In ‘Temple Beautiful,’ Chuck Prophet reflects on his Bay Area home
By David Malitz
Friday, May 18, 2012
Chuck Prophet’s catalogue is overflowing with insightful character studies, jangle-pop perfection and energetic barroom rockers. And that accounts for just some of the songs he has written, recorded and forgotten. In his 25-plus-year career, the 49-year-old has established himself as a minor god in the roots-rock pantheon — a sharp, prolific singer-songwriter who always seems to have a new batch of tunes ready to go.
Prophet didn’t have to look far for inspiration for his new album — it was all around him. “Temple Beautiful” is a tribute to Prophet’s longtime home of San Francisco. As Prophet and songwriting partner Kurt Lipschutz were working on new material, the idea of a San Francisco-centric album dawned on them, and they went with it. They had secluded themselves in an Internet-free zone, so there was no digging for details and the album is more interpretive history than history lesson.
“We couldn’t really research anything, so we started leaning on the more mythical side of things,” Prophet says of the songwriting process. “You get to have fun with the characters. In the case of Willie Mays, we put him in a song with a bunch of people that he would never be caught dead with.”
Prophet is referring to the song “Willie Mays Is Up at Bat,” which serves as a tidy centerpiece to an album that marks another creative high point in his career.
“I hear the church bells ring, Willie Mays is up at bat / I hear the crowd go wild, all he did was touch his hat / Meanwhile Carol Doda stood up and said I won’t be ignored / She showed ’em everything she had then she showed ’em all a little more,” goes the first verse, placing the baseball Hall of Famer in the same company as the famous 1960s Bay Area stripper.
From there, notorious cult leader Jim Jones interacts with legendary concert promoter Bill Graham. There are more peeks into the seedier corners of town before the song ends with a Thin Lizzy-level guitar flourish. It’s the kind of tune that has become synonymous with Prophet — a rollicking story-song with lyrics both wistful and funny and no shortage of impressive guitar runs.
Prophet’s career began in the mid-’80s when he joined Green on Red, then one of the leading bands in a robust L.A. psychedelic pop scene. In the early ’90s, Prophet embarked on a solo career that has put him in a place where he’s neither a household name nor in danger of toiling in obscurity. The likes of Bob Dylan, Alex Chilton and Tom Waits may be obvious influences, but Prophet also cites Woody Allen as an inspiration for his auteurism and devotion to making a new film each year. Prophet similarly keeps chugging along. And although at this point songwriting seems to be second nature, he’s still thrilled when a new creation comes to fruition.
“I try to explain what it’s like to just be addicted to the buzz of wrestling a song to the ground,” Prophet says. “And that’s what it is, a buzz. And as soon as I do get a song to behave and it’s a good song, I’m pretty depressed after that. I never really know where the next one’s coming from. I think I understand the craft . . . but the [last] part of the process is the mystery — what makes someone want to listen to it again?”
“Temple Beautiful” is overstuffed with songs worthy of repeat listens. It also serves as an ideal gateway into what can be a daunting discography. The title track (named after the old punk club where Prophet saw life-changing gigs, including the Dead Kennedys) is a boisterous roadhouse rocker with sax blasts and hand claps. “Castro Halloween” is a shimmering slice of guitar pop that Wilco fans should love. If this isn’t the best album of Prophet’s career, it’s definitely one of the most invigorating. And he has San Francisco to thank.
“I’ve been lucky enough to travel around playing music,” he says, “and I just always look forward to coming home.”