photos by Michael Aarons
Chuck Prophet announced that he and his wife and musical partner, Stephanie Finch, were glad to appear at their “favorite venue in a strip mall that used to be a Christian place of worship.” Despite the tongue-in-cheek remark, he later circled back to say how remarkable it is that Jammin’ Java has remained a family business, owned by three brothers, showcasing live music, for 20 years. Chuck has been coming to Jammin’ Java, located in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC, for about that long.
Ever since the San Francisco-based guitarist joined Green On Red in 1985, he’s mixed rock and Americana in his music. Prophet co-wrote all the songs on Americana icon Alejandro Escovedo’s album Real Animal, and he played guitar in his backing band. Chuck and Alejandro wrote “Sister Lost Soul,” about “friends gone who bought into the myth too much,” at Chuck’s hotel the morning of an ice storm. After they wrote it, they immediately recorded the song at a “studio” that was simply the first place they found in the phone book, starting a tradition of recording their songs at random places.
Many of Chuck’s songs tell stories about the characters who populate his home city of San Francisco. In “The Left Hand and the Right Hand,” Chuck sings about Jim and Artie Mitchell, owners of the O’Farrell Theater, an infamous strip club. Chuck told the audience that Hunter S. Thompson, who once worked at the O’Farrell for research on a book, called it the “Carnegie Hall of strip joints.” The first pornographic movie, Behind the Green Door, was shot there; Chuck said he’s met a dozen people who claim to have worked on it. The Mitchells engaged a bitter feud with Mayor Dianne Feinstein, retaliating for raids of their establishment by posting “For a good time to call (Dianne Feinstein’s home phone number)” on their marquee. Eventually, one night, Jim shot and killed Artie, and spent the rest of his life in jail.
Chuck played several covers that covered an expansive territory. The late soul singer Howard Tate popularized “Shoot ‘Em All Down,” while “If I Was A Baby” was written by Ezra Furman, the 32-year-old lead singer of the indie rock band The Visions. Chuck covered “Sorrow,” made famous by David Bowie. Chuck and Stephanie played one of the first songs they sang together, Dylan’s “Abandoned Love.”
Stephanie, who joined Chuck after the first few songs, most played keyboards, with a few songs on her Martin acoustic guitar. A few songs into the second set, Chuck turned things over to her to sing one of her one numbers, a “post-apocalyptic love story” entitled “Let’s Stay Here.” Stephanie noted that she had a cold, dropping her voice to a lower register, which she described as like her fantasy of being Marianne Faithfull.
Chuck just kept the zingers coming when he introduced “Would You Love Me?” He said the had three influences: first, a documentary about Elvis. Second, The Passion of the Christ, which he called “a snuff film.” And third, the last days of Anna Nicole Smith. He said that, while people to tried to smear Anna Nicole for using a fake name to get methadone, “everyone uses a fake name to get methadone.”
Chuck recalled making an over-the-top video for “Turn To Gold.” The video included, as he put it, “both types” of nudity and gratuitous violence. Chuck discovered that appearing to be shot and bleeding profusely on a busy street drew no attention whatsoever from passersby. He encouraged the audience to watch the video, although not at work, and said “there’s probably a good reason why there isn’t more male nudity in videos.”
Chuck also played a tribute to that old standby of bands, the “Ford Econoline,” written after he read in the newspaper that Ford was discontinuing production. He closed out his set with “You Did (Bop Shooby Dooby Bop),” and returned for an encore with the crowd-pleasing “Summertime Thing.”
Chuck Prophet first came on the scene in 1985 when he joined Green on Red. In his memoir, Let’s Go, Jeff Tweedy cites Green on Red as one of his influences. Chuck recorded his first solo album, Brother Aldo, in 1990, though it wouldn’t be released until 1997. In 1992, following the breakup of Green on Red, Chuck embarked on a full-time solo career. He released several critically acclaimed albums; AllMusic rated 1993’s Balinese Dancer and 2000’s The Hurting Business four stars, and gave 1997’s Homemade Blood 4.5 stars.
In 2002, Chuck released No Other Love, and experienced success with the single “Summertime Thing.” He opened for Lucinda Williams on her summer tour. In 2004, Chuck released a well-received studio album, The Age of Miracles (4.5 stars, AllMusic), as well as a live album, Turn the Pigeons Loose (4 stars).
In 2007, Chuck released the excellent Soap and Water, and he earned a slot on Letterman. He played “You Can Make a Doubter Out of Jesus.” Humorously, he recalled, his mother called him a couple days after the show and told him that it’s not her favorite of his songs.
In addition to cowriting Alejandro Escovedo’s 2008 album Real Animal, Chuck has worked on several country/Americana project. He frequently collaborates with Kelly Willis, having produced and co-written six of the tracks on 2007’s Translated From Love. He also released a limited edition (1000 copies) pressing of Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams, a track-for-track remake of Waylon Jennings’s Dreaming My Dreams.
In recent years, Chuck has stayed busy, releasing yet more critically acclaimed albums on Yep Roc, with 2012’s Temple Beautiful and 2017’s Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins earning a 4-star rating from AllMusic.