Chuck Prophet is having a hard time explaining himself. The prolific songwriter is a touch out of sorts, and he apologizes every few minutes for not making his points more clearly. The cell phone service is spotty at his San Francisco apartment, and it cuts out at one point, ruining the rhythm of one of his only truly fluid responses. But as the chat winds down, Prophet tells a story that crystallizes the ambition behind Temple Beautiful, his most recent album and a tribute to the bayside town he calls home.
It was the '80s, and he was standing outside a rock club with Dirk Dirksen, an influential San Francisco promoter who helped foster the early waves of west coast punk. Across the street, Dead Kennedys' name was being placed on the marquee of a larger club, visual confirmation of the band's climb up the underground-rock ladder.
"Dirk says, 'As soon as people start quitting their day jobs, it's going to be over,'" Prophet remembers. "I didn't understand what he meant by that, but he could see that it was about people starting wanting to make money. It's as simple as quitting their jobs. There really wasn't any money in it initially, and that's kind of the way it is now. Not that I don't like money, or I'm some kind of crazy purist. What I mean is it was just grittier. There was more grit. People just doing it for the sake of doing it."
At 49, Prophet is a career musician with a respected catalog. He's released 12 studio albums since 1990. He routinely tours through medium-sized venues across the country — he'll be at the McGlohon Theater on Oct. 9 — and is in a solid position to make his living as a musician for as long as he so chooses. But he doesn't see it that way. He talks of his ability to make money from his music as if it might soon dry up. He says that after each new record he's always uncertain that another will come, that he has to wait for inspiration to take hold. On Temple Beautiful, he was inspired to mine the origins of his artistic philosophies, turning to the city and scene that sparked his creativity in the first place.
"That moment when I saw those bands at the Temple Beautiful, that was the moment," Prophet says, recalling the days when he went to punk shows at the former synagogue and California concert hot spot. "I remember driving home, and some kid had borrowed his mom's car. We were driving back in this Toyota or something, and I turned to my friends and I said, 'You know, I think we can do this.'"
On Temple Beautiful's title track, Prophet channels that excitement into a potent rock 'n' roll shuffle punctuated by brightly defiant horn blasts. "The lights came up, and it was a brand-new world," he sings with his tunefully nasal croon that borders on a chuckle. "I got the gig, but I lost the girl." Many of the songs are a tangle of symbols and references — "Willie is Up at Bat" name-drops as many San Francisco celebrities as one could in a five-minute, Dylan-esque romp — but the energy peaks when Prophet directly contends with his earliest inspirations.
"We just sort of followed the clues," Prophet says. "It was just something that got us excited because you start thinking about the possibilities, and that's really it. It wasn't like a school assignment in that sense. It was just the thing that made it fun."