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 ...'