By Scott McLennan
What Makes the Monkey Dance is a comprehensive examination of the life and career of an extraordinary artist that is smart enough to stop short of hagiography.
What Makes the Monkey Dance: The Life and Music of Chuck Prophet and Green on Red by Stevie Simkin. Jawbone Press, 322 pages, $22.95.
There are people who love Chuck Prophet’s music. There are people who have never heard Chuck Prophet’s music (at least knowingly, because Prophet has his fingerprints all over the music industry). But anyone who has encountered Chuck Prophet’s music will not be able to dismiss it.
Author Stevie Simkin dives into the mystery of Chuck Prophet. Why is an artist who has been so consistently good — and constantly evolving — since the mid-’80s yet to (and may never) achieve the sort of universal acclaim showered on performers he is often compared to: Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Costello?
What Makes the Monkey Dance does much more than dwell on Prophet’s undeserved commercial fate. Though a self-admitted fan, Simkin is a scholar by trade and he brings a usefully academic approach to Prophet’s life and career, compiling his narrative from thoroughly researching the written record as well as culling material from fresh interviews.
The result is a comprehensive examination of an extraordinary artist that is smart enough to stop short of hagiography. Simkin usefully points out where Prophet screwed up, undermined his own best efforts, and acted less than honorably. But the biography excels as rock-lit by not harping on Prophet’s personal struggles, such as his substance abuse and subsequent recovery, turning them into lurid highlights. Instead, Simkin focuses on the artist’s music: how it shaped, as well as how it was shaped by, Prophet’s distinctive circumstances.
The biography was released on the same day as Prophet’s 15th solo album, The Land That Time Forgot. So, in a way, readers know how the story ends, at least sort of: Prophet is still at it, putting out great music on his own terms, a survivor of both the vagaries of a music industry indifferent to quality as well as the string of unlucky business decisions laid out in Simkin’s tale.
What Makes the Monkey Dance traces Prophet’s story by following the chronology of his album releases, starting with his tenure in the influential band Green on Red.
Green on Red set the tempo for Prophet’s career. The band was pegged in the ’80s as being in the vanguard of a changing rock ‘n’ roll landscape, a period that rewarded groups that pulled back on spectacle and bloat and rewarded those that searched for a more frenetic and authentic edginess. Prophet joined Green on Red ostensibly to be the lead guitar player, but over time he emerged as a welcome counterpoint to singer and songwriter Dan Stuart, forging an indie-rock Jagger-Richards dynamic.
Simkin draws on Prophet’s observations for what turns out to be an apt analysis of Green on Red, a band that amassed critical adulation but never really ascended beyond a middling level of success — at a time when the industry was hungry for new sounds but unwilling to nurture bands at the middling level for very long.
Prophet, reflecting on R.E.M, a band that started around the same time as Green on Red did, told Simkin, “They basically just rose to whatever was put in front of them….They mastered the medium. So, I totally respect how they were just four guys out of Athens, and they just kept getting bigger. We didn’t have those kinds of goals. We didn’t have a plan. Just really self-destructive.”
But the reputation of Green on Red was enough to launch Prophet’s solo career, which began with 1990’s album Brother Aldo.
Simkin examines each successive recording, noting artistic breakthroughs, business snafus, and personal points of interest. Brother Aldo, for example, shows how Prophet grew as a songwriter. He struggled mightily to find a home for a record that was far less rocking than what the suits expected from the guy who played guitar in Green on Red. He also began to develop his relationship with Stephanie Finch, a musical partner turned life partner (who is still very much a creative partner).
Simkin limns Prophet’s character by looking at how his resilience is expressed in his art. He makes consistently good records: some were ahead of the next trend, others were ruthlessly retro. The artist comes across as hard-working and humble, but strong-headed when it comes to pursuing his vision. He is self-effacing and very funny.
Prophet’s most celebrated quality is his ability, born out of need, to make authentic connections with other creative people. Over the years the musicians, writers, producers, and other artists he has worked with have been a wildly diverse batch of characters. Yet they are loyal to Prophet because he inspires a kinship that is something other than ordinary friendship or a routine professional partnership.
Prophet’s attitude toward people he feels comfortable working with is epitomized by what he had to say about guitarist, dobro, and lap steel player Greg Leisz: “ I don’t think there is anybody that’s more in demand or busier than Greg Leisz, but the whole time I’ve known him, and it’s thirty years or whatever it’s been, there’s never been a time when he didn’t have time for me. He’s been a confidant, and he’s been a mentor. He’s just somebody that I’ve always looked up to and trusted.”
Prophet builds his bands by building trust. He selects his producers and writing partners with a pragmatic as well as an artistic goal in mind: the result has been a business model that has allowed him to survive as a working musician without the benefit of mega-hits.
It’s no accident that Simkin begins his introduction to the book with this quote from Prophet: “How do you define success? If you let somebody else define what success is, you’re a sucker. I’m no sucker.” In this musician’s case, not being a sucker has meant remaining artistically hungry.
The Land That Time Forgot veers away from the tougher tones and textures of its immediate predecessors (Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins and Night Surfer). Prophet mainly plays acoustic guitar and his songs are lightly adorned. Still, there are plenty of propulsive numbers on the record, from the opening retro pop of “Best Shirt On” to the groovy urgency of “Marathon.”
But the real gems here are the songs that draw on the power of storytelling, their melodies and lyrics dramatizing how people make decisions that shape their actions, for better or worse. “Waving Goodbye” memorably recounts a woman’s heartbreak. “High As Johnny Thunders” is buoyed by the spirit of wishful thinking evoked in its opening line: “If Bukowski was good lookin’.” “Willie and Nilli” is a charming character piece reminiscent of the yarns Prophet regaled us with on the Temple Beautiful album.
The record also contains what seems to be a trilogy of songs about the debasement of the Republican party. “Paying My Respects to the Train” mournfully imagines someone watching Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train pass by. “Nixonland” evokes the bizarre figure of Richard Nixon and, finally, there’s “Get Off the Stage,” which unleashes a poignant takedown of Donald Trump. Each tune wryly knits together the political and personal: these songs sound timeless rather than gimmicky.
The Land That Time Forgot is not a copycat return to the stripped-down virtues of Brother Aldo. Rather, the new record is the latter infused with the rich benefits of experience and wisdom. Even without conventional fame, Prophet has become increasingly self-assured — he is still defining success on his own determined terms.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.