A CHAT WITH CHUCK (& A BUSRIDE TO BOOT) Chuck Prophet

With an
acclaimed new album, Temple Beautiful, in stores and a tour underway, the singer/songwriter/guitarist
is clearly having the time of his life.

 

BY BARRY ST. VITUS

 

Ed. Note: On February 7, BLURT contributor Barry St. Vitus joined a gaggle of journalists
and hardcore Chuck Prophet fans to tour the Bay area by bus, then were treated
to a smokin’ live set from the Prophet band, abetted by musical guests Roy
Loney, John Doe and Kelley Stoltz. St. Vitus’ report is below, followed by an
interview with the man himself.

 

 

CHUCK PROPHET:
THE BUS TOUR OF SAN FRANCISCO

 

 

 

 

We were somewhere around
Broderick on the edge of the Haight when the drugs began to take hold.
Actually, it was just a communal bottle of Southern Comfort and some cookies,
but more about that later. It was almost 7:30, and a cheerful, anticipatory
group gathered outside the bus at the corner of 18th and Capp
Street, wondering what the evening held in store. We were the 60 odd, and
not-so-odd souls lucky enough to score a seat on Yep Roc’s big promo tour
launching Chuck Prophet’s new release, Temple Beautiful, based
entirely on San Francisco
and places special to him. The ‘temple’ was a short-lived punk venue located in
the old Reverend Jim Jones’ People’s Temple building where Chuck saw his first
underground music shows after moving here in the early ‘80’s.

 

 

Yep Roc Records Project Manager
and event organizer, Martin Hall, clipboard in hand, checked off names as we
piled aboard. He had to make some tough calls about who would actually be among
the fortunate to get a seat, and said later he was probably the most hated man
in the city that night. Most guests were fans that entered online, with a
couple of press flunky’s and a cameraman. After the passengers got settled, he
introduced our tour guide for this musical mystery tour, KFOG personality,
Peter Finch who took over the mic. As our merry group pulled off into the
warmish San Francisco night, he highlighted what lay in store, and apologized
that Chuck himself couldn’t join us. We were then greeted by the disembodied
voice of Chuck on the little monitors above our heads, welcoming us aboard,
then presenting a video he narrated about the album, with shots of various
locations and snippets of each song accompanying them. His inspirations covered
everything from his years living in and loving the City, to historical
characters and events going back to Barbary Coast days. It entered my mind that
in those days, we would have probably been slipped a ‘Mickey Finn’ and woke up
on a ship the next morning, far from land and being handed a mop to swab the
deck or manning a bilge pump below.

 

The beauty of San Francisco and
the Bay area has long been an inspiration to the romantic and poetic, as well
as boasting a reputation for its weirdness, pure outrageousness and
individualism, dating back to early Spanish settlers and the original ‘49’ers.
It’s also a place where social outcasts, eccentrics, musicians and artists have
long flocked to feel ‘normal.’ Some are lodged in the national consciousness,
others only in local legend. Although, in recent years, due to sky-high rents,
many have been driven across the Bay to Oakland, where a vibrant new scene has
grown. That said, we’re not like the rest of the country and damn proud of it!

 

 

 

 

As the video rolled on, we
realized we were on the Bay Bridge, heading out of the City. No one could guess
where we were headed, but minutes later we exited onto Treasure Island. We were
paying a visit to the inner-illuminated, 40 ft. light sculpture from Burning Man, called Bliss Dancer, standing there with an eye-popping view of the City
behind it. We disembarked and gathered around the statue, watching it slowly
change colors – red, to blue, to green or purple. Someone downloaded an app to
control the colors and gave it a test drive, to the delight of the crowd. No
one knew that the art piece was even there. Chuck just wanted us to see it.
After clambering aboard, we headed back into town. Peter told us an anecdote
while on the bridge of how, years ago, Chuck, kayaking under said bridge, came
upon a floating bale of weed, which he later turned over to friends and was
able to finance his first record. Peter also mentioned that even though the
album has its San Francisco theme, the city’s name is never used in any of the
songs. Interestingly, Chuck still plays his old Fender Squire Telecaster that
he was given when he joined Green On Red back in 1984 at the age of 18. 

 

Soon, we were cruising down Haight Street,
where we viewed a mural at the intersection of Octavia, and then we pulled up
across from the Central Haight Market, where we were told Janis Joplin bought
her Southern Comfort when she lived nearby. Peter told the driver to pull over,
jumped out, and ran across the street, returning soon with a bag and someone in
tow. He held up a big bottle of the syrupy liquor and presented to us famous
music writer and critic, Joel Selvin! The bottle was opened and passed back for
us to all have a symbolic slug from.

 

 

Selvin took over the tour
duties, regaling us with stories from those halcyon music-scene days; pointing
out a tiny park Jimi Hendrix once played in, and about Paul McCartney’s visit
to the Airplane house, where he turned them onto Sgt. Pepper, and they turned him on to DMT. He had borrowed Frank
Sinatra’s jet to fly up from L.A. Selvin related the story of how he was
actually on the scene that fateful night the Temple Beautiful
caught fire and burned down.

 

 

 

 

Next, we wound up the torturous,
winding road to the top of Twin Peaks, where, we were told, the album cover
shot was taken. Like tourists, we filed out to the overview, taking in the city
lights splaying out far below. Suddenly, guitars started strumming from behind
us, and, as we turned, there was Chuck, wife Stephanie and James DePrato
serenading us with “Temple Beautiful” from on top of a rock wall! This was very
unexpected, and our little troupe was dee-lighted to say the least. Afterwards,
Chuck and Stephanie joined us on the bus, James driving their car back down.

 

 

 

The mic was handed over to San Francisco’s punk
sweetheart, of Avengers fame, Penelope Houston, who presented a Top 10 List of
what Chuck was most fearful of going wrong with the evening. The Southern
Comfort helped the laughs come easier on a few of those. Soon we were rolling
down 16th Street, to the ‘heart of the heart of the city,” where
Chuck pointed out where the Albion Bar used to exist, and the basis for his “I
Felt Like Jesus” song, which played over the system next. The bus ambled on
down 16th to China Basin, where the old Seal Stadium once stood, and
Willie Mays played his first local baseball games. We ended up by AT&T
Park, at Willie Mays Plaza at King and 3rd, where we tumbled out and
gathered around Willie’s statue near a stand of giant palm trees, to hear Chuck
and duo play “Willie Mays Is Up At Bat.”

 

 

 Reboarding, we hit the freeway enjoying some
musical selections that Chuck had been inspired by over the years; The Flamin’
Groovies “Shake Some Action,” Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Want To Dance,’ Garland
Jeffreys “Wild In the Streets” and Fast Floyd’s “Frog Legs Man.” Before we knew
it, we were back where we departed from and told that it was finally party
time, to large hoots from the passengers!

 

 

We were led down the street and
into a small building, with a funky, arty anti-room, with a half a dozen
battered bikes sticking out of the wall, reminding me of the Ant Farm’s
Cadillac Ranch on old Route 66.  The next
room offered a table of food, (mostly hotdog things) and a keg of San Fran’s
finest beer, Liberty ale. Very cool autographed posters from Mission of Burma,
Joe Strummer’s Mescaleros and others lined the walls. The building was a band
rehearsal spot, also rented out for parties. The spacious back room was already
pretty packed from those denied a bus seat, but welcomed to the party.

 

 

 

 

On the small stage, Chuck and Stephanie joined
the rest of the band and lit into a scorching rendering of “Castro Halloween,”
lighting up the audience. Being that this was the release day for the album,
most attendees were hearing it for the first time. After a few more songs, he
brought up ex-Flamin’ Groovies vocalist Roy Loney to join in on “Temple
Beautiful” and then, to the delight of the crowd, launched into “Teenage Head,”
“People People” and “Slow Death.”

 

 

After a break, Kelly Stoltz
joined the band for a few numbers, then Stephanie Finch strapped on her guitar
and sang a couple she and Chuck wrote for her album, Cry Tomorrow, “Don’t Back Out Now,” and “Tina Goodbye.”  Finally, John Doe stepped forward and played.
It was closing in on the midnight hour after a couple more from Chuck, but the
crowd demanded an encore, so Chuck and company complied, rolling out a personal
favorite from his youthful days down South in Nixon country (Whittier), Iggy’s “I’m Bored,” for the
finale.

 

Not one sated soul stumbling out
onto the littered South of Mission street that night was feeling anywhere near
bored, as the music was great and the band (and guest members) was flying high.
Temple Beautiful is certainly a fine
recording, but I was really struck by how damn dynamic the songs were live.
Chuck and James, both stunning guitarists, were on fire that night. I’m pretty
sure that most of the attendees felt smugly self-assured that they had just had
the privilege of participating in a bit of San Francisco history themselves. An
event that scenesters who heard about it afterwards would be saying to
themselves, “Dag! I wish I could have gone to that!”

 

The whole thing had come to fruition
slowly as Chuck discussed with the label something to do on the release date.
The usual, pedestrian, release party was trotted out, but Chuck said “Naw, this
isn’t my first record,’ and ideas were floated and finally, the guided bus tour
idea was hatched, then fleshed out, involving many friends and colleagues to
pull it off. After all, this was Chuck’s love letter to his adopted hometown, and as he put it, “this record was
made in San Francisco, by San Franciscans about San Francisco!”

 

 Probably the only thing more they could have
done to put a fine point on it, the proverbial cherry on top, was to have
waited one more week and held it on Valentine’s Day.

 

********

 

CHUCK PROPHET:
THE INTERVIEW

 

A few weeks
later, while in the midst of a West Coast tour, Prophet took time out to chat
with BLURT about the new album, the bus journey, and more.

 

 

BLURT: Hi Chuck, I wanted to
first go back to your Green On Red days. Do you have a best memory of being in
that band?

 

CHUCK PROPHET: Uh, I couldn’t
particularly come up with any best memory….It was the best of times, it was the worst of times! Yeah, I mean it’s
easier to go on here (unintelligible),
but I remember it all pretty fondly these days. All of it.      

 

 I understand there wasn’t
originally a ‘concept’ for the Temple
Beautiful
album, the San Francisco theme, it just sort of fell into place?

 

 
I don’t know…I was writing songs, along with Kurt (Klipschutz) and we
were just hanging around my office, fooling around, and trying to write some
songs, and we looked at what we had down, and I kind of thought, it kind of
occurred to me that we had these songs that somehow, we kind of had a shared
experience of San Francisco, and all that stuff and the contradictions, and
after that I thought, oh, it’s a cycle you know.  You just try it, and we got excited about
it…it was never hard to come up with material, but, it just kind of exerted
itself y’know? I’d like to think we kind of paying attention and it just kind
of jumped out at us!

 

 So, at
a subconscious level, it was all in there? I was wondering what your thoughts
were on your Yep Roc San Francisco Bus Tour and Record Release Party. What
comments or feedback have you heard about it?

 

 Well, no, I just enjoyed the fact that I made
a record that wasn’t necessarily about me, although you can see San Francisco
through what was my kind of perverted worldview. The record itself is not
strictly a singer-songwriter kind of “I wanna get out of here, my girl-friend
is wrong, my complicated cold” kind of record. 
 I mean, it’s just some kind of
bonus that I didn’t really see coming….to get out and promote record, to have a
party, and go out and play behind the record! It’s not about me. A lot of
people helped make the bus tour. It’s what it takes sometimes to be able to
make those kinds of things to work. It’s fun to do new stuff. Well, it’s fun to
find new ways to do the same old stuff. 

 

 Well,
it was quite an evening. I had a blast! Nobody knew quite knew what to expect,
and the surprises you guys had lined up along the way, definitely were surprises… your appearance up on
Twin Peaks, Stephanie and yourself joining the tour, picking up music writer
Joel Selvin at Janis Joplin’s old liquor store in the Haight, all those little
things.

        Little Steven, on his Underground Garage radio show called the
title song one his “Coolest Songs in the World.” There is a major push behind
you now for the album, which has garnered glowing reviews from writers. Do you
anticipate that this will be kind of a breakout album for you?

 

 
Well, I don’t know what it is that I’m trying to ‘”Break out” of?  I think there’s this real misconception
people have about musicians, or whatever, that somehow everybody is always
looking to “break out.” I mean, I don’t know if I’m living comfortably, but I
haven’t had a job! I think that I
talked a little about this in BLURT when
R.E.M broke up, and uh, the thing is really not if you’re going to break out or
not break out, I think the fear for me is, you know, that I would have to stop.

        When
I say “stop,” I mean stop playing gigs with my friends, and kicking my songs
around, and getting a right sound and
trying to get it to behave, and turning it into records and pouring the songs
from beaker to beaker to try and trying to get some kind of credible
performance, to get paid, and all
that stuff. I mean, all that for me is what keeps me coming back. So, you know,
I don’t really have to focus on the next level, I mean, I can sit here probably
for a long time. I mean, if you’re lucky enough to get up in the morning and
you’re interested in what you’re doing, and lucky enough to have somebody in your
life to share it with, that for me is successful. You can kind of talk about the next level, I think people just
assume that you should be trying to do, to just continue along and be a hit or
go and get a job at Google or something!

        I’m telling the truth… you gotta try! But, I hear they’ve got good snacks
over there!

 

 (Laughs) You may be getting too old to
get in the door there any more. I don’t think they take anyone over 25 or
something. So, after 30-odd years here in San Francisco, what would you say
that you like best, and dislike the most about it?

 

 Well, the great thing about San Francisco,
apart from the diversity, the culture and, uh, the arts and the diversity of
races, and all these things….it can really open your eyes if you come from
somewhere else. But, I think the thing that freaks me out is that, for these
years I’ve got to live in the heart of the “money belt”! Really! I mean if you
drive around a bit, you don’t see different ads…like Albany, Scranton,
Cleveland. You don’t see Yahoo! billboards
every 300 feet. So, it’s interesting, what the people in San Francisco have
economically and what the people in the rest of the country have. It’s, uh,
rough to be out there and see what happened in the late ‘90s when the economy
got so white-hot and so many people were driven out, and the real estate blew
people out – lot of the fringe element were pushed out, and that’s pretty
disheartening.

        But, you know, there’s always a new
crop of excited weirdos on the next bus, trying to change the world, so it
continues to reinvent itself. But, I think that was a rough time for me to even
keep my band up, around that period. It was so hot, a lot of musicians were
forced out, a lot of fringe element couldn’t afford the rent, so, you know, a
lot of people migrated up to Portland – a lot of my friends actually! A couple
went down to Texas or Arizona. It’s pretty disheartening how white-hot the
economy got, around the time of the big Dot-com scare. I don’t look back on
that as a fun time at all! I think money makes people stupid.

 

 I think that’s one reason too,
why there has been such an increase in the amount of artists and musicians over
in the Oakland area now. The art scene is getting really hot over here in the
East Bay. If you were forced to leave San Francisco, is there someplace that
you can see yourself moving to, like the East Bay or Portland or Austin or
someplace? Anyplace come to the top of your mind, “Boy, I could see myself
living here.”

 

Oh, a trailer out by the Salton
Sea or something. Yeah, get a trailer out there by the Salton Sea. I don’t
know.

 

So, you’re doing a short West Coast tour now, then you’re going solo to
Europe, then back here, playing South By Southwest  (including on March 16, 2 PM at the
BLURT Day Party
), then back to Europe and England with the full band, for a
few shows?

 

More than a few shows. At least
a dozen U.K. shows, then we’ll be taking off on the Continent. I don’t
know…LOTS of shows!

 

 What
city are you most looking forward to playing in?

 

I really like playing in
England, I think it’s they’re the best audience in the world.  I mean going to gigs, get a pint and standing
around on a sticky black floor, and, and hurling insults at the band. It’s all
part of their culture! I think Minneapolis is a little like that, and Austin is
like that. We’re going to gigs where it’s engrained in people’s culture, so I
look forward to playing in England. I like going up North, and we’re playing
Brighton this time. I like it all.

 

 What’s
one of the worst things that have happened to you out on tour?

 

Uh, nothing that you’d want
found out… y’know?  (laughs) I’ve been
ripped-off, man – I mean, it’s just ridiculous. I can’t really begin to put that
into a spreadsheet.

 

 

Photo Credits: Main image at top by Charlie Homo; all others by Barry
St. Vitus

 

Leave a Reply