I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to write the great San Francisco novel of this generation. A very long time. Maybe it wouldn’t be a novel per se, but a graphic novel or a screenplay or a performance piece or a manifesto. Little did I know the great San Francisco novel of our time would turn out to be a 12-song record.
The disc in question is “Temple Beautiful” (pictured below), and it comes from veteran San Francisco musician Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express.
The packaging does not deceive. What you see on the album cover is a montage of recognizable pieces of San Francisco assembled in slightly reimagined ways, and that’s what you get with the music, as well.
Some background: I awoke on Friday, Mar. 30, 2012 at 10:41 a.m. to put on the radio and hear a voice talking about Red Man, the Albion, and other Mission District memories from the early 1990s.
The speaker turned out to be local musician Chuck Prophet in an interview on the KQED radio program, “Forum;” he was discussing the songs on his new album, “Temple Beautiful.” Within the hour I had made arrangements to see Prophet & the Mission Express perform that night at the Great American Music Hall; the following week I got my copy of the “Temple Beautiful” CD and haven’t stopped listening.
Let’s turn back the clock to that time:
It had been a rough spring for San Francisco’s Mission District. Vicious wars were raging all over the media about the neighborhood’s descent into consumerism. On April 11, the Guardian got in on the act with a full-page cover asking “Is Oakland Cooler Than San Francisco?” and, with a focus on the changing demographics in the Mission, implying that the answer was yes. Then there were the unsolicited observations from my two small-business owning friends in the 94110 that amounted to “business is good but the people suck now.”
The coup de grace seemed to be the May Day riots on Valencia Street, when people affiliated (or not) with the Occupy movement targeted businesses in the heart of the Mission. “Targeted” is most certainly a euphemism for the destruction they caused. But the salient point here isn’t the extent of the damage or the character of those doing it, the salient point is that the Mission was targeted in the first place.
This literally would have been the last place hit by self-described anarchists in San Francisco 15, 10 or even five years ago. But in 2012 overt class warfare seems to signify a new status quo in the Mission.
And yet, amidst all this rage, away from any fanfare, San Francisco’s most significant event of the season had already taken place with the Feb. 7 release of “Temple Beautiful” on the YepRoc label.
Prophet, who became a true 49er on this year’s birthday, started playing back in the 80s with a group called Green On Red and has been working at it ever since, pursuing a solo career based out of the Mission for the last couple of decades. A lot of people compare him to Tom Petty, probably because he sings in a similar nasal register. Indeed, his back-up band–consisting of lead guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard–matches the lineup of Petty’s Heartbreakers, but for my money, Prophet’s singing/songwriting lies closer to the Jonathan Richman camp.
With enough touring miles to get to the moon and back, Prophet’s rap sheet features a dozen solo albums dating back to 1990. His career seems to be following a steadily upward trajectory of late, with reviewers wondering aloud why he isn’t more famous already. And this was all before the release of “Temple Beautiful.”
Using a blend of workingman’s pop-rock and lyrics that ascend to high poetry in many places, “Temple Beautiful” succeeds in doing what no other album has: chronicling the experience of San Francisco through the street-level view of a Gen-X romantic.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of balladeers turned up in the City over the final quintile of the 20th Century. Musicians, poets, writers, drifters and luftmenschen of all stripes, San Francisco became their muse and they in turn became part of San Francisco. But as yet, no one has managed to put it all together and capture it for posterity in a single work of art until Prophet and his writing partner, Kurt Lipschutz came through with the twelve songs on “Temple Beautiful.” It’s all here: the Red Man, the White Night, the Mitchell Brothers, the Albion, the first-wave punk clubs, an Emperor Norton flashback, and that’s only half the songs on the disc.
I’m not sure if Prophet ever wrote anything explicitly about the City by the Bay beforehand, which makes the sudden arrival of this ambitious and unparalleled San Francisco concept album all the more notable, especially in an era when the whole notion of album making seems largely forgotten.
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With few exceptions, I won’t get into much detail dissecting the album’s tonal elements. I will say that unlike singer-songwriters who play for library-silent coffeehouse audiences, Prophet cut his teeth on the road in smoky bars as part of a rock and roll outfit. He’s a touring musician who later developed as a singer-songwriter, not the other way around; the distinction is important. Prophet writes music, not musical flatbeds for sustaining bulky reams of lyrics. You can enjoy the songs as radio-worthy, sing-along pop anthems, or you can sit back and let the Mission Express take you on an unexpectedly deep journey into San Francisco.
Three basic themes emerge on this album: San Francisco’s particular folklore, Prophet’s own coming of age as a musician in the City, and the mobius loop of new love and its aftermath. Each of the twelve tracks on “Temple Beautiful” fits into one or more of these categories, and all the tunes work together in an interactive, overarching timeline. The simplest way to approach a concept album this layered is just to go through it song by song, so buckle up.
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- Play That Song Again
- Castro Halloween
- Temple Beautiful
- Museum of Broken Hearts
- Willie Mays Is Up at Bat
- The Left Hand & The Right Hand
- I Felt Like Jesus
- Who Shot John
- He Came From So Far Away (Red Man Speaks)
- Little Girl, Little Boy
- White Night, Big City
- Emperor Norton in the Last Year of His Life (1880)
“Play That Song Again”
Featuring playful lyrics, punchy power-chord verses and Celtic-style sing-along choruses, the album’s leadoff track, “Play That Song Again,” serves as a good intro to Prophet’s particular brand of anthem rock.
The lyrics establish our host as a footloose man about town whose happy-go-lucky ways occasionally create sparks with the women in his life. San Francisco’s name is never mentioned explicitly in the song, but we are told, “it’s a city full of animals, a city full of thieves, a city full of lovers trying hard to make believe.”
What might be construed as an overt SF reference in the track comes with the lyric, “drop me in the avenues, I’ll stumble my way in.” However, in the CD’s liner notes, the word “avenues” isn’t capitalized while all the other proper nouns are, which means we may not even be talking about the Avenues at all.