Chuck Prophet – The beating heart
On Chuck Prophet’s gripping 2000 album The Hurting Business, one track stood out from the rest. On “Dyin’ All Young”, amidst a soulful but depressed groove, Prophet sang of a mother’s anguish upon discovering her son’s fatal drug overdose. “Something pulled him like the tide/Up on the banks of Methadonia,” Prophet sings, at once weary and empathetic. “Summer nights ain’t ever gonna feel right/Dyin’ all young.” Then another, deeper voice emerges from the mix, and the hair stands on your neck: “Didn’t even get to see the summer settin’.”
“I was sitting in with this kind of hip-hop guy, DJ Rise,” Prophet explains, over the phone from his home in San Francisco. “He had a 12-inch of this song ‘Born To Live’, I think, by [Queens-based] rapper O.C. It was an a cappella version and when it came to that line — ‘Didn’t even get to see the summer settin” — it stuck in my head. Something about his voice sounded like he’d seen it, like he’d really been there and brought back more than the T-shirt.”
When it came time to finish the track, Prophet felt the sample needed to stay in. “I learned a lot about litigation and sample clearance,” he admits. “A kind of expensive lesson.” Still, the samples and scratches rendered indelible Prophet’s already haunting song.
Much of today’s sample-driven music merely seems like scrambled evidence of Bruce Springsteen’s famous “57 channels and nothing on.” But the very best hip-hop achieves something greater. That’s the energy Prophet’s latest work has tried to tap into. Singing over subtle scratches and samples, Prophet reminds listeners of a key addendum to Springsteen’s line: Nothing on, but the meaning we make of it.
“The best hip-hop has an ear for the lucky collisions,” Prophet says. “I don’t put myself in that league, not at all, but it has a real ear for that chance encounter. You know, like when you have your window rolled down at a stoplight, somebody pulls up, and for a split second it’s music that just sweeps you away.”
Brimming with such fortuitous collisions — the ping-pong of a rhythm machine bumping against the cry of a pedal steel guitar, for example — Prophet’s new No Other Love, like The Hurting Business before it, offers our currently DJ-dominant century some appealing sonic futures for rock ‘n’ rollers who still care about songs.
At the very least, the way he’s made his traditional song forms surf over bleeps, loops, and samples has given Prophet a new artistic life. Indeed, both No Other Love (released June 18 on New West Records) and The Hurting Business have granted Prophet a surprising sequel to his career’s memorable first act — when he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Dan Stuart in Green On Red, one of the great roots-rock bands of the 1980s.
Charles Prophet IV was born in middle-class La Habra, California, in 1963, a “kind of nowhere place,” he says, “that sits right between L.A. and the Orange Curtain.” It was, in many respects, a stereotypical Southern California existence. The Prophets lived just three houses up from a McDonald’s on Whittier Boulevard, and Chuck spent much of his time at the beach, surfing, or driving around with his parents in the family station wagon, listening to the Beach Boys on the radio.
“I was pretty strung out on surfing from an early age,” he recalls, but music was important to him as well. “I had an older sister that was kind of a hipster — she’d seen Van Halen play at a backyard party — and she had a record collection with Creedence, the Stones, Zeppelin, stuff like that. And, you know, it was the ’70s, so I listened to a lot of AM radio. I loved those kind of made-for-TV story-songs like ‘MacArthur Park’ and ‘American Pie’, ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Little Green Apples’. Those songs got under my skin and have stuck with me ever since.”
By the time he was ready to go to college, punk rock had arrived. “That spirit of let’s put on a show really grabbed hold of me,” he says. Moving north to attend San Francisco State University (“Really, just out of fear of not knowing what else to do”), Prophet began to play in various punk-inspired outfits, before finally settling on the more roots-rock direction that would dominate his career for the next decade.
“I was in this band called Wild Game,” Prophet says. “We were a country-rock kind of band and were thrown onto a bill at this place in Oakland…with these Paisley dudes. And I remember them coming in, carrying their gear, and thinking, ‘These guys oughta be operating rides at a carnival.'”
“Then they started to play,” Prophet gushes, still a fan two decades later. “Just. Fucking. Great.”
The name of the band was Green On Red: guitarist Dan Stuart, keyboardist Chris Cacavas, bassist Jack Waterson, and drummer Alex McNicol. Middle-class Tucson kids who’d originally dubbed themselves the Surfers, they had drifted to Los Angeles in search of punk rock.
By the time they arrived at the close of the ’70s, though, the city’s original punk scene, inspired by East Coast rock ‘n’ rollers like the Ramones, was nearly finished. In its place came the louder, faster, angrier rules of hardcore — the fans of which tended to be bored, aggressive Orange County youth, many of whom were former jocks and, yes, surfers. Knowing where he stood, Stuart, the Arizona band’s frontman and chief songwriter, changed the group’s name to Green On Red, the pedal-to-the-metal title of one of their earliest songs.
“I’d actually come west fleeing a Pete Townshend-styled, smash-and-grab stolen guitar and amp incident,” Stuart recalls, “and the rest of the band followed. Eventually, we started playing with Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, bands like that.”
Green On Red was lumped with these groups and others as part of the Paisley Underground, a scene said to favor ’60s pychedelia. Yet the Paisley scene was always more of a critic’s category than a unified musical movement. What the groups shared, primarily, was an interest in melody and songwriting, and the presence of keyboards. Green On Red’s self-titled 1982 debut fit the mold well enough: Emphasizing Stuart’s reedy vocals and the eerie, luminescent solos of keyboardist Chris Cacavas, the album sounds like the Doors gone new wave.