To many it would be unthinkable, if not impossible: In an age of informational ubiquity, when seemingly any fact in the world lies about three clicks away, Chuck Prophet made an album about San Francisco without looking up anything.
"We wrote what we consider a 'Google-pure' or a 'Wikipedia-free' record, and so as a result of that I got a lot of the facts wrong," the 48-year-old S.F. rocker chuckles over the phone from St. Louis. "People have delighted in telling me that I got things wrong. And I've had an equally good time telling them that I don't care."
Prophet's embellishments are of a different sort than monologist Mike Daisey's invented Chinese laborers on This American Life, though. The songwriter's 11th studio album, Temple Beautiful, draws on decades of San Francisco history as it aims to capture the spirit of his adopted home. But the new songs are more focused on conveying the myths and feelings of this strange, multifaceted city than retelling hard facts.
Lamenting the loss of the boisterous street parties of yore, Prophet opens the brisk "Castro Halloween" with a line about how "two men died." Technically, that's incorrect — no one died in the 2006 shootings that led police to crack down on the beloved Halloween gatherings. But the lyric provides a sense of weighty melancholy and profound loss that feels true. That's the case for much of Temple Beautiful, which is named after a scrappy S.F. punk club where Prophet saw shows in the early '80s. "The facts may not be right, but Willie Mays and Jim Jones and Carol Doda and Fatty Arbuckle and Dan White and Emperor Norton — they are very real," Prophet says.
Musically, the new songs are animated by Prophet's brand of classicist rock 'n' roll, which, on Temple Beautiful, sounds remarkably fresh and frisky. Having cut his teeth as a guitarist for L.A. psych-country band Green on Red throughout the '80s, Prophet has a talent for tunecraft that is apparent in the title track, which could be a long-lost Creedence B-side. Opener "Play That Song Again" is a love letter to San Francisco dressed as a two-chord burst of primordial punk ecstasy, where Prophet chirps, "Drop me in the Avenues, I'll stumble my way in!" And the wistful "Willie Mays Is Up at Bat" rides a simmering blues-rock groove as Prophet paints portraits of Giants baseball, stripper Doda's infamous bosom, the Tonkin Gulf incident, and cult leader Jones, all at the same time.
With so much lyrical detail in each song, it's hard to believe the album didn't start with a research project. But Prophet says he was simply working on one song with a friend, the poet (and album co-writer) known as klipschutz, when the idea hit to do a whole album about San Francisco. For Prophet, Temple Beautiful is an ode to the city that put him on a course for life as a rock 'n' roller, as well as an attempt to understand its mysterious character. Raised in the Los Angeles County suburb of Whittier, Prophet and his family relocated to the Bay Area in his teens. Although he quickly left college to tour with Green on Red, Prophet initially moved into the city to attend San Francisco State. He quickly found the city's vibrant cultural life more interesting than higher education, though. "I wanted to be a journalist," Prophet recalls, bemused. "I lasted about three hours." Checking facts was never his thing.