An interview with Chuck Prophet
As a musician, Bobby Fuller clearly aspired to be like Buddy Holly.
Sadly, the realization of that aspiration included Fuller's death at 23 years old, the same age at which Holly had perished in a plane crash seven years earlier.
The circumstances surrounding Fuller's death remain a mystery 61 years later. Although authorities ruled it a suicide at the time, no one who is being perfectly honest ever believed that was what actually happened.
It was the music and life of Bobby Fuller that provided the inspiration for San Francisco singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet's new album, Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins. In a recent phone interview, Prophet described Fuller's truncated time on Earth as a "feel-bad...rock 'n' roll Babylon story" that is "definitely California noir."
Other homages on the album include ones that are obvious by their titles ("If I Was Connie Britton," "Alex Nieto") and others that the songs themselves make clear ("Bad Year for Rock and Roll," "In the Mausoleum").
The Boston-area stop of Prophet's current tour is at Cambridge's Lizard Lounge (9:00, $20 at the door), where he will be performing tonight with a string quartet. As he put it in my conversation with him that continues below, "It's not going to be particularly loud rock 'n' roll."
How did "Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins" become the title of and lead-off track on your new album?
That song was written while there was a Bobby Fuller record on the turntable. And I turned to my friend [Kurt Lipschutz] and I said, "Do you hear the record crackle and the needle skips and jumps? I never saw a movie that moved me half as much." And he said, "Bobby Fuller died for your sins." And we were off and running.
Did you write "Bad Year for Rock and Roll" in the immediate wake of David Bowie's death, or did it come about during the process of writing songs for the album?
Well I mean, whenever somebody dies, you know, like David Bowie, their music is in the air.
Although the song "Bad Year for Rock 'n' Roll," you could say it's about losing the musical heroes that we lost in 2016 when the record was written, but it's also about losing any faith or losing any illusion we may have had about democracy in this country as well. I think the election year is embedded in the DNA of the whole record, really. It's about losing faith and getting it back. We live in a time of cultural exhaustion. People are exhausted. They're tired of movies, they're tired of music. I'm not. (laughs) I'm still out there playing in a five-piece band, driving around in a Ford Econoline. We're playing sit-down clubs and we're playing a lot of clubs where people crowd into rooms with a sticky black floor, you know?
Is the song "We Got Up and Played" about a specific gig or just the experience of being on the road in general?
I wrote that on a rainy Wednesday night in Cleveland, Ohio, in the fall, I think, when the days were getting shorter. I don't know if you've ever loaded-in to an empty club in Cleveland, Ohio, on a rainy Wednesday, but, you know, it's kind of sad.
How would you describe, in a word or short phrase, the following people with whom you have worked?
What I would say about Jonathan Richman is "WWJD—What would Jonathan do?" Jonathan is fearless, in a word. And he seems like the kind of guy—if he put his mind to it—who could take on a football team.
Peter Wolf has more rock and roll in his pinky .. [recording unclear]
Wicked, really. He's trouble waiting to happen.
Brilliant and generous.
You grew up in Whittier, CA, where Richard Nixon's family moved when he was a boy. Do you have any memories of living there when he was president?
I always found Richard Nixon very fascinating, on a personal level. My fourth grade class took a trip to Richard Nixon's first law office in La Habra, California. As a tiny child, I do remember walking along the San Clemente Beach with my sister when he was in office. And I remember a secret service guy on the sand telling us we couldn't go any further. Right there at his mansion on the beach at San Clemente.
Have you ever noticed any fans who show up to gigs every time you play specific towns or who come to more than one when you tour?
We've had a woman on this last tour that started in Toronto, and then she came to Pittsburgh, and she came to New York, and then we saw her in the Northwest—in Portland and Seattle—and she recently attended a show in Salt Lake and Denver. I noticed her down in front, so I asked her how many shows she'd been to. She rattled off how many shows she'd gone to, so we presented her with a commemorative roll of duct tape. We presented it to her on stage to show our appreciation for her support, and to give her something that could come in handy down the line based on the amount of travelling she's done to get from show to show.
Then I'll be sure to let my friends know, if the frequently go to your shows, to make sure you notice them. Maybe they will get something practical out of it.
Yeah it's possible. We like to give back.