AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #207 : CHUCK PROPHET

A GUEST POSTING by HYBRID SOC PROF,
our Michigan Correspondent

With apologies, this one’s a little long, I chose to recount – record by record – Chuck’s long and ongoing career.

There are some performers that – to completely wreck a few blended metaphors – grab you by the lapels, draw you into their arms and leave you both utterly agog and reveling in the extent to which you feel flatted by a Mack truck. Chuck Prophet’s that guy for me. I really loved his playing with Green on Red but he was clearly second fiddle to Dan Stuart’s songwriting and vision. I tracked GoR long enough to know their chemical struggles and battles with the bottle, so when they broke up I pretty much figured that was the end of that.

Then Chuck and his partner, Stephanie Finch, appeared on an AIDS benefit compilation, the Acoustic Music Project performing a beautiful beautiful song, Step Right This Way, soon followed by an LP, Brother Aldo. Chuck had turned into a subtle and soulful, still axe-wielding, singer-songwriter. Diane and I went and saw him fairly soon thereafter at The Great American Music Hall, the show was great.

The next two records – Balinese Dancer and Feast of Hearts – have some wonderful songs on them but it seemed to me that Chuck was feeling for something he couldn’t quite get the feel of… something at the mysterious intersection of folk, soul, pop and rock. He was working with Jim Dickinson – a Memphis legend who’d played with everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones and Flaming Groovies – during this stretch working out the range, breadth and scope of his new identity. I saw him at the Starry Plough, a tiny little venue on Berkeley-Oakland border, around the time of Balinese Dancer, and talked to him for the first time. Warm, appreciative, open, kind… everything you’d want. A few years later, I saw him in San Francisco – probably at Slims – and caught him warming up on a secondary stage – ripping through 3-4 Aerosmith tunes.

I’d moved to Massachusetts, following Diane, by the time Homemade Blood came out in 1997. There are a lot of great guitar records from the 1990s and Homemade Blood is in my top 10, probably near the middle. It’s an emotion-drenched, intensely-committed and person record. In the press, we learned that he’d been through rehab and ended up back at his parents’ place – something he jokes about to this day; the suburban home pictured on the front of the CD/LP. There’s pain and comfort, ease and passion in that record. 20 years later, I can listen to the rockers and ballads, alike, without the slightest reduction in enjoyment.

… and then came The Hurting Business. My sense of this glorious record is that, having moved back to San Francisco and living “South of Market,” Chuck took every sound he was hearing and every tradition he loved and overlaid them is a distillation of everything musical the city had to offer at that point in time. There are two smoky ballads, three rip roaring rockers, four blendings of singer-songwriter and conscious hip hop and some Memphis soul thrown in for good measure. In an interview a short while later, synthesizing most everything he’s done since 2000, Chuck said:

As a songwriter, I’m a slave to traditional song craft, whatever I do. I mean, my heroes are still going to be Dylan and Carole King and Hank Williams. But for me, the process of making new records is a matter of constantly seeking new ways to cast the movie. I’m turned on by people like Moby and DJ Shadow, and I appreciate what those guys have been able to do by bending traditional song structures. As much as I admire that stuff, I’m still a “first verse, first chorus” kind of guy. 

I saw him opening for Peter Case around this time and they tore the roof off of Schuba’s in Chicago… and were able to convince the audience to demand an electric version of the Plimsouls’ classic “A Million Miles Away”, and maybe “Lie, Beg, Borrow, and Steal,” I don’t quite recall.

2002’s No Other Love is a quieter record and generated the minor hit “Summertime Thing” which, combined with having toured with his connections in Memphis, touring with Lucinda Williams, and writing a hit for another artist got him onto Daryl Hall’s Live from Daryl’s House webcast. 2004’s Age of Miracles represented a tick up in the energy level but also the show-stopping “You Did” and magnificent love-drenched and broken evening stroll of “Pin a Rose on Me.”

Someone on Letterman heard and liked 2007’s Soap and Water but playing “Doubter Out of Jesus (All Over You)” generated an after-the-fact-predictable stupid right wing backlash that no minor artist needs. 2009’s ¡Let Freedom Ring! was recorded in Mexico City and, repeating “the word on the street” at the time was a political record for non-political people. It’s a fairly straight-ahead indie rock record perhaps reflecting his increasing connection and various collaborations with Alejandro Escovedo.

2012’s Temple Beautiful is a great, consistent, rocking, ironic, fun record… not so much a return to form as a world of fun… possibly his most consistent record. Even if I can’t really pull out a standout track, it’s one of those records I can always listen to all the way through from start to finish. A rare thing in the world of CDs, mp3s, and streaming. 2014’s Night Surfer slowed everything down two notches but, sadly, didn’t do a lot for me

Bobby Fuller Did for Your Sins, from 2017 – the last record released – is in fact a return to form. There’s fun in the title song, throbbing eroticism in “Your Skin,” a full-on mid-70s throwback in “Bad Year for Rock and Roll,” a retro-rocker driven by a freight train beat in “In the Mausoleum,” and a howl of pain, rage and confusion in “Alex Nieto.”

Still married to Stephanie, she’s still playing keyboards in the band alongside a stable drummer and second guitar player… my sense is that, as is so often the case, the bassist has rotated. I hope you like these…

1. Pin A Rose On Me (from Age of Miracles, 2004)
2. Summertime Thing (from No Other Love, 2002)
3. Kmart Family Portrait (from Homemade Blood, 1997)
4. Scarecrow (from Brother Aldo, 1990)
5. Dyin’ All Young (from The Hurting Business, 1999)
6. Doubter Out Of Jesus (All Over You) (from Soap and Water, 2007)
7. Your Skin (from Bobby Fuller Died For Our Sins, 2017)
8. Ooh Wee (from Homemade Blood, 1997)
9. Dirt (from While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years Of Bloodshot Records, 2014)
10. Run Primo Run (from No Other Love, 2002)
11. Alex Nieto (from Bobby Fuller Died For Our Sins, 2017)

HSP

6 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #207 : CHUCK PROPHET

  1. I was a huge Green on Red fan and followed Chuck’s early solo career very closely too, until he slipped off my radar somewhere around the turn of the century – although I did pick up on him again briefly in 2010, around the time of his ‘London Calling’ tribute band The Spanish Bombs. I’m really looking forward to listening through your selections this evening, many of which come from the period I’m less familiar with. Funnily enough I’ve actually had the tracklist for a Green on Red ICA sitting on my hard-drive for ages, but have yet to pull the music and words together for it. Perhaps this will give me the impetus I need. Great work Hybrid Soc Prof.

    (JC. I emailed an ICA to you earlier this week, but not sure if it might have gone straight to your junk folder?)

  2. Excellent post, HSP. I very much enjoyed Bobby Fuller but my knowledge of Chuck is patchy before then. This will help me get started with further digging.

  3. Thanks for this HSP
    I’ve seen Chuck a few times and have a couple of his early albums. Looking forward to filling in the blanks.
    Swede – get cracking with the Green on Red one!

  4. Love Chuck, so happy to see you spreading the word. Our taste differs a bit though. “No Other Love” is my favourite of his albums: Full of gorgeous songs, but the two you include from it are not among them. Agree that he’s great live, and is an approachable, friendly, nice guy.
    His blog is worth following. Get on his mailing list for the hilarious e-mails.

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