His unique vision informs solo and collaborative projects
I didn’t know much about Chuck Prophet the first time I talked to him in 2010. I first heard of him as a collaborator with Alejandro Escovedo, then with Kim Richey, who opened a co-bill at the Southgate House that year. But it took only one conversation to realize he’s the genuine article: thoughtful, funny, curious, passionate, pleasant. We talked again before a rollicking show at the Southgate House Revival in 2017, a conversation he remembered when I approached him 2019. It’s always nice when the subject thanks for the writer for taking time to do a story.
2017 - Album Release Interview
Bobby Fuller, who died under mysterious circumstances in Los Angeles at the age of 23, has been a touchstone of music fans for more than 50 years. After his cover of “I Fought the Law” hit the Top 10, Fuller was found dead in his car of what was ruled a suicide.
Chuck Prophet grew up in California playing in bands that played Fuller’s hit, although he was more familiar with the Clash’s version since he was only 3 when Fuller died.
Half a century later, Prophet has resurrected the transplanted Texan in the title tune of his new album, “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins.” Fuller is just one name on the record as Prophet also names Jesus, Peter Sellers, Connie Britton and devotes “Bad Year for Rock and Roll” to the litany of top-flight musicians who died in 2016.
“The year leading up to the election, just the loss of faith … all the heroes that we lost, all the things in the air,” Prophet says. “I think all of that stuff is embedded in the DNA of the record. I also think that Bob Dylan, the Byrds, the Flamin’ Groovies, Motown, the British Invasion … all of that is embedded in the record, too.”
That might seem like a lot to squeeze into 13 tracks, but Prophet also adds his first “protest” song, “Alex Nieto.” The tune tells the tale of a poor kid in San Francisco who was shot 59 times by police after “a couple of young, white professionals who were new to (Nieto’s) neighborhood were feeling threatened.”
Prophet has lived in San Francisco for more than 30 years and has watched as the city has come under siege from what he describes as “techie man-children and billionaires.” He says, “You can build a case that gentrification is killed Alex Nieto. This brown-skinned guy … with a 49ers jacket on was profiled as a gang member and (the newcomers) didn’t know better so they called 911.
“I wish that song didn’t have to be written.”
Prophet doesn’t hide his opinions, but insists he’s not a preacher.
“I don’t have a megaphone like somebody like Green Day,” he says. “This (record) is not my ‘American Idiot.’ It’s a rock ’n’ roll record and I think that’s the best thing I can do. I’m not here to make speeches or tell people what to think. Follow your heart, man, and know that even your heroes are full of (crap) at least a third of the time.
“I will say this, though. I’m a firm believer that (too much) money makes people stupid. You become entitled, rude, insensitive. I’ve seen it happen in my neighborhood, which was better when it was mostly renters. Homeowners get a little anxious about somebody parked at that curb. Well, whose curb is it?”
Prophet riffs on current events like it’s music, and although the topics are serious, he laughs easily and never seems strident. As a matter of fact, his thoughts appear to be laser focused on one goal.
“I just think it’s rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “It’s one thing to have something to say and it’s another to have a way to say it. When it all comes together at the same time, that’s my kind of music.”
2010 - Album Release Interview
If you can measure a person’s character by the quality of his friends, Chuck Prophet is a lucky man.
The San Francisco singer-songwriter stopped in at the WNKU-FM studio with Kim Richey before a 2010 show at the Southgate House. The station’s music director, John Patrick, once described Prophet as “the coolest guy we’ve ever had in here.”
Testimonials are nice, but the proof is in the music. Prophet’s latest album, “Let Freedom Ring!” is a meditation on our life and times, somewhat inspired by one his heroes.
“It was Hunter S. Thompson who really based his career on the life, death, rebirth and total disappearing of the American dream,” Prophet says. “I was interested in that when I started writing songs for this album. I had the window open and after about two or three songs, I realized that’s where I was going.”
In addition to his solo projects, Prophet is trusted collaborator to folks like Richey and Alejandro Escovedo among others. He co-wrote more than half of the songs on Escovedo’s “Street Songs of Love” this year, and partnered on every one on 2008’s “Real Animal.”
“When we get in a room we just never run out of things to talk about,” Prophet says of Escovedo. “It’s like touching two jumper cables together. The songs just kind of spill out of that. To Al’s credit, he has the ability to make somebody feel like you’ve known him your whole life.”
Prophet’s whole life hasn’t been spent basking in a cocoon of critical acclaim. He started living the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle as a teenager, and fell victim to those temptations. But while he struggled with a drug problem, he also made good music with Green on Red, an early acolyte of the country punk sound, that found its way to Memphis at one point.
“We really took that lifestyle thing as far we could,” he remembers. “We were working with (Memphis musical legend) Jim Dickinson on a record called ‘The Killer Inside Me,’ which kind of split the band, brother vs. brother.
“While we were there, Alex (Chilton of the Box Tops and Big Star) would drop by. … Big Star was like the Sex Pistols in their own way … the influence that it had, just like the influence that the Velvet Underground had, Big Star had the same amount of influence.”
Spending time with Dickinson (who died last year) and Chilton (who died this year) certainly influenced Prophet, but cool innately knows cool.
“The thing about Alex is … he was cool. He didn’t have to say a lot about (his life and music), and he never did a lot of explaining. There was nothing exaggerated at all. He was the coolest (guy) who ever lived.”
Patrick might disagree. “(Prophet) is just cool. You can’t fake cool.”