Lou Reed did it with New York. More recently Apollo Ghosts did it with Nanaimo. Now, with Temple Beautiful Chuck Prophet has recorded an album devoted to telling the stories of his hometown, in his case San Francisco. It’s a joyful, twanging trip around some of the sights, historical events and characters of the city, taking in everything from the story of Emperor Norton, who printed his own money back in the late 1800s, The White Night Riots and the annual Halloween celebrations in the Castro neighbourhood. The album itself takes its name from a former synagogue that used to hold punk rock shows in the ’70s and ’80s. There are plenty of stories to tell, and Prophet clearly relishes every one of them. Employing a “google pure” approach he attributes to David Berman of Silver Jews, Prophet blurs the line between the facts and myths of the city, painting his own alternative history of politics, parties and broken hearts.
Opener ‘Play That Song Again’ prepares the listener for what is to follow with a tale of “ A city full of animals, a city full of beasts/A city full of lovers trying hard to make believe” while Prophet throws down some angular chords on his telecaster, drawling wit, wisdom and one liners over woo-ooh-ohhs and twinkling glockenspiels before charging headlong into the catchy chorus. “You go fight the power/I’m fighting off a cold” indeed.
‘Castro Halloween’ follows, and once again the music finds Prophet calling back to the classic rock of the late ’70s, full of soaring choruses and chiming guitars, wringing every ounce of country-tinged soul out of his telecaster throughout. The title track is an unabashed glam stomp, replete with low-down horns, piano stabs, plenty of shooby-doo-wap-waps and some questionable rhyme schemes. Try and picture The Clash with Mick Ronson instead of Mick Jones and you are almost there. ‘Museum of Broken Hearts’ takes things down a notch, a slow burner for the lonely ones, building around swooning strings and with a healthy dose of twang thrown in for good measure before ‘Willie Is Up At Bat’ brings back the glam, complete with gang vocals, bar-room piano and twin guitar solos.
While the rest of the record doesn’t quite live up to its opening salvo, it has a great deal of fun in the attempt. ‘White Night, Big City’ brings back the low horns and chunky guitars before Prophet wrangles a charging guitar solo while telling the tale of the White Night Riots, while ‘Who Shot John’ once again finds Prophet tearing into his guitar, channelling Hendrix’s performance of ‘Hey Joe’, while ‘Little Girl, Little Boy’ is a sax-drenched romp that sees Chuck and Stephanie giving their version of Johnny and June or Gram and Emmy-Lou.
With Temple Beautiful, Chuck Prophet has penned a witty, insightful and out-and-out fun rock n’ roll record that is a fitting tribute to the city that inspired it.