“Chuck Prophet Writes the Songs That Make, Well, Not the Whole World, But a Small, Statistically Insignificant Portion of it Sing”
(A Profile in Three Songs Flat)
1. It’s Not Too Late
To set the scene: Alejandro Escovedo and Chuck Prophet are laying on the carpet Chuck’s studio, south of Market. There’s a ratty drum kit, a few guitars, a turntable, and, the main thing, Chuck says, the thing that makes this space into a studio – no fucking internet access.
They’re supposed to be writing songs for Alejandro’s new record. But for a while now they’ve been shooting the shit about the old days, when punk rock was everything and Alejandro was playing with Rank and File and Chuck was at SF State, itching to abandon his destiny as a middle-class kid from Orange County. The sun’s going down. Moot the Hoople is on the turntable.
Chuck leaves the room for a little while and when he returns Alejandro is playing guitar and singing nonsense rhymes. It’s not quite a jam session yet. We know this because Chuck is still talking on his cell phone. But the first idea has been put forward, a little two-chord riff that sounds like a slightly off-kilter version of the old Mysterians single, “96 Tears.”
Alejandro keeps plugging away and finally Chuck picks up his acoustic and plays the same two drubbing chords and hollers out a few dopey blues couplets, trying to breathe some life into the idea and mostly failing. It’s embarrassing, frankly, to hear two of America’s finest songwriters flailing like fifteen-year-olds in a garage band. It’s so embarrassing that even months later, playing a cassette of the session for me on his battered Walkman, Chuck keeps trying to fast-forward, and I keep having to say to him, “Wait, wait, I want to hear the whole thing.”
Here’s the important thing to know: Alejandro has known Chuck for a long time. He knows that Chuck has to get lathered up to write songs and that this lathering process requires time and patience. He’s got to get freaky and loud and when that starts to happen the best thing to do – the only thing to do, really – is just sit back and listen to whatever sloshes out of his brainpan.
So Alejandro sits there and listens to Chuck work over those two chords. He strums and wails and arpeggiates and after a few minutes the melody is something different and maybe new and Chuck starts screaming out lyrics, trying to find some traction. Everybody knows your name, everybody knows your shame … What do we have in common, play it straight … Everyone’s going out, I’m going straight … We’ve got so much to live for, it’s not too late…
It’s that last line that sounds right, sounds like more than an idea and Alejandro hears it immediately, and together they sing the line again, then a third time, and Chuck gives the last word an exuberant little Dylanesque whoop, because they’ve got something they can agree on, a chorus maybe.
There’s a click and the tape goes silent: it’s time to get out the electric guitars. The noise starts up again, much louder now, and soon Chuck is pounding at his drum set while Alejandro works over the same chord progression. This goes on for ten more minutes. They’re both biding time, waiting for the idea to lead them somewhere. If it was anyone else, Chuck tells me, the song probably never happens.
But it’s Alejandro Escovedo. “His biggest talent,” Chuck says, “other than being totally fucking cool, is that he’s got faith. He shows up for work every day and he’s dressed totally cool and he looks at you and he’s like, ‘Bro, it’ll happen.’ And I’m over here like, ‘Hey, we’ve been playing 96 Tears for two hours!’”
The two keep bashing away, swapping bullshit lyrics. Chuck goes off on a long, hysterical jag about a lover who bloodies him by throwing a magazine at his face. “I put a bag over my whole head,” he screams. “I punched myself in the mouth.” This sends Alejandro into convulsions.
So mostly, he’s just fucking around – showing off for an old buddy. But gradually, something else starts happening. Chuck stops trying to sound like Muddy Waters and starts singing about himself and Alejandro, the punk scene in San Francisco, those days when they were young and lost and everything felt hopeless and at the same time the music, the clubs, their own defiance, made them feel dangerously alive, which is how Chuck stumbles onto the line that cracks open the whole song. “We don’t want your approval,” he sneers. “It’s 1978. We know we’re not in tune, we know we’ll never be great.”
And just like that, the song has arrived: its subject, its setting, its attitude. Chuck stops playing and tells Alejandro, “Okay man, just give me ten minutes.” The rest comes in a gush. He listens to the tape and culls his best improvisations, then patches in images from the bull session he and Alejandro were having before they started playing.
The final mix is a complete mindfuck: the original chord progression has been turned into a walking bassline, played now on the electric cello. There’s huge, muddy drums and a squalling guitar solo and a vintage soul organ riff and soaring background vocals. The song – which started as nothing, a riff, a notion – now sounds like some lost track from the White Album sessions.
“It makes you feel alive to do that shit,” Chuck tells me. “You get the endorphins going in your brain and it starts getting you high. It’s like my friend Dan Penn1 says, ‘I’m never happier than when I’m in throes of wrestling a good song to the ground.’”
Chuck Prophet – Sonny Liston’s Blues (Live on KEXP)
Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Chuck Prophet
So you probably don’t know who Chuck Prophet is, which is fine, which is one of the points of this piece, maybe the only one. The reason I know the guy is because some flak sent me a promo back in 1999 called The Hurting Business, a mixture of roots rock (twangy guitar, lapsteel, wurlitzer) with hip hop production (beats, scratches, samples). I realize that sounds scarily Kid Rockish on paper, but the net effect was more like a moody lamentation. Chuck’s melodies were somber and his vocal style was relaxed, ironic, exuberantly bitter. When he sang, “I couldn’t be happier,” to an old flame I knew what he meant, because I was exuberantly bitter, too, and had a backlog of old flames to whom I might have issued the same sneering report. And though I was neither relaxed nor ironic – was, perhaps, the temperamental opposite of these states – I enjoyed pretending, and listening to Chuck made that possible.
The short version being that I was in luv, my fanboy juices at full boil. In 2002, Chuck released No Other Love, which included his one minor – and I do mean minor – radio hit, “Summertime Thing,” a dreamy lollipop that managed to sound like Randy Newman, Hank Williams, and the Beach Boys.
His next record, Age of Miracles, was louder, sexier, and astonishing in its reach. Chuck had granted himself a wider palette (horn charts, gospel singers, strings) and created an album expressly designed for advanced frottage, full of funk screamers and sly blues and shiny pop nuggets. He was letting more of his personality out of the bag, howling when he saw fit, not giving a shit. At this point, three albums in, I did what I always do. I started ravaging the back catalogue for clues as to who Chuck Prophet was and how in the fuck he got that way.
On That Note, a Story from Chuck Himself
“When we were like thirteen or fourteen, we used to go to the Starwood up in LA to see Quiet Riot. This is when Randy Rhodes was in the band, before he went to play with Ozzy, and every show they’d do this thing where the band would leave the stage and the guitar player would get five minutes. This was back when Eddie Van Halen was doing ‘Eruption.’ And Randy Rhodes, he was incredible. They had these little stage lights that he’d kick out and there was no describing what he was doing with his hands, they didn’t resemble anything we’d ever seen. It was like seeing someone from outer space! It was Egyptian! It was like hieroglyphics and shit were flying off his guitar. There was no way to even melt it down into anything that resembled anything we’d ever seen. So in that sense, it had nothing to do with our reality.
“And then one week we got fucked up and got the date wrong and we showed up at the Starwood and there were these four bands we’d never heard of. So we’re standing in the parking lot, all like, ‘Well, I don’t know, what do you want to do? We came all this way.’ Finally we paid our five bucks and went in. This was around the time of the Knack, so all these bands were playing three-chord power pop, and I remember on the way home we all got really quiet and somebody said, ‘You know, we could do that. That we could do.’”
A Good Week
Which is how the band thing started, with a bunch of kids learning how to put shit together in garages. Somebody would say, ‘I’m going to do this’ and somebody else would say, ‘Okay, then I’ll do this other thing, I’ve seen that happen a lot.’ It was like learning grammar, but a cool sort of grammar, one that allowed you to join a loud gang and thereby escape the unhappy circumstances of teendom which, for Chuck, meant anxiety, depression, fainting spells, a brief stint in the booby hatch, and assorted futile cures, of which music was the only one to stick.
Later, he enrolled at SF State and joined a couple of punk bands with crappy names2 and spent too much time at clubs. One night, he went up to North Beach to see the Canadian punk band DOA and the opening band came out in Western shirts and cowboy hats and started playing … country music. This was Rank and File, with a young Alejandro Escovedo on rhythm guitar. Chuck was transfixed.
After that, he turned toward what might be called (in mock heroic tones) “three chords and the truth,” meaning traditional American music. There was this whole roots scene coming up from Socal and Chuck became enamored of a band called Green on Red, got to know them a little, and a few months later found himself playing guitar on a two-week tour of Scandanavia. He waved bye-bye to college and stayed with the band for eight years.
Somewhere in there, he got himself hooked on drugs (naturally) and went through rehab, and found in songwriting a much safer addiction. So he found work as a producer (Kelly Willis), a sideman (Warren Zevon, Jonathan Richman) and songwriter for other artists (Heart3).
On the day I visited Chuck he was feeling good. He’d just played Letterman and been asked to help write a song for an album produced by Dan the Automator, one of his heroes. “It’s been a good week,” he told me. “I actually feel like I might be in the music industry.”
Chuck ushered me into his studio, the same fetchingly dishabille space where he and Alejandro recorded their epic a few months earlier. Among the items of piled on the sill outside was a toilet of unknown origin. His only piece of furniture, aside from folding chairs, was a flowered sofa. “Yeah,” he said. “When I was down in Nashville I noticed a lot of people had sofas in their studios, so I got this sofa.”
In his album photos, Chuck exudes a sort of hunky, come hither vibe. In person, he was a lot less organized. He had many, variously placed cowlicks and wore cuffed blue jeans, a canvas windbreaker, worn Chuck Taylors. If I had to label his aesthetic – and I don’t really – I’d call it New Wave Carnie. He’s probably in a dead heat with Tom Petty for the title of Rock’s Thinnest Nose.
I’d come to worship Chuck in my cloying manner, but also to interrogate him about songwriting, which was a frankly depressing agenda as far as he was concerned. But he was a good sport, in part because it is in his nature to be a good sport, but also because a while back a friend of his had given him one of my books and I had named the fucker in my acknowledgments. He owed me.
2. Dyin All Young
When people think of songwriting, they want it to be about the sudden moment of inspiration, the lightning bolt right in the kisser. At least I do. The notion that songs are made incrementally distresses me, bears too much of a similarity to the process of writing, with its layers of self-hating revision.
Chuck had some bad news on that front. And he had the paperwork to prove his point, stashed in orange boxes around his studio. These were the written records of his songs: draft upon draft of lyrics and chord sheets. One box was filled almost entirely with songs that never quite came together, where the idea stalled out before, as Chuck put it, “the craft could find the mystery.”
This seemed as good a time as any to bring up “Dyin’ All Young” my favorite Chuck Prophet song ever, a song I have played for at least a hundred people, never quite exciting in them the religious fervor I feel because either:
a) I’m an idiot with shitty taste; or
b) It’s one of those songs whose mysterious enchantments tend to seep into the listener
“That’s me being a fan of hip hop,” Chuck said.
See, there was this guy around San Francisco, Eddie Def, who used to make cassettes that you could get at clothing stores and stuff – illegal street mixes, basically – and one day Chuck ran into this guy at the loading dock of a rehearsal studio. Eddie had a box of his records and Chuck, being the inquisitive sort, asked to take a look. So they became acquaintances. And through Eddie Def, Chuck met DJ Rise, who was working cleaning Xerox machines and raising a family south of the city. Chuck told Rise, “We should jam,” which is sort of the music equivalent of asking someone out on a date. Maybe it becomes a relationship, maybe not.
So DJ Rise came to Chuck’s rehearsal space with two turntables and a microphone and at a certain point Rise started playing this weird sample and Chuck didn’t know what else to do so he started playing a one and a four chord, a melancholy little progression that called to mind both “Just My Imagination” and a strung out version of “Walk on the Wild Side.” It was nothing special, was Chuck’s point. But there was something about the way it sounded with the sample Rise was playing, which was this unknown rapper hollering a tribute to his fallen friend: You didn’t even get to see the summer setting, dyin all young. They did that for maybe 20 minutes without even thinking. Later, Chuck popped the tape of the session in his car stereo and when he got to this section he knew immediately that something was happening, the melody and the words had a certain charisma. They made him think about some of the things he’d seen and heard about in recovery and he started writing lyrics, not about himself but, as in most pieces of art, about some version of himself left behind in the ruin:
He broke his mama’s heart
Something pulled him like the tide
Up on the banks of methadone
Laid down and closed his eyes
So that now Chuck was writing, in fact, an elegy, which made sense given the somber melody and the sound of his own voice and the stately arrangement the song seemed to demand, in which the guitars themselves sighed. When it came time to record, Chuck figured he could get rid of the sample altogether, because he was making this record with no budget to speak of and didn’t want to have to pay licensing fees. Only he couldn’t get the song to happen without the sample. “It wasn’t the words so much as the sound in his voice,” Chuck said, the bruised bitterness of someone who had “been on the frontlines and got more than the T-shirt.”4
In fact, he needed the tension between the two voices: the outrage of the gangbanger who watches his comrade shot down (this became his chorus) and the exhausted misery of those watch an addict become an overdose (this became his refrain). The song was about the varieties of human mourning, in other words. How we respond to deaths that are essentially self-inflicted. The sample was like Achilles wailing over Patrokolus. Chuck’s vocals were like Priam weeping for Hector. By fusing the two, the song revealed a third thing: the incontrovertible nature of grief.
Another Story, as Re: the Nature of Modern Rock Stardom
Chuck is on this panel at a music conference with a woman from Wired magazine and a guy from an “on-line culture website” whose precise purpose Chuck can’t pin down. Things are not going well, because panels like this are inevitably occasions for Extreme Music Critic Pretension. Chuck knows he’s in deep doo doo when the Wired lady starts referring to Myspace in the past tense, like, back when Myspace was a viable platform and everyone’s nodding, except for Chuck, who has just set up his Myspace page – his niece put it together for him, actually – and who was feeling kind of proud of himself for his tech savvy and now he’s sitting on this panel feeling like, Who am I, Rip Van Fucking Winkle?
Then the Wired lady launches into this whole rap about how these musicians can’t just live in English castles anymore and come down when they feel like it, they’re going to have to get with it, they’re going to have to make their own records and communicate with their fans and build relationships, the marketing tools are all there and so on and so forth.
It’s obvious this woman takes a certain sadistic glee in her diatribe, because it implies that musicians who dedicate their creative energy to (for instance) writing and performing music are doomed, and possibly even worthy of our contempt and that these gifts – which the lady from Wired magazine doesn’t possess and which, somewhere in the Wired cockles of her Wired heart, she plainly wishes she did – are useless anyway, because what really matters, what makes a modern musician a star, is marketing savvy, a business plan, the sort of expertise that, coincidentally, she just happens to possess.
Chuck is listening to all this and trying not to vomit and it immediately occurs to him, not happily, that she’s right. This is not an era for Syd Barrett or Hank Williams. Musicians have become increasingly well-adjusted, if not in their hearts, at least to the facts of late-model capitalism. The means of production have shifted from the corporations to the artists – and this is widely hailed as a good thing – but so too have the burdens of promotion and profit. The ultimate example being these hip hop guys who are actually businessmen, that’s their whole trip. That’s how they dress. That’s how they talk. That’s what they read. Fuck rebelling against the system. They’re about working the system, brother, getting their sector of the market locked down.
And what’s lost by all this? The musician as musician.
Is Chuck suggesting that musicians must be allowed to live in English castles to create their art? No. Is he arguing that musicians are entitled to solipsism or self-destruction? Nah. He’s spent enough time in turmoil not to romanticize it. What he’s saying is a lot more basic: “My thing is I’m interested in the creative process of making songs and records. Once it becomes a product I don’t care.”
Write it down.
Now write it again.
Chuck is known as an ace guitarist. He’s not of the Randy Rhodes Hieroglyphics school. But he’s versatile and adept in virtually all the roots forms and as such he’s gotten plenty of work over the years as a sideman. But he’s even better known these days as a songwriter, a kind of musical fixer.
On the day I talked to Chuck, he was working on a song for the innovative hip hop producer Dan “the Automator” Nakamura, the man behind the Gorillaz’s breakout record, as well as the wonderfully strange Handsome Boy Modeling records. Nakamura was producing a record by a young British girl, whose sound fell somewhere between Dido and Amy Winehouse, which is to say Depressed Relationship Music with Beats. There was this one track the girl wasn’t working on and Nakamura figured Chuck might have some ideas. “So he plays me this thing and it’s this fat f-minor chord with a drum loop and he says, ‘You hear anything?’ and I was like ‘I hear about a thousand things.’”
Like writers of any sort, Chuck has a quick, associative mind. His talent resides in being able to identify which associations will resonate. His initial thought, when Nakamura told him about the project, was as follows: “You wanna go all fucking Bergman? I’ll go Bergman on your ass!”
But after listening to the track and meeting the girl, his mind fixed on a song called “Insane Asylum” by the blues singers Koko Taylor and Willie Dixon. There was a familiar gloominess to the melody. More important, it was a story. Willie Dixon goes to the insane asylum to find his girl (Koko Taylor) who informs him – by means of lusty screech – that his love drove her crazy.
“I played the song for her then I asked, ‘Do you think that’s cool?’” Chuck recalled. “And she said, ‘Yeah, he sounds really wild.’ I was trying to figure out, Is it okay if it’s a character-driven song. Can she act? Can she get into it? I didn’t really have enough time to figure out her point of view, or her attitude. It’s like, I have a friend who writes for Carrie Underwood and they give you like ten minutes to go in a closet with her and he goes, ‘Okay, what’s the name of the town you come from in Oklahoma? Okay, great that’s our title!’ Just trying to find some personal way for her to grab onto the song.”
So anyway, Chuck split. He knew he wanted to write something character-driven and as he thought about the track and the girl, he started thinking about the great girl group songs of the Sixties produced by George “Shadow” Morton. Not the syrupy melodies, but the psychologically twisted stories they told. “So I went home and figured out the chords and came up with this.” Chuck picked up his guitar and began strumming out the melody and softly sang,
I’ve been a bad girl, I’ve been a sad girl
A can-be-had girl, once or twice
I’ve be lonely, so lonely,
If you think you know me you’re in for a surprise
It sounded absolutely spectacular to me: sad, knowing, hypnotic. But the trick to the song, Chuck noted, resided in the vocal attitude: could the girl inhabit the voice in such as way as to suggest the subversive menace beneath her needy confessions?
Chuck Prophet “After the Rain”
3. Monkey in the Middle
This seems a good time to mention “Monkey in the Middle” which is basically “Sympathy for the Devil” as told by a sly primate and the best example of Chuck Prophet’s late-career heroics, by which I mean a song so dazzling in its musical scope – wurlitzers, strings, a blistering guitar solo – and so exuberant in its lyrical possibilities and so fucking rock-bottom catchy that either your ass moves to it or your ass is broken.
The song started as a small idea, Chuck said. He had this little bluesy lick and he had this character, “the monkey in the middle,” more like a cartoon. In his first pass, the monkey was merely a lascivious charmer “stealing kisses in the dark/from two sisters hard to tell apart.” It sort of stalled out there, in the vast terrain of clever notions.
Then Chuck went on tour and he happened to be staying in a hotel in DC right next to the International Spy Museum and he walked through the exhibits and suddenly the hidden identity of the monkey came to him: “This isn’t just some crazy monkey trying to get laid, this is a Cold War monkey. This is a monkey who’s in the middle of some other stuff.” Chuck had recently been in St. Petersburg, Russia, so the next lyric came easily:
St. Petersburg’s a funky town
There’s money to be made if you ask around
Microfilm and discoteques,
cash in hand and travelers cheques
I’m the monkey in the middle but I never got caught
Pretty soon the monkey was playing truth or dare with Cleopatra and presiding over the martyrdom of Christ. And the riff Chuck brought to his band expanded, as well, as the players tore into their parts. The lesson was simple: even the smallest idea can become something big. It’s a matter of being observant, of funneling your experience into creative acts.
I asked Chuck about the intro to “Monkey,” a recording of some official chiding a crowd of reporters to fall back. Let’s not give him the feeling that all we are is curiosity seekers … he’s got a big job to do today. I assumed this had been carefully chosen to serve as a teaser.
Chuck laughed. “That’s just this old recording from the Apollo missions. We put it on there because there was this hiss at the beginning of the track.”
Dreaming Chuck’s Dream
Which is as good a final lesson as any, in Chuck’s case: let adversity be the mother of invention. That’s why he turned to music in the first place and what has allowed him to lead a life far happier than he sometimes supposes he has a right to, and it’s why, when he’s up at three a.m. in Norway in a hotel room, unable to sleep and feeling more or less narcoticized, he’ll use the occasion not to do himself some glamorous form of rock-star damage, but to write a poem that has enough mystery to become a song called “A Woman’s Voice Will Drug You.” And it’s why, several months back, when he and a bunch of fellow musicians found themselves locked inside their studio space for the weekend with only record – Waylon Jennings’ Waylon’s Dreams – Chuck insisted they re-record the album, start to finish.5 It’s why Chuck doesn’t really regard his box of failures as failures at all so much as songs that have yet to happen.
He played me a couple before I left, mostly to silence my pleading. The first one was called “Jesus Was a Social Drinker,” a kind of playful talking blues that re-imagined Christ as a man of moderation who “never overstayed his welcome or threw up in nobody’s sink.” I laughed a lot and Chuck looked pleased, but he said, “It doesn’t sound good more than once.”
“Why not?” I said.
He shrugged. “It doesn’t have that visceral thrill.”
He picked up another lyric sheet and looked at it a bit ruefully. “Now this is one,” he said, and began tuning up his guitar. The refrain had a bittersweet feel, plucked notes that sounded fragile. Then the chorus came with a rich burst of melody.
“It’s gorgeous,” I said, unneccesarily. “Really. You should record that thing.”
“Yeah, I could never get anywhere with it,” he said, sounding happily perplexed. Then he looked down at the lyric sheet and strummed his guitar again and sang the next refrain.
Chuck Prophet ¡Let Freedom Ring! Documentary Trailer
Chances are you don’t know who Dan Penn is. I certainly didn’t when Chuck mentioned him. For the record, he’s the guy who wrote a bunch of the best songs of the Sixties, including “Dark End of the Street” and “Cry Like a Baby.”
To offer proper credit, the rapper’s name was OC. The sample Chuck wound up using was the B-side to a single that he suspected had been self-released, based on the “fucked up 80s looking logo and amateurish artwork.” He figured OC would never be the wiser. Shortly after he released The Hurting Business, Chuck was contacted by a company in New York who represented OC. He eventually agreed to pay a nominal fee for the sample.
Chuck wound up pressing a limited edition of the record, called Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams, which he gave to me before I left, and which captures the reverent and rowdy spirit of both Waylon himself and Chuck, whose performance is fueled by a certain manic devotion to the outlaw spirit and (one assumes) hypoglycemia.