“I think Chuck’s talent is only superseded by his taste, without that he would just be another great guitar player.” (Dan Stuart)
That’s Charles William “Chuck” Prophet to you and I. The Californian singer songwriter, guitarist and producer who first grabbed the music world’s attention way back in the 80s when he joined American rock band Green On Red. “Those were the days when the band called him ‘Billy The Kid Prophet,’” long-time collaborator Alejandro Escovedo recalled. “I remember watching him in a club in Hollywood, and it might have been the whiskey, but I can remember watching him and I had this feeling that this was something very special, you know? This was someone who was going to do a lot with his music. He was shining a little brighter than most of those around him.”
Green On Red ran hard and louche from paisley underground psychedelia, to country (outlaw of course), to pop, to roots. Leaving behind them a sonic trail acknowledged as vanguard to the No Depression sound that kicked in during the 90s. As a founder member of the band, Dan Stuart’s insight into Prophet grew over roller coaster years of touring and performing together. They parted ways in 1992 and Prophet continued forging a career in his own right both solo and with his band the Mission Express.
Before all this though, before the rock starring and the international touring, things started normally enough for the young Chuck Prophet. Growing up in a southern Californian town behind the orange curtain, (the border between Orange County and Los Angeles County in the state of California), he was listening to Bowie and the Rolling Stones on the radio. The teenager would dress up at weekends and go to Holywood to see bands. Music was everywhere. “I tell people that growing up in our county if you shook a tree, like eight guitar players would fall out.”
Interestingly, he doesn’t necessarily consider himself one of those guitar players. “I don’t even know if really I was a musician,” he told me matter of factly, mid-sentence. I asked him to repeat that. The phone line hadn’t been too good. I must have misheard. “I mean I wasn’t really a musician. I started because in my neighbourhood nearly everybody played guitar.”
At 16 he moved to San Francisco and here he sees his education kicking in. “I saw so many films. I used to play guitar with a guy in an improv group. There was a comedy scene here, a film scene here … it was open minded. There was outside-thinking politics. In so many ways San Francisco was an education for me.” He casts his mind back to his first band, The Brats. He was kicked out because “I wasn’t serious enough.” Is he serious enough now? “I am a little bit. I choose my battles”.
He has become a little bit serious though. Over the years he has written songs recorded by artists including Kim Richey and Jim Dickinson. A renowned guitarist, he has worked with people ranging from Aimee Mann to Warren Zevon, Jonathan Richman, and Lucinda Williams. And then there is the collaboration with Alejandro Escovedo.
Prophet spent a year co-working on the creation of Escovedo’s 2008 album Real Animal. “Most of it just being in a room and just sort of counsellors to each other … We did address Alejandro’s ex-wife’s suicide, you know, and Hep C being this monster … there was just a lot of content in those songs. We went through a lot of twists and turns to make that record … it wasn’t just a case of tying a bunch of lines together.”
“I think ultimately Alejandro, he has a kind of magic you know. Things do come together around him and that is something that is just kind of intangible. He’s like a lightning rod. I think it has to do with the fact that he has a lot of faith, just monster faith, in the process, in the people, in all of it you know.”
Escovedo was touring alongside Don Antonio in southern Italy, with his recent solo, Burn Something Beautiful album, when we spoke over the phone. An album of contrasts, where the personal is political, it is dedicated to “immigrants who have made this country so great” – not least Escovedo’s parents. The solid joy of his brand new marriage, the distress of PTSD, the enormity of finally defeating 20 years’ of Hepatitis C. It’s all in there, and more.
I wanted to know how he and Prophet have worked together, what was the spark? “When we do get together I think what we create is something entirely separated from who we are individually in a way,” he explained. “My songs were very emotionally driven, they were very introspective. They dealt with a lot of grief and worked on a lot of things that were happening in my life. Chuck had a different eye for detail, and kind of almost – I know he doesn’t like it when I say this – but a working kind of journalistic eye towards writing. For me it was more about trying to organise my inner feelings and emotions, and the way social things were affecting me. I think Chuck put into keener detail that kind of thing.”
To Escovedo, this mix of detail and emotion created songs such as ‘Sensitive Boys’, “a story about bands, and we really went through the kinds of things that we wrote about in the songs. You can really feel it you know.” However, despite being wired differently in this regard, both artists share a lot of reference points. “We are both very different people but we both grew up in California, we both love surfing, we love the same kind of rock and roll … sparks just fly and something kind of magical happens. A lot of it with Chuck is that our personalities seem to work.”
Prophet and Escovedo don’t perform together on stage very often, but when it does happen it is something that Escovedo, the consummate live performer, enjoys. “Chuck is a wonderful guitar player” he told me, “he’s a phenomenal musician.” A sentiment that echoes the words of Prophet’s old friend and band mate Dan Stuart at the top of the article.
Stuart has recently returned to his adopted home of Mexico after touring Europe in spring past – interestingly with the same Don Antonio with whom Alejandro Escovedo is touring. His 2016 album Marlowe’s Revenge is punk-scuz-garage; tart, acidic, with occasional streaks of sweet, and it deserves more. More attention, more sales, more of whatever it takes. And if you want to read a first-hand account of living and breathing with Green On Red, with names changed to protect the guilty and the filthy, try Stuart’s ‘false memoir’, The Deliverance Of Marlowe Billings.
I contacted Stuart to get some words on the man he has worked so much with, spent so much time with. “He’s that rare musician that holds up half the stage if he’s with you” he told me of performing with Prophet. “At the same time there is very much an “us and them” aspect to it so the audience has very little power, if any. So there’s a trust issue going on, he’s got your back and will encourage you to get your ya ya’s out which can be amusing, dangerous or both.”
Does he miss working with Mr. Prophet? “Not really, I’m very proud of him and we had a good run, a few years too long perhaps but money is money. I miss more not having him close by so we can just hang out, same with Chris and Jack as well. We all went to war together and survived, closer than brothers really, it’s a mix of joy and melancholy, like a good song I guess.”
I asked Prophet the question he must get asked on average every fourth interview he takes part in. Is he considering any projects with Dan Stuart? “I don’t shut the door on anything” he said. “Dan Stuart and I have a long history. There are a lot of things that Dan I’m sure wishes I didn’t know about him. And there are a lot of things I wish he didn’t know about me, so you never know.” He was laughing by this stage.