An Evening with Chuck Prophet
Chuck Prophet shapes his restless career with inimitable subtle flair: a vivid parade of razor-edged one-liners camouflaged in a slack-jawed drawl, songs about heartbreak and everyman heroism, drenched in twisted lines of rude Telecaster.
When the early stages of a financial melt-down coincided with a rare San Francisco heat wave in the summer of 2008, with the window open wide and Dwight Twilley, Iggy, Thin Lizzy and the Knack blaring out the hi-fi, Prophet wrote a collection of political songs for non-political people. Later, in April 2009, he journeyed to Mexico City, where, in the clutches of a Swine Flu panic and earthquakes, he recorded ¡Let Freedom Ring!, his most incendiary record, every bit as urgent as the title demands.
His search for a new perspective paid off, much like at eighteen when he left his native Whittier, CA for San Francisco, which he still calls home, and before too long joined Green on Red, a gang of interloping Arizonans with no small impact on L.A.'s Paisley Underground. During an eight-year run with Green on Red, he cut his first major label session with legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, burned through a couple of big record deals, and ventured a debut solo effort, Brother Aldo (1990). These were the first steps in the career that shaped Prophet into a prolific rock 'n' roll classicist.
But now, he has created his career high-water mark. ¡Let Freedom Ring! wanders into the fractured, surreal state of the American Dream and emerges with the most vital document of Prophet's vision, a reflection of life and love for troubled times.
To untangle topics so knotted, Prophet uses only the most essential language: little else but whip-smart one-liners, a guitar in each channel and a backbeat. There are glimpses in the rear-view mirror of American rock 'n' roll names like Eddie Cochran and an instinct for lean guitar tunes but the meat's fresh. There's everything from the capitalist hustle and the immigrant struggle to the impulse to forget it all with a lusty Saturday night.
For his journey south of the border, Prophet put together a band with guitarist Tom Ayres, bassist Rusty Miller and drummer Ernest "Boom" Carter (who supplied Springsteen the beat for "Born To Run"). Over an eight-day session, his ninth solo studio record was born among the gnarled chaos of Mexico City. Outside the doors were warring drug cartels, a crippling recession and the panic of Swine Flu that sent a city of 25 million cowering behind surgical masks. Inside, producer Greg Leisz (Wilco, Beck, Emmylou Harris) used Eisenhower-era gear and did little else but roll tape. It was Mexico City. It was panicked and paranoid. It was chaotic, beautiful, and hopeful. To gain a fresh perspective on his homeland from high on a flat foreign hill, it was perfect.
Opening with "Sonny Liston's Blues," Prophet gives voice to a man with a heart recognized by few, who many thought a monster, equal parts myth and reality much like the American Dream. The shuffling gait of "Barely Exist" glances at that dream through the lens of immigration: a father's dog-eared photograph of a kid left behind in a world of "asbestos in your Kool-Aid for breakfast."
Prophet's own country, run by Georgetown barflies that rage through "American Man" and the wild markets under the Stonesy strut of "¡Let Freedom Ring!," is a place where solace can only be found in grabbing the nearest body and plunging headlong onto the dance floor, or waking late with the windows open.
Eleven songs later, Prophet's Freedom stares into the incalculable divide of America's haves and have-nots and offers neither answers nor condolences; the grit and glory of his country like the devils he wrestles are all in the details.
When you dig the details that have shaped Prophet's career, ¡Let Freedom Ring! is merely the latest highlight in career of many. He has written with a wide rage of artists from Dan Penn to Alejandro Escovedo (the 2008 LP, Real Animal), laid down tracks on sessions for everyone from Warren Zevon to Kelly Willis and taken the stage with Jim Dickinson, Lucinda Williams and Aimee Mann, to name a few. Prophet's production credits include Willis' Translated From Love (2007) and working on Jace Everett's ("Bad Things" / True Blood) new release Red Revelations. He's heard his own tunes performed by legends like Solomon Burke and Heart and his songs have charted on both country ("I'm Gone," a co-write with Kim Richey, on the debut album of country starlet Cyndi Thompson) and AAA radio ("Summertime Thing," from 2002's No Other Love, was a lazy radio anthem).
National television appearances include Austin City Limits in support of No Other Love, as well as Letterman and Carson Daly, supporting 2007's Soap & Water. His music has increasingly been featured in film and television, most recently as the closing track to episode two of True Blood.
John Murry bio 2009
His emails are all aptly signed with the Mark Twain quote, "As soon as you realize it's all insane, it all makes sense". In an industry filled with heroin-shaped prima donnas and blood-leeching businessmen, Chuck Prophet is a thorn tree. He's a thorn tree in the gardens of a game that he's played and that's played him; ultimately refusing to give up on what makes him breathe: rock and roll.
Chuck Prophet's career in music began much like the careers of others. He was a kid with a guitar. Here's the difference: by the time he was fifteen years old he could do more with it than most would be able to do in a lifetime. Legendary producer and musician Jim Dickinson (The Rolling Stones, The Replacements, Big Star, Bob Dylan) was once asked how this kid could pull off the stuff he did. Dickinson simply replied, "What do you expect from somebody who got his cherry popped at the funny farm when he was fourteen?" His first endeavor away from his sleepy hometown of Whittier, California was straight to the absurdity that is San Francisco. He almost immediately joined the seminal cosmic country rock band Green On Red and spent 8 years and as many albums playing and touring with them. He wasn't yet 21 years old. Hell, he wasn't even 20. He was still a teenager. Once called by the New York Times "By far one of the best bands in the United States for almost an entire decade", he spent his youth touring Europe and the US; watching himself grow up on the road. He became a teenage junkie. Trial by fire? Horse shit. He was a kid; a kid who could play and sing and write like a musical time bomb and he kept himself alive long enough to find crack cocaine, the drug that finally brought him to his knees ten years ago. He's been clean ever since. They say 'cleanliness is next to godliness' but one can't be so sure when measuring Chuck's manic activities. He was saved from addiction but he's far from being saved from himself.
You want stories? They're everywhere. Chuck, over ten years ago, once jumped from one San Francisco rooftop onto another and fell three stories through a skylight onto the cement floor of a mechanics' garage; all in an attempt to impress a girl and get into his apartment (that he had locked himself out of). He was high. The stories are endless. His long-suffering wife and musical partner Stephanie Finch can assure any disbeliever of that. You get clean and you cut it out, right? Nah. Chuck simply tells me, "I don't want to embarrass my parents anymore than I already have." The recording of Chuck's latest record has incurred him a smashed car windshield and, at last count, 27 parking tickets. He can't get it right. Chuck, in his Green On Red days was often called, in quotation marks, Billy The Kid. He signed to New West records in 2002 and was promptly dropped in 2005. How does Chuck feel about it? Who knows? He's no Ryan Adams. Mike Lembo, Chuck's manager from 1995 through 2000 stole all of Chuck's publishing rights from underneath him. To add nothing but insult to injury Lembo threw away all of Chuck's master recordings. Chuck eventually got his publishing rights back. How does he feel about the whole thing? Broken glass and cement floors hurt much worse. So what did hurt? Mike made Chuck lie about his age, forever keeping him several years younger for the sake of press. In talking to Chuck you can tell it's not the "making" him do it that bothered him so much, it's that he went along with it. Chuck Prophet is 43 years old. There, now you know. But he's still a fucking kid. A kid with a guitar and some songs.
Chuck's encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll and The American Songbook at large is weighty and impressive. He's not a student, though. He tells me he doesn't "understand why people are so down on Dylan's eighties records" with heart. He's not drawn to the stories and music because of any intellectual need to know; he's drawn to it like a moth to flame, like a razor to the vein. He can't live without it and has never quite figured out how to live within it. He does, though. He wrestles the demons that have pursued him since he was a kid and he brilliantly strangles his guitar in protest, sings his own repentances, and writes like a man who, like William Faulkner suggested, should "only seek to outdo (himself)". His fans within the music community are vast. Lucinda Williams, after hearing his 1999 release "No Other Love" immediately looked at Peter Jespersen and asked, "Can I take him on tour with me?" He went on that tour, riding behind Lucinda's bus in a 1988 Dodge Ram with over 250k miles on it. He played to audiences of between 10 and 15 thousand people for two months. On one fateful night he was served papers. He was served papers onstage. He means so well, but he can't help but embarrass his folks a bit. He's written songs with Dan Penn and innumerable others, has been recently writing with Alejandro Escovedo, produced the most recent Kelly Willis record (who once said "If I could sing like anybody I'd like to sing like Chuck Prophet" - in response Chuck almost blushingly says "I'll have to straighten her out on that one"), and has had his songs recorded by the likes of Solomon Burke, Kim Richey, Jim Dickinson, and even Heart. He's played on the recordings of Warren Zevon, Jonathan Richman, Cake, Bob Neuwirth, Penelope Houston, Kelly Willis, and many others. In writing on what he was currently listening to in 2004, Stephen King (that's right, Stephen King), wrote of Chuck's tune "Rise": "What does this song mean? I have no idea. But it's lovely, incantatory and mysterious. God bless Chuck Prophet." Yes sir, God bless him indeed.
God bless Chuck Prophet. He has released seven previous solo records, his last being the brilliant "Age Of Miracles" in 2004. His new album, titled "Soap and Water", is objectively his best. Of course, your not supposed "objectively" make claims such as this, but it is. Why? Because, like Seth Morgan writes, Chuck's been jailin'. He's learned to sleep when others couldn't and in the process has written what others can't. In "Would You Love Me?", he sings "Sittin' in a movie and I'm starring at a screen, they're dragging Jesus from the town, it don't look good to me, well if I had a bucket, or better yet a spoon, I go down to that river baby, I'd bring that river home to you." In "Happy Ending", he cries, "I memorized my favorite scenes, all the lines come right to me, and now the tears are really mine, the moon is just another lie, winners lose, heroes fall, it don't make no sense at all."
Chuck has said that in many ways this album pays homage to Alex Chilton. Once at a concert before performing a Chilton song, Chuck said, "When I first heard Alex Chilton I wanted to BE Alex Chilton. No, fuck that, I wanted to make it with him". Alex has found and lost himself repeatedly over the years, but he's never stopped being Alex Chilton. Neither has Chuck, and in his own words Chuck says of "Soap and Water", "People start making records to flatter themselves. I've got nothing to lose. I'm just now getting good." He's right and at the same time so terribly wrong. He's always been good, but he's never been this brilliant. This is a record of redemption and soul; it's got the heart of a lion and the scars of the saints. It's filed with uneasy salvation and, ultimately, the thorny blood of Chuck Prophet.
--John Murry, San Francisco, California, June 2007
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