Kilkenny Roots awaits its Prophet

For his latest album, Chuck Prophet has gone back to explore his punk roots – and the moment when a gig in southern California changed his life forever

Fri, Apr 12, 2013, 01:00

It’s the late 1970s, and you’re living in southern California. Not to put too fine a point on it, you’re screwed. Admit it – life sucks; you worry too much; you’re scared of going out; no one loves you; you don’t love anyone; your hometown is devoid of anything that interests you.

You’re a 16-year-old guy who isn’t going anywhere tonight – or any other night, for that matter. But then your mates call over. One of them suggests you go to a gig in Temple Beautiful, a semi-derelict former synagogue on the outskirts of town that now hosts punk-rock gigs. You have nothing else to do, and besides, the Flamin’ Groovies, Dead Kennedys and Wall of Voodoo are playing, and you’ve heard on the grapevine that these are good bands for a head-melt.

“I wasn’t a student as such,” remembers Chuck Prophet, “so there were certain career paths that were closed to me. But that night at Temple Beautiful changed my life. I knew then that music was something I could do. Prior to that, any other typical career was unthinkable. It sounds probably a silly thing to say, but I woke up that night – on the way home, I knew I wanted to be in a band, be in a gang, and through that, my life took on a completely different meaning.

“From there on in, it was punk and then a rougher kind of roots music. Personally, I blame The Clash. They brought Joe Ely on tour quite early on in their lifetime, which told the purists it was okay to do things like that. And so from being impressed by Joe Ely came an interest in Townes Van Zandt, and then from there it all just broadened out for me. That was the start of my education.”

San Francisco-based Charles William Prophet is pushing 50, yet he has just released one of the freshest albums you’ll hear this year. Temple Beautiful (named after the venue that opened his despairing teenage eyes to a bright future) is more a concept album than a collection of songs: it’s actually a song cycle about San Francisco, delivered in a looser but no less serious manner than Lou Reed’s seminal 1989- themed record, New York . Between sprightly pop/rock and roughshod roots (mixed with peeling, plangent guitars), Temple Beautiful is confessional total recall of the highest order.

“It came about quite naturally, in that, you know, I write songs for a living, and at this point of my life, I’m quite sure I know how to do it. It’s out of habit, I suppose, and out of compulsion, but whatever the reasons, I was writing songs with a friend of mine. We were aimlessly pushing ideas around, but at a certain point a batch of songs seemed to have San Francisco in common. I stood back, squinted, and realised that it kinda made sense to make a record about the city I know so well.”

From that point in the making of Temple Beautiful , says Prophet, he got excited at the prospect of overseeing an album with defined levels of memory, respect and admiration.

“We got more characters, more history into the songs,” he explains. “Ultimately, what I learned about myself in the making of the record is that I was 16, 17 when I came to San Francisco from a pretty messed-up place in southern California.

“And so, in many ways, moving to San Francisco was when my life started. Back in the 1980s, the city was full of popular art – music in small venues, movies in arthouse cinemas; early punk bands from Dead Kennedys to Wall of Voodoo, Flamin’ Groovies to The Mentors. And at that time, it was also before the onslaught of multi-channel television, which means you kinda had to go out to find your entertainment. The city was an education to me back then, and, if I’m honest with myself, still is to a degree.”

Prophet honed his guitar skills in Green on Red, a Tucson, Arizona, punk/psychedelic act that relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, but after several albums, he cut loose for a solo career that has established him as the go-to guy if you’re after casually brilliant combinations of rhythm and lyricism. He has, then, stuck to his guns from the very start, with Temple Beautiful being the pinnacle of an already garlanded catalogue of work.

“I didn’t get into music to perform solo,” he avers. “It was to play with other people. Yes, I make the records, but the gravy over the meal is going out and being with other musicians, leaning back into the rhythm section and playing guitar. That’s kind of what I live for and how it all comes together for me.

“In relation to the new album, in some ways it’s following in the footsteps of guys like Lou Reed and the American novelist Jim Carroll – those have always been my kinda guys.”

So he’s an auteur songwriter, then – someone whose singular vision remains as focused as ever, irrespective of the commercial rewards?

“Yeah – and I’m particularly drawn to the likes of Woody Allen, who keeps his head down, makes a movie every year. The opening credits are always the same because he doesn’t get drawn into all the flowery bullshit of the opening credits thing; the stars’ names are in alphabetical order; and then he takes an old jazz record out from his collection and just plays it over the opening. To me, that’s fine; it works.”

That said, it’s about keeping the excitement in the work, according to Prophet.

“There’s a huge difference between good and exciting,” he explains. “Frankly, I’d rather things be exciting and bad than boring and good. People need to keep that in mind for many things they do.”


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