Chuck Prophet – The beating heart
By Gravity Talks, the band’s sophomore album (released on Slash the following year), Green On Red was sneaking up on a rootsier style. But as Stuart would never exactly be known for his guitar playing (“My gifts are, uh, not musical,” he says), Cacavas’ synthesizer and organ work remained the group’s dominant feature. Then they met Chuck Prophet.
“It’s hard to describe how unique they seemed to me at the time,” Prophet remembers. “They had all these narrative songs, Dan Stuart was a pretty bent motherfucker, and Chris Cacavas would just weave in and out of these songs….At one point I was down in L.A. and I asked if I could get on the guest list. They just put a guitar in my hands and it ended up being like a five-years-to-life sentence.”
“Chuck was an arrogant little prick, as all good guitar players should be,” Stuart says, “but he changed our sound. He balanced out Chris’ keyboards. Plus, we needed arrangements, and Chuck really helped with that.” All told, Stuart believes, “Chuck’s main contribution to GOR was that he gave the band a longer lifespan.”
On their next album, 1985’s Gas Food Lodging on Enigma, the growth was instantly apparent. The album begins as the strangled, solitary twang of Prophet’s bluesy electric guitar slowly uncoils. Quickly, the band rushes to join him. Cacavas’ organ shimmers like possibility amidst a sturdy, newly soulful groove, and when Stuart shakes his head and announces, “It seems no one has any faith anymore,” Green On Red has discovered its distinctive voice.
You can sense everyone involved is both dumbfounded and disheartened by the truth of Stuart’s observation — and that they’re determined to hold out. “That’s what dreams were made for,” Stuart declares, and then Prophet insists to his new bandmates, with an indomitable guitar solo, that they can do anything, go anywhere, together.
Gas Food Lodging is an example of that worn-out rock move, the road album, but it’s delivered with craft, conviction and irresistible musicality. What’s more, its focus is not on shoegazing musicians, but outward — on the desperate Americans they meet along the way. The album travels a spare emotional landscape similar to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, except they’ve brought along a rock ‘n’ roll band for moral support. It sounds like a camp-meeting cross of Crazy Horse and Creedence Clearwater Revival, a rootsy song-centric approach that, along with the music of Los Angeles compatriots Lone Justice, Los Lobos and the Long Ryders, presaged the rise of alternative country at the end of the decade.
Prophet and Green On Red emerged from the Los Angeles club scene during the Reagan years, when America’s haves waged unapologetic class warfare upon its have-nots. Not coincidentally, it was also a time when many musicians (semi-popular acts such as Grandmaster Flash and the Clash, as well as big stars including Springsteen and U2) dared to profess ideas larger than themselves.
Though never a massively popular band — Stuart estimates Gas Food Lodging, the group’s commercial best, sold around 50,000 copies — Green On Red was part of this earnest grab for meaning. Onstage, Stuart filled the space between songs with passionate mini-speeches about the cruelties of late-20th-century capitalism.
“I was a real lecturing, pompous shit,” he says today. GOR’s music, however, and especially Stuart’s songs, conveyed the band’s sociopolitical vision in affectingly human terms. Stuart’s lyrics combined austere language and generally working-class themes with the depraved pulp fictions of Jim Thompson (whose chilling novel, The Killer Inside Me, provided the title for the band’s next full-length release) and Charles Milliford. Toss in some Springsteen at his most steely-eyed and hopeful, and you’ve pretty well nailed down Stuart’s sensibility.
“When we think of the ’60s today,” says Stuart, now 40, “we think of the people who were living that countercultural lifestyle. But when I first encountered those ideals in the early ’70s, I wasn’t out partying; I was driving around with my parents. We forget about my younger generation, people my age and Chuck’s, who thought those values were good values, who took Creedence and Marvin Gaye songs to heart — and who then went out and had their hearts broken by the inequities of the world.”
Almost as quickly as Gas Food Lodging was in the record bins, Green On Red signed with Mercury and released No Free Lunch, a marvelous EP that perfected the sound of their breakthrough album with studio spit and polish. It included a memorably bitter version of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” and the title track’s sarcastic account of the costs of grabbing for the brass ring.
“We ended up getting signed to a major label, but like a lot of bands in that period, there really wasn’t any place for us on the radio,” Prophet recalls. “That was for, you know, Huey Lewis. But trying to get on the radio took a lot of spirit out of us. There was all this talk about getting to the next level, which was nuts. We were so fucking out of tune, and Dan was like John Candy on Ritalin.”
In 1987, GOR released the ambitious but somewhat muddled The Killer Inside Me, recorded in Memphis with producer Jim Dickinson and a small gospel chorus. Despite constant touring and generally good reviews — “If it wasn’t for rock criticism, we couldn’t have continued to make records,” Stuart laughs — the album sold poorly, and Mercury dropped the band.
Meanwhile, the pressures of the business and life on the road, the clash of artistic egos, and Stuart’s increasingly erratic behavior took their toll. As Stuart and Prophet prepared to return to Memphis to cut another album with Dickinson, Stuart fired Cacavas, Waterson, and McNicol without so much as a thank-you.
“I didn’t even have the guts to call them on the phone,” Stuart recalls. “My own best friends from all the way back in the Tucson days had to hear about it from LA Weekly or Spin or something….And here I was preaching unity and justice! I knew what I was doing was wrong when I did it.”