Such performers as Alejandro Escovedo (66), Willie Nile (68), Garland Jeffreys (73) and Bettye LaVette (71) are neither superstars nor nostalgia acts. They’re in it for the long haul, developing their careers with new recordings and touring — even if they qualify for Social Security.
San Francisco-based Rock singer/songwriter/guitarist Chuck Prophet is somewhat younger — just 53. But he’s been a Rock & Roll lifer since first recording with California-based neo-Psychedelic/Alternative Rock band Green on Red in the mid-1980s. The band was never a big seller but was admired by enthusiasts, and Prophet was able to start issuing solo records in 1990.
Although the first was only out in England initially, he has subsequently released new work on a variety of better-distributed American labels — his brand-new Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins (on Yep Rock Records) is his 14th solo album. And he’s built a following as a “Rock true believer” with his tight combos, guitar work that sparks and shimmers with the riffs and chording of every old Rock song you ever loved and a Tom Petty-ish drawl singing through mysterious and cryptic but seductively eerie lyrics. What especially comes through is the unabashed enthusiasm — you never get the sense he’s making records out of necessity or obligation.
In fact, that enthusiasm is especially evident in an email (edited here) that Prophet wrote to fans while on a recent European tour. “Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins is out,” he wrote, “and it’s tearing up the charts. It’s No. 123 on the Billboard Hot 200. People are excited about the record. And it feels good. I don’t recall ever being on the Billboard charts. Except Green On Red’s No Free Lunch might have grazed the top 200 back in 1986 or so? I’m not quite ready to call my mom and ask her where she wants them to drop off her new yacht, but it’s still pretty cool. You can’t see me, but my head is swelling up pretty good.”
Asked during a phone interview about that accomplishment, Prophet says, “I’m certainly not checking the charts, but I feel if it had happened before, I’d have some awareness of it.”
About the experience of still growing an audience as a 50-plus-year-old Rock musician, Prophet is circumspect. “I honestly don’t know why (it’s happening),” he says. “I hope I’m getting better at what I do. I feel things have built in a slow way. I guess that’s the way things need to build, if they’re going to build in any meaningful way.”
The latest album is a fine example of how Prophet inventively draws material from both Rock’s past and the world around him. The title song references a mid-1960s Buddy Holly-influenced Rock singer from El Paso who had moved to Los Angeles to make it big. He died mysteriously in his gasoline-permeated car just as his group, the Bobby Fuller Four, started to have hits like “Love’s Made a Fool of You” and “I Fought the Law.” The official cause, an accident, has long been questioned — and Rock buffs for just as long have wondered how, and why, Fuller died.
Prophet provides an answer, sort of, in “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins.” The lyrics, by Prophet and poet/songwriter Kurt Lipschutz, have an impressionist quality that subverts easy narrative flow, as when Prophet sings, “A cop shoots a kid on a hot summer morn/Bobby Fuller died for your sins.”
“It came out of the air, that song,” Prophet says. “I was writing with my friend Kurt and I have a shoebox-size office. I remember we were listening to Bobby Fuller on my turntable. I picked up my guitar and said, ‘I hear the record’s crackles, skips and jumps.’ Kurt picks it up and says ‘Bobby Fuller died for your sins.’ We just followed that to its conclusion.”
Prophet also makes unusual connections and references in his song “Bad Year for Rock and Roll,” about the startling number of musician deaths in 2016. Prophet (with co-writer Lipschutz) begins, logically enough, with a reference to David Bowie.
But at the chorus, when he turns introspective about the effect of that toll on his psyche, his thought process turns curious: “I’m all dressed up/In my mohair suit/Watching Peter Sellers/Thinking of you/Wondering where it’s all going to end.”
Peter Sellers? Where did he come from?
“Really, the song is about a guy trying to keep the faith (in Rock),” Prophet says. “There are nights I want to go out and see a band, but I’m watching Peter Sellers. Being There is on cable TV and I can’t seem to pull myself away.”
The bittersweet ballad “We Got Up and Played,” solely written by Prophet, is a paean to the kind of Rock & Roll life he’s chosen — on the road constantly, playing the kind of weathered small- and medium-size clubs that sustain a traveling musician, always nervous if he has enough drawing power in any given city to sell tickets: “We loaded in — couple hours ago/Now we’re standing around/Wondering who’ll show.”
“That song was written in the fall, when days are getting shorter and the nights longer,” he says. “Anybody who ever loaded gear into a dark empty club knows touring is as much about the mundane elements as anything else. And the loneliness. It’s standing around waiting to see if anyone will show. That’s what it means to go out there and try to make it happen night after night. I think the sound (of the recording) also captures the feeling of emptiness and longing, and the promise that people are going to show up and it’ll be a memorable night. And you’ll somehow share communion with people.”
That’s what Prophet looks for every night.
CHUCK PROPHET & THE MISSION EXPRESS perform Friday at Southgate House Revival. Tickets/more info: southgatehouse.com.