San Francisco, City of His Dreams
By JIM FUSILLI
Chuck Prophet arrived here in the summer of 1983 to attend San Francisco State University. “I was just bluffing my way through,” he said earlier this month in his boxy office and rehearsal space, painted Pepto-Bismol pink, on an industrial stretch of Mission Street. “I thought it was my middle-class right to extend my adolescence. If I would’ve known being in a band would’ve done that for even longer, I would’ve jumped right to that.”
He soon started to fall in love with the city. “Underground film, music, comedy–all that stuff was going on.” It was here that he joined the cowpunk band Green on Red in 1985, and he’s been here ever since.
Mr. Prophet’s love of San Francisco is the theme of his new disc, Temple Beautiful (Yep Roc), his 12th solo album and a witty, sharp-eyed and sentimental tribute to a weird and unquestionably distinctive world-class city. Written by Mr. Prophet and the poet known as klipschutz, the songs celebrate, commemorate and contemplate such San Francisco notables as strip-club operators the Mitchell Brothers; Willie Mays; Dan White, who killed Mayor George Moscone and gay-rights activist Harvey Milk; and the eccentric Joshua Abraham Norton, who in the late 19th century declared himself the U.S. emperor and was embraced by the local citizenry. “Emperor Norton really says so much about this town,” Mr. Prophet said. “It’s over the top, but that’s the point of it. He’s my kind of guy, for sure.” The album takes its title from the name of a punk club that opened on the site of the Rev. Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, following its members’ mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana.
With his nasally conversational style of singing atop lean, crisp rock, served with tossed-off expertise by his three-piece backing band, Mr. Prophet’s Temple Beautiful recalls Green on Red as well as X, Alex Chilton’s various projects, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, without the last’s attendant polish. At its best, it’s an exhilarating recording that kicks off with the joyous “Play That Song Again” and soars from there.
The 48-year-old Mr. Prophet was born in Whittier, Calif., some 400 miles south of San Francisco. “A lot of people played guitar where I lived,” he recalled, “but you had to seek out the weird culture you could identify with.” Punk provided a foothold into music. “MTV was big, but it wasn’t anything we could reach out and grab. Then I saw the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. I didn’t identify musically with Black Flag, but I knew they were making it happen. It was a game changer. You could write your own songs as a means of personal expression.”
Green on Red exposed Mr. Prophet to the harsh life of a rock musician. “You can only romanticize this stuff in retrospect,” he said. “In reality, there was a lot of drudgery. It was slow going; nobody was eating. You spend all your energies fighting the outside world and trying to make things work.”
Though he’s had his compositions recorded by Solomon Burke, his friend Alejandro Escovedo, Heart, Peter Wolf and others, and he’s played guitar with Aimee Mann, Lucinda Williams, Kelly Willis and Warren Zevon, the slog continues, though things have improved since he played the Albion Bar, a dive on Mission Street. On the new disc, Mr. Prophet recalls those days with tenderness in “I Felt Like Jesus.”
“They gave us $50 if we kept it going all night,” he said. “We’d play four sets. Nobody at the time realized it was great.”
To this day, Mr. Prophet won’t easily refuse a gig. Not long ago, he performed at San Francisco International Airport with his wife, Stephanie Finch, and guitarist James DeParto — who is terrific on Temple Beautiful — entertaining passengers as the city’s ambassadors. “It was the equivalent of playing in the living room while people kept walking back and forth between the kitchen and the bathroom,” he said. “We didn’t mind, though. The big secret is we can’t believe we’re getting paid to play.” Though Mr. Prophet plans to tour behind Temple Beautiful and is soon off to Europe to open for the Jayhawks, he might be found playing at Armando’s, a family-run bar in nearby Martinez.
It’s too soon to tell whether Temple Beautiful will resonate with music fans as it should, but Mr. Prophet knows he’s done great work. “My records haven’t sold very much, but I don’t feel bad about it. But everybody who makes records thinks they have a great record in them. Going for it justifies everything, all the foolishness.”
Temple Beautiful is available now on CD, 180g LP and digital at the Yep Roc Store. Order the CD or LP and get the full digital album for FREE instantly in you Stash.Tags: Chuck Prophet, Temple Beautiful, Wall Street Journal