Next week Prophet will arrive in Ireland as part of a European tour for his 12th studio album Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins, a collection of what he calls “California Noir” – as it says on the press release – “doomed love, inconsolable loneliness, rags to riches to rags again, and fast-paced violence are always on the menu on the Left Coast.”
And hidden in the later paragraphs of the press release, between the song titles and the song descriptions, lies a quote from another old friend. “John Murry, who is never at a loss for words, says the goal is to make a record you can be proud and unsure of at the same time. Naked and belligerent, but sweetly so…I can’t improve on that.”
So, is there anything he isn’t sure of? “I don’t know” he tells me. “I have to really really talk to my heart. My friend Kurt says ‘yeah you talk to your heart, I’m sure that’s good. It’ll be a real short conversation.’ I’d have to listen to the record and think to myself should I have used a Stratocaster on that song or should I have used a Telecaster? There are so many moving parts and variables. It is just when you hear a record, and how it hits you emotionally I guess.”
“You know, you could say that albums are never really finished, they’re only abandoned at a certain point” he continued. “Eventually you have to abandon the child and let it fend for itself. There are a lot of circumstances that lead to that – you run out of time, or you run out of money.” At this he starts laughing again. “When I start my own label I’m going to have no budget and no deadline. I don’t want to impair anybody. I’m going to sign John Murry and we’re not going to have any budget, and there are not going to be any deadlines. We are going to make it possible to allow John to achieve his vision. I love John. The moment we met we became instant friends. It’s difficult now obviously because we used to do a lot of impulsive stuff like playing hooky, or, you know. I would spend time with John, you know. I would spend time with him,” he trailed off, a brief pause pointing out the distance between the pair – Prophet in the States, and Murry now in Ireland.
However, they still keep up with each other. “I’ve heard [John’s] new album and it’s brilliant,” Prophet told me, referring to Murry’s just released A Short History Of Decay that has taken a long five years to get here. With songs that show cards anyone else would wear close to their chest, the album trawls through dissolution, failings, resignation, anger and change. It’s dark. It’s John Murry.
So I chased John up. I wanted to tell him what his old friend had just said about him, I wanted to get some words from Mr. Murry about Chuck Prophet. It barely worked. The phone call turned into a conversation that never turned into an interview. I took note of nothing other than this. “He thinks he is a jester because he is afraid of being a prince.” And as Murry thinks of all the things that Prophet has said to him over the years, it is his advice, more than anybody else’s, that stands out. “If you think about the things that he says, you listen because they’re funny not because they’re profound. Then one day you realise they’re pretty fucking profound.”
And that profundity lies within the lines in Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins, starting at the highest levels. “I suppose the election year is in the DNA of the record,” he explained. “2016 was a year where not only did we lose our faith in humanity, but it’s also a year where we lost a lot of heroes; people like David Bowie and Alan Vega. And it was a year where we lost any illusions we may have had of democracy in this country.”
“So I felt like this record is really California noir, it shows people that things ain’t what they seem … They call [California] the Golden State, and it has always represented the promise of a better life, and that promise of a big golden dream. And I think the reality [people] find is not always quite as golden as the promise. It is somewhere between there and where all the good material is. It’s the stuff under the surface.”
Prime example is final track ‘Alex Nieto’, the gut wrenching true story of a 28 year old man who was shot at least 14 times by San Francisco police (“he ended up with 59 bullets in and around him”) for no clear reason. Click on the link above and see if you can make any sense of it. “Alex Nieto appeared to be a gang member because he was wearing a 49ers jersey and had brown skin” Prophet tells me. “Well guess what? He was a practicing Buddhist who grew up in that neighbourhood. Things are not what they seem. People are not what they seem. That is the basis of all noir.”
He considers ‘Alex Nieto’ to be his first protest song. He wrote it immediately after the trial, he wrote it spontaneously, “and it was put out immediately. It couldn’t be any more specific.” As we talk about it I realise that the only reason I am aware of this tragedy is through his writing. That is the ultimate power of the protest song.
“Sadly it is just one story among many, and more of an indication of a general problem in this country” he continued. “You could build the case that Nieto’s death was a direct result of gentrification. People don’t take any sensitivity training. You get young people that have no life experience so they don’t know the history of a neighbourhood that they are moving into, and they just profile somebody who is wearing a sports Jersey and has brown skin that they are in a gang.”
“You know, it is all about wealthy people moving in to existing urban communities. And that leads to displacement, and that leads to conflict, and it makes neighbourhoods unrecognisable to the people who live there. I guess really the bottom line is that the money came to town. The real money. And we are being sucked and dragged into the same money pit as New York, and Manhattan, and London. It has become a city where only the wealthy need apply. It’s just a war on the poor. Get them out of here. They don’t matter. They’re just getting a bunch of free stuff.
The title track is what Prophet considers “the ultimate California noir story,” about the young singer best known for his 1966 version of ‘I Fought The Law’. It’s a story that Prophet identifies with. “I relate to Bobby Fuller” Prophet continued. “I relate in a big way. I mean here is a guy who came from El Paso, Texas. He was born out of time. When he started out he was hard-core Buddy Holly. Then as the 50s gave way to the 60s … he had a great dance band in El Paso” with his brother, making records in their parents’ living room. Later they moved to Los Angeles, “but by the time they got there they were out of step with what was happening. (And I feel that way too. I feel like I’ve always been out of step with what’s going on. That’s one thing that’s been consistent throughout my career). So by the time they got there they just looked like a bunch of 50s greasers. In a world of Beach Boys and Beatles, and you know just as they had a record climbing the charts with ‘I Fought the Law’, and they were playing on TV shows, and playing on the circuit, Bobby was found dead in his car at the age of 23 under some very mysterious circumstances. Tragic. He was just a boy.”
Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express play Wednesday 26th July when they play The Real Music Club in Belfast’s Errigle Inn, Whelan’s on 27th July, and The Set Kilkenny on 28th July.