The image of the bruised but defiant guitar slinging troubadour, coursing his way through the barbed contradictions of big city living, is a familiar, and uniquely American, tradition. While Lou Reed may have cemented his own reputation as Poet Laureate of the East Coast with his 1989 record New York, erstwhile Green On Red guitarist Chuck Prophet uses Reed’s meisterwerk as the template for Temple Beautiful, his own lyrical love letter to his adopted home town of San Francisco – albeit a love letter daubed in the blood from Halloween homicides, the assassination of Harvey Milk and the seedy underbelly of the city, following the heyday of the Haight-Ashbury hippie revolution.
San Francisco itself seems a like a city primed for evocation through music and words. Long considered the most European of American cities, the streets teem with a cultural history, steeped in the tradition of the furry freak flag and tempered with a healthy disdain for their superficial neighbours down south. While blow-ins such as Mark Eitzel and Mark Kozelek evoked an unflinching emotional landscape, the former bolstered by bar-room introspection, the latter immersed in brooding self-reflection, Chuck Prophet heads straight for an equally wounded but altogether more fiery account of West Coast survival.
Prophet’s solo work has rarely strayed from the country rock template laid down by Green On Red; if anything, Temple Beautiful even manages to maintain a more mainstream, radio-friendly sound, at best bringing to mind the ragged power pop licks of The Replacements, the warped Americana of Giant Sand and the faux-naiveté of Alex Chilton’s Big Star. Castro Halloween is the standout track on this; kiss-the-sky guitar leads ring and chime with the most empathetic lyric ever penned about a brutal holiday massacre which occurred near Prophet’s home in the Castro area of the city. The title track – named after a defunct rock n’ roll club which previously played host to the Peoples Temple of Jim Jones – could be an out-take from London Calling-era Clash, with rollicking piano runs, handclaps and slurred vocals.
The city tour on which Prophet serves as guide rarely stays in one spot for very long; despite being, broadly, a concept album, there are no eight-minute workouts on show or overt displays of musical virtuosity. Instead, we’re witness to more namedropping than Lloyd Cole at his most bookish (ranging from Ginger Rogers and porn producers the Mitchell Brothers to surgically enhanced exotic dancer Carol Doda and early baseball hero Willie Mays), soaring choruses, call-and-response backing vocals and exhilarating guitar solos – exactly where they all should be. Nothing sounds out of place on the album, and Prophet increasingly sounds like Tom Petty as he switches from his rasping singing to a hoarse drawl at whim.
Musically, Prophet doesn’t by any stretch fly the aforementioned furry freak flag on Temple Beautiful. There’s nothing new or original on show here. But sheer originality doesn’t need to be a prerequisite for quality songwriting. Temple Beautiful is a wonderfully eloquent depiction of, and dedication to, the wildness of his adopted city, a bittersweet ode to the feral nature of urban living amongst the greats and the not-so-greats, the wannabes and the has-beens.