Selling Adventure

Former Green on Red guitarist Chuck Prophet returns to Tucson with a new album

Ever since he joined Green on Red 25 years ago, I've wanted to ask singer-songwriter and guitarist Chuck Prophet if he was born with that last name. He set the record straight in an interview last week.

"Would I make that up?" he said, in mock offense.

A longtime favorite in the Old Pueblo, Prophet will return to Tucson to play Nov. 11 at Club Congress.

Prophet expounded on the thin line that separates myth and reality, talking about the characters on his new album, ¡Let Freedom Ring!, which was released last week on Yep Roc Records. Specifically, he spoke of the raucous leadoff track, "Sonny Liston's Blues."

"Many years ago, I thought I saw a sports program with an old clip of Sonny Liston at a press conference. He was set to fight Muhammad Ali at the time. He wasn't as suave as Ali, and he didn't work the press the way Ali did; they were just putty in Ali's hands. Finally, somebody said, 'Mr. Liston, do you have anything to say?' And he says, or at least the way I remember it, 'I am a man of few words, and you've just heard most of them.' I really liked that."

Prophet paraphrases that quotation at the opening of the song.

"And I just started thinking about this guy who the public saw as part monster, part myth, part reality. I think a big part of the world is like that in many ways for a lot of us: part myth and part reality. I mean, I don't even know if I am remembering that quote right, but if it's a little off, that just goes to prove my point."

We remember things the way we need to remember them, in other words, and they become our truths.

"I think we are attracted to the mythical. We like things that are bigger than life. In the words of Dylan, 'All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.' If you're any good as a songwriter, you'd sell your grandmother for a decent song."

Prophet's been playing his unique brand of roots-rock, country, R&B and country since he was a teenager in La Habra, Calif. He was nothing special on guitar, either, he said.

"That was where, when you were a teenager, everybody either played guitar or surfed, or both. I wasn't the best. I was like the fifth-best guitar player on my block. It was just dumb luck that it became my 'career.'"

He first came to prominence in 1984 by joining the somewhat-legendary Los Angeles-via-Tucson alt-Americana rock band Green on Red. He was 20.

"The only thing that was promised when I came aboard with those guys was adventure. That's what they were selling, and I was definitely buying.

"In those days, it wasn't like today. It was more hard-earned in the music life. You carved out your own way. You didn't turn on the TV and see your musical heroes or people you wanted to aspire to be. You saw stuff like A Flock of Seagulls."

Prophet played lead guitar for Green on Red for about eight years before the group crumbled. Then, over Labor Day weekend 2005, he and the rest of the band reunited for an explosive gig as part of Club Congress' inaugural HoCo Fest, and followed that up with a brief reunion tour.

He started making solo records in 1990 with his Brother Aldo. ¡Let Freedom Ring!, his ninth studio record as a leader, was recorded earlier this year in Mexico City, at a studio that he calls "state of the art ... for 1957."

Prophet chose the Mexican capital because he wanted to feel its edgy energy, he said.

"I'm not really a political person, but when we stood back and looked at all the songs I had written for this album, it was clear they were full of characters that were caught in anxious times. So I thought: What's better than to look down from 7,000 feet high, looking back down on all of us?"

But the trip wasn't easy. Mexico City at the time was beset with swine-flu panic, earthquakes and a studio that kept losing power.

"Within three days, we started hearing about a thing called pig flu, and immediately, everything started shutting down. Everyone was going around in blue masks, and a city of 19 million became a ghost town."

But the record got made. Prophet said it was never his intention to be a cultural tourist, or to borrow from Mexican music and infuse it into his marriage of rock and R&B.

"We just wanted to get some really raw performances. I didn't really go down there to make a record like Paul Simon's Graceland. It's not like I put mariachi horns on it. Hell, if I wanted to do that, I could've come to Tucson."

In addition to Prophet, the core group for ¡Let Freedom Ring! consisted of guitarist Tom Ayres, bassist Rusty Miller, drummer Ernest "Boom" Carter and, on backing vocals, singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell.

He was especially happy to score Carter, who played on Bruce Springsteen's song "Born to Run."

"I saw (Carter) play with Howard Tate, who was a great soul singer from the '60s. When he played, I said to myself, 'Who's that guy playing drums?' And when I wrote these songs, I just got it into my head that he'd be great to play with."

Prophet says he was drawn to the album's personnel initially because most of them were friends. "And there was a kind of raw energy to these guys playing that helped me get myself into that place, you know? It was working, so why try something else when you run the risk of not finding something as good?"

When Prophet plays in Tucson, he'll bring his longtime backing band, the Mission Express, which is named for a bus line that runs through his San Francisco neighborhood. That lineup features his wife of 10 years, Stephanie Finch, on keyboards and vocals.


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