life, in a lot of ways. What I like is I like a shared experience. I've been playing with my wife, and I've been playing with my friends, and that's why I got into playing music. I didn't really get into music to be by myself. I like the shared experience, and I think that's something that helps me to work with other people.
Would you say that you're actively searching for new sounds and new influences?
I don't know if I'm actively doing much of anything really. I have a pretty healthy appetite for music, so yeah I like to listen to records.
You've complimented the new crop of garage/psych bands in San Francisco, bands like Thee Oh Sees, Girls and Fresh & Onlys. What about that do you relate to, or find inspiring?
I like to see people playing guitars and making noise with their friends. It's inspiring to see a new crop of bands from my hometown. And just the energy of it, I really like. It's inspiring because there's energy and that thing, you know?
Do you feel like you're, by virtue of being in the same place, a part of that in any way?
I don't know. Like I tell people, I've been duct taped back together so many times I don't even know what I'm a part of. I'm probably not a part of it. They do their own thing. When Green On Red was playing `60s music and into psychedelia and stuff, that was just our way of saying fuck you to everything else that was around, and that's pretty healthy, I think ... In a lot of ways, the money ruined everything in the `90s. Money makes people stupid. I think a lot of bands around here got signed, and I think there were these unrealistic expectations, and there were a lot of bands that ended up signed to major labels in the wake of all that, when the music business model was just massive. I didn't think of that as an inspired time, but now I see people recording records in their closets and people building studios in their basements, and people making records with just the sheer desire to do it. I think that's always really inspiring.
With Temple Beautiful, what would you hope people hearing it get out of it?
I'd hope they didn't need an owner's manual to get into it. I hope that when it hits you, if you like rock 'n' roll, that it'll speak to you.
New Chuck Prophet album draws on 30 years in S.F.
Chuck Prophet's new album, "Temple Beautiful," is an earnest if not entirely factually accurate tribute to his adopted hometown of San Francisco. The former Green on Red front man sings about well-known characters, places and events that have shaped his life here for 30 years. He'll celebrate its release with a March 30 gig at one of his favorite venues, the Great American Music Hall. Prophet is also offering a handful of fans the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ride with the Temple Beautiful San Francisco Bus Tour on Tuesday (sign up at www.yeproc.com), the album's release date, with KGO DJ Peter Finch as guide. We talked to Prophet, 48, at his home in the Castro.
Q: Who came up with the great idea of promoting "Temple Beautiful" with a bus tour?
A: My label Yep Roc wanted to do a record- release party at a club or something. I said, "Guys, this isn't my first record. I can't do that. It's like a third wedding." So we came up with the bus idea. I thought, even if we did the N-Judah line, that would take us from the Willie Mays statue to the beach. But they said, no, we'll get you your own bus.
Q: So what kind of stuff are you going to show people?
A: We're going to take people by the liquor store where Janis Joplin bought her first bottle of Southern Comfort. When the store ran out of its stock of Southern Comfort, Janis squatted on the floor in protest and pretended to urinate on the carpet until they got her one.
Q: Did you get that information from Wikipedia?
A: Everything about this record has been Google free. There's a lot of stuff where we took the myth over the truth.
Q: You mean how the Red House Painters wrote a song about "Grace Cathedral Park" when it's actually called Huntington Park?
A: Yeah. We're going to drive by Grace Cathedral and say that it was the Grateful Dead's house. There's a thing on the album about Castro Halloween where I sing that two people got shot and killed. Everyone tells me that actually nine people were injured. I need to get a fact checker next time.
Q: So you're basically just going to mislead people?
A: Not really. It's kind of a love letter to San Francisco. It's not always pretty. Things just flowed. It's a place where everybody comes from somewhere else. It's 7 miles long and there are probably 27 different San Franciscos that overlap.
Chuck Prophet: 8 p.m. March 30. $18. Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., S.F (415) 885-0750. http://www.gamh. com.
Little Stephen’s Underground Garage
The title track from Chuck Prophet's upcoming release, "Temple Beautiful", has been selected as one of Little Steven's "Coolest Songs In The World" on his radio program Underground Garage. Underground Garage is syndicated on over 100 radio stations nationwide. Click here for an affiliate near you.
A Conversation with Chuck Prophet
Mike Ragogna: Hi Chuck. What was your plan approaching your new album Temple Beautiful?
Chuck Prophet: I knew I wanted to make a rock `n' roll record, a guitar record, and then somehow, I got the idea of digging into the local lore of San Francisco, which is endless. I was writing with my friend Kurt, aka, Klipschutz, and when we tapped into that, the ideas began to flow. On a good day, an idea might actually grow up into a song. Ultimately, we leaned on the more mythical side of the street.
MR: San Francisco must mean a lot to you.
CP: San Francisco means a lot to a lot of people, and yeah, I am one of them. I mean, everybody comes here from everywhere for all the obvious reasons, and some maybe not so obvious. There are so many different cities packed into seven square miles, and they intersect and overlap. I guess you could say I wasn't very culturally aware when I was growing up in Richard Nixon's hometown. Then I moved around. Ended up in San Francisco going to school. Joined a band. Started to travel, saw some things. Fast forward a little and here I am. What I mean to say is that San Francisco is an education. It's an education on different kinds of buildings, food, people, races, colors, sexes and the like. It opens your eyes.
MR: How did you assemble the cast of characters that appear with you?
CP: Once the songs were there, it fell together. I played guitar on a session where the drummer was Prairie Prince. He had that feel, you know? So I reached out to him. He's got experience to burn and he still plays like a teenager. So that was the groove. Very teenage. James DePrato plays guitar in my band and together, we know how to make it sound like one big guitar. Rusty Miller played bass. And Stephanie Finch, my wife and long time partner in crime, brought her thing—singing and playing some keyboards here and there. Brad Jones produced and engineered. It's a much less layered record. The guitars are pretty graphic. Even the cover art is just black and white. Honestly, I was pretty confident with the songs and just didn't feel the nagging need to add more than that.
MR: This is your twelfth album, and many of your contemporaries haven't made it past half of that. What's your secret?
CP: No secrets. I guess I'm lucky that I've been able to stay interested in the whole thing. Writing songs and making records and kicking the songs around on the bandstand. There have been times where I wasn't that excited and it showed. There are other things to do. I'm trying to get some hobbies in fact. Yeah, anyway, to wake up excited about what you're doing is a gift, I suppose.
MR: Q Magazine said you are "... a sparky songwriter worthy of greater attention." Mojo said, "Prophet delivers with quixotic swagger and declamatory sneer."
CP: Yeah, that sounds pretty good. I'll take it. I've been known to write my own blurbs, but that one is cool. Thanks for not choosing some of the others, by the way. I need the love. Every time I'm done making a record, I suggest that the promotional department gather in a circle, join hands and pray. Then we dig up some old quotes for the bio, book gigs anywhere anyone will have us, and hope for the best. My records have never really sold that much. I guess I should feel bad about that? I'm sorry I brought it up.
MR: (laughs) In your opinion, how does your music these days compare to your Green on Red days?
CP: Not that much different. Dan Stuart and I were always looking for trouble. And I guess I'm still out there standing over steaming manholes.
MR: What are your thoughts about the old Paisley Underground versus these days?
CP: A lot of great music came out of that time. If you look at what was on MTV or the radio, it's amazing that we got record deals. I think The Bangles really ran with it, and I hear they're still making great music and have a really great live show these days. I wanted to go see them play at The Fillmore recently, but I missed them when they were in town. But the scene... I don't know. I think it was pretty short-lived if you think about it. But those years in a van with Green On Red were wild. No one knew where they're next big chunk of hash was coming from. Now, I'm into lunch. Speaking of which, mind if I give a shout out to Split Pea Seduction on 6th Street? There might be a free crostata in it for both of us!
MR: (laughs) Thanks. Okay, "Willie Mays Is Up At Bat" must speak to the baseball fan in you? What's the story behind that song?
CP: I'm all for the Giants. No matter what, actually, I always root for the home team. For the album, though, we knew we needed a hero. Any myth needs a hero. And you can't beat Willie Mays. Talk about larger than life. I mean, at the downtown stadium, there's a bronze statue of him 10 feet tall. The greatest center fielder that ever lived. Of course we had to go and mix him up with a bunch of characters he wouldn't be caught dead with.
MR: Such as?
CP: Oh, you know, Carol Doda, Laffing Sal, Bill Graham, Jim Jones, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck—that crowd.
MR: (laughs) Can you also go into the story behind "Castro Halloween"?
CP: The Castro District is world-famous, isn't it? And Halloween there tends to be a party and a half and lasts `til dawn. I live four or five blocks away, leading my quiet married existence, watching reruns of The Wire when the biggest dress-up party west of Berlin is in full swing. The song triesto bottle some of that magic and then set it free. I think my guitar solo at the end is longer than all the verses put together. It was hard to fade it.
MR: How often do you feel like Jesus, you know, like the song with that title?
CP: Not often enough. That one is dedicated to the Albion, which used to be on the corner of an alleyway off 16th Street, in the Mission District. There was a backroom for music. It was a dive. It was a firetrap. It was heaven. We used to play in that backroom. Sometimes for like four nights in a row. And it was magical. It was a scene that only lasted so long. The title of the song refers to the way I felt when I met my wife and she looked at me that "special way." Stephanie used to play the upright piano back there and sing the best harmonies. I always liked the sound of our voices together. Made me feel bigger than life.
MR: Can you go into Emperor Norton, who he is and why you wrote a song in his voice. Maybe people outside of San Francisco might need a little help.
CP: Compared to overseas, this whole country is still pretty new on the block. San Francisco wasn't founded `til the mid-1800s. Emperor Norton came to town and proclaimed himself an Emperor and never paid for another drink or meal in his life. We tried to steer clear of him as a character on the record, but he insisted. And who were we to say no?
MR: Your songs were recorded by Heart and Solomon Burke. What did you think of the recordings?
CP: I love those covers. The song Solomon Burke cut, I wrote with Dan Penn. When I got a copy, I went over to Dan's and we listened to it together. Solomon did these off the cuff ad libs at the end and I remember Dan really vibing on it. We listened to it a few times. It's hard to top hearing Solomon Burke sing a song you did with Dan Penn! Heart was great as well. That song "No Other Love," it only has about three lines of lyrics to it, and it's been maybe my most popular song. Ann Wilson really sings it. And it's pretty awesome. She is something else. Like a female Elvis or something.
MR: "No Other Love" was also included in the film P.S. I Love You. What did you think of how it was used?
CP: The film was a pretty forgettable chick flick. But people really responded to that scene, particularly young Latinas. So that's been really cool. The film really connected with young girls full of that romantic longing. I think that it was real nice.
MR: What's it like having your music on Californication and Sons Of Anarchy?
CP: It's like money in the bank! Literally. And I like all those shows. So it's about as win-win as it gets.
MR: You recorded with Warren Zevon. I imagine you were a fan. Do you miss him?
CP: I barely knew him, but yes, I did play on Life'll Kill Ya, one of his later discs. I was a fan, am a fan, and can't imagine I'll ever stop listening to his songs. I'm sorry there won't be any more of them. He was a tough character for sure. He had an incredibly quick wit. And you wouldn't want his caustic wit pointed at you. He could be a cantankerous guy, but also very charming and always funny. At the time, I worried about his Mountain Dew intake. He'd show up in the morning with a grocery bag of cans... he was drinking like a case of it a day. And when he ran out, he'd get these splitting migraines.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
CP: Heck, I don't know. Nikki Sudden once told me that Keith Richards told him that coffee is the absolute worst thing you can put in your body. Seriousness aside, I honestly don't have any advice for anyone. I suppose if anything, pay attention. Try to be on time. Honor your commitments. Don't waste other people's time, especially the audience.
MR: What does your tour schedule and future look like?
CP: We're gearing up for some quality time in the van. "Van Therapy," we call it. The year is filling up fast. As to my future, is it okay if I pretend you didn't ask that?
MR: Ask what? (Laughs.) Thanks so much for taking the time to be with us.
CP: My pleasure. Thanks
1. Play That Song Again
2. Castro Halloween
3. Temple Beautiful
4. Museum Of Broken Hearts
5. Willie Mays Is Up At Bat
6. The Left Hand And The Right Hand
7. I Felt Like Jesus
8. Who Shot John
9. He Came From So Far Away (Red Man Speaks)
10. Little Girl, Little Boy
11. White Night, Big City
12. Emperor Norton In The Last Year Of His Life (1880)