Listen: Temple Beautiful
Chuck Prophet (Yep Roc, 2012)
Chuck Prophet has been known in the alt-rock world since the mid-1980s when he signed on as chief guitar-slinger for a great alt-country ensemble, Green on Red. Since then Prophet has managed to stay self-employed as a solo artist, session man, producer, and songwriter. Based in San Francisco, off the music industry’s beaten path, he’s a journeyman American artist with a broad musical palette, a personal vision, and an eccentric voice.
Temple Beautiful is itself stubbornly off the beaten path as a concept album about the city of San Francisco in the last half of the 20th century. The album’s title comes from the name of a punk-rock club that happened to be right next door to cult leader Jim Jones’ People’s Temple. San Francisco is a cosmopolitan, multicultural Pacific Rim city. But it is also a uniquely American city. It’s the territory that mid-America’s rebel souls still light out for. And Temple Beautiful captures both aspects of the town.
The narrator of the opening track, “Play That Song Again,” matter-of-factly informs us that his “mother came from Omaha and his father from Vietnam.” Another track begins with a classic bit of Americana, “I hear church bells ring, Willie Mays is up at bat.” And in the titular “Temple Beautiful,” the very young Prophet joins a misfit rock army out to “make a revolution . . . with an iron constitution.”
The high point of the album, “White Night, Big City,” tells the story of the 1978 assassination of gay political hero Harvey Milk. And Prophet does it with a doo-wop chorus and a title refrain that quotes bluesman Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City.” This song also has the line that perfectly captures the promise and threat that San Francisco has long represented to the rest of America: “He [Milk] held his arms out open wide; he had enemies on every side.”
This article appeared in the April 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 4, pages 42-43.)