Chuck Prophet is literally livin' large, so we arrange to meet for coffee with one caveat: "It's got to be the right place, because I take up a lot of space," he said. That's ok. The guy has plenty to shout about.
His fourth solo album, "Homemade Blood," shows off his stunning songwriting, guitar playing and vocals—a traditional, rootsy, raw, and heartfelt stew that digs for the source but comes out "sideways." He has a new label, Cooking Vinyl and he's been to Europe twice since the first of the year; he's off again this Summer for four European festivals and a U.S. tour with his mighty band—Max Butler; guitars, Anders Rundblad; bass, Paul Revelli; drums and Stephanie Finch; keyboards and vocals. He just saw the release of a live collaboration with buddy and Memphis music legend Jim Dickinson and he remains happily ensconced in his San Francisco digs with his band mate and partner, Finch.
Though his struggle with hard drugs could make a case for the contrary, nonetheless, Prophet appears to finally be comfortable in his own skin. He looks like rock and roll personified—tall and thin, hair that looks like it's never been washed, a cigarette dangling from his lips—the kind of musician they don't make too many of these days.
Eleven years is a long time for anybody to sustain the kind of musical career Prophet has (without ever holding a day job), particularly when one's music supersedes trends. His lyrics will often fuse the honesty and artfulness of Bob Dylan with the tunefulness of say, Tom Petty. For more contemporary references, you could pigeonhole him in the same place Pete Droge, the Jayhawks and Wilco reside (Americana/No Depression-land), but that would be doing Prophet a big disservice as belongs in a class by himself. He was simply born at the wrong time.
Had he been born earlier, his keen sense of rock history, his continual search for "the source" probably would've earned him the accolades of an Eric Clapton or Keith Richards. Had he been born later, he would be as lauded and adept at deconstructing rock as Beck. But Prophet belongs to that middle generation who live in the shadow of boomer musicians and fans and precede X-ers who don't always care much about the source.
"I feel like Rip Van Winkle. I got way too many miles on me, man," he said. "I wish I had a generation. I would've made a great slacker, but I'm just a little bit old and I wanted to do things," he said.
His song "You've Been Gone," from the new record perfectly explains that kind of lost weekend lifetime of experience: You've been gone, you've been gone, clouds make rain and days make years...I think you'll find some changes here.
"The line, Sweet Lorraine's on SSI, her mind walked off before she said goodbye made me think of all my drinking buddies at the Albion," he said, referring to a 16th Street watering hole. "All of those guys were on SSI. I swear it's gotta be more work than working, but I wouldn't know." Somehow, time slips away.
With the songs presented in a down-home style with none of the artifice that is currently fashionable (i.e. the lamest band on the charts that uses mandolin and accordion you can think of inserted here), since his days as the teenage guitarist in LA's Green on Red, commercial enthusiasm for Prophet has never reached critical mass. But he's a survivor and possesses a certain wisdom well beyond someone of his 30 some-odd years.
"Part of being real is what you learn from good literature, like Raymond Carver poems. They're really plain and the way people talk is really plain and it's so plain it hurts because it's not glamorous. If you get real you get closer to the truth and if you get closer to the truth you get closer to God and that's art. If there's a just God, those people who are pretending are going to get busted anyway," he said.
Funny that a man who looks to rock's poet laureate, Dylan, as king songwriter would be espousing the pleasures of plain.
"Most of Dylan's greatest songs are painfully plain," he asserts. "Even though `In the Garden's got the most complicated chord structure I can think of, it's really a straightforward song as is `Knockin' on Heaven's Door'. You know what he's talking about. Anybody can tie a bunch of lines together, but if you know where you're going with it, then it's a lot harder."
"I could've dressed up the songs on the album in all kinds of gothic shit, and I didn't. People don't need to come to me for that," he stated matter of factly. "You can't find a source for this music. It comes from some guy strumming a fence on barbed wire. The Stones took traditional music and turned it sideways and that's what I'm trying to do," he explained.
Prophet's "plain" songs for his fourth solo album were inspired by a detox-break he took last year at his parents suburban East Bay home, while he weaned himself "from sucking the glass dick," as he refers to the crack pipe.
"I went back home and I realized it was the last place I'd been before I was kind of fucked up and I could smell everything and it was weird and brand new and kind of spooky. That's where I wrote `K-Mart Family Portrait.' I know exactly what happened. It has a Linda Ronstadt melody from her album, `Mad Love,' that my sister used to have. I got kind of inspired because I got kind of creeped out. I don't really get that when I walk up and down 16th Street anymore. I've strip-mined the Mission. There's nothing there," he explained. "And all the rural stuff has been strip-mined too—don't go there.
Consequently, the album's deepest vein is that of suburban angst. "I started having dreams about being a kid," said Prophet. "I'm not precious enough to write my dreams down and think I'm going to turn them into songs, but there was a lot floating around. It was new subject matter to stick into songs—I wanted to stay off the known roads."
" My favorite Raymond Carver poem is the one where he's sitting in his driveway in his station wagon drinking a six-pack and he can't go inside because his family's in there," no doubt explaining the car parked in front of the pick-a-suburb home that adorns the album's cover. When he finished writing, Prophet took his band into the studio to cut the songs live, to give the record the kind of free-wheeling feel that the group has developed as a consistent live act.
"Everything was a reaction to spending too much time in the control room on the last record. I wanted to have some fun with the songs and break out of the singer/songwriter mold."
Prophet has kept the same line-up for some time which allowed the band to roll with the free-form and immediate recording process.
"I wouldn't have done it like this if I didn't have a band. Stephanie can sing around me which isn't easy to do, but I never had a guitar player till I found Max. If it gets too comfortable, it's not good, but when we're on the road, we have these telepathic workouts. He knows when I bend over it means to do this—we don't have to talk about it."
As for living with a band mate, "it's weird. You don't really want to show anybody a song till it's done. I got up one night to go to the bathroom and I went and picked up my guitar and Stephanie was yelling, `What are ya doin' in there?' and I was whispering a song into a tape recorder. I yelled back, `I'm writin' a song.' When I'm just pulling things out of the air, I don't want anyone around."
"Credit" is one of those fantastic songs that came out of the air while Prophet and one of his co-writers, Kurt Lipschutz, were working together. "It's one of those character songs and a play on words. A song like `My Generation' doesn't look very good on paper but when he stutters it means so much more. Or like `Unsatisfied" by Paul Westerberg when he screams—it means so much. When my friend Kurt and I printed it out and it didn't look that good, we thought, we're really on to something now," he laughed. "And I get to scream in it," said Prophet referring to the line, "I want some CREDIT."
"Someone in my manager's office said, `That's a good double entendre and my manger said, `It's a single!'
Prophet doesn't really look for outside projects, but often they(itals) find him(itals). He just played guitar on a little-known singer/songwriter, Calvin Russell's new album.
"He used to walk about ten steps behind Townes Van Zandt," he said. It was produced by Dickinson and features the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section. "It's a top 30 album in France, as we speak. And I got to record in Memphis with Dickinson, and that was great." Last year, he recorded with another songwriter's sidekick, Dylan's old pal, Bobby Neuwirth. Prophet spoke of the thrill of recording with yet another legend.
"There were eight guitar players in the room... Steven Soles, Billy Swan, Neuwirth, Rosie Flores...we did a run down of the song and I wasn't sure who was going to play guitar and Swan said, `you take the lead,' and I got to play my Telecaster with Billy Swan playing rhythm guitar. He played rhythm guitar for Kristofferson, you know?"
He also recently recorded with beat poet Herbert Hunke. "He's dead now, so no one else is going to get to do that. I'm not the biggest Chuck Prophet fan, so I don't have 50 side projects where I think everything I touch should be released. I do a lot of things and most of them are invisible and they probably just should be."
"I'd still like to do a record with Stephanie, but we move at our own tempo," he said.
Though he may have profited more had been born alongside his spiritual mentors—Dylan, Petty, Springsteen, Young, Dickinson, Van Zandt, Kristofferson, Neuwirth, Chilton and the like, Prophet won't back down. Plus, he's already made a couple of marks on the pages of rock history.
"I survived the Paisley Underground—now that was dumb. Some journalist was trying to get me to dis the No Depression movement—I wouldn't, as long as we understand they didn't invent it. I actually think Uncle Tupelo were pretty good and I like Wilco," he said cheerily.
"I'm not nostalgic and I don't think things used to be better. I think these are the good old days. "
POP CD OF THE WEEK
During the eighties, Green On Red flew the American renegade-rocker flag with shamboloic aplomb. Everybody assumed singer/ songwriter Dan Stuart was the presiding genius, though the band increasingly became a Dan Stuart/Chuck Prophet double act as the combo rattled toward it end. It wouldn't do to underestimate Stuart's gifts. But Prophet proved to be a late developer who may just be reaching his peak. He has spent the nineties loaboriously nailing together a fresh persona as a guitar for hire and a solo performer capable of wringing surprises from some well-used musical traditions.
Homemade Blood is his fourth solo effort, and if it doesn't exactly represent a comprehensive overturning of 25 years of rock, soul and country history, at least it slams the whole lot back together with a happy mix of urgent songwriting and rude, noisy playing from Prophet's estimable band. As long ago as the 1993 album Balinese Dancer, reckless hacks were contriving comparisons with Gram Parsons and Richard Thompson. If you listen closely - or at all - Prophet doesn't sound like either of them. You'd get better odds for allusions to Bobby Fuller and the Stooges. The opening track, "Credit," plausibly establishes Prophet as the vocalist that Tom Petty might once have been if Jimmy Lovine hadn't drowned his records in 50 fathoms of audio varnish. Chuck's wheedling moan is perfect for lyrics ike "just last week a little card came in the mail, it was gold and thin as Kate Moss" (followed by sarcastic guitar wolf -whistle). Prophet raunches out again on the likes of "Til You Came Along," with its speedy rhythm guitar scrub and hectic crescendos, or the blown-gasket blast of "22 Fillmore," but he gets more interesting when he slackens off the throttle, in "KMart Family Portrait," Prophet backdropsd his vocals against wraith-like percussion and thin, shivery guitar. "You Been Gone" is an affecting look at missing persons and changed places, while Prophet concludes with the ghostly moan of "The Parting Song." Fine stuff indeed.
BAM - Bay Area Music Magazine
According to legend, guitarist/songwriter Chuck Prophet was asked to join Green On Red after only one impromptu guest appearance with the band at SF's Oasis in the very early `80s. Prophet, whose first two projects, Bad Attitude and Wild Game, had already established him as something of a local guitar hero, contributed to reshaping Green On Red's musical direction and gained (albeit on an underground level) national recognition as a songwriter and guitarist for his work with the band. Green On Red (now core members Prophet and Dan Stuart and a group of revolving musicians) still exists and will soon be recording new material for their swelling number of British fans. But Prophet's energy has lately been channeled into his own local ensemble, the Creatures Of Habit (which features co-vocalist Stephanie Finch), and an album, Brother Aldo, that contains many songs recognizable from shows with his band but that's not, curiously enough, a Creatures Of Habit effort.
"Those are just recordings," he explains. "I took whoever I could get on a particular date and tried to work the songs up and get them on tape. I'd say Roly (Sally, bassist for both Chris Isaak and the Creatures Of Habit) is probably my main partner in crime on Brother Aldo."
Although Brother Aldo strikes a more peaceful note than the majority of Prophet-era Green On Red recordings, the record's material draws from many of the same sources. "I'm really into traditional music," says Prophet, "country, blues, and folk. I like traditional musical structure, but I try to take an unstructured approach to it. To take that music and just set it slightly sideways."
Prophet's approach to guitar playing might likewise be characterized as "slightly sideways with traditional roots." Onstage he stomps, sways, and grimaces with an odd ferocity, and he says he's never regarded guitar as either a rhythm or a lead instrument ("I don't really know the difference"). However, his heroes aren't at all unexpected . "Ever listen to those Howlin' Wolf records? Well, there's this sound that's all squished together-the guitar, the voice, and the harmonica-and it's just this AAAAARRRRR, so you can't make anything out. Well, that's kind of how I approached guitar playing. I don't know if I learned chords or melodies or just sort of picked it out the way the Ventures used to do. I'm also a really big fan of J.J. Cale. His playing is conversational and uncluttered, and he's a really great singer. Great Singers usually make good guitar prayers and vice versa. I think if you put a guitar in Sinatra's hands he'd be a pretty interesting guitarist. And John Lee Hooker. I saw him at the Great American Music Hall, and he did this thing that sounded like his fingers were all caught up in his strings. It knocked everybody out. So I don't think technique has a lot to do with guitar playing-it's more a gut thing."
When asked what he feels is intrinsic to his own playing, Prophet cites "open tuning on acoustic, and that six-string, ringing, droning sound is really important. And also a banjo technique, called flailing, where you get all the strings cycloning like a concertina. I think that's the key to my acoustic playing. When you play electric, you can't approach it like acoustic, though, or you might end up with that jangly collegiate sound that I try to avoid, it kind of offends me."
Prophet doesn't take offense, though, to being included in the burgeoning San Francisco "new folk" scene. He points out, "I guess if enough people get together, then they can make enough noise to get noticed."
Prophet plans to continue making noise, with Green On Red, with the Creatures Of Habit, and with other local musicians, but for him, the future remains unpredictable. "Music as a vocation isn't something you can really choose. You kind of have to be chosen. It's up to the people to decide "
Oh, what a fine but probably realistically impossible thing it would be to see Chuck Prophet get away with it. As guitarist with Green On Red, Prophet devoted most of the Eighties to producing savage, diseased, rock'n'roll records that felt as sickly and gratifying as a good hangover, reaching a queasy apotheosis with the classic "Here Come The Snakes", which you should have bought yesterday.
"Feast Of Hearts" isn't quite the squalid Bukowski-with-a-Telecaster excesses of bygone days, but finds Prophet maturing with some poise and a just sufficiently arched eyebrow. Musically there's nothing here that people who willingly spend money on Tom Petty records would find difficult, but Prophet still knows his way around a couplet of tequila philosophy. The current favourite is, "I've got a wolf at the door/And a dog in the pound" from "Hungry Town", except when it's "The days crawl by single file/She made the river in my heart flow/Then she crossed it alone" from "How Many Angels". Prophet sings all these like the missing link between Bob Dylan and Paul Westerberg, which is only reasonable, as that's what he is.
The idea of this wilful delinquent kidnapping Garth Brooks' demographic at this point is, as we have learned, just too poetic to be likely, but there's no reason why he shouldn't be clasped to the wheezing hearts of those of you who've learnt to love Neil Young, Chris Whitley or Matthew Sweet. A minor triumph.
The Guitar Magazine
The Prophet Margin
After years on the margins of rock'n'roll stardom, Chuck Prophet just might have made the record to break him in the mainstream. Michael Leonard quizes the contrary Californian on cheap guitars, sacking bands and, erm, Frank Sinatra's trem technique ...
`If someone tells me to breathe. I'll hold my breath. If everyone else goes left, I'll go right ...' even if there were a manual on being a rock'n'roll star, Chuck Prophet would not read it.
Over the space of ten years and 11 albums, Prophet has made good enough music to embarrass many of his peers yet he remains permanently on the bench in the mainstream league. Maybe as he suggests, he spurns his chances by refusing to play by the rules; maybe the talent scouts have lost their touch. Typically, Prophet doesn't think that should stop him getting in the team.
`I do care about record sales, y'know, and this "beautiful loser" image that I have offends me a bit to tell you the truth, I don't slack with what I'm doing, I'm really trying to make records that hold up against the albums that I like, I want to sell, but doing something genuine, first rate and honest doesn't really equate with sales. I don't know if I'm happy with many of my records though. Playing live is where you get to kick the songs around. A record's just a fuckin' record.'
Therein, prehaps, lies the rub. Throughout his tenure as one half of Green On Red (with Dan Stuart) and as a three album-strong solo artist, the best place to see Chuck Prophet has alweays been the live stage. Green On Red seemed forever at war with themselves but were always capable of delivering the odd sucker-punch live show. Their albums - a stew of diseased country blues, raw R&B and drunken, after-hours ballads - were hit and miss in the extreme. `Genuine and honest' they always were, but first rate? Even Prophet has quipped that the only thing he learned in Green On Red was `how to drink lying down and sleep sitting up'. 1989's Here Come The Snakes, recorded with Stones and Cooder collaborator Jim Dickinson, stands out even now and even nudged GOR starwards; but then, despite the consecutive guiding hands of Glyn Johns (This Time Around) and Al Kooper (Scapegoats) they blew it. In 1992, Green On Red went on permanent strike.
However, all is not lost. Feast Of Hearts, the follow-up to `93's Balinese Dancer, is Chuck Prophet's second excellent solo album in three years: the boy's starting to show a good run of form...
Feast Of Hearts was recorded in California with Los Lobos producer Steve Berlin providing some guidance and, notably, Cracker rhythm section Michael Urbano and Davey Gallagher providing some backbone.
`I'd met Michael before,' explains Prophet of his hook-up with ascendent alternative rockers. `I have this method of working where I don't really do demos, I just get my song notebook, go and sit with three people or so in a circle and just start throwing songs out. Michael was there one time, had a pretty good feel and he recommended Davey for bass. It was cool `cos I usually go for the regular suspects, the people I've used before. You get familiarity that way and people come to understand all my quirks so I don't have to pass out the manual to explain myself too often... but when it gets too comfortable it doesn't have that conversational thing you get from people discovering each other.
`Unfortunately, making records usually ends in grief. When you make records you have this grandiose vision and little by little you let things go. Tom Waits describes it as that fairground game where you have the two levers and the mechanical claw - you're reaching for the gold watch and you end up pulling the plastic spider ring. Making a record's just like that - you always end up with something to the left or the right. And it's a quite intimate thinig and my philosophy is to keep it like a blind date to keep it fresh. Every time, you should look out for some fresh meat, heh heh!' `Discovery' is another Prophet principle. Whilst his music certainly isn't iconoclastic, he'll happily break up bands and start again at the first hint of a rut.
`A great sense of phrasing is a major part of musical talent. I'd like to put a Strat with a whammy bar in Frank Sinatra's lap and see how he jams. I reckon Frank'd he pretty cool!
`Green On Red had some pretty dysfunctional bands,' he admits (without dwelling on their Spinal Tap-esque turnover of drummers), `but that was just our way of keeping ourselves interested. It's the same thing with me. If it was going real smooth with Green On Red it'd always get shaken up, either by other people or half the time by us. After a year or so with the same band we couldn't resist the temptation to bring in strangers and fuck around with the songs. I guess I'm the same. I would like to put together a full-time band but uhh... it's a little hard to find a band these days that's untouched by all the crazy stuff. I'd ideally like to have a dysfunctional outfit like Crazy Horse or somethin'- it's harder to do that these days.
`But playing live with different people and keeping things fresh is what this game's all about. I mean, I didn't get into music to play by myself or plan a "career", I got into into it `cos it's a great way of communicating. It's like a secret language! - no-one says anything, but you put your fingers here, you put your fingers there, and suddenly you're communicating with this big noise. It's a weird thing - sometimes on stage I feel like there's something going on that's beyond music, but I don't think everyone realises or can hear that...'
Prophet's approach to his muse couldn't be much less academic, and he'll spend studio tinie not in searh of the perfect take but of the Happy accidents, what Keith Richards calls `the beautiful fuck-ups'. He has a habit of referring to Green On Red as idiot savants, and he loves Beck because `he's kinda like a musical dyslexic - everything's there but it's in this weird code, y'know? He looks in all the nooks and crannies of a song, and he takes a very slanted view. Beck's just awesome.
`Originally, I took a lot of inspiration from the punk scene in San Francisco, even though - or perhaps because - I couldn't really play. There were just lots of creative, nutty people going out there and doing things. You'd just sit around with people, write some songs, show up at some place and borrow the equipment and make some noise. It wasn't industry-driven, it was subversive. That's what inspired me to write songs. I feel sorry for people today who just don't have that. I don't know if that exists in music anymore. Maybe the stage or drama is more like that but, of course, none of those people can get arrested. There's probably some great work goin' on out there but you're going to have to read a whole lot of magazines to know about it. Rock'n'roll is easier to digest; people love reading about it for some reason and you can learn about the "proper" way to do things before you've even started. These days, people are fuckin' process freaks - they love the documentary on the making of the movie more than the movie itself.'
Although Feast Of Hearts' carries further evidence of Prophet's stellar Tele twanging, it hoards even more impressive glimpses of a talent completely underutilised in Green On Red - his fast maturing voice. A resonant, tobacco-stained drawl, it's been described as `Tom Waits without the cartoon element or Robbie Robertson if he could carry a tune'. Perhaps surprisingly given his geetar prowess, Prophet claims to be a fan of singers first and foremost.
`To be honest, I figure I might have actually played another instrument than guitar - piano, drums, anything. But it's a little late now. But most of my favoufite singers have, a great sense of phrasing which I think is a major part of musical talent, and if they'd picked up a guitar it'd be pretty interesting too. I I love the way Tom Waits sings and plays piano and guitar. And Keith Richards is a great singer, I love him! I'd like to put a Strat. with a whammy bar in Frank Sinatra's lap and see how he jams. I reckon Frank'd be pretty cool! Yeah...'
It follows that Chuck's unconvinced that guitar can be taught with any particular success. Not that it's just the fault of the teacher and pupil...
`It's a problem with guitars man! The guitar's a weird instrument; it's a European instrument and the way things have evolved has been weird. Chuck Berry-style rhythm guitar is hard to play unless you've got big hands - but that's `cos Chuck was trying to play something a piano player should be doin' on an instrument designed for playing fuckin' Segovia. My advice is put your guitar in open tuning, though, then it all makes sense. Open G - those strings just ring out man, just move your fingers up and down and you're flying!'
And was this tuning revelation, as for the Black Crowes Rich Robinson, of Road To Dasmascus dimensions?
`Err, well yeah, but on a recent Black Crowes single that I heard the first four bars were the first things you would ever think of in open G so maybe he's not playin' with it too much. It was totally obvious - it's what you do from there that makes it interesting. Keith Richards opened up a lot of things, Jules Shere (one of Prophet's co-writers on Feast Of Hearts) is also a fabulous guitar player - he plays with his thumb in open minor tuning, upside down and left-handed (like Albert Colins then... without the upside down, left-handed bit - Tunings Ed). He mutes one of the strings when he wants a major chord, and when he lets it ring open it's the minor. He's got it sussed.
`With "grudge" music there seems to be a simple rule to just turn the guitars up and I think that takes a lot of mystique out of records. I'm the guy who's always asking people to turn the guitars down in a mix'
`You can be taught a lot of stuff on the guitar - but you got as much chance of teaching someone to play like Keith Richards as you have of teaching someone to dance. I reckon you've either got it or you haven't.
`Then again, I look at guitar playing differently than people might expect. I do know that I have a "problem" with the way I play guitar in that I hear it in more of a Curtis Mayfield or Robbie Robertson-style mysterious way, guitar played "inside" the music, "inside" the chord. Today, with grudge (sic) music there seems to be a simple rule to just turn the guitars up and I think that takes a lot of mystique out of records. I'm the guy who's always asking people to turn the guitars down in a mix. For a guitar player, that's really rare.
`In terms of recording, I've just discovered a real eye-opener. There's a few in-vogue techniques to get a live feel - stop using headphones, get the monitors on the floor - but what we did on Feast Of Hearts was all play in the same room and all have the same headphone mix. That way, you really get the dynamic and you get that conversational thing. Normally you have people detached and people getting off on their own space in the mix - there's temptations for the drummer to get off on himself and turn the snare up with loads of reverb... In rock'n'roll, you do that and you're fucked! If you do that, the only way to sort it out is real animated mixing, which is something that should have happened on the floor. It's manipulation after the fact, trying to create something that was never there in the first place.'
It's a dictum that Prophet's tried to apply to all his albums. He's the first to admit his records don't always work - `some Green On Red albums are just plain retarded!' he grimaces - but even when things fall on their face, he learns something. `Glyn Johns (producer of This Time Around) was completely fearless in the studio. He's seen a lot in his time, total chaos transcending into music, so with Glyn you can come in with practically nothing - a skeletal germ of a sketch! - and he would not panic. He knew that if you put people talented together it can work. You just gotta take the cotton wool out of your ears and put it in your mouth - shut up and work! A lot of times when you're working on songs you always refer to other records - "Oh, this song we're doing doesn't sound enough like this record, it doesn't sound enough like that record..." Producers these days come in with a stack of CDs and say, "Well this is what's happening, this is the sort of sound we want..." There's too much aping. Glyn never thought about moulding us sound like somebody else, and working with him was cool on that level. Whether we had any songs on that record, whether we were inspired? Well, that's another fuckin' story...'
Thankfully, Feast Of Hearts suggests that the inspiration is back. Prophet's music isn't going to change the world - after all, how much innovation can still be wrung out of country rock? - yet he is determind to mess with the format.
`There's a real strong songwriting tradition in country music that lends a familiarity,' he says. `What makes one guy better than the other is simply the emotional contact they get with the audience and how good a storyteller they are. So I like country music, but the challenge to me has always been to take an unstructured approach to structured music.'
If everyone goes left, Chuck'll go right... But that's no matter, because but in a music business where half-arsed trend-chasing is seen as a virtue, this bedraggled Californian has timeless tunes he can wear ten years down the line without being laughed off the stage. `I feel a certain kinship with some artists,`he reflects, `Matthew Sweet, The Jayhawks... But I don't know why it hasn't happened for me just yet. In America, I think you can still really see the effect Nirvana had on music. It's kinda the same as the effect that REM had. Don't get me wrong, I love Nirvana... I just hate their fuckin' fans. It's the carpet- baggers that try and take the easy way out, they produce stuff that sounds aesthetically like what's "happening". And then it's over before it's begun. A lot of guys my age are sorta doing retro stuff, looking back to the great records of the `70s and getting inspired. But I don't know if it'll ever be the same. It's probably just me again, but I get the feeling that there's not as much blood on the floor...'
Strings'n'Squiers - Heavy guitar stuff
What makes a fine guitarist and better lyricist keep on coming back for less?
What is it like to be a musician and songwriter with talent, soul and no little charisma, who is destined to travel the dusty back-roads of rock'n'roll without ever joining the main highway to fame and fortune?
Arriving in a town near you this week is just such a man. His name is Chuck Prophet, he lives in a one-bedroom, rented apartment in San Francisco and, at 31, he has a great future behind him.
As the guitarist in Green On Red from 1984 until 1991, `Prophet signed his name to eight albums that encompassed some of the most stirring American rebel-rock music of the 1980s.
Dan Stuart, his partner in the group, was a man with a feverish whine of a voice, a prodigious capacity for drink, and the ability to bring a flash of warped, bohemian genius to songs that celebrated some of the grungier aspects of the human condition. With a playing style rooted in country and the blues, Prophet supplied a twang that could either caress an aching hears or cut to the emotional quick.
The partnership has since dissolved - "Every band has its natural lifespan, then you've got to move out of the house, " the philosophical Prophet says - but even before then Prophet had made his first solo album.
"As soon as we finished Here Come the Snakes [an unrecognised masterpiece from 1989] the record company went bankrupt. Dan and I had both had the rug pulled from under our feet, romantically, monetarily, musically ...
"So I collected these songs and started playing with a group of people in a bar where nobody ran the (mixing) board, and everybody played too long and it was just a mess."
From these bar-room sessions a backing band and a set of songs emerged which Prophet recorded "when no one was really looking" on a budget of $800. The resulting album, Brother Aldo, released in 1990, was enough to set a solo career lurching into fitful motion.
Prophet is now on to his third such album, Feast of Hearts, a collection of songs with a quiet, understated charm presented in a defiantly retro soft-rock vein. His lyrics, like his conversation. are full of pithy detail ("The days crawl by, single file", "The telephone's deep in a coma") and his voice has a pleasantly rounded tone. But without Stuart to provide that peculiarly manic edge, Prophet's sound has veered towards the middle of the road.
"I wanted to make music that is timeless," he says. "I certainly can't compete with anything that's fashionable or trendy." But he bridles at any suggestion that he is going soft or turning into a Tom Petty wannabe.
"I think I'm as cool as anybody. I'm boxing in the dark with as many demons as PJ. Harvey or any of those people. Sure, I'd love to do something that was a big hit. But I think things start to get a bit complicated on that level. I have a hard enough time unplugging the phone right now. My world is really quite small and I try to keep it simple."
Now cast in the role of veteran guitar-slinger who chooses not to compete with the "new kids" that have taken control.' Prophet still commands considerable loyalty, and affection. When Bob Harris ran a competition on his BBC Greater London Radio show last week to win copies of Feast of Hearts, it prompted a huge response. And Prophet's guitar playing at a short, pre-tour gig at Eve's Club in London on Monday was a model of fluent grace and economy.
"All the people whose records I liked, the fire was there, but the guitar whispers in your ear: Lindsay Buckingham on those Fleetwood Mac records, J.J. Cale, Clapton when he wasn't showing off." he says. "I just think it should draw you in."
Feast Of Hearts Biography
Interviewer: Chuck, we need some quotes.
Chuck Prophet: I thought we could dig up someone else's quotes. Or maybe make up something somebody might've said, like one of those movie blurbs you see in the ads: "I laughed, I cried, I stood up and cheered. Chuck Prophet—take a bow!"
Interviewer: Something you actually said might work better.
Chuck Prophet: How about, " `When I listen to Chuck Prophet I can't help but want to sing along.'—Chuck Prophet." I think I said that once. Nobody was around or anything, and it wasn't a real high point in my life, self-esteem-wise, but I'm pretty sure I did say it.
Whatever he did or didn't say, the man does have a point. To crush metaphors beyond repair, Prophet makes tunes that taste good to the human ear. And his new album, Feast Of Hearts, is a throwback breakthrough—a stylistic melting pot of rock `n' roll that covers new musical terrain while keeping a sharp eye in the rearview mirror for forgotten treasure disguised as roadkill.
"It's not what you put in the pot, but what's left after you bring it to a boil," is how Prophet sums up his "method," as it were. "Besides, I'm not one of those rock `n' roll librarians. I didn't learn the songs correctly in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I learned a lot of songs, but I kept throwing in new chords until I just decided it was time to write my own."
Tune after tune on Feast Of Hearts spins tales about "late nights, early afternoons and public access prime time," according to Prophet, who doesn't wear a watch and tells time by cafe clocks. The song settings range from Manhattan's bohemian St. Mark's Place to rough East L.A., from bedrooms to barrooms to park benches, with the moods swinging from the extreme to the droll. In short, all the little things in life that make up the big things. "On this record I wanted to bring my world—sad but true, let the chips fall, all those cliches and more—into the songs. To try not to whine and not to brag, to avoid the temptation to cheat on myself."
Completed last winter at The Clubhouse, a storefront studio in North Hollywood, Feast Of Hearts features, in addition to singing partner Stephanie Finch, Cracker vets Davey Faragher (bass) and Michael Urbano (drums). Steve Berlin of Blasters/Los Lobos fame sat in the producer's chair.
"I had already written and co-written about 40 songs over the past year, booking lots of little demo sessions along the way, so I had a blueprint by the time we went in. Steve suggested we record at first as a trio, then as things progressed we brought in Stephanie and some friends, like Greg Leisz on guitar and Phil Parlapiano on accordian. So basically we kept to a core group of difficult, talented, intense people—we were able to stick to the music and reveal truly awful things about our personalities. "And Steve was absolutely tireless. He'll go out and look around in the nooks and crannies. In the dark. With a flashlight. During a storm. Steve works out of one side of his brain. Which side, I can't say—it's the opposite of what I use! But he works hard and long. Even if he does carry a computer around in his fanny pack."
Interviewer: They'll want to know about the songs.
Prophet: I'll leave that to the reviewers. That's their job, right? Writing a song is one thing for me, playing is another, and singing is still another. But talking about something as mysterious and ridiculous as chords and rhymes, man, that's one step beyond.
Interviewer: We're trying to be helpful here.
Prophet: Ah, writing, okay, well, all I do is lock myself in a room and not come out until I've inflicted some melodic monstrosity on the world. Sometimes I go in alone. Sometimes I have to drag somebody in there with me. On this album I wrote with one guy nobody's heard of yet, he goes by Klipschutz, I think that's Lithuanian. And I wrote with Jules Shear, whose name most people who follow music will know. In both cases, I think we came up with some good stuff at the end of the day. What do you think?
Chuck Prophet grew up in the early `60s in Whittier, California, a burg notable for producing an American President, even if it was Richard Nixon. "In Southern California in the `70," recalls Prophet, "there was music everywhere. And everybody played guitar—shake a tree and five guitar players would fall out! For me, playing guitar was some kind of subculture, not a `musical thing.' You put your fingers here, you put your fingers there. Better than doing the hokey-pokey! No, it was like there were all these secret codes, and once you cracked them they actually resembled songs you heard on the radio."
Ronald Reagan wound up in the White House and Prophet wound up in San Francisco the same year, going to college and "majoring in financial aid." He played in a rapid-fire succession of punk-inspired bands, leading up to an opening slot for Green On Red in early `84 which in turn led to his joining the L.A. rootsrock combo. "I was drafted," he claims.
Either way, for the rest of the decade he was a core member of the group, co-writing and guitar-slinging along with vocalist Dan Stuart, on what "seemed like one long barnstorming tour here and throughout Europe," as Prophet remembers it.
"We made eight albums, somehow. Then Danny and I went on permanent strike. What did I learn? How to drink lying down and how to sleep sitting up." Green On Red earned its 15 minutes of fame, with time on the clock to spare, particularly in Europe. Along the way they worked with seasoned players like Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Tony Joe White, Bernie Leadon, Rene Coman and Rainer. Album producers included such rock `n' roll lifers as Glyn Johns, Jim Dickinson and Al Kooper. "At times I felt that I was getting close to things that I considered `the source.' says Prophet. "And I got to watch how other people work. I know it's hard to believe, but it is work. Well, sort of."
Prophet found himself with time to kill during S.F. pit stops between G.O.R. tours and records. So along with a cast of locals such as Finch, Mark Eitzel, Barbara Manning and Bone Cootes, he gravitated to The Albion, a rundown drinking hole "in the neighborhood. They had a back room and you could write a song on Thursday and play it to 40 people on Friday to see how bad it leaked."
Out of these "invisible weekend no-profile headlining slots" came the songs for his Prophet's first solo record, Brother Aldo, recorded for $800. Critical response was positive, to say the least, with music industry tipsheet CMJ New Music Report in particular rightly noting "the same bottom-of-the-bottle gusto that imbued such classics as Pleased To Meet Me, Beggars Banquet or I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight."
In 1992, Prophet turned up at Austin's annual South By Southwest Music Fest, where he gave a standout live performance. (The Austin Chronicle described it as the "hands-down favorite" SXSW showcase, with the quartet coming off "like a full-fledged country-rock orchestra" and Prophet adding "greasy acoustic blues licks, a playful, soulful persona and that distinctive voice.") He then set to work on his next solo album, Balinese Dancer, with a cast that included now-permanent co-conspirator Finch on harmonies and assorted musical shadings.
"I wanted to make a record that nobody would be able to tell when it was recorded. I'm a great fan of—and I don't mean to put myself next to these people—albums like The Basement Tapes, Sister Lovers, or Skip Spence's Oar. What I gathered from those records was that those were records that couldn't have been made if anybody was looking. See, in the process of recording `professionally' so many things get diluted that it's a minor miracle to get real spirit down on tape. Not energy. Energy is easy. But to capture spirit, that's like catching lightning bugs in a jar."
Once again the critics penned their kudos. Guitar Player called him a "storyteller of inward journeys and outward adventures" and a "masterful player who incoporates threads of country, folk, roots rock and blues." And Creem gushed over his "stomping acoustic slide work straddled by gruff, barking blues leads and rounded out by soft Hammond organ punctuation," further singling out Prophet and Finch's vocals as "some of the finest duets this side of Richard and Linda Thompson's definitive album Shoot Out The Lights."
Which brings us back to the present, and back to Feast Of Hearts. Prophet: "I like listening to music that transports me, like a movie that transports you, into your own head and through the looking glass. Like when I was eight years old and bought my first record. Nowadays you've got so many styles and too much marketing, and there's another hyphen every time you rest your eyes. Some of the best stuff gets lost in the static between the stations. I guess what I try to do is dip my bucket down and see if I can drink what I pull back up.
"And I'm pretty lucky to have songs that are living, breathing creatures. What gets all my juices moving around is taking them out of the house and onto the road so I can wipe the smiles off their faces. There's nothing worse than a song that sits up on the shelf and grins. `Cause pretty soon they all start to complain, anyway I'd like to get out and play for a long time, until every last one of them learns how to entertain itself."
Interviewer: So you'll be touring all through `95. And after that? I heard a rumor of yet another record...?
Chuck Prophet: Well, I started that rumor. The working title is The Many Moods Of Chuck Prophet. It's gonna have songs like "Roll Away The Stone" by Mott The Hoople, "Cryin'" by J.J. Cale, Dylan's "She's Your Lover Now," "Flockin' With You" from Ike Turner, maybe Randy Newman's "Suzanne" and War's "Cisco Kid" too.
Interviewer: All covers. Sounds cool. When Dylan did it last year it caught a lot of people off guard and...
Chuck Prophet: No, no, I mean the actual original versions, you know, by the original artists. I figure the sleeve can be
me sitting back in my La-Z-Boy with my eyes shut, listening to the stereo. Maybe get Lester Bangs to do the liner notes. If I can afford him.
Interviewer: Ah. Chuck. Lester Bangs passed on. He's been dead awhile now.
Chuck Prophet: Oh man, that's too bad. I guess I knew he hadn't been too active, but... I gotta keep up better. Mmm... have you ever done liner notes?
the best of this whole wracked-out, country-rock genre since Gram Parsons—and that's no hyperbole.
Chuck drags on a Marlboro. I hear him exhale over the phone. "Have you noticed how there's this huge rise in rehabilitation? I hate that, man! As a fan, I'd rather see people burn out. Y'know, rehabilitation and music - I don't know if it really mixes. I mean, if you burn out, you can get lit back up again. You can light a match twice, man. If you hit bottom hard enough, you're gonna bounce back pretty high.
Life versus legend. Immolation and immortality. These are the dilemmas Chuck's been schooled in since he teamed up with Dan Stuart and dragged his beautifully wasted carcass all over the world as quick-flash guitarist with Green On Red.
So Chuck, you keeping out of trouble? "Yeah, y'know, for the most part ..."
He laughs. And well he might because his first solo album, "Brother Aldo", recorded during breaks in the GOR saga, has been favourably compared to the work of some of his heroes - notably the late, lamented and totally dead beyond rehab Gram Parsons.
"I certainly don't mind that," he says. "Gram and Emmylou. God, not a bad place to start. But I'm not comfortable with the notion of a solo record. There are other people involved. Solo, to me, sounds like masturbation and I can't think of anybody I like who's really a solo artist"
Chuck calls particular attention to Stephanie Finch's harmony singing. She has the sort of voice that instantly reminds impressionably romantic young men of truck-store goddesses soothing lonesome long-distance souls and indeed, she was working as a waitress in a San Francisco oyster bar when she first married vocals with Chuck on tape.
"The spirit of the recording was like a demo." he says. "It cost virtually no money and I wanted it that way. Like, in 1988, when I had the rug pulled out from under me monetarily, romantically and domestically, I figured the only luxury I had left was to work with people I liked. I didn't really want any professionals involved, I didn't really want it to be too corporate.
And working with friends, just going to people's places and putting it down on tape, that's what I live for. It was exciting and gratifying to write a song and cut it in a day. That was the most rewarding thing about it - I kept the macho guitar thing up my sleeve because I didn't feel like I was auditioning for anyone"
Talk turns to Bob Dylan, another of Chuck's heroes. What's he think of "Under The Red Sky". Bob's much-mocked new LP?
"It'll be his biggest record yet, man - on `Sesame Street'!" Chuck laughs `No, I dig it. He has a hard time doing anything wrong by me I've been pissed at him over the years but, if you stand back and squint, there's alwoys something there.
"I mean, he makes all these great players sound like shit. That's his thing. Like, all the records in America are being made by the same people now - y'know, Jim Keltner on drums . . . they're super groups. But Dylan's played with them, all - Clapton, The Band, Bloomfield, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he's f***ed them all through his intimidation. He's a dehumaniser, man. He keeps everybody guessing. That's what it's all about. That's music. It's not the product, it's the process. You know you've got a record when you can hear something going on."
Strings 'n' Squiers
`When I'm recording I can find a sweet spot on any guitar, but live it's still the Squier and nothing else. Man, that guitar knows all the songs by now and it can play `em without thinking - which is what I need `cos I got to worry about other things when I'm on stage.'
`The Squier' is Chuck's battered Japanese Telecaster. It cost him $150, and it's been a mainstay of his career since early Green On Red days. He's fitted Seymour Duncan Vintage Telepickups and the sixth tuner flips between E and low D. For amps, Chucks a vintage tube fanatic. His main squeeze is a blackface Fender Delexe Reverb with a single 12" EV speaker, though he'll also use a Princeton and, for its metronomic tremolo, a Musicman also, on Feast Of Hearts, producer Steve Berlin brought on other toys for Chuck to get to grips with.
`He had bazoukis with lipstick pickups, electric mandolins, baritone guitars, things like that. As a producer he'll want to record a lot of things for effect and he does that by using a lot of effects - big crates of boxes. But I just thought music came outta your fingers y'know? But, if you can keep yourself amused with that stuff, he'll reel it out for you.
`A good example of what we did is Battered And Bruised, which was cut with a baritone 6-string bass capo'd at the 5th fret through a phase shifter which is his sort of thing. I was just going, "Oh yeah Steve, i'm into a lot of new groups too man, I like the Cure, Modern English..." Of course, Berlin loved it ...'