The messy place where myth and reality meet is a suitable locale for an ambitious rock 'n' roller to pitch his tent, and San Francisco singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet takes an unsentimental but loving view of that most mythic of American cities on his new full-length, Temple Beautiful. It's not a record for tourists — Prophet draws a map of San Francisco's more celebrated attractions, but he doesn't shy away from the seamy side of a metropolis that has always attracted dreamers, deviants and soothsayers. Temple Beautiful features the sort of nuanced rock 'n' roll that marks Prophet as a great pop musician, and he pays his respects to both myth and reality by getting the details just right.
A native of Whittier, Calif., Prophet made a splash in the '80s with the post-punk band Green on Red before embarking upon his solo career. Along the way, Prophet has worked with several Nashville musicians, including songwriter Dan Penn and producer Brad Jones. Influenced by country, soul and the music of such Memphians as Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson, Prophet remains a protean figure.
Temple Beautiful follows a trio of records that reference power pop, outlaw country and punk. If the 2007 full-length Soap and Water is Prophet's nod to Chilton's damaged romanticism, and his limited-edition re-creation of Waylon Jennings' Dreaming My Dreams — in Prophet's version, titled Dreaming Waylon's Dreams — takes country to new places, 2009's ¡Let Freedom Ring! finds the singer examining a broken North America from a vantage point in Mexico City, where the collection was recorded.
"¡Let Freedom Ring! had some songs that I wrote in the summer of 2008, just as the bottom was falling out of the wet sack of The American Dream," says Prophet. "We went to Mexico City to get some perspective, because literally, it's like 8,000 feet in the air. I also went there for adventure, and there was no way I could have predicted the adventure that we got when we got there, which was the swine flu epidemic and rolling brownouts. It's like looking into the Rosetta Stone of our own future."
Prophet examines San Francisco's past throughout Temple Beautiful. "I was writin' some songs with my friend Kurt [Lipschutz], and we were kinda kickin' them down the street," Prophet remembers. "Then there was a batch of songs, and I stood back and said, 'You know, this could be a San Francisco record.' We ended up leaning toward the more mythical side of San Francisco history, and we thought, 'If this record's gonna be mythical, we need a hero,' and one person we could agree on was Willie Mays."
"Willie Mays Is Up at Bat" may be the centerpiece of Temple Beautiful. A basic rock 'n' roll shuffle, the song epitomizes the way Prophet mythologizes San Francisco. In addition to the great San Francisco Giants baseball player, the song mentions cult leader Jim Jones, plus Carol Doda, who made history in 1964 at the city's infamous Condor Club by wearing a topless swimsuit fashioned by innovative clothes designer Rudi Gernreich.
Elsewhere, "Castro Halloween" is a slice of Chilton-derived pop, while "I Felt Like Jesus" sports that complexity of tone that characterizes the entire record. Prophet is a master of unconventional pop song form — every tune features a telling guitar line or a subtle bit of background singing that gives Temple Beautiful a psychological depth that's rare in popular music.
I caught Prophet's 2008 Nashville performance at The Basement, where he essayed a cover of Chilton's 1979 "Hey! Little Child" and a take on Inez and Charlie Foxx's "(1-2-3-4-5-6-7) Count the Days." Prophet makes catchy, profound records, but you get the impression that — like Mays, perhaps — he remains in control while preferring to catch inspiration on the fly.
"I look at somebody like Jack White, who's taken control of everything, and who's really on top of all that stuff, and I admire guys like that," Prophet says. "I think now, the thing that's changed is that I do have more control over my art. I'm more of an auteur now, and I think I'm a lot happier."